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What's So Bad About Disneyland?

I remember the first time I experienced Disneyland. I was only 3 years old, yet the memories left an indelible imprint on me. To this day I can recall the sense of awe, wonder, and excitement that enveloped me from the very first moment. Perhaps the memory is so clear because these same emotions bubble up every time I step off of a plane somewhere completely new and different.

It is this magic spark that is conversely extinguished every time I am faced with that seemingly inevitable 'cookie-cutter-culture-curio' tourist experience that seems to go so hand-in-hand with destination development. We often describe with disdain this 'Disneyfication' of destinations without understanding what that means. In our heads it means the dilution of culture into something that can be easily mass-consumed and commercialised.

I want to challenge you to put down this bias for just a moment to consider an alternative perspective. For if you look at Disneyland through the lens of a designer what you will see is actually an incredibly powerful example of integrated immersive design that we can learn innumerable lessons from.

Five of the key lessons that we could learn from Disneyland that would help us not to #buildbackbetter,' but rather to #designtourismbetter include:

Integrated design

Perhaps the most important lesson that Disneyland can teach us is the power of integrated design. The entire development is designed from top to toe from a function and experience perspective. From the foundations and services, to the movement paths and programming of spaces, right through to the smallest design detail, everything is carefully designed in how it all comes together to create the whole.

Why is this important? Because the appliqué approach to tourism is cracking, and no amount of sustainability plastering can fix it. It is clear that tourism does not work when it is applied to a place as if it exists in a realm of its own. The only way tourism can work is if it embedded as part of a functioning ecosystem. And the only way to achieve this is through integrated design.

Creating a ‘Sense of Place’

Everything in Disneyland is quintessentially Disneyland. Every single detail from the paving stones to the architecture, from the rides to the costumes etc, is carefully designed to create the fantastical, magical, imagined world that is Disneyland. Every aspect is considered for how it adds to and enhances the specific ‘sense of place’ that is Disneyland.

Why is this important? Because the tourism bubbles that we decry for their ‘Disneyfication’ are anything but an epitome of Disneyland. These areas are not considered, nor are they carefully designed for how they capture, enhance and add to the specific ‘sense of place’ of the destination. What we are missing is actually this Disneyland design approach of having a deep understanding of the specificity of the complex layers of placemaking. It is only when we take this approach that we will be able to develop interventions that will create destinations that epitomise their unique and special ‘sense of place.’

Experience Design

Disneyland is in its essence, is the brilliant creation of an immersive experience not just an attraction. What do I mean by this? People do not go to Disneyland to see the buildings, the streets or even the costumed actors. People go to Disneyland to have the time of their lives. They go to experience their imagination brought to life, they go to experience the heart-thumping rides, the twinkle of pixie dust, and the fun of being a carefree child all over again.

Why is this important? Because so much of tourism is obsessed with creating attractions rather than immersive experiences, and destinations are looked at with these same eyes. Disneyland teaches us to look beyond the physical to consider how everything comes together to create lived and passing experiences that inspire, excite, delight, and enthral.


A further important lesson we can learn from Disneyland is the power of being and living your brand. Disneyland does not merely epitomise its brand, it is its brand. It is not just a logo plastered onto curios. Disneyland is the built expression of what Disneyland is. And the brand ethos is the blood that runs in its veins that sets the direction for all of those who work behind the scenes and in front-of-house who bring the brand into being.

Why is this important? Because so often destination branding is merely the creation of a logo and kitsch by-line that is then plastered onto tourism marketing materials, without adding any real value to a place. Destinations miss out on the real power of branding when they only consider it as a marketing tool to attract tourists, and not how it can contribute to inhabitants and to the place itself. Disneyland teaches us that when branding is harnessed it has the power to inspire pride and define the ethos, identity and development direction of a place.

Hybrid Consumption

Disneyland is furthermore a lesson in hybrid consumption. And I am not just referring in this instance to the intentional design of a cluster of attractions that are combined with a blend of complementary services and products. Which serves to attract not only a range of tourists, but also entices them to stay longer. I am also referring to the hybrid tourism model that it employs in which local, domestic, regional and international tourists are all targeted and considered to be of equal status and value.

Why is this important? Because so many destinations focus almost exclusively on international tourists. It is when we only consider international tourists as the most important customer that we start to create diluted ‘tourist traps.’ Disneyland teaches us that when we design attractions, experiences, services and products we have to do so from a hybrid context. We have to consider how we will attract locals not just foreigners. This powerful shift is what is going to help us develop destinations that are better places to live, and fall in love with.


If this piece piqued your interest I can recommend reading:

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