3 things I learned while waiting in line at Disneyland

I went to Southern California last week on vacation, and of course, I had to make a stop at Disney for a couple days. Maybe it’s the nostalgia talking, but I have always loved Disney. As a child the place felt magical, which probably sounds cliché, but even when I return as an adult, I still find myself captivated by the wonderful place Walt Disney created.

Walt Disney was a pioneer of user-centered design. I once heard a story recounting how Walt would watch just how far a person would walk with trash before giving up and littering. I don’t know if this story is true, but go to Disneyland and look for a trashcan; they’re everywhere! You will be hard pressed not to find one when in need. That is one of the fundamental things that I love about all the Disney Parks; no, not all the easy to find trashcans, but all the thought involved in designing a truly magical and captivating experience.

Now one thing that all people dislike is waiting in line, which is unavoidable at Disney. With many lines well over an hour long, what possess people to wait such a long time for such a short ride? Do the math: 1 hour of waiting for 5 minutes of riding, it just doesn’t make sense! Yet hundreds of people do it at Disneyland every day. Why do people do this? While waiting in line is not fun, I believe the Walt Disney Company has designed it in the best way possible and as a designer, I can learn a lot from the way Disneyland lines are designed.

1. Set Expectations

As a child, my family went to Disneyland and my sister and I really wanted to go on Splash Mountain. My parents having absolutely no interest in getting wet, decided we were old enough to ride it without them. After an hour of waiting in line, we emerged soaking wet and very happy, to greet anxious and worried parents. Due to the long but ambiguous wait, our parents thought something had happened to us. Today, every ride at Disneyland displays an estimated wait time, allowing you to make the decision of whether or not the ride is worth the investment of waiting in line.

Whether designing a homepage or trying to get the user to sign up for services, you want to let the user know who you are and what your intentions are up front. Be honest and transparent with the user, don’t make them read the fine print and even worse, don’t make the users guess as to what they are getting themselves into.

2. Break Up Large Tasks

One of the most beloved rides at Disneyland is Haunted Mansion. This ride has one of the most elaborate and interesting lines in the whole park. After strolling through the cemetery with a variety of witty tombstones, the guests are invited into the house for a formal and interactive welcoming. Here the guests are introduced to the house and its “happy haunts”. After this introduction, the guests have a chance to admire the spooky artwork in the corridor before boarding the ride. This not only provides the guests with an introduction to the story behind the ride, but also breaks up the long and tedious task of waiting in line by providing new distractions and entertainment in each of the waiting areas.

When designing web pages, I often want to keep all the related information on one page. This works well when designing a concise task such as reading a recipe. But for larger tasks, a single page can be overwhelming. Imagine trying to do your taxes all on one page and then trying to save your progress and come back to it later. It would be a nightmare to find your place again! Instead, break up large tasks into manageable chunks, allowing users to take the task one step at a time while maintaining their ability to see their overall progress.

3. Guide the Users

The goal of the line for any ride at Disneyland is to begin to set the stage for the journey the rider is about to take. For example, while waiting for the Indiana Jones Ride the guests move through various scenes and encounter well-known elements from the Indiana Jones movies. This not only distracts the guests while they wait, but also begins telling the story of the Indiana Jones to anyone who has not seen the movies.

Lead the users through the design and allow them to become familiar with its elements. Use well-established design patterns that will be familiar to users, but also, stay consistent within the design itself. Maintaining consistent coloring and wording is fairly easy, but in addition, it is important to provide consistent user interactions. Initial user interactions can introduce new design patterns that allow users to familiarize themselves with the interface and establish mental models, which can be used later on for more in depth and intricate interactions.


While waiting in line is never fun, waiting in line at Disneyland reminded me of some fundamental design elements that I can use in all of my design work.

Thanks for reading. I’m a friendly person, if you want to connect, send me a message, I’d love to chat!