VIDEO: Disney Parks’ Foundational Activity



Would you like to see a quick visual example of a strategic positioning activity for a giant multinational brand? Really, who doesn’t. Let’s take a look. In just a few seconds this guy is going to demonstrate a key strategic positioning aspect of Disney Theme parks. [Gaston gets a little girl who is crying a free cinnamon bun.] Let’s see that again…Did you catch it?

What our arrogant but affable friend Gaston did is an example of a special type of behavior that springs from the strategic positioning that Disney uses at all its theme parks. When it comes to strategic positioning, I talk a lot about activities. Truly effective strategies must be supported by a fit of self-sustaining activities. For the purpose of this video I’m going to be talking about a Foundational Activity.

Foundational Activity

And a Foundational Activity is a core set of behaviors that direct much of how a business conducts itself on a day-to-day basis. This type of activity becomes a decision-making rubric for the whole organization and its individual members. What is the Foundational Activity under all these examples? Let’s look at a few more examples of Disney Parks’ foundational activity.

During the early days of the first Disney park, Disneyland, Walt Disney himself would get something to eat like a hotdog and, walk in a different direction each day while eating it. Once he finished eating he’d insist a trash can be placed there if there wasn’t one already. He didn’t want anyone searching for a trash can. Today, the average distance between trash cans in the parks is only 30ft.

People even love these trash cans. I mean, Disney made salt and pepper shakers and Christmas ornaments out of them…Trash cans.

Disney uses a paint color for they created called Go Away Green. It’s purpose is to hide things in plain sight. This color has been specially formulated to help fences, construction barriers, and functional buildings fade into the background and out of the notice of guests.

The level of music is never too loud or soft. This is due to complex algorithm connecting around fifteen thousand speakers at DisneyWorld, for example. Plus, white noise created by waterfalls or other elements help “hide” the transition of soundtracks from one area to the other.

So, what do all of these activities have in common? They’re all part of the same foundational activity of Friction Reduction.

Friction Reduction

Disney crafts much of their park experiences around reducing friction at that park experience. This foundational activity may be even more important than another one of their activities: Wonder and Delight. I’m defining “friction” as anything that impedes engagement or enjoyment of the park experience. This could be any friction. Waiting in line, searching for a character, getting into a hotel room, paying for souvenirs, even dropping your ice cream cone.

Let’s dig into a few more examples of friction reduction in depth. I really like this next example because it demonstrates a core aspect of strategic positioning. For decades Cast members dressed up as Disney characters just wandered around the parks. Meeting your favorite characters at a Disney park was either a delightful surprise due to running into them or a disappointing frustration for not getting to see them.

But the advent of the digital camera changed this. In the early 2000s park visitors with digital cameras were finding characters and taking many more photos than those with film cameras in years past. This meant characters who could walk around freely before were now mobbed and attending to guest paparazzi for longer periods of time. This clogged up walkways and made character movement less manageable. Because of this Disney Parks now schedule characters for specific times and locations in the park much like they do a stage show. Cast members can even call CHIP (Character Hotline and Information Program) to find out where any given character is at any time.

The Trade-Off

Here’s why it’s a good example of a key aspect of strategy: The Trade-Off. All solid strategies involved trade-offs. In fact if something doesn’t have a trade-off it’s not really a strategy. Disney decided to trade-off the wonder and delight of randomly running into a character for the predictability and easy management of scheduling them in a predictable location. This is because reducing friction is a foundational activity and part of their overall strategy. In the end, this trade-off was probably a simple decision (even if it wasn’t easy). It reduced friction, and that trumps other activities…even Wonder and Delight.

Cast members, whether in character or not, actually have a reasonable amount of flexibility to address guest friction on their own. They can choose to give out front of line passes, replace a lost balloon, dropped ice cream cone or even a whole dress for a child if one is ruined or stained. And they can do this without having to get manager approval or complicated paperwork. If a cast member sees friction, they’re empowered to autonomously fix it if they can.

So, let’s go back to our friend Gaston. Notice the moment he hears the little girl crying he stops what he’s doing with the meet and greet and attends directly to her. That “get this kid a cinnamon bun on me” is a great example of this autonomy to address friction. A crying child is friction for the child, the parents and family, and for everyone else around them.

Our Gaston had a choice to make. He could either continue to make other guests happy with Wonder and Delight by keeping the activity of the meet and greet going or he could address a single crying little girl. You can see he doesn’t hesitate to address the friction as soon as he notices it. That’s because reducing friction is a foundational activity at Disney Parks.

I’m sure you’re starting to see the pattern. Let’s look a bit deeper at another area with multiple examples.

How Disney Parks Serves Those With Mobility Issues

How Disney Parks treat people with special needs or mobility issues is one of the most profound ways Disney seeks to reduce friction in their parks.. Where other organization treat this issue as a “well I guess we have to,” Disney sees it as an opportunity.

The parks take great pains to make sure guests with wheelchairs or other mobility devices can access rides, restaurants, bathrooms, and other attractions whenever possible.

I have a friend, Sam, who is a journalist and has worked for publications like Variety, AdWeek, and The Guardian Newspaper, among others. A few years ago he wrote a deeply personal essay about visiting Disney for the now defunct The Toast. The full piece is titled, “No Matter How Your Heart Is Grieving: Disney for the Sad.” The essay is terrific and vulnerable and I suggest you read the whole thing. It’s linked in the description. In it he observes the following about guests with mobility issues:

“All buses are equipped with wheelchair ramps and many drivers make a point of saying something friendly to whoever is waiting for it to descend. This is pretty clearly an outgrowth of Disney’s strategic and aggressive marketing to people with disabilities, but it effectively includes overweight patrons in a way that they might not have felt included other places. Absolutely no one expresses any resentment to anyone in a scooter, regardless of why they might or might not need one.”

How Disney Parks Accommodates Other Special Needs

For Disney their intent is to make more than just physical accommodations. Friction can be emotional too. Let’s look at a few other way is that Disney seeks to accommodate those with special needs. The Rider Switch program allows someone to stay with a guest who can’t go on a ride or attraction for some reason while the rest of their party experiences the ride. Once everyone is back, the guest who stayed behind gets to experience the the very next departure of the ride without having to wait in line, a rider switch. This way everyone who can experience the ride gets to with very little friction.

Disney also has protocols for help guests with cognitive issues. For example, they’ve identified break areas for guests with autism spectrum or similar conditions so they can take a break from an area that could be over stimulating. Disney publishes extensive guides on how to find quiet spaces and qualify for special accommodations though disability services even though these areas are sure to only be used by a tiny portion of total guests.

Disney has even developed restaurant and concession items for people with allergies or aversions to Gluten or wheat, Eggs, Fish, Milk or lactose, Peanuts and tree nuts, Shellfish, Soy, and Corn. They can even offer food for vegetarians, vegans, and Halal or Kosher diet observers.

I don’t mean to imply that Disney merely does this out of some sense of corporate compassion. I’m sure there are folks at Disney that do care, but that’s probably not the source of implementing these activities. Consider that friction experienced by someone with a disability, cognitive challenge or other issue could easily be noticed by other guests. For many trying to experience the “Happiest place on earth” watching someone struggle with mobility or sensory overload, or just complaining about a lack of dietary offerings, is certain to cause friction. In other words, they’ll feel bad. Any friction spreads out like ripples in a pond. Reducing friction for one person keeps that friction from affecting others around them as well.

And look, Disney can’t accomplish these activities 100% of the time. I’m sure a quick Google search will yield stories of people dissatisfied or who feel slighted by Disney Parks for not accommodating them and their needs. But, the programs in place certainly demonstrate the intent to attempt to reduce friction for guests with special needs.

So why does Disney put so much effort into friction reduction? Isn’t Disney supposed to be about Wonder and Delight? In fact, couldn’t that be considered a foundational activity too? Possibly. But, like I said, every strategy comes with trade-offs.

To better understand this concept let’s talk about research into discomfort. More specifically, let’s talk about the research conducted by Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel prizing winning psychologist and economic theorist.

The Peak / End Rule

Kahneman along with other colleagues conducted experiments that involved participants keeping their hands in icy water, waiting in a virtual line for tech help, and getting colonoscopy exams. To put it simply, they established what’s come to be known as the “Peak / End Rule” This rule states that someone’s overall impression and memory of an event is mainly a combination of their moment of peak emotion (negative or positive) and how the event ended. All other experiences, good or bad, take a back seat to those moments.

I can’t say whether Disney Parks consciously considers the Peak End Rule. But, their acts of working so hard to reduce friction mean they can potentially turn a vacation experience that looks something like this:…

To look more like this:…

So, why would that matter? Consider that reducing the low or negative peaks mean that the positive or high peaks now don’t have to be as high in order to have a good memory about the experience.

If Disney were to attempt to overcome negative friction by creating higher positive peaks to overcome the negative ones they’d have to put a lot of effort and expense into creating those experiences. And do so with no guarantee specific guests would experience them. So, while creating Wonder and Delight is certainly a common goal of Disney parks, that activity is less likely to leave guests with a favorable overall memory than getting rid of as many negative experiences as possible.

Flattening out those lower peaks means the higher peaks don’t have to be as high. Back to Sam Thielman’s essay. He actually sums up this concept visiting a Disney Park pretty well when he says,

“It’s an astonishing place. It is not actually The Happiest Place on Earth but it is The Place Where the Largest Possible Number of Brand-Friendly Conditions for Happiness Are Orchestrated to the Greatest Possible Human Degree At Scale.”

If we look through the lens of the Peak End Rule those “Brand-Friendly Conditions for Happiness” might mean reducing the negative experiences out performed creating more profound positive experiences.

But, would reducing friction really result in better memories for Disney Park visitors? To best discover this let’s look at one of their biggest friction reducing gambles in the past decade. Disney released the Magic Bands program at Walt Disney World in Orlando FL in 2013. Though, they spent several years of concepting, design and development and upwards of $1 billion to get there.

Friction Reduction With MagicBands

Much of the journey and struggle of producing the MagicBands is documented it an exhaustive but fascinating article in Fast Company from April 2015 (linked in description). In it author Austin Carr reports about a struggle Disney Parks were having:

“…certain key metrics, including guests’ “intent to return,” were dropping; around half of first-time attendees signaled they likely would not come back because of long lines, high ticket costs, and other park pain points.”

Guests didn’t report that there wasn’t enough “fun” at a Disney park. They didn’t suggest it lacked Wonder and Delight. Instead, 50% reported its pain points made them not want to return. And Disney set out to reduce the friction of these frustrations and increase that willingness to return. The article continues with a quote from a former Disney Park manager,

“On the surface, we had super happy guests, but in reality, we were making them go through so much hassle at the park that down the road, they would simply say, ‘No más!’”

To address this Disney created a new project called the “Next Generation Experience” or NGE. The focal point of the NGE became the Magic Bands. Developing them was a long, winding and expensive road. But, their results after launching them are directly connect to this foundational activity of Friction Reduction.

The original plans for the MagicBands included things like having animatronic characters address guests by name, finding their faces superimposed onto digital movie posters and other Wonder and Delight inducing aspects. But the majority of features that survived the R&D process to launch are largely focused on friction reduction.

MagicBands replace the need for paper tickets with guests just tapping their MagicBand adorned wrist to a MagicBand station at the entrance. And these stations are also located throughout the park. Guests use them to check into rides with Fastpass, pay for food and souvenirs, and even key into their Disney Park hotel rooms.

One of the most profound examples is the Be Our Guest restaurant. Guests pre-order their meals online or at kiosks and when they get within a certain distance of the restaurant a proximity sensor in the MagicBands alerts the restaurant and puts in their orders. Guests are greeted at the door, shown to their seats and almost immediately witness their food get delivered to the table.

The MagicBands had plenty of cutting edge experiences planned for them. But, in the end the main benefits that survived to launch involved those that make the experience easier for guests. Disney decided to trade-off other experiences in favor of these friction reducing ones.

Remember that statistic that I mentioned at the beginning? That only 50% of Disney guest stated they planned to return. Now that number planning to return is around 70%. That’s a 20% rise after the launch of the MagicBands. For a park that gets around 20 million visitors a year, that 20% increase is profound.

A Foundational Activity Can Benefit Any Business

So, what do the activities of one of the largest, multinational corporations on Earth have to do with your business? I think plenty. The size or complexity of an organization doesn’t really matter when considering the strategic fit of the activities. A Foundational Activity can be a highly effective way to provide focus and streamlined decision making within a set of sustaining activities. If we look at the concept through the lens of my Strategic Positioning Spectrum we can see that many of the ideas around reducing friction at Disney Parks are Originating activities. They were new ideas and new programs or processes that needed to be created and implemented. But once devised and established they easily became self-reinforcing, sustaining activities.

So, like l said, I don’t know if leadership at the Disney parks ever talk about reducing friction. I’m not sure how exactly they describe the activities I’ve talked about here. But, it’s evident that they have some language around it. The foundational activity of reducing friction permeates virtually all they do on park properties.

And, that’s the key to a foundational activity. It can’t just be something you do a lot, or that’s thought of as important. It’s not a value or even a mission. It must be an activity that supersedes other urges and activities. It’s got to be something that every member of your organization can understand and uphold on their own without being told to. It has to be a verb. It’s especially important you can do it when presented with a choice to do something else against that activity.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this perspective on the concept of a Foundational Activity. The Disney brand offers plenty of examples that illustrate the concepts I speak about and use to help my clients. In the future I’ll be looking at how Disney’s tension between Originating and Sustaining activities lies at the core of how they do business internally. Spoiler alert: the internal activities at Disney definitely don’t adhere to friction reduction. Quite the opposite, in fact. But, that’s a topic for another time.


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The Strategic Web is an independent consultancy focused on innovation strategy. I help businesses and organizations develop strategies to differentiate themselves in the marketplace and progress out of static practices.

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Scott Hutcheson