6 Things I Learned About Business from a Day at Disneyland

By Sean Ogle •  Updated: 09/17/12 •  11 min read

Last week I went to a place that I haven’t been in almost two decades:


I had high expectations, because I remember my 8 year old self thinking that it was the greatest place on Earth.

The reality was that Disneyland is a place unlike any other. It’s full of people from all walks of life, each experiencing the park in their own way, and behind it is one of the most well run businesses I could imagine – at least from a visitors stand point.

While for most of my two days at the land-of-the-mouse I was able to suspend disbelief, put myself back in my eight year old shoes, and simply have a good time acting like a kid – there were times I couldn’t help but think of the business around Disneyland.

They’ve built one of the most respected and recognized brands in the world, but there’s so much more going on that the casual guest doesn’t think about.  During my time there I was constantly saying to myself “oh, they’re good…”

Whether it was financial, psychological or just straight marketing, Disneyland is a fine-tuned machine, and we could all learn a thing or two from what they’ve spent the last 60 years perfecting.

Here are 6 of the most important business lessons I learned while I was at Disneyland.

#1) Create Something Bigger than Yourself

When you’re at Disneyland you feel as though as you’re a part of something bigger.  It’s like you’re there with one giant-ass, weird family.

So often with online businesses I watch people try and create an air of exclusivity around their brand.  While that can be effective in certain markets, Disney created something that could appeal to everybody.  It’s a place where everyone is welcome, and they’re experts at creating an experience geared towards bringing complete strangers together.

I was shocked at the culture around Disneyland guests.  No less than 50 little girls were dressed up as Snow White or Cinderella, with the same glittery hairdo and flowing dresses.  All over the place we saw newly-weds with bride and groom Mickey Mouse ears.

By encouraging things like this, Disney puts you on common ground with someone you may have never met.  All you have to do is see one other person in special Disney gear that you identify with, and you immediately feel like part of the family.

It’s this sense of welcomeness that creates brand loyalty and keeps people coming back year after year, when they could be spending their hard earned vacation dollars anywhere else in the world.

Apply it: Have you built a community around your business that makes people feel like they’re part of something bigger – where they truly belong? Do this by making sure you’ve properly defined what the shared goal is for all of your customers – and then demonstrate why being a part of this community will help them with that goal.

#2) A Pricing Strategy that Doesn’t Suck

I found myself checking prices on everything I saw at Disneyland, because I was becoming so interested in the strategy behind it.

Disney does pricing in a way that is so much smarter than all the other theme parks I’ve been around – it makes me feel good about it.

Many theme parks have a low barrier to entry and then gouge you everywhere you look.  At Six Flags a few years back it was actually cheaper for me to get an annual pass for about $65 than it was to pay the daily entry fee.  However as soon as I stepped through those gates, that’s where the spending stopped.

I was so appalled by the high price/low quality for everything from food to souvenirs that I immediately stopped spending.

At Disneyland it’s the opposite.  You pay a premium to get in the gates at $87 for a one day pass.  Then, instead of jacking up all the prices even higher inside, they did something I didn’t expect: they priced most items affordably and made them high quality.

Disney could relasitcially charge just about whatever they want inside and people would pay it – at the time.  However, for 10 bucks I had one of the best mexican food platters I’ve ever had.  I was able to get a beer for under 6 bucks at California Adventure. I would have expected those souvenir Micky ears to be $30 or more, but basic ones were less than half that.

While you’d be hard pressed to call food and souvenir prices cheap inside, they weren’t out of line for the quality they provided.  Because I felt the price to value ratio was in my favor, I didn’t mind spending.  Had I felt I was getting ripped off like I did at Six Flags, I would have complained the whole time and not spent a dime if I could help it.

Apply it: What does your pricing strategy look like? Do you give benefits to your best customers like Disney does?  Once you’ve acquired a customer do you take advantage of that fact with inordinantly high backend offers that will turn them off?  Think about your strategy and consider testing a model with a premium price for a premium product, but then surprise them once they’re inside with unexpected value.

#3) Uncompromising Attention to Detail and Constant Surprises

Admittedly I’m not the most detail oriented person.  The people behind Disneyland are.  It’s the details that make the park so enthralling.  Are their rides any better or more thrilling than other amusement parks?  Not at all, in fact on their own, many of the rides aren’t all that great.

That being said, it’s the attention to detail that puts them on a level all their own.

World of Color at Disneyland

Now imagine everyone around you with Mickey ears glowing pink

Every few minutes I felt like I was blown away by some small part of the Disney experience.  For instance, in their big light show “World of Color” many of the guests had on custom Micky ears which changed colors in sync with the show.  They made everyone feel as though they were a part of something bigger, and then surprised people like me with the attention to detail.  All I could do was sit there and think “well done, Disney”.

On the “A Bugs Life” show I sat down not expecting much.  So when in a span of 5 minutes my seat had made me feel as though bugs were running around under me, emulated a hornet sting, and splashed me with water I was pretty shocked.

Sure none of those things sound like something you’d want to experience, but in the context of the show they were little surprises that immersed me more in the experience and had enough of an impact that I’m writing this post today.

On other rides, there would be smells that corresponded to different visual pieces.  We rode by a watermelon on a kids train ride, and all of a sudden it smelled like watermelon.  It’s those little details and surprises that have me wondering what they will come up with next, and wanting to find out.

Apply it: Once you’ve acquired a customer do two things:

#4) Create Desire and Deliver the Solution

In 7th grade I took a week-long trip to DisneyWorld in Florida and one of the things I remember very vividly was learning about the smell emitter. We were in France at Epcot center, and one of the guides was talking about a device that pumped out the smell of freshly baked bread.  When patrons would enter the area, they would smell it and then sure enough 50 feet later was a street side bakery offering the fresh-baked goodness.

I noticed this again on this trip.  At California Adventure we smelled buttered popcorn.  Like the smells-so-good-this-can’t-be-real kind of popcorn, but there was none in sight.

Sure enough we turn the corner and there’s a stand with reasonably priced (see #2) buckets of popcorn.

Disney does this with so many aspects of their business.

You see adults acting like kids in many of their commercials, creating the desire to go to a place where for a couple days you can act like a 12 year old.  After seeing this many adults dressed up in stupid costumes with giant grins on their faces, it’s safe to say they accomplished this goal.

Apply it: Are you creating desire around the solution your offering?  With Location 180 for instance, I do this by sharing more about my personal life than many others do.  I try and bring you inside my travels and show you that you really can work from anywhere if you begin a business online.

I start with the blog, and then use things like You Tube and mailing lists to continue to create a desire to have this kind of business.  Then I deliver a proven solution with my course Location Rebel.

Clearly define the desire and the solution, and make sure you’re delivering on both,

#5) Be Stern with a Smile

Disney got me to do everything they wanted me to do – and did it with me being happy to oblige.  For instance watching one of the shows apparently I was standing somewhere I wasn’t supposed to.  I wanted to be put off by the fact they asked me to move, but I found it impossible because the girl who asked had such a big smile on her face, and seemed genuinely concerned for me – even though I obviously wasn’t in any kind of danger.

You can get people to do what you want, by making sure you’re bold enough to ask for it but being polite and authentic enough as to not come across as pushy or demeaning.

In another instance a viewing area for the parade was crowded.  One of their “cast members” had me move to a spot where the view actually wasn’t quite as good, but probably made my life easier.  He said “Could you move over here? I think you’ll be more comfortable”.  I couldn’t really argue, there weren’t nearly as many people pushing and shoving.  However because he seemed to show genuine concern for me, I happily moved, even if it did slight block my view of the dude running around in the Nemo costume.

Apply it: Do you ever actually ask your customers to do what you want them to do? Like perhaps buy a product or sign up for a mailing list?  To really make this effective you need to do it in way thats “stern with a smile”.  Be bold, don’t be afraid to stand behind what you want if you know it has the potential to help them in the long run.

#6 Constantly Updating and Having New Offerings

Once again, there are limitless options of where you can spend your vacation dollars – so why do people keep going back to Disneyland?  It’s because Disney has created the perfect balance of tradition and evolution.

Photos with Mickey, riding the tea cups, and taking your annual photo at the park entrance will never change.  However, almost every ride I remember from my childhood was completely different.  Pirates of the Carribbean was completely revamped to include scenes from the movie.  The submarine ride was only slightly less lame with additions from Finding Nemo.  They just spent $200 million on the Cars ride.

They are willing to invest in technology and updates to keep things relevant and fresh.

Apply it: Are you giving your customers regular updates?  When I launched Location Rebel I had 8 blueprints.  Now we’re up to 12 and all sorts of other interviews and bonuses.  Consider updating a previous product and give it to everyone who has purchased.  It will renew interest, drive new sales, and be a nice surprise (see #3) for existing customers.

Be More Aware on a Daily Basis

My day at Disneyland had me thinking a lot about how I could improve my business.  However I’ve noticed that over the last few years I’ve been paying more attention to how others are marketing their businesses on a regular basis.  Being at Disneyland was the epitome of a good place to do it, but get in the habit of paying attention in your daily life.

When you’re feeling the urge to buy something, step back and ask yourself how you got to that point.  What was the trigger that made you have a buying response?

What lessons have you learned from Disney or another major company that has helped you with your small business?

Photo Credits: Tom Bricker and Mastery of Maps

Sean Ogle

Sean Ogle is the Founder of Location Rebel where he has spent the last 12+ years teaching people how to build online businesses that give them the freedom to do more of the things they like to do in life. When he's not in the coffee shops of Portland, or the beaches of Bali, he's probably sneaking into some other high-class establishment where he most certainly doesn't belong.
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3 comments on "6 Things I Learned About Business from a Day at Disneyland"

  1. I just got back from PortAventura in Salou, Spain. And I have to say i found myself thinking similar things about my own business 9as well as my own themepark, oh god yes please one day). Except it was the opposite, they have rides and adrenaline second only to a few theme parks, yet their staff and services left me feeling rather dissapointed.

    The new ride, Shambhala, now tallest and fastest in Europe was pretty much one of the best coasters I’ve ever ridden. But i couldn’t help but feel bitter about it knowing I’d spent an extra 30 euro to sit at the front. Yes, that’s right, you are literally NOT ALLOWED to sit at the front unless you buy an express pass. It was the worst theme park for service ever…

    Of course, the above example was just one of many sad and exploitatious ways they dissapointed me.

    1. Nick Reese says:

      @Michael — I was in Salou last week and rode Shambhala. Overall I really think that Shambhala was the highlight of the theme-park. It is pretty insane, and the first roller coaster I’ve ridden where I was legitimately scared.

      Most of the other rides had aged a bit and were the standard theme-park stuff. While 30 euros is a pretty hefty up-sell (more than the ticket cost for us) we found it totally worth it.

      After waiting an hour to ride a log flum with gum stuck everywhere (on our boat, ceiling of the “cave,” on the hand rails) we decide to shell out the cash and cut to the front of the line.

      The economics of express passes are interesting because, when everyone has it, the people who don’t really feel a massive increase in wait time. (which is why every line at PA seems to be 2+ hours long)

      That said, we noticed that once we upgraded to the express pass, we were waiting 5-10 minutes for a ride even on Shambhala (the wait time was 2.5 hours without the express pass).

      Looking back, buying the express pass was a function of money lost vs money spent.

      I knew standing in line for hours would crush my soul be boring and I could if I focused just 1 of the hours gained towards a work goal, I’d be ahead money wise.


  2. Matthew Mitchell says:

    It’s the same with Disney Movies, they put a great scope of thought into each act and part, the movie Enchanted is a perfect example. They give the real side of life a little more magic and fun to sometimes a dismally dreary world, while showing the fantasy side the realities of life, and the need build relationships and get to know things.

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