Site Visit: Capturing the magic at Walt Disney World

Cinderella’s Castle at the Magic Kingdom has been decked out in 50th anniversary regalia.
Cinderella’s Castle at the Magic Kingdom has been decked out in 50th anniversary regalia.

Walt Disney World kicked off its 50th anniversary celebration Oct. 1, starting an 18-month-long party with spectacular new fireworks shows and imaginative anniversary activations. The team at Disney Meetings & Events recently invited ConventionSouth to take a peek at the anniversary preparations underway and check out what’s new at the parks. While we were there, we noticed several creative strategies for enhancing the attendee experience that apply to all kinds of events. Here are our top six takeaways.

Keep people moving

When COVID hit, Disney shelved its FastPass system, which allowed every patron to select three rides, in advance, where they could skip the long lines. FastPasses are coming back this fall, this time as a $15 per day add-on called Disney Genie+ that will allow visitors to use a “Lightning Lane” on one ride at a time throughout the day.

When we visited the parks, there was no way to circumvent lines that seemed to stretch to infinity (…and beyond). However, we were pleasantly surprised to find that the lines moved at a healthy pace; we spent more time walking (really walking, not just shuffling along) than standing.

This was partly because, in response to COVID, park administrators had closed off some of the winding line configurations that bunched people up together, instead spreading guests out in straight lines. This made the lines seem longer than they really were, and it kept them moving faster. Additionally, the ride designs helped keep people moving. Some rides don’t actually stop when people get on and off; they just slow to a crawl. Many also have separate areas for boarding and exiting, so there’s no bottleneck when people switch over.

The takeaway: Managing wait times can make all the difference between happy crowds and anxious ones. When planning your events, ask yourself: Do you have enough kiosks at registration? Did you charter enough buses? Can people fill out forms before they arrive? Is there anything you can adjust in your run of show to smooth out kinks in the program?

Keep people engaged while they wait

Even if lines are moving along, it may be a while before you get to the front of the pack. When guests are standing in line, there’s always something to look at, from the crumbling Art Deco hotel grounds at the Tower of Terror to siamang gibbons monkeying around in the distance at Animal Kingdom. There are layers upon layers of detail, down to the patterns etched into the concrete walkways, and noticing the little things helps make the time fly.

Disney recently added another level of wait-time engagement with the launch of its “Play Disney Parks” app, which allows guests to pass the time through immersive activations and trivia, including specific location-based games for whichever line they happen to be in.

The takeaway:  If event participants are going to have to wait, improve the experience by booking entertainment or adding gamification.

Gran Destino Tower at Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort. Opened in 2019, the tower is one of the newest accommodations at Walt Disney World.
Gran Destino Tower at Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort. Opened in 2019, the tower is one of the newest accommodations at Walt Disney World.

Be accessible

At Magic Kingdom, when we popped into a gift shop to buy souvenirs and enjoy a few blessed air-conditioned minutes, we spotted a sign above a rack of costumes listing the outfits’ adaptable features. The costumes included details such as stretch fabric that opened in the back for wheelchair-friendly wear and a flap opening for tube access.

These kinds of accessibility features are ubiquitous at the parks. Rides include clearly marked disability access; menus have allergy-friendly options; and scooter, wheelchair, and stroller rentals are readily available.

The takeaway: Accessibility features can be incorporated in myriad ways, and attention to detail can make all the difference in the world to attendees who need specific accommodations.

Acknowledge problems quickly

Sometimes, rides stop. That may be because of a mechanical issue, but it could also be because someone needs extra time to get into or out of a ride. The WDW team has engineered rides to play a themed message the moment a ride slides to a halt. At the Little Mermaid ride, it’s the Caribbean crab Sebastian whose voice comes over the airwaves; at The Haunted Mansion, a spooky ghost murmurs to the crowd.

The message acknowledges that the ride has stopped and promises that it will resume ASAP. Typically, the stops only last a moment or two, but even during those brief moments it helps to know that the team is on top of it.

The takeaway: When problems arise, put attendees at ease by validating their experience and letting them know you’re working on a solution.

Innovate constantly

Several new rides at Walt Disney World push the envelope in technological creativity and design. At Hollywood Studios, Mickey’s Runaway Railway blurs the line between animation and reality. The conceit of the ride is that guests become part of the cartoon world, and it realizes that vision in stunning fashion. The cars are choreographed to move from room to room without a track, weaving among each other in zany configurations while the surrounding narrative unfolds in a series of neon-colored scenes. As the cars careen along, it becomes impossible to pinpoint what’s animation, what’s animatronic, and what’s sculpture.

Storm Troopers at the Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance experience at Hollywood Studios.
Storm Troopers at the Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance experience at Hollywood Studios.

Inside the Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge attraction, the new Rise of the Resistance experience pushes ride design in other ways—ways I can’t write about without spoiling the effect. Sorry. I can, however, say two things: First, from start to finish, it takes nearly 20 minutes, and every moment is completely immersive. Second, it is worth it to partake in the 7 a.m. virtual queue and lottery system to snag passes onto the insanely popular ride.

The takeaway:  Don’t rest on your laurels. New programming and activities can entice people to keep coming back to an event year after year. Even if you don’t have a Disney-level budget (who does?), find ways to update your event design to keep it fresh.

Remember the little things

Disney sells these balloons that have a colorful Mickey ear balloon inside a big transparent balloon. We bought one for our daughter early in the trip, and on our last day, we brought it with us into Animal Kingdom so it didn’t wilt or pop in the hot car.

We didn’t realize that these balloons aren’t allowed in Animal Kingdom because they pose a risk to the animals. It was okay, though, because at the entrance to the park, Guest Services offered complimentary balloon babysitting.

I’ll say that one more time: Guest Services offered balloon babysitting.

Or balloon check, or a balloon corral, or balloon valet—we couldn’t decide what to call it. Regardless, we checked in the balloon, it was whisked away for safekeeping, and at the end of our visit we handed over our ticket and got our balloon back.

It was a small thing, but to a child, a balloon is a big thing. It was a gesture that kept our day running smoothly, and honestly, it’s one of the things I’ll remember most about this trip.

The takeaway:  Whether you offer a complimentary hotel amenity, a room drop, a conveniently placed charging station, or something as simple as a welcome note, it’s the tiny details that can make attendees feel truly welcome.

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