Creating a Spectacular Event Experience: Lessons From California Adventure
When most people go to California Adventure, they are thinking about the fun or attractions. While I was thinking about those items as well, as a designer I was thinking about multiple aspects of the experience.
I am a visual designer (graphic design, interior design) and an experience designer (event planning, guest experience). Because of my interest in these areas, it was a fascinating look at how Disney has thought of every detail! Disney is world class in guest experience, and this is because they have covered every minute aspect of what a guest sees, feels, smells, hears and tastes. No stone is too small to leave uncovered.
Here’s how Disney creates an amazing guest experience. (Note: These are my own personal reflections and experiences and not based on research or anything Disney has officially stated.)
(Warning: spoiler alert! I will be talking about experience elements and showing photos.)
Create a positive experience before the guest gets here. Before arriving, we were able to research rides, create an itinerary, look at a map, get sense of what the day would be like. I downloaded the map and could figure out what attractions to visit, what paths we would take, and where we could eat.
Create a grand opening. Before the park opened, we were let into the Buena Vista Street area by the fountain, where we waited by a rope blocking the walkway. At 9 am, suddenly the music on the speakers changed and a voice dramatically announced the opening. The dramatic music created a great sense of anticipation. I thought, “Only Disney creates a sense of adventure and drama from taking a rope off an entrance!” However, I noticed everyone was very excited to enter. It was far more effective than just someone saying, “Ok, park is open! Come on in!” It was also a positive way to encourage people to walk, not run.
Play music. Music is everywhere at Disney. It becomes a subconscious part of the environment. It sets the mood, creates energy, and is ubiquitous. I didn’t notice how much it is was everywhere until I tried to make a phone call. I noticed everywhere I went, the level of the music did not change (I was in a building). There was no “quiet spot” where I could take the call. They have wired up their speakers to cover every area effectively.
Reduce the anticipated wait times. Let’s be frank — a significant part of the day at any Disney park is standing in lines waiting! I’ve written three points about waiting experiences just because they do such a good job with it. First of all, Disney uses incremental waiting areas. You think you are going to stand there a long time and then the doors early. Then you go to another waiting area. This makes it feel like the waiting is a lot shorter than it is. In reality, you still get there at the same time, but at least it didn’t feel that long.
It also works in the lines to the rides, which tend to be long. They block off the next sections of lines so you don’t realize how long the lines actually are! It’s not until you round the corner that you discover there is more to go.
Keep the waiting interesting. The people who designed the parks must have great fun thinking of the puns and fun items they can add to the lines. Not every line is like this, but some are super creative. The waiting areas are themed like the rest of the attraction.
The Monsters Inc. line is full of puns. There is a recruiting video for joining the CDA (Child Detection Agency), similar to recruiting someone for the CIA. The poster below shows visual puns of a “Japanese” restaurant, except instead of sushi, they are eating eyeballs. And instead of a tongue in the mouth, there is a smaller creature in the bigger creature’s mouth.
Later, there is a hilarious menu for the restaurant, with items like “Caterpillar Roll: ripe caterpillars rolled with fermented bean curd,” or “Desserts: Green Tea Ice Scream, Blueberry Slobber, and Mud Pie.” My favorite was the beverages: “Sake, Hot Sake, and Flaming Sake.”
Make the waiting an experience itself. This one is similar to the one above, except instead of just interesting things to look at, the waiting area is an intermediate experience. The animation building has a lobby that is an entrance to four different attractions, some which have lines. There are constant videos playing that show the finished film products compared to the original sketches. It’s a fascinating look into the animation process… and all the time you are just waiting in a line!
Create an attractive outdoor sign. These huge signs make me want to go in and see what the ride is about. The sign not only communicates the name of the attraction but also gives a sense of the feel of the experience. The Toy Story Midway Mania is one of many examples of their impressive signage.
The costumes of the attendants match the theme, as well as the vehicles. Megan even noticed that the garbage cans are themed. I noticed all the lighting fixtures since I just took a lighting design course. There are a lot of custom light fixtures!
It would have been pretty easy to make a generic sign for picking up glasses. Nope. Have a really cool sign matching the rest of the experience. This sign also has relief elements so that it is not just a flat sign.
Think about the views. People spend a lot of time walking, and Disney has paid very close attention to the views. Everywhere we walked, I could see either a sign, an interesting building, or a beautiful view.
Take aesthetics to the next level even on functional items. Most construction places erect some kind of barrier. If you are lucky, some will even print large banner graphics to wrap on the barrier (like at some shopping malls). But Disney goes above and beyond. The carousel is under construction and they built a paneled wall with a door! A polite sign says the area is under construction and please enjoy the other attractions.
Utilize live, interactive elements in transition areas. There are small groups of performers that come along regularly and give mini shows on the streets. We loved these! The song and dance numbers were so fun that I could help but smile while watching.
My favorite were the Green Army Men, since I am a drummer. So fun! Such good drummers! Good humor too.
Make decor larger than life. The Animation Studio has an awesome stage where a live person teaches you how to draw a cartoon. I was looking at this stage and noticing the really huge books on the right shelf. Are those real books or just blocks of something wrapped in paper to look like books? Notice also the huge computer monitor on the left. I don’t think people walk in and think, “Wow, that’s a really big computer monitor,” but it adds to the fun and creates a new reality for the experience.
Create variety in programming. One of the genius aspects of the Disney experience is that every attraction is different. There are sitting shows. There are hands-on shows (like this one below, where Megan is drawing Donald Duck). There are fast rides. There are slow rides. There are bright rides. There are dark rides. (I feel like a Dr. Suess book — red fish, green fish….) I did not sit through anything and think, “Oh, this was like the so-and-so experience I went to earlier today.”
Give people something to take home. We all had our drawings after the session, a moment of our time there. (Daniel said he did not want his posted so I cropped him out of the picture. But I was very proud that his drawing turned out well. I also just noticed Megan held my drawing upside down!)
Keep a consistent visual style. This is one of the important factors for branding, and it is no different when it comes to branding an experience. The movie theater is Frozen themed. On the outside, there are large banners showing a flat, 2D type of approach to illustrations.
On the inside, the wall paper is a similar 2D graphic look.
One thing about Disney is they always think about the ceilings. These beautiful ceilings create a wonderful atmosphere as one is walking through the hallway.
And since I mentioned ceilings…
Think about every surface area. Disney creates beautiful ceilings, but their walls are also covered with interesting things to look at. The animation studio stage above is one example, but so is the gift shop below. Everything works together to complement everything else going on in the space.
Utilize lighting effectively. Lighting is something few people think about, but it is huge to experience! Lighting works on a subconscious level to communicate what kind of experience someone will have (think, low lighting at romantic restaurant vs. bright lighting at a fast food restaurant so you won’t hang around). Lighting also helps to focus attention.
Disney uses a lot of custom lighting fixtures. The Sorcerer’s workshop is a gorgeous space, but it wouldn’t feel half as cool if they had put standard fluorescent lights and acoustic tile in the ceiling (shudder!).
This has nothing to do with lighting, but this space was one of my favorites. It was creative and there were no hard angles.
I don’t even know how they made the wall. What is this made of? I wish I knew my materials better.
I also loved the Beauty and the Beast library. This is my dream room — how I would love to have a library in my house some day!
Contrast the environments. Notice how different all the environments are! Besides the interior spaces I mentioned above, there is one area that is like a nature park. Grizzly Run is a water ride and they created a gorgeous outdoor area. It looks like real rock but I wonder how much of it is real and how much of it is steel structure covered with something to make it look like rock!
Cars Land has huge rock formations. This picture does not do justice to how impressive they are. Albert noticed they are like the rocket engines of old style cars. (I also think it is funny how many cities are trying to get rid of telephone wire poles because they are ugly, but Disney stuck them in Cars Land, where they fit perfectly!)
Add whimsy. In Cars Land, there is something called Cozy Cone Motel. It’s totally tongue-in-cheek because it’s not a motel!
Even though it’s not a motel, they played off the theme. I think the antennae sticking out of each cone are hilarious, as if each unit had a TV in there that needs reception.
Use environmental projection. This is something that I have noticed more during this trip. I don’t know if it’s because I am doing more tech stuff and more aware of environmental projection, because it’s becoming more popular, or because Disney is using it on a larger scale.
The theater showing Pete’s Dragon had environmental images cast on the walls and on the floors. It made it feel like a forest in the theater. The Frozen musical had an amazing setting when we walked in. It’s one big video projection, but the center stage has animation on it. You can see the water falling and the lake moving. It is mesmerizing! The photos don’t do it justice.
The stage sets are relatively simple as well, relying on video projection in the back. I think the dais and banners were real. The grand hall structure behind it is all video. But it looks very realistic.
The ice castle is all video. This entire scene was super impressive. Only the staircase is real.
Using projection in this musical allows quick scene changes. The lighting is also changed to create a cohesive environment.
Think about the setting throughout the day, including night lighting. Because Disney is open 14 hours, they have also put great thought into how the park looks at night.
I thought Cars Land was a bit bland during the day. It has a feel of a dry, dusty desert (which it is supposed to be).
But at night, it is gorgeous! The lighting adds so much. I liked hanging out there way better at night than during the day.
The red rock formation in the picture above was also lit up. It was beautiful!
The above picture was a panorama and looks more impressive at a larger scale. Here’s a closeup to show how dramatic the rocks looked.
Paradise Pier was beautiful too!
End with a bang. The World of Color was hands down THE best feature of the entire day. (Of course — what would you expect from a designer?) I was wowed and loved every moment. The lights, music, senses (heat! water!), story, creativity all came together into a beautifully-executed show. I can’t even imagine how they put a show like that together but it would be so much fun! (I told Megan that they would have to reload for the next show and she remembered we had seen divers in the water in the morning.)
The show was truly a grand finale that ended a wonderful day. It was a delightful and inspiring day and has totally filled up my somewhat dry creative tank!