The perfectly executed fireworks, the beignets in the shape of Mickey ears, the spotless trash cans: How does Disneyland manage to make everything feel so effortlessly magical?
Jody Jean Dreyer, who worked for the Walt Disney Studios and Disney Parks Division for 30 years, attempts to answer that question in her new book, Beyond the Castle: A Guide to Discovering Your Happily Ever After. Throughout her memoir, the former senior vice president leading synergy and special projects describes the company’s “maniacal” perfectionism for crafting immersive park experiences that never stray from the company’s core brand.
Describing the Disney philosophy, Dreyer says, “It’s people, it’s story, and it’s attention to detail.”
During Dreyer’s long career with Disney, she held 22 different positions, including seasonal Disneyland parade dancer, park cashier, and senior vice president of marketing at Walt Disney Studios. During an interview with Fast Company, the now retired executive shares what she learned from working for the Magic Kingdom.
Tell The Story—And Stick To It
“Everyone and every brand is telling a story,” Dreyer says. And at Disney, the characters—Mickey, Minnie, the whole group—are integral to the company’s identity. They tell the Disney story . . . over and over and over.
The company’s job is to maintain the integrity of that story by ensuring the continuity of the animated people and critters. Disney has a unique challenge in that its characters all live within their own worlds (be it under the sea or in a fairy-filled forest), yet they come together to live happily ever after at the theme parks. On any day, you might find Belle posing for photos with Tiana even though, technically, the Atlantic Ocean–and almost 200 years–divide them.
But that’s what guests want: their princesses together, assembled like a taffeta-clad army.
“How do we do that and not lose their story?” Dreyer says. “You need to know and own your story.”
Hence the creation of the annual “princess summit.” Each year, executives from all divisions—theme parks, the movie studio, consumer products—come together to discuss the consistency of the characters. One such summit, Dreyer recalls, posed the ontological question: “What is a princess?”
Answering that isn’t as simple as bibbidi bobbidi boo. Dreyer says there was “weighty debate” about whether Tinker Bell qualified for the title of princess. Peter Pan’s spritely sidekick certainly feels princess-y, but she lacked a few key components—royal lineage, a fancy gown, and a requited love interest, among them. After much deliberation, the decision was made that Tinker Bell, what with her ragged tunic and common fairy ancestry, could not join the Disney Princess brand.
Likewise, Disney is adamant that characters stay true to their worlds, only venturing out to character plotlines that won’t jeopardize their integrity.
“The core essence never changes,” says Dreyer. In other words, Ariel the mermaid can show up on Main Street for a Christmas party, but she will never dye her signature red locks blonde or try out Mulan’s martial arts moves in Princess Aurora’s castle.
“Costumes may change, but character doesn’t,” Dreyer writes in her book. “They are the cornerstone of the Disneyland brand.”
Provide A Complete Experience—Aromas Included
Think back to your favorite Disneyland ride. Maybe it’s the dusty rock-filled Indiana Jones Adventure, or the rickety, open-air Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. Whatever your attraction of choice, your memory of it might include a smell: the stuffy, musty attic air of the Haunted Mansion or the leathery dampness of the Pirates of the Caribbean, with just a hint of gunpowder and sea salt.
“That is on purpose,” says Dreyer.
Disneyland’s Imagineers–the creative force behind Walt Disney Parks and Resorts–rely on a scent-emitting machine known as the Smellitzer (patented by Imagineer Bob McCarthy), which produces specific sweet, savory, or mundane smells to accompany various park attractions. Imagineers understand that smell is hardwired to our brain, specifically the area that handles emotions. In her book, Dreyer writes, “That’s why smell can transport us to a time and feeling that we’d long forgotten.”
So whether you’re shopping for a stuffed Donald Duck or clutching your safety bar on Space Mountain, you’ll get a whiff of whatever the Smellitzer crafted to make your experience complete. Even the wafts of popcorn along Main Street U.S.A. are by design.
“It’s the combination of all these things that trigger your mind to let you go places, either positive or negative,” says Dreyer, noting that Disney understands that every single piece of an experience must be tended to. “It’s being mindful that people are using all their senses.”
Cater To Your Audience
In her book, Dreyer touches upon a few Disney mishaps during her career, including misreading the desires of the Tokyo Disneyland guests. For the 1983 park opening, the food and beverage team picked Japanese staples they thought would appeal to park-goers: rice, fish, and other items that required chopsticks.
But after slow sales, the team realized it was the exact opposite: The Japanese didn’t come to the Happiest Place on Earth for what they could get at a local sushi shop. They sought the ultimate American experience. They wanted hot dogs, French fries, greasy finger foods, and sugary soda. They wanted sticky hands and food comas.
“What we heard people say is: We want quintessential Disney, so bring on Disney,” Dreyer says.
Dreyer kept this in mind while working on the grand opening of Euro Disney (now Disneyland Paris) in 1992. This time, the food and beverage team supplied the entire park with typical American diner fare. But in the park’s initial weeks, the cafés and food carts drew minimal interest. Empty restaurant tables dotted the park during peak meal hours. The French, they discovered, were not like the Japanese; Europeans had no interest in partaking of the “American experience.” So they stepped out of the park to eat more traditional French dishes (perhaps with a glass of wine), then returned to jump on the rides.
Disney went on to restructure the Euro food offerings with street fare like sausages baked into French bread in lieu of hot dogs and brioche filled with Nutella instead of churros. Today, the international park menus differ, but the core essence—comfort food with a tinge of nostalgia—doesn’t. Dreyer likens it to how overall, Disneyland strives to provide a certain excitement that can be tailored according to an individual’s tastes. Whether you prefer thrill rides or the tranquil waters of It’s A Small World, the company wants you come away from the park with an optimistic feeling.
“[The theme parks] change quite a bit, but what never changes is at the center,” she says. “It’s the experience you’re providing and emotions you’re evoking. You want people to have the same reaction. They might just get there through a different attraction or a different food.”
Identify Your Deal Breakers
Disney’s fierce protectiveness of its brand lends itself to princess categorization as much as it does to a plethora of product and experience extensions. Dreyer mentions how before launching Disney Cruise Lines, company executives debated the inclusion of casinos, a favorite pastime for ocean travelers. The fear was that gambling would tarnish Disney’s family-friendly image.
“We sat through meetings, debates, analyses, expert opinion presentations,” Dreyer says, “and more meetings.”
Despite the potential earnings of casinos, Disney Cruise Lines ultimately decided to forego the lucrative opportunity. It thought it had more to lose than to gain.
“There are things in your gut that don’t [mesh] with Disney,” says Dreyer. “Being on-trend sometimes gets achieved at the expense of forgetting who you are. You might get some immediate growth, but then you’ll have a problem. You have to do it very consciously.”
Dreyer does admit that some seemingly incongruous ideas, if done properly, could fit into the brand’s core experience. “You have to constantly have those conversations . . . and revisit decisions.” In that sense, Dreyer wouldn’t be surprised if Disney, at a later point, reconsidered gambling should there be enough consumer demand.
Could Disney parks ever reconsider permitting alcohol? Booze is not currently sold in Disneyland itself, so adults have to head over to hotels or exit the park grounds to drown their Jack Sparrow sorrows.
“You will never see a beer cart on Main Street U.S.A, that’s gonna be a brand killer, it’s never gonna happen,” Dreyer says. But as for fine restaurants potentially carrying a wine list or specialty Mickey cocktails, she is more optimistic: “I would never say they would never, ever.”
Never Let Them See You Make The Magic
“One thing Walt Disney got a touch frustrated with at Disneyland was that you could see the workings going on in some places,” Dreyer says.
When the park first opened in 1955, the man behind the mouse disliked that the service members whose job it was to keep the park running were, to some degree, chipping away at the kingdom’s “magic.” What should have been the work of fairies, elves, and Jiminy Cricket were the tasks of custodians, event coordinators, and drivers of cargo lifts.
“He wanted all the behind-the-scenes to be behind the scenes,” says Dreyer.
When it came time to start construction on Orlando, Florida’s Disney World in the ’60s, park executives planned a novel way to create the magic of seamless production: They built an entire underground labyrinth of tunnels, support areas, and business offices. Called “utilidoors,” short for utility corridors, the tunnels permit park personnel to secretly slip underground to take supplies from one area to another, shuttle characters to a parade, or even just take a lounge break.
“Underneath, it’s this entire city that’s alive with people scurrying around, and things are moving place to place,” says Dreyer of the underground kingdom. “You’re able to do all the back-of-the-house without your guests ever having to see. You don’t want anything to interrupt the story.”
That innovative problem solving–coupled with obsessive attention to detail–just to please guests, is what makes Disney . . . well, Disney. “That’s the magic.”