Magic is hard work. Ask any of the 130,000 employees who work in Disney Parks and Resorts, and they’ll tell you about the practice, effort, and details that go into every Disney experience.

How do Disney cast members (as Disney employees are called) make the work come together in memorable travel experiences? How do they make the planning and preparation recede into the background so that enchantment and fun can take the stage? And how do they make it all appear effortless and seamless?

I can’t answer those questions. I was a cast member for nearly five years, and I can’t reveal the secrets behind the curtains, tiaras, and fireworks. But I can share some content strategy lessons we can learn from the Disney focus on storytelling and attention to the right details at the right time.

Walt Disney as UX Designer

In the Walt Disney Company, Disney Parks and Resorts is responsible for the travel portfolio. According to the Themed Entertainment Association, more than 148 million people visited Disney parks in 2014 (numbers for 2015 are not yet available). These millions visited the original Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif., Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., Disneyland Paris, Hong Kong Disneyland, or Tokyo Disneyland. Thousands more experienced a Disney vacation with Disney Cruise Line or Adventures by Disney, and in June of this year, the company is scheduled to open its newest theme park, Shanghai Disney Resort.

While I was still a Disney Parks and Resorts cast member, UX (user experience) architect and author Joseph Dickerson wrote an article for UX Magazine in which he praised Walt Disney as “the world’s first UX designer.”[1] “The key to the Disney park experience is immersion,” Dickerson explains, “everything is designed down to the exact detail.”

The cast member costumes, the character appearances, the architecture, the lines designed to seem shorter than they really are – these are all carefully planned to help park guests feel that they’re immersed in the world of, say, Peter Pan, Snow White, or Star Wars. It’s artifice, but the obsessive attention to detail elevates it to art.

A similar article written today would probably have to praise Walt Disney as the world’s first CX (customer experience) designer, as he was concerned with every step of his guests’ experiences – from ticketing to exit – and he continually sought to improve every step along the way. This ongoing effort to enhance guest experiences was one of the motivations for the 2013 introduction of MagicBands, colorful wristbands that Walt Disney World Resort guests use to enter the park, unlock their hotel room door, pay for souvenirs, and bypass long lines with the FastPass+ service.

Walt Disney as Digital Designer

Websites, apps, and in-park kiosks play an important part in supporting MagicBands and other Disney park innovations. And content strategists collaborate with creative and technical teams to help bring these tools to life.

I’m not going to claim that Walt was the world’s first content strategist, but here are four insights we can get from the Disney commitment to immersive storytelling.

1. Be a cast member.

Yes, it might seem corny to be called a cast member or a team player, but embrace it and be prepared to work well with others – sometimes lots of others. In an article in Fast Company, Thomas Staggs, Disney’s Chief Operating Officer, is quoted as saying collaboration was the key to the success of MyMagic+, the massive project that included the introduction of MagicBands. “The key is the collaboration across literally everything from food and beverage, IT folks, online folks, our industrial engineers, our merchandise folks, our core operations team, the finance organization, across all of those,” Staggs stated. “It would be folly to say that anything other than the collaborative approach we took would’ve been successful.”[2]

content strategy
The Disney mobile app shows wait times for attractions.

2. Be real.

Even when you’re presenting the most enchanting of travel and entertainment experiences, customers still need reliable, specific information to get them to where the magic happens and to make sure they have what they need once they get there. That’s why Disney parks present information such as height restrictions and wait times for attractions (see the screenshot). Just the right amount of instructional or directional content can go a long way toward creating a better travel experience.

3. Be your guest.

“Smart” is a word I’ve heard used frequently to describe a design goal, but in Disney travel experiences, the goal is broadened to be “thoughtful.” Cast members go out of their way to put themselves in the sometimes small shoes of their guests. This enables the parks to provide exceptional service and surprise guests in unexpected ways. When we’re being thoughtful, we’re not designing for a persona, we’re crafting an experience for a person.

4. Be magical.

How do we create magic? It’s still hard work. After we complete the basics and make sure our content is clear and useful, what’s next? That’s when the time comes to look at the page, app, or project holistically. Find places where a careful revision might move the customer artfully from satisfaction to delight. Find places to remove content that might distract from the smooth flow of the experience. Pay attention to the fine points – the interactions, design, structure (even metadata, as Colleen Jones points out) and the copy – and make the additional effort to make things better. Making things better for our customers (our guests) – even when they’re not expecting it – is our job. That’s the kind of magic we can do every day.

[1] “Walt Disney: The World’s First UX Designer,” by Joseph Dickerson, UX Magazine, Article No. 1083, Sept. 9, 2013.

[2] “The Messy Business of Reinventing Happiness: Inside Disney’s radical plan to modernize its cherished theme parks,” by Austin Carr, April 15, 2015.

The Author

Michael Haggerty-Villa is a principal content designer and strategist at Intuit, where he leads content efforts on design systems and standards for products such as Mint, QuickBooks, and TurboTax. He has been working on design systems for brands such as eBay, Disney, and others, and his content strategy clients include HPE Software, Kaiser Permanente, and

When Michael isn’t staring at various screens, you can find him somewhere in San Jose driving his children to ballet, soccer, gymnastics, karate, and music classes.

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Great read. I loved the statement “When we’re being thoughtful, we’re not designing for a persona, we’re crafting an experience for a person.”. Personas are good at strategy stage but many teams keep personas in mind throughout the publishing and distribution stage. For a personalized content experience, ‘being thoughtful’ adds real meaning and acceleration to the voice in the content.

  • Great article. The author’s excellent observations and keen perspective correctly present the thinking that should be behind every part of park and website design, every step of the way: the point of view of the guests we are trying to please. Very good work, Mr. Haggerty-Villa.

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