Lessons from Magic Kingdom: How to hack positive impressions

I’ve spent a disproportionate amount of time in and around Walt Disney World, Florida. I’ve noticed things along the way which seem to be super applicable to building just about any kind of solution — those things are shared here, in the “Lessons from Magic Kingdom” series.

If you ask someone who recently went to the Magic Kingdom how their day went, they will most likely start with describing Main Street and the view of Cinderella Castle to you.

That is, of course, not how their day started. Their day at the happiest place on Earth started in a massive parking lot more than a mile from the main gate.

They had to deal with traffic on the drive in (often after driving hundreds of miles already), wait in a queue for their chance to pay an enormous amount for parking, navigate a sea of cones and parking directions, get out of their car and collect their party and their stuff, clammer on to a parking tram, shuffle off the parking tram, go through an airport-style bag check, purchase incredibly expensive tickets, and then choose and board a ferryboat or monorail to the main gate.

But when they start their story, they start with the view of the castle. They forgot everything that happened before then. Sometimes they will mention if they took the monorail or the ferryboat — but even then, there’s almost never any mention of unpleasantries.

Compare that to someone telling you about their recent airline flight. Is the miracle of human flight the only thing they remember about the whole experience? Usually not so much.


This selective, positive-only impression is achieved via understanding and managing the guest’s emotional state as they enter the park. I’ll explain exactly how the Magic Kingdom does it below, describing it in layers. While it’s very unlikely your product has exactly the same needs Disney met with their resort design, it’s very likely you can improve the impressions your users get using some of the same concepts. It works like this:

Intentional Topography

The Magic Kingdom has a huge lake in front of it. The parking lot is on the other side of the lake, so guests have to park and then take Disney-provided transportation to the main gate.

That’s kinda weird; most places want to get their guests in as quickly as possible, and therefore make the parking as close as possible. It’s easy to assume Disney simply worked around the land they had available to them, and this is the layout they ended up with.

Only problem is, that’s not true. It’s a man-made lake. Disney dug it out; they intentionally put the parking lot over a mile away from the park.

Outer Layer: The Parking Lot

“Pain and disappointment”

Your users are coming in from the nasty, no-good outside world. They are beaten, tired, upset, and mad at (or disappointed in) absolutely everything.

This statement is true if your user is a cube dweller looking for a piece of software to solve their current infuriating problem, and it is super true if your guest is a parent who just drove their minivan loaded with their spouse and 2.2 children from Ohio to Florida just so they could see a person in a mouse suit.

When people arrive at the Magic Kingdom parking lot, or arrive at your product’s presence on the web, you cannot assume they are emotionally or mentally ready to be excited about things like learning new things, exploration, discovery, or even your product at all.

The kids had to go to Disney World, and there isn’t a Disney World in Ohio; the potential user has a problem to solve, and nothing has solved the problem yet. The minivan arrives at Magic Kingdom for the same core reason the potential user arrives at your website — lack of an acceptable alternative choice. “Discovery” and “Excitement” are not what they are thinking about; surviving the next 10 minutes is.

Users in this layer have two attibutes about them: They are generally short tempered and they are very aware of what their current reality is. As such, experiences in this layer need to be exactly as expected — since they are well grounded in current reality, departures from normal conventions will be noted immediately, remembered, and strongly linked with their current (not great) mood. In the Parking Lot, change is bad.

The Magic Kingdom parking lot is decorated, but it is intentionally under-themed compared to everywhere else at the resort. The parking lot trams are intentionally non-descript. There are no descriptions of the attractions in the park, no parking tram elevator speeches about how much fun you’re going to have. There isn’t even a single clearly decernable Mickey Mouse until *after* tickets are purchased.

The layout and flow of the parking lot, tram system, bag check and ticket lines are mirrors of how similar systems work elsewhere in the world, despite the fact that Disney knows how to do these things better.

If Disney did any of this significantly differently — even if their way was better — those differences could confuse or upset an already downtrodden guest, and create a memorable experience in a reality that Disney does not want to be memorable.

Amazon does a lot of magical things. They have Alexa, video on demand, music streaming, the entire Kindle ecosystem, AWS, warehouse robots, physical stores with no cashiers, incredible logistics, and who knows what else… but when you go to Amazon’s homepage, they don’t start by showing you all of that Fantasyland stuff. They show you a rather generic internet storefront, exactly like you’re used to. They introduce the cool stuff to you only once they know you are ready.

Please, whatever you do,

Don’t drop Parking Lot Users directly into a demo instance of your app.

This is a technique that developers love to use. “We’ll just set up a demo! People will love it!”

People will love it, yes. Your solution is amazing… but they aren’t ready for it in the Parking Lot. The users getting to your site aren’t getting there because they are as excited about the solution as you are — they are getting there because they’ve run out of other choices. They aren’t in an emotional state where they can look at the new reality your product creates and see it’s value.

In order to present your product in the best light, you need to get the user’s mental state in the right place. We can start to do that with the next layer.

Exactly how you should deal with your Parking Lot Users is very dependent on who they are and what situations they are dealing with. Expect an upcoming article on Profiling your Parking Lot Users.

Middle Layer: Choices and Letting Go

“Separation and Relaxation”

Disney put a giant lake in between the guests and the park. Current wisdom tells us to remove barriers to entry; Disney spent millions of dollars digging a big one.

It’s a really, really big lake, too. There are many places around the lake where you can’t even see the Magic Kingdom — in this picture, you can barely see the top of Space Mountain.

There are two routes to chose from to get from the parking lot to the Magic Kingdom main gate: The ferryboat or the monorail. Which one you choose is entirely up to you. This is brilliant.

If you ask a Cast Member which route is faster, they will tell you “both take about the same amount of time.” Whether or not that’s true is irrelevant — what’s important is that response immediately transforms the choice into one of personal preference, not one of efficiency.

One of the primary difficulties the guest faced in the “Parking Lot” layer was (percieved) lack of choice. Now, immediately after getting all the unpleasant requirements settled, they give the guest a choice with zero rammifications. It’s entirely personal preference.

Since there’s only two options, the guest doesn’t even have to worry about having remorse after making the choice — they can always use the other method of transport when leaving the park.

The brain reset this choice invokes is incredibly powerful on it’s own. The effects are compounded by the events following the choice being made — for the first time since Ohio, the guest is chauffeured somewhere.

The guest has already made a choice with zero ramifications, and now they are in a situation where they have nearly zero responsibility for how things work out. They are being taken care of; and whether or not they consciously realize that, they begin to let go of the old reality.

Disney also throws in a couple small twists that make the trip memorable, without changing so much that there’s risk of confusing the guest.

Most people don’t regularly ride a ferryboat, but even if they do the Disney boats are different enough to be unique. People do ride trains every day, but they usually don’t ride monorails that have their tracks run through the middle of a hotel.

These experiences are memorable enough to win over any weak memories (good or bad) from the Parking Lot. When you ask a guest how they got to the Magic Kingdom, they will tell you by ferry or by monorail — not by car or bus.

The guests are no longer thinking about bad things were in the Parking Lot.

One of my favorite experiences was when a Cast Member noticed a family running to get on the monorail, and told them:

“You’re on vacation, you don’t need to run anymore.”

The transformation in the mannerisms of the family were instant and incredible. They collectively went from downtrodden and chaotic to victorious and relieved in one sudden realization. The monorail waited for them, and they boarded happy.

The old, nasty, no-good reality fades, which sets up the guest to accept the new reality they are about to experience.

Getting your users “Out of the Parking Lot”

Exactly how to go about this depends greatly on your users and your product, and will be the topic of it’s own article. But here’s some quick guidelines:

Add reasonable barriers to entry


You need time to help your users adjust to the new world. Give them some normal stuff, get the unpleasantries handled, and then slowly start showing them the new things. Pacing is important, dropping a user into a new reality without giving them some time to adjust will backfire spectacularly.

Give the user a zero-ramification personal preference choice early

Give your user an easily changeable choice to make early in the experience. Even if it’s just selecting a color theme for your app, it will help get your user’s mind in a better state.

This gives them a positive experience with your solution (making a choice that they like) and can also be used to create the separation needed to get the user “out of the parking lot” and more accepting of your product’s new reality.

Be sure to make it clear that the choice is easily changable and has no permanent impact — otherwise you may be introducing regret or uncertainty in your user’s mental state, and nobody wants that.

The Inner Layer: The new reality to explore

“Discovery and Excitement”

Let’s look at how far we’ve come:

By the time guests get into the park, they are properly prepared to see something amazing. You need to strive for the same journey for users coming into your product — once they get there, you want them to be in a state of mind that allows them to be as excited about your product as you are.

It’s important to note that just because you have a user into your new environment, your job of considering user state of mind is not done.

The internal layout of the Magic Kingdom follows the same kind of progression — you don’t see magical cartoon characters, mermaids, and Peter Pan at the front gate. Those are at the back of the park, where the guest is more likely to be in a state of mind to accept and embrace them. The front of the park is Main Street, which is certainly a departure from normal reality but still close enough to expectations to not confuse new guests.

You may have to do something similar in your product. You may have to have a landing page that looks like an older solution before the users get to the real magic back in Fantasyland. That’s okay. That’s how you manage your user’s mental state, create good memories, and hack good impressions.

Co-Founder, Liquid Genius

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