Why Is Disney Different?

Other theme parks have crazy roller coasters, recognizable characters, and immersive experiences. So why does Walt Disney World still hold a special place in the vacation universe?

(Wikimedia Commons / Jedi94)

On the final leg of the long drive from the northeast to Orlando, Fla., Interstate 4 guides tourists past the galaxy of theme parks the city is known for.

You catch glimpses of the latest attractions at Universal Studios. You see the billboards for Sea World. Maybe you even do a quick double-take as you pass by the Holy Land Experience.

And that’s just Orlando. An estimated 148 million guests spun the turnstiles at North American theme parks last year.

But Walt Disney World? That place is a different beast.

Recently, during a week’s family vacation immersed in the Disney universe with my wife and five-year-old twin daughters, and I found myself thinking about this phenomenon. Disney World undeniably occupies the number one position as the brand leader when it comes to family vacation spots. Why?

It sure isn’t the rides. If roller coasters and thrill rides are your bag, places like Universal’s Islands of Adventure, Busch Gardens, Six Flags, or any number of other locations probably feed your fix a lot better.

Yes, Disney does keep you in their universe, with an interconnected network of resort hotels linked by bus (and, for three of the older properties, monorail). But this isn’t unique either: Universal has built a thriving world of their own in Orlando, too.

What makes Disney World different? And more importantly, what lessons can others learn from Disney’s perch?

The answer offers a study in message development. Disney World sits atop the theme park pyramid thanks to three factors: story, character, and mythology.

Creating Stories

Disney World lets you know the rules when you walk into the Magic Kingdom: “Here,” boasts a plaque above the entrance, “you leave today and enter the world of yesterday, tomorrow, and fantasy.”

Other theme parks may gain notoriety for rides that loop, corkscrew, or dangle riders in mid-air. At Disney, most rides rely on storytelling more than extreme physical thrills. This allows the parks to go heavy on low-impact family-oriented attractions that invite younger visitors without completely boring the older ones. The constant evolution of Disney’s animatronic characters helps, too. For younger riders, it advances the fantasy element while more cynical riders can still marvel over the technology.

To further this, rides are grouped so their narrative fits with the surrounding rides and attractions. Disney World’s four theme parks, further divided into sections, turn a walk across the grounds into a walk through the books in a library.

This storytelling creates a constant mental engagement that, as a side benefit, distracts from negative elements like crowds and lines. You won’t remember every second of frustration felt during a 45-minute wait, but your mind will recall many of the sights and sounds of a five-minute story told while riding through the dark in a little two-person cart.


Disney World gets a good deal of mileage from the gallery of characters who have appeared in Walt Disney productions.

Character “meet and greets” — chances for a couple minutes and a picture with a costumed character — boast lines as long as some popular rides. Classic cartoon stars like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck pantomime their way through interactions (unless you happen to meet the mildly disturbing but still pretty neat “talking Mickey”). Live-action human characters mimic their cartoon counterparts with the commitment and discipline of an undercover intelligence operative, and strict rules mandate that they stay in character. The gift shops prominently display autograph books, so guests can make a game of gathering signatures from the characters they meet.

All of this gives the visitor — especially the youngest ones — a personal connection to the stories. Just as a movie needs compelling, sympathetic characters to make an audience care about the plot’s conflict, Disney World uses familiar characters to draw in guests.

Community Mythology

Disney World doesn’t just soak you in nostalgia, it creates layers of nostalgia.

Older classic characters get prominently featured alongside more recent ones. It makes perfect sense that one ride re-tells the story of the 2013 hit Frozen; but somehow rides based off 1941’s Dumbo, 1953’s Peter Pan, or 1989’s The Little Mermaid don’t seem out of place, either.

That’s because Disney has built generational nostalgia spanning decades. Now over 45 years old, Disney World welcomes the third and possibly fourth generation of visitors from some families. Parents introduce their kids to their own childhood favorites; when those kids grow up they have not only first-hand memories, but second-hand memories passed down from Mom and Dad.

This creates a sort of mythology of the Disney universe, even for the most cynical visitor. And it goes beyond merely bragging about a 90-year legacy of cartoons.

Commitment to Culture

Disney's long-term success comes from trying to win more than mere dollars; they’re trying to win a spot in your mind.

In their classic marketing book Positioning, advertising executives Al Reis and Jack Trout discuss how brands try to occupy mental real estate. It doesn’t matter if more people think Pepsi tastes better than Coca-Cola; Coke has carved out a cultural niche as the top soft drink in most people’s minds.

That’s exactly what Disney has sought to do — and largely succeeded at. It goes beyond theme parks, too. Look at how Disney has built the Marvel Cinematic Universe or re-invigorated the Star Wars franchise, and many of the same factors become evident. Disney pays attention to the details of story, character, and mythology as a company, and lets that culture mold their output — whether it’s an upcoming superhero movie or a new attraction at Epcot.

In the theme park industry, that culture gives them a leg up on the competition.

Other theme parks can rightfully brag about danger-defying roller coasters or other rides that promise superior thrills. Disney sits atop the market because they offer something more mentally — and emotionally — engaging.

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