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What Would Walt Do?
19 May 2010

DisneylandDisneyland Paris

What Would Walt Do?

A colleague recently sent me a presentation showing how the logic of the design and layout of Disneyland could be used in the design of computer games. It wasn’t much of a stretch to see how the same logic could be applied to shopping centres. After all, many of the world’s most memorable malls (the Forum, Mall of America) offer parts of the theme park experience. And of course theme parks contain a healthy component of retail.

What would a man whose best friend was a cartoon mouse know about designing a shopping mall?

His first ideas wouldn’t be about shopping. Walt’s first idea for Disneyland was simply to have a park where children and adults could go together and have an equally good time. “Disneyland is a work of love,” he maintained. “We didn't go into Disneyland just with the idea of making money” Spoken like a true entrepreneur, but what he really meant was that the idea of the park came from his own passions and interests- things like history, transport, and true life adventure, big themes that captivated most Americans at that time.

Walt was a true big picture thinker. “Disneyland is the star,” he said, “Everything else is in the supporting role.” In shopping centre world he would be designing something that attracts visitors in its own right, not just as a container for shops. His ideas trickled from the top down: World, land, attraction, experience. The story came first- what would you want your guests to do and feel at each point of the journey? What are they learning?

He used “weenies” to aid navigation. The Magic Kingdom or Space Mountain are tall features that can be seen from everywhere and act as visual reference points. In a shopping centre these would not usually be anchor tenants but part of the fabric of the Centre- a clock, a bell tower or a fountain for example. Weenies help to pull guests through the experience and the guests can happily backtrack or change direction with this as a landmark. Differences in lighting can accentuate this- particularly the use of daylight.

Walt believed in setting expectations then turning them on their heads. You expect a house, you get Mickey Mouse’s house. You expect a roundabout, you get giant teacups.

But not every ride needs to be an E ticket. Walt respected the need for the parts between the big attractions to be calm and considered, just a nice place to be with places to sit and music.

Getting from A to B at Disneyland is always an adventure. Walt was fascinated by transport and there are always many ways to get from one spot to another. In malls, this usually equates to walking and escalators but wouldn’t it be fun to have a monorail or a train?

On a more intangible level, the language in Disneyland is strictly theatrical. Vistors are always guests. Staff are cast members. They wear costumes, not uniforms and have roles, not jobs. They also have scripts. Words like “no” and “I don’t know” are simply not on the script. Using different words for things might not seem like a huge step but from personal experience in working with Disney Stores, it means that the whole paradigm of working in retail is changed.

There is a very careful differentiation in what’s open to the public, “on stage” and closed, “backstage.” In a Disney designed mall you would never, ever, glimpse a loading dock or a food court dumpster or a cast member on a smoke-o.
Everyone remembers the daily rituals and ceremonies from Disneyland: the flag raisings, the parades, the fireworks- even the little things like the roving characters.

So how would Walt design a mall? He’d be pulling people through, not pushing. Thinking about what attracts people to certain key landmark spots and rewarding them for getting there. Emotional rewards would be as valid as physical rewards. Navigation would be, for the most part, intuitive. He’d inject drama into the main attractions and make the routes between calm and pleasant, a joy to explore. He would definitely offer several alternate means of transport. And keep the events flowing whether big or small. In short, he would think of the whole visit, whether to pick up the week’s groceries or to buy a party dress, as part of a theatrical experience.

Just like a weekly trip to Disneyland.

19 May 2010
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