You probably think of Disneyland as a tourist trap. Which it is. But unless you’re part of a rather…unique…subset of humanity, you likely have no idea that Disneyland’s main customer base is actually local — SoCal residents who hold Annual Passes and come several times a year.
What’s more, although this sounds insane, there are forums full of hardcore Disneyphiles who visit the park several times a week — sometimes popping in just to sit on a bench in Main Street and watch people go by.
That’s loyalty so impressive it may actually deserve another name altogether…especially since there are plenty of other things to do in California. How does Disney do it? And how can we apply these lessons to our own businesses?
Here are four major strategies worth thinking about:
1. All theming, all the time
If you take away the theming, there’s nothing particularly special about Disneyland’s rides. Tame roller coasters, generic log flumes, perfectly ordinary carousels—off-the-shelf mid-range rides you could go on at any theme park. In fact, several nearby parks have far more extreme and exciting rides.
The thing is, Disney’s theming isn’t just slapping a few cartoon animals on the sides of rides. It’s immersive, complete and, in its own cheesier-than-France way, kind of classy.
It makes sure its Fantasyland cast members don’t wander through Frontierland dressed in costumes with the wrong theming. It pumps out scents for each ride—brine for Pirates of the Caribbean, honey for Winnie-the-Pooh, and a cold, musty smell for the Haunted Mansion. The carparks aren’t called A, B and C—instead there’s Pumba Parking, the Mickey and Friends Parking Structure, and Toy Story Parking.
Similarly, the “business” areas of Disneyland like loading zones or cleaning cupboards are cleverly hidden in “offstage” areas. Cast members are strictly forbidden to “remove their heads” in view of any guests (children or adults). And of course, two Mickeys are ever allowed to be in view at once, because there’s only one Mickey Mouse…
Even tiny details like the autographs characters give out are exactingly themed. Actors must learn to replicate the signature of their character; a Belle signature in Disneyland should look identical to a Belle signature in Disneyworld Tokyo six years later.
The immersive element is pervasive. Even the doorknobs and cutlery contain the iconic Mickey-head shape—just in case you forget you’re in Disneyland.
How to apply this to your business
If you have a “voice”, make sure it’s present throughout your entire business. Your persona should be reflected in your choice of typography, your about page, your on-hold music, even your 404 errors. When a customer visits your site, he should always be aware he is on your site. If you’re using a humorous, wisecracking tone through most of your website, don’t switch to bland corporate-speak in your terms and conditions or contact form. People tend to buy who you are, not what you do—so give them as many chances as possible to get to know who you are. Everywhere.
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In a similar vein, a lot of Disney’s most loyal customers don’t show up for the rides themselves. Not for the mechanics, anyway. Increased G-forces and mild nausea don’t inspire that kind of fanaticism—and as I’ve said, there are more extreme places just around the corner anyway.
Rather, fans keep coming back because there’s always more to see. Disney’s motto isn’t “Lots of Rides”—it’s “The Happiest Place on Earth”. And Disney maintains constant interest by making sure there’s always something else to notice.
Interesting, interactive queueing areas for the rides.
Sporadic “spontaneous” performances by Mary Poppins or Alice and the Mad Hatter at various times of day.
Rides like the Jungle Cruise that are strikingly different at night.
Holiday theming. Different fireworks displays. “Limited-time only” eatables.
How to apply this to your business
If you want people coming back—and you definitely do, because that’s where you make most of your money—then you need to provide more than just a bare-bones service. Disneyland is more than a place to be strapped into a chair and flung around; and your business should be more than the mechanics of what you do. If you specialize in birthday cakes, don’t just gear your website to selling birthday cakes—gear it to making birthday-cake selection the most fun, engaging, stress-free experience your customer has ever had. Develop an autoresponder sequence that immerses your customers in the story of how their cakes are made, and why you put so much love into them. Find ways to be far more than just a birthday-cake maker.
3. Everyone’s a princess
A number of Disney films are about being a special and unique snowflake. And astonishingly, despite the positively enormous numbers of people churning through the gates each day, Disney staff actually do treat their guests like snowflakes.
Cast members give children badges and balloons at random; princesses stop to greet little girls dressed in princess gear; guests are allowed to “captain” the Jungle Cruise or Mark Twain Riverboat.
Disney is famous for being especially considerate to guests with disabilities, ranging from claustrophobia to autism—and it’s scrupulous about accommodating food allergies. The perpetually bubbly staff do their best to make sure every guest feels special.
Artificial, contrived and cynical? Possibly—but people keep coming back.
How to apply this in your business
Seriously, do I need to explain this?
Customer service of any positive kind is a surprisingly rare phenomenon in today’s world. Just try ringing your internet service provider or getting someone on the phone to fix your printer if you don’t believe me. But as pleasing and unexpected as good customer service is, great customer service will truly cement customer loyalty.
4. Mining the mythos
In general, Disneyland hides its “seams”. Trees that need cutting down are switched during the night with fully-grown replacements from Disney’s nursery. Cleaners are inconspicuous. Staff areas are hidden underground or painted “no-see-um” green and shrouded in foliage.
But Disneyland is also very blatant about acknowledging itself and its creator—in a sense, Disneyland’s greatest product is its own mythology. The running of the park may be too vulgar for the public eye, but the story of the park is trumpeted everywhere.
Of course, all Disney parks draw on the enormous popularity of the movies and music. But Disneyland has more than that. It’s the original, the “historical” Disney—the only park planned and lived in by Walt himself. And it blatantly rides on that.
Hordes of guests are guided through Walt Disney’s hidden Main Street apartment (in which a light is always kept symbolically burning). The names of the Imagineers are featured on the shop windows of Main Street. The Lily Belle, a train-car designed for Walt’s wife, is a major photo-op attraction; as is the sentimental “Partners” statue of Walt and Mickey.
And Disney never lets anyone forget its past successes. Its parades are a constant triumph of its classics—in fact, it has reached the point where it can simply manufacture classics, labeling them as such before they’ve even come out on DVD. When Tiana and Rapunzel were inaugurated into Disney’s official princess lineup, the marketing made it a quasi-historical occasion—and thousands upon thousands of loyal customers showed up.
It works so well that a few years back people were shelling out $150 to have their names immortalised on a brick paver laid in the “Walk of Magical Memories” between Disneyland and DCA (for a minimum of one year, liable to be torn up at any time, brick remaining the property of Disney!) Why would anyone feel the need to buy pavers for a multimillion-dollar company…unless to felt they were part of something grand, historical and exciting?
How to apply this in your own business
Chances are you don’t have a shareholder’s stake in childhood the way Disney does. But you can still draw on the mythos of your own life or company—or failing that, life in general—to appeal to customers.
For instance, anyone selling candles can paint a word picture of humans flirting, grieving, dining and sewing by candlelight over millennia of human history. Or you can create interesting personas that people want to identify with (witness the recent success of the All Spice Man and the Most Interesting Man in the World). Even just having and telling the story of why you do what you do can be a powerful way of developing customer loyalty.
What strategies do you use?
Do you use any of these powerful methods for building fans? Or have you discovered your own? Share your approach below.