CultureDevelopmentDisneyInnovationProcessProduct ManagementSaeedSales

Disneyland knows Product Management

By Saeed Khan


A couple of years ago, when we were still living in the SF Bay Area, we took a family holiday down to Southern California. The objective was to hit the theme parks, see the sights etc. Pretty typical stuff.

We first drove down to San Diego and went to SeaWorld and the San Diego Zoo. The zoo was pretty good and lived up to expectations. We liked the cable car ride over the zoo. It’s always nice to get up over the trees and see the world from another perspective.

The animal displays and pens were quite varied and certainly much better than the rather dated looking San Francisco zoo. But in the end it was still a zoo: pretty good but not really distinguished from any competing zoos.

shamu.gif SeaWorld and destroying the illusion

The next day, we went to Sea World. Sea World is a bit of a strange place to be honest. From a positioning perspective, it’s part aquatic zoo, part educational institute and part theme park, but not exactly any of them. Schizophrenic is the term I would use.

SeaWorld started out as an attraction displaying marine mammals (sea lions, dolphins, killer whales etc.) performing various tricks. As the years went by, rides and other attractions were added to keep the people interested and occupied. There are only so many times people are willing to pay money to watch a killer whale perform a backflip!

From a product positioning perspective, this schizophrenia is troublesome.

During our day there, we attended the almost obligatory show featuring Shamu the killer whale. One thing that really annoyed me though, was that just before the show started, a brief video came on, featuring August A. Busch IV, welcoming everyone to the park and, in particular welcoming all the military families (San Diego is the home of the largest US Naval base on the West Coast) and acknowledging their sacrifice.

August A. Busch IV is the President and CEO, of Anheuser-Busch, Inc., the parent company of the SeaWorld and Busch Gardens theme parks.

Now, what was my problem? I’m on holidays with my family. I’m looking to remove myself from certain realities of the world and enjoy some time off. The last thing I want is to hear is a corporate/political pitch by some CEO who I’ve never heard of. Seriously…it completely removed any vacation context from my mind.

But then, given the schizophrenic nature of SeaWorld’s positioning, it should have been expected.


Disneyland and Parking Efficiency

Next we went to Disneyland in Anaheim. We had bought three day passes for the family. Possibly overkill, but we wanted to take our time in the park.

So, why does Disneyland understand Product Management? Well comparing Disneyland with both the San Diego Zoo and SeaWorld, there were a number of clear differences, starting from the moment we entered the grounds.

First of all, strange as it sounds, I can’t sing enough praises about the parking garage at Disneyland. Yes, you read that right. Disney has made even the mundane task of parking, ruthlessly efficient. Disney staff direct incoming vehicles into successive rows of empty parking spots. Contrast this to other parks, where, like in a shopping mall, you hunt up and down rows for an open spot.

After the parking lot, the tram ride into the theme park itself, helps put people into the right “Disney” frame of mind so that once they enter the park, they are ready to start enjoying the experience. And experience is the right word.

Once inside the park, there is no reference to the external world: no CEO videos, no newspapers, no CNN news feeds, nothing. The park staff are all in costume, down to the clean up crews, who do their jobs efficiently and unobtrusively.

Aside from the rides, the various characters that stroll around the park were interesting. Most, like Mickey, don’t talk. Some, like the green toy soldiers from Toy Story, don’t simply stroll, but enact certain behaviours that we’d expect of them. The soldiers, for example, move around the park in small groups, skulking from small building to small building, trying to hide from unseen enemy eyes.


Characters who maintain the illusion

My favorite character though, had to be the evil queen from Snow White. No fake smiles here. She kept a scowl on her face from the moment we encountered her. Yes, she took pictures with the kids, but not without throwing out a a few evil comments about princesses and dwarves. I think she’d give the CrankyPM a run for her money!

There were many other memorable things about the time we spent at Disneyland such as the evening fireworks and the truly unique Fantasmic show. But from a Product Management perspective, what I liked about their product was that it delivered on their promise, in an engaging, consistent, and satisfying way.

From installation (the parking lot), throughout the product usage lifecycle (3 days) and to the uninstall (back to the parking garage) we really enjoyed our time there. I’m not a big Disney booster (ask my wife), nor do I hold Disney stock, but the trip exceeded my expectations and despite the premium price over other parks, delivered real value. We won’t go back to SeaWorld or visit Busch Gardens, but will definitely go back to Disney theme parks.

I wrote a while back about a great experience with the premium-priced Dyson vacuum cleaner. In that post, I said:

…when you build a superior product that turns a dowdy market-segment into one where customers rave about the product to their friends, you deserve success.

Now, I wouldn’t call theme parks “dowdy”, but I’ve never heard of too many people rave about SeaWorld. And I’ve been to other theme parks (Great America, Canada’s Wonderland) and neither provide the real experience that Disney does.

It’s more than simply positioning and consistency. It’s an end-to-end attention to detail, to really understand the needs of the target audience, and fulfill those needs as best as possible that makes a product successful.

And it’s not simply about having efficient parking lots and lack of external interruptions. Those are necessary in this case, but not sufficient.

It’s about defining a culture of customer focus throughout the organization, and ensuring that every customer interaction lives up to a standard that beats your competition. If you can do that, not only can you charge a premium price for your product, but you’ll develop incredible customer loyalty as well.

The technology industry could learn a lot from Disney.


  1. Christine

    I went to DisneyWorld in 2000 and had a very similar experience to yours, Saeed. My husband and I went with extremely low expectations. We thought the experience may be really cheesey and feared being over-marketed to. To the contrary, from the moment we checked into the Disney resort to the moment we left (5 days later!), we were astounded by how well Disney markets to every possible market segment. For every demographic/psychographic that could possibly visit Disney, there is something to amuse and entertain.

    Visiting Disney is a living product management case study.

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