If you set out to entertain families, you have an inherent challenge in front of you. Successful family entertainment has to appeal not just to one one person, but a group of distinct individuals. In the average family, you have several demographic and psychographic divides to bridge: males and females, age groups ranging from grandpas and grandmas (or great grandpas and great grandmas) to newborns, different education levels, different areas of interest, different levels of patience, different tastes in humor, different thresholds for motion sickness. The question, if you set out to keep a family happy, is how do you possibly keep everyone happy at the same time?
Everybody Laughs..Just at Different Jokes
Walt knew this. It was the challenge that led to the birth of Disneyland. Keeping both adults and children happy in a film or TV show is relatively simple. Early on, producers of successful family entertainment, including Disney, Warner Brothers and Hanna Barbera learned the importance of a multi-level story line. At one level, popular cartoons would entertain children with colors, actions, pratfalls and simple humor. But writers also weaved references into the storyline that would be picked up on by adult viewers. These included pop culture references, double entendres and more sophisticated verbal gags. The device worked well, endearing Fred Flintstone, Bugs Bunny and Donald Duck not just to one generation at a time, but several. The fact that TV and film offered not just video but also an audio track allowed the creators to use the two to appeal to two audiences at once. When the kids were being entertained by the visuals, the adults could catch the more subtle references in the dialogue.
The Secret of Happy Families
But how do you maintain this multilevel appeal when you move beyond the two dimension world of TV or film to the fully immersive experience of a visit to a Disney park? Disney wanted to create an experience where both parents and children could be entertained simultaneously. First of all, the parks had to be immaculate. While children may be more tolerant of a little dirt and crease, nothing makes a parent’s stomach turn faster than the unsavory environment of the typical amusement park. Visions of weird infections, salmonella and just genera ickyness leap immediately to mind. If parent’s were to relax in a Disney amusement park, Walk knew it had to be spotless.
In the last post, I also talked about attention to detail. This becomes more important to the experience as you get older. Your appreciate the care that has gone into the engineering of your experience. It provides a sense of value for your admission price. Kids are plugged more viscerally into the thrill, the excitement and the magic of Disney. They suspend belief easier. We adults tend to be more skeptical, which makes us appreciate the lengths that Disney is willing to go to to maintain the illusion.
A Restroom around Every Corner
But perhaps the biggest reason is that it seems Disney has gone to great lengths to anticipate the needs of a family. It’s uncanny how, just when you start thinking you might need something, it magically appears around the next corner. Washrooms, food booths, sit down restaurants, benches for resting, stroller drop off areas – all these seem to be seamlessly and conveniently integrated into the experience. Yes, a day at Disneyland or Disneyworld can be gruelling for even the most diehard fans, with plenty of highs and lows, but it seems that just when frustration seems to mount to dangerous points, relief is close at hand.
I remember one summer visit during an exceptionally busy long weekend. We were heading out of the park and our nerves were frazzled. Yet, I was told we had to make one more stop on Main Street to pick up a souvenir in one of the shops. While not thrilled at the prospect (getting the hell of there was my primary goal) the day was redeemed by an exceptionally friendly Disney employee who managed to bring the smile back to our faces. And that, perhaps more than anything, is the Disney secret of simultaneous satisfaction. Rather than the bored, vacant expression that’s commonly found on staff faces at the competition (Universal is particularly notorious for this) it seems that everyone at Disneyland is genuinely happy you’re there. Disney people are awesome, but that’s actually one of the 10 Things I learned from Disney, so more on that in a future post.
We’re Only as Happy as the Group We’re In
To wrap up this post, let me touch on some reasons why simultaneous satisfaction is so important if you’re targeting customers in groups rather than as individuals. Perhaps the best way to illustrate this is with an example. Restaurants are another business that typically targets groups. Think about what happens if just one person in the group has a substandard experience. You talk about it. And suddenly, even if your experience was fine, you become dissatisfied. Our opinions about joint experiences are formed as part of the group. We defer to the decision of the majority, and typically, the consensus will sink to the level of the least satisfactory experience.
The other reason why group experiences are so important can be found in the way they’re recalled. Daniel Kahneman had an interesting presentation at the last TED conference about experiential vs remembered happiness. This is one of the little illogical quirks of humans. We make future decisions based not on how happy we were experiencing the actual event, but on how happy we remember being. This is critically important when we look at the group dynamic I just described in the restaurant. If we go to Disneyland as a group, we will also tend to remember our experiences when we’re with the same group. And, as we relive our remembered experience, our happiness level will sink to the lowest level of the group. If not everyone was happy, no one will be happy.
There’s a flip side to this as well. If we were all generally happy (the little annoyances tend to fade with time) the nostalgia effect tends to boost and sharpen the level of actual experience. We remember good things as great. I’m not sure Walt knew the psychology of simultaneous satisfaction when he insisted that Disneyland would be a place where both parents and children could all be happy at the same time, but it’s worked out pretty well for him.