Taking the Mickey

Anyone who knows me will tell you I’m a big kid at times. I make no apologies for this – I like having fun, and I think finding enjoyment in everything is an important part of being a designer too, especially in consideration of services and experience when good design should deliver an engaging, and ultimately entertaining solution.

I’m recently back from a family holiday to Walt Disney World in Florida, where my inner child is allowed to run rampant, and the rest of me can switch off, relax, and not think about work. Except, it’s hard to forget about design in a place like WDW, surrounded by the work of a company who essentially wrote the book on experience design. Determined to have my time off, I put my mind to remembering the things that struck me as being the best examples of their creativity in design, and partook in a selection of rollercoasters and relaxation. So what caught my eye? Well, it’s not the brightly coloured fibreglass, or even the main mouse himself, but a couple of things that many people will use, but not give much consideration to the thinking in their creation.

Losing the line

Queuing is boring, and everyone hates it. You can dress it up all you want, making the places where you have to stand look stunning, even drenching them with information, narrative or spectacle, but at the end of the day, you’re still just standing around, waiting for the thing that you came to do, regardless of whether you’re at the bank, or waiting for a rollercoaster.

To solve this friction point, or at least reduce its impact on user experience, Disney implemented a system called FastPass at their parks, which allows the user to pick up a free ‘queue-skip’ ticket instead of actually lining up for the ride. The guest is invited to return later in the day, within an hour-long designated period, where they will join a substantially reduced queue line, and usually only have to wait a few minutes to get on the ride. Of course, the user is limited to one FastPass at a time, and there are a limited number given out per time slot, and therfore, per day, meaning they do run out.

Other parks have implemented similar systems, although in a different manner – Universal’s Express Ticket costs money, and only allows one entry on each ride per day (and currently excludes their newest attraction), and their hotel guests receive unlimited front-of-line access, while Sea World’s pass costs $20 for unlimited use. Disney’s FastPass, however, is a free system – which makes you wonder why the other two charge. This creates an interesting situation – there are different hierarchies of guest at these Orlando parks, whereas at WDW, by and large, everyone is equal.

Although the system offers obvious benefit for the user, the park also benefits. Clients standing in line are not able to spend money on food, drink, or merchandise – they are essentially out of play for the duration of the time they are on the ride. Offering Fastpass means these clients are released into the park, where they are able to spend more money, and are then only recalled to the ride for a hugely reduced period of time. The client is happy because they aren’t queing as long, and the park operator is happy because their customer is more likely to be spending money. It is brilliant service design, and it also conveys a feeling of equality amongst guests – nobody can buy their way into a better queue position, but everyone can get to the front of the line quickly, if they so choose.

Road to nowhere

Like most things in Disney, the scale of the organisation’s transport operation is huge. Roughly 300 buses, 11 monorails and a fleet of various watercraft provide guests with free transport around WDW property, running between hotels and the theme parks all day. All of this adds up to one key fact – once on Disney property, you don’t really need a hire car.

The weak link in this has always been getting to and from the airport – getting two 20 mile cabs is expensive, a hire car even more so, especially if it’s going to sit unused for most of your trip. Disney have again stepped into the breach, creating a new service that not only transports you to your chosen WDW resort, but means that the last time you need to worry about your bags is when you check them in to the airport before you get on your flight – the next time you see them is waiting in the room of your hotel. And it’s all provided free of charge.

It’s another very clever service. The guest receives great customer care, and the concept removes the miserable wait for bags that everyone goes through when they’re at their most tired and irritable – indeed, on the way home, the client checks in at the hotel, and their bags aren’t seen again until their arrival at their home airport. In essence, it removes a number of friction points in the client’s journey, giving them a strong initial and final impression of the quality of service provided by Disney.

And for Disney? Well, if you’re getting a coach to and from WDW, you’re not going to be getting a hire car, and that’s good news for the company whose property you’re staying on. Given the cost of taxis to get to surrounding parks and amenities, providing guests with the Magical Express service means that they are less likely to leave Disney property, and therefore more likely to visit restaurants and shops on site, keeping their holiday dollars circulating inside WDW. Again, the user is receiving a great service, but the company providing it is also ensuring that they are getting more out of it than customer satisfaction alone. Crafty? Damn right it is.

Essentially, I’m writing this blog to suggest that Disney are fantastic at design of most types, and seem to be incredibly clued into my areas of interest – namely service and experience design. But for me, the true craft in what they do relates to their ability to balance the needs of their clients, which the innovations above all address, with the need to strive for the financial integrity of the company. Capitalism in relation to design seems to frequently be seen as a dirty word amongst some creatives, but it’s difficult to deny the quality of the thinking at work, and as such, hard to begrudge the company making money as a result of it. If both user and provider are seeing real benefits from the service – and in both these cases, it’s hard to argue that they’re not – then surely that’s the ideal balance?

At any rate… I’d have your hand off if you offered me a job working on any project like these with Disney, in a second. Oh, and they do awesome firework displays. So if you know anyone…

Thank you to Joe Penniston, Samantha Decker and Sam Fam for their photos (all used under a Creative Commons License).

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