Topic and Problem Statement:
For my project, I'm going to be researching the emotional and psychological effects of a Disney theme park visit. I have gone with my family to Disney World many times, and other families we know have done the same thing. I've always wondered about long-lasting effects of going here, and how Disney drives people to keep coming back for vacations year after year.
Literature Review Question:
What does the literature say about the psychological and emotional effects of visiting a Disney theme park?
Research for Literature Review:
The research for this project is on the Synthesis Table.
Walt Disney World is one of the most popular and well-known tourist destinations anywhere in the world. Millions of people visit every year, and most come back with stories of seeing “the Disney magic” for themselves. It means a variety of things to different people, but it almost always is an intense, intangible feeling that cannot be proven or shown to anyone. As a result of this, it has become something that skeptics will doubt, and return visitors will swear you can not fully believe until you experience firsthand. But how does this “magic” work? What goes into creating it, day after day, for thousands of different types of people? What if every time someone walks through the gates, they are unknowingly being controlled psychologically?
Disney’s careful controlling of their theme park environments and superior customer service instills a sense of safety and security in visitors that makes them feel as though they are in a more improved version of the world. One example of this is the “berm”, or large wall, surrounding all of the Disney theme parks. This ensures that Disney is able to block out the “real world” in order to make the experience more authentic and help people forget their problems for a little while. Also, Disney theme parks are designed to show a happier version of the world, which is comforting to visitors. They are now living in a place that they wish could be the “real world”, as it seems almost near perfect. It often seems like Disney only wants us to see one version of the world and this is their intention. Their immersive worlds are built on the idea that this is indeed “...the better, brighter side of life where people and place seem naturally and harmoniously co-existent. Such programmed and experienced optimism is comfortable and psychologically reassuring, thus allowing even greater temptation and desire to become immersed in the experience.”(Borrie,1999) (71-82) In other words, Disney’s attempt to provide an escape from the real world resonates with Guests and increases their chances of enjoying and wanting to become an active part of the experience. Here, people are allowed an escape from their problems, jobs, and chores. They are taken care of by kind “cast members”, Disney’s way of referring to their employees, and all of the hard work that goes into having a successful vacation is done for them. They are called Guests, with the capital letter meant to emphasize the importance of every visitor. They are also referred to by name and always told to “Have a magical day!” This helps Guests feel like they are important in playing a part to make the experience work.
Another psychologically reassuring element of Walt Disney World is the way that the people, animals, and environment all seem full of life and harmonious. Observant Guests will notice that “...nothing dies in Disney. There is an ever present youthfulness in the animals, and in the employees.” (Borrie, 1999) (71-82) Aging plants are replaced after park closing, and pesticides are applied to ensure a decrease in the amount of bugs and weeds. Gardeners are present every hour of the night to make sure that the grass is cut and all flowers are watered. The meticulously designed and maintained landscapes and the cleanliness of the parks are emotionally appealing to Guests. They are seeing an idealized version of the world, one that is clean and free from crime, disease, or any form of danger, and the kind of world they wish they could live in.
Disney has set the standard for theme park cleanliness since the creation of Disneyland, and
its message of dreams coming true and having hope still resonates with this generation and remains with them long after their visit. Walt Disney knew he wanted to build an amusement park, but did not like the ones of the 1950s. Theme parks in those days were often dirty, not maintained, and full of crime and run by miserable employees. He didn't want his park to be that way, and set out to raise the bar and change the standards for the industry. He succeeded, and he found that “Disneyland became the model for theme parks that would, in the 1960s, take Disney's vision of an enclosed, immaculately clean, perfectly maintained oasis of family pleasure and combine it with the thrill rides that had drawn crowds to the early twentieth century amusement parks.” (Berg, 1-8) Years later, these same ideas are still employed at all Disney theme parks around the world, and have caused generations of Guests to form an emotional connection with “the Disney difference”.
One of the more well-known effects of a Disney visit is that Guests believe that their dreams and wishes will come true, especially on Disney property. At Walt Disney World, there is a fireworks display called "Wishes" and a parade called "Celebrate A Dream Come True". Through the use of these hopeful themes that have been spoken, written and sung to generations, people believe they have an infinite number of possibilities here. In the years that follow a trip here,”...This feel good message is the catalyst unbeknownst to many of its visitors that compelled them to venture to Florida and Walt Disney World.” (Berg, 1-8) Studies have shown that “...even in an economic recession, patrons still can’t seem to get enough of Disney World and its feel good message.” (Berg, 1-8) Even through tough economic times, people will still visit Walt Disney World. In fact, Disney theme parks have continually made a profit even through recessions. The main reason for this is that just being near a Disney theme park can give people hope. In times where it looks like nothing will ever get better, visitors to these parks hold on to that one last hope that their wish will come true or that their luck will turn around. This hope is gained through being at a Disney park and absorbing its feel-good message, and carrying it through your life. If this message can truly help someone who was a visitor here, no matter what the circumstances, they will often
remember Disney fondly from an emotional and psychological standpoint for helping them through a time of crisis.
Disney has tried to raise standards for all theme parks by inventing new systems to make waiting in lines, the most dreaded part of an amusement park visit, more enjoyable for Guests. This include ways to decide if a wait time is reasonable for you ahead of time or to pass the time while already in a queue. For example, the wait times are displayed outside each ride so that people can decide whether or not they are willing to wait. Also, Disney has a mobile app called "My Disney Experience" that displays all of the wait times for rides near your location. Always trying to stay efficient, “...Disney attacks each negative effect of the queue with the determination of that crocodile hunting down Captain Hook. Since the sight of a long line is demoralizing, every ride has a serpentine queue that winds through something like a movie set, with plenty of distractions. The Haunted Mansion has a waiting room with special effects. Space Mountain has 87 game stations before the ride." Disney also uses a method of monitoring attraction lines and wait times at their hidden control center beneath Cinderella Castle. If Disney notices that a popular ride like Pirates of The Caribbean has a lengthy wait, the control center may tell the ride operator to send out more boats. They can also send Disney characters into the queue to entertain Guests. The fact that Disney would spend so much time and energy making sure that their waiting is as painless and enjoyable as possible means a lot to Guests. It just further reinforces the feeling for them that they are in a land where they are cared about and thought of. They recognize that they don't get this same level of care and attention at a local amusement park, so they form a positive connection with the brand emotionally and psychologically.
Disney employs caring and passionate Cast Members who genuinely enjoy their jobs, and that makes the experience much more of an "escape" for Guests. The general consensus among Cast Members is that "...they are happy to be working at a job they love, and it shows in their work, making it less of an emotional labor as opposed to someone that is looking at a job at Disney as just a job." (Toschi, 2009) Disney’s parks are full of employees who are young, aspiring performers
looking to break into the industry or lifelong Disney fans. For these people, their jobs seem more natural and fun and less like hard work because they are doing what they love every day. This makes it easier for positive interactions between staff and Guests. Disney relies on their well-known levels of customer service to set them apart from the competition and to provide Guests with the experience expected of them. They even offer courses in customer service and leadership for their employees. If Cast Members are unwilling to help create happiness, Disney lets them know that this will probably not be the ideal job for them. This is because “...Disney cares about the reputation of any project the Disney name is placed on.” (Toschi, 2009) Their sole reason for searching for "the best of the best" when it comes to employees is because of the impression it will leave on visitors. Their entire company is built on the premise of creating and preserving the magic, and their reputation is shattered if they employ workers that cannot do that. Guests may not remember every detail of their vacation 20 years later, but they will recall that time a Cast Member bought them new t-shirts when they got caught in the rain or helped them locate a lost family member. This psychologically forms a strong alliance between the consumer and the brand.
The Disney theme park experience means a variety of different things to different people. It's considered an escape, a place to forget the bad times and celebrate the good, and an opportunity to be a kid again. Emotional bonds with Disney are formed in our childhoods and those feelings follow us our whole lives. Disney represents American culture and values and achieving your goals through hard work. People can easily identify those messages and find the parks to be a source of inspiration. Guests visit the Disney parks expecting world class entertainment, and they find their expectations met. Guests hold Disney to high standards because Disney holds itself to incredibly high standards by striving to be the best of the best. People come to visit expecting everything they've seen in the commercials, and that's what Disney strives to create. Visitors also come seeking the perfect, predictable society that Disney has created and an escape from their real lives. Repeat Guests recognize the “perfection and happiness of the culture”. In an “increasingly crass and negative” world, Disney provides safety, security, happiness, and relief in a controlled environment. Something about seeing beloved characters they grew up watching on TV stirs up emotions in people. Disney has played a part in almost everyone's lives, and being in one of their theme parks can bring back fond memories from childhood. This bond formed with Disney, whether appreciated or ignored, leaves a lasting emotional effect of memories of good times associated with the brand. This in turn causes people to regard the brand and the theme parks in a positive way.
Disney uses the power of having a captivated theme park audience to impart knowledge on them, depict past events in a more innocent way, as well as control how people move through the parks. A study concluded that families leave museums out of exhaustion and boredom in about less than an hour after arrival. (King, 1991) Disney used data like this to create the "Disney Effect", which blends technology and architecture in a way that makes learning fun without realizing it’s taking place. This gives Disney World more appeal than a museum to families. Disney World visitors enter the Magic Kingdom through "Main Street", which is supposed to be a model of an actual turn of the century American town. However, Disney's version is much cleaner, brighter, and better planned than what these types of towns really would look like. This might lead visitors to believe that all small towns really looked like this when they actually didn't. Most of these same Guests are also oblivious to the fact that Disney is subconsciously controlling the way they tour the theme parks. The layout of the Magic Kingdom is designed in such a way that it naturally guides you to walk in a certain direction and pulls you towards several large, bright landmarks. Disney uses these methods to influence people's touring decisions and effectively disperse crowds. This is especially vital during the summer months and holiday seasons, when Walt Disney World crowds reach their peak. This method will pull people from the entrance of the park quickly in order to make space for the next wave of arriving Guests. However, while this is all done intentionally, it’s never really detected by visitors. Psychologically, Guests are still left with the idea that they made these decisions themselves without any outside influence.(Wright, 2006) (10)
The Disney Corporation tries to teach children to stay out of trouble in the future, get a good job, and have strong family values. (Sammond, 1999) (12) This was something that was started by Walt Disney himself, who "...recognized a novel opportunity to create not just a profitable enterprise but a heroic agency to promote US values.” (Cosson) Disney has always been aware of the influence they can have on children, because of the immense role they play in their lives. Through the use of popular characters, theme parks attractions and wholesome messages, Disney hopes to inspire the next generation to be good citizens. Over the years, Disney has become increasingly aware of guest touring patterns. Their latest technology, called My Magic+, allows them to track every move of each individual Guest in seconds. It was a multi-billion dollar investment that will inevitably pay off for Disney; they now have more control over tourists than ever before. One pattern they have picked up on is that when Guests visit their property, the majority of them will not leave to visit other attractions in the area. This is because it was intentionally made difficult to leave Disney property, by making road systems elaborate and at times confusing for anyone unfamiliar with the area. Also, the vast size of the entire resort discourages visitors from making the trek to other destinations. All of these factors and more were put into place to psychologically influence Guests’ decisions to stay. Also, it influence future behaviors of children by providing them with models of how to act, and showing them that methods of learning at Disney parks are much more entertaining than those at a museum. These fond memories can encourage children to want to return, as well as bring their own children in the future.
Disney always strives to create characters that people can personally identify with. The characters also psychologically influence us to act a certain way or follow their examples in the Disney theme parks. The main characters in Disney films typically play by the rules, don’t cause much trouble, and are kind. The company hopes that these characters’ traits will encourage people to behave in a similar way in the theme parks and the real world, and it often works. What causes people to take cues on how to act from animated characters? It all starts with the character’s design. Facial features of Disney characters are designed to create an emotional reaction in people. A study showed that different facial features will lead to emotional appeal and connection, and Disney chooses the features that will get the biggest reaction. The characters’ appearances hold a psychological appeal that is often unrealized by the audience, and their looks are designed to either attract or repel viewers. For example, Disney villains are generally regarded as evil, mischievous people. Disney hopes that the mistakes of the villains will persuade Guests to not commit crimes or harm others. This is done by sometimes over exaggerating what the villain did wrong and the consequences they will now be forced to deal with. Disney has studied different facial features and personality traits to find ones that will make people emotionally attached to that character or movie.When people are in the theme parks and they see that character, it psychologically links all of those emotions directed towards the character to your experience at Walt Disney World or Disneyland. Now, you feel the same emotions for the theme parks and a new, stronger connection is established.
The effects of visiting a Disney theme park are evident worldwide. The ideals that the company was built on constantly resonate with thousands with their own dreams. If one man had an impossible dream that came true, why can’t theirs? The theme park environments cause aspiring individuals like this to have hope and believe. Every day, children are experienced to Walt Disney World for the first time, and carry its lessons and new emotional bonds home with them. Adults who think they are too old for the magic are swept up in it every single day of the year. Disney theme parks have made people happier, more thankful and full of life, and allowed them to create irreplaceable memories. Perhaps the reason why Disney is regarded so highly by so many people is the fact that it is a “reservoir of positive emotions.” Nothing quite captures the best times of our lives like Disney theme parks, and visitors don’t ever forget that. I’ve experienced this myself, and it truly is one of the most amazing places. It stirs up emotions and thoughts that you never knew you had, and those feelings don’t subside when you leave the property. Disney has created an empire that has successfully connected with millions of people on psychological and emotional levels, and it will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
One gap that I found in my research was that there were no articles I found that talked about people’s feeling towards Walt Disney World many years after their visit. In the articles I read, the people all had positive experiences. These experiences seemed to make them overall happier people, but the literature did not describe how long these feelings lasted. Further research might reveal the stories of people who visited the Disney parks and had the positive effects stay with them for many years after.
What/how does the average visitor feel towards Walt Disney World a few years after their visit?
My study for my research project will be collecting qualitative data. I would like to know what the people surveyed have felt years after a Walt Disney World vacation. This data could be used to back up the opinions about long and short-term emotional and psychological effects that I found in the literature. The literature I will be basing this on are Lauren H Berg’s (Berg, Lauren H. When You Wish Upon a Star: The Economical and Psychological Effects Surrounding Walt Disney World. 1-8. Print.) and Tiffani A. Cosson’s (Cosson, Tiffani A. "Perceptions of Walt Disney World: Antecedents To Return Visits." Coastal.edu. Coastal Carolina University. Web) articles. I’m interested to see if the opinions from the survey differ or if they are the same as those of the authors. Because of this, I will only be surveying people that have been to Walt Disney World at some point recently in their lives.
For my research process, I will be collecting qualitative data on a survey. I am going to use a series of statements as my questions and ask people to rate how they feel about them on a scale of 1 to 5. (Strongly Disagree-Strongly Agree) They will then leave their answer as a tally mark underneath the number of their choice. I’m going to ask only a few people for their opinions on this topic, to keep the survey brief and as accurate as possible. The group of people will consist of varying ages that have all been to Walt Disney World at least five years ago, but are old enough to remember the trip.
In my survey, I was hoping to discover what people felt towards Walt Disney World in the years since their last visit. I was curious to see if it would disagree with the opinions in the literature that I found, also. According to the survey, visitors to Walt Disney World still feel very positive and attached to the parks after their visits. Their memories still bring back happiness, and they feel affected emotionally and/or psychologically. They also seem to agree that they would return to the parks solely based on their feelings and memories towards them. Further questioning revealed that they are still just as excited about Walt Disney World now as they were the day they came back from vacation, with fond recent memories still in their minds. Also, they stated that their positive feelings towards Walt Disney World have not diminished over the years, and the psychological and emotional effects have not faded away. In conclusion, it is almost a completely unanimous decision that the effects a Walt Disney World vacation has on visitors do not ever truly leave them, and the literature I have found agrees with this.
Through literature and conducting my own research, I have come to the conclusion that Walt Disney World can have some amazing effects on people of all ages and backgrounds. Some of it is due to Disney's manipulation and controlling of their theme parks, and their clever marketing initiatives. These tricks appeal to our senses and leave us with an unexplainable, intangible connection to the parks. Some of it is due to the connections to the brand that are formed during childhood and continue to reach us in some aspect of our lives. However, the majority is due to the opportunities Walt Disney World presents people with. It is an opportunity to reconnect with family and friends, and a chance to meet new people from around the world. It is a chance for happiness and freedom and being able to forget your worries. Its message has resonated for generations and will continue to. This is why the research matters; these factors that are influencing visitors to Walt Disney World will keep being passed on and introduced. That is why it is critical that they are understood; future research should focus on defining that "intangible" aspect of Walt Disney World and put it into words. What is it, exactly, and how does it work? Is it based on our own personal feelings and thoughts, or is it something more complicated created by Disney in their environments? It will be interesting to see how Walt Disney World's effects are passed on to the next generations, and if their magnitude will ever be truly understood.
Borrie, W.T. (1999). “Disneyland and Disney World: Designing and prescribing the recreational experience.” Loisir et societe / Society and Leisure, 22(1), 71-82.
Berg, Lauren H. When You Wish Upon a Star: The Economical and Psychological Effects Surrounding Walt Disney World. 1-8. Print.
Woods, Vanessa. Why Lines for Disney Rides Are 'Magic' (Op-Ed). Duke University: LiveScience, 2013. Print.
Toschi, Angelique. "Disney's Positive Effect on Society." California State University Fullerton, 27 Apr. 2009. Web. 13 Nov. 2014.
Hetter, Katia. "To Disney or Not to Disney?" CNN.com. CNN, 22 Mar. 2013. Web.
Cosson, Tiffani A. "Perceptions of Walt Disney World: Antecedents To Return Visits." Coastal.edu. Coastal Carolina University. Web.
Seipel, Brooke. The Psychology of Disney. Azusa Pacific U, 2013. Print.