Last year, we took our kids to DisneyLand.  As someone interested in User Experience, I was just about as eager to go as the kids — after all, who does UX better than Disney?

Overall, it was a great time.  We had what I'd imagine to be the quintessential Disney experience…  The kids loved it, we survived, wallets were emptied.  However, all is not perfect in mouse land.  What I found surprised me a little bit.  After hearing about how "everyone is a cast member" and the amazing lengths Disney takes to project their ideal image, I saw things that surprised me.

At the hotel, the Grand Californian, we had a great check-in experience.  Very well-organized and clearly designed to move large numbers of people through the check-in process as efficiently as possible.  But they also too this efficiency a bit too far in one instance.  

On the first morning of our trip, we came back to our room between breakfast and braving the line in the actual park.  Walking down the narrow halls of the hotel, I saw basket after basket of linens and towels sitting on the ground next to hotel doors.  Clearly this is and efficient method for servicing the rooms — person A quickly drops off all linens, person B cleans the room without having to maneuver a cart around.  Here's the problem, the same narrow halls that might make it problematic for housekeeping to move a cart through the halls also make it tough for guest to navigate two small kids (plus backpacks, etc) through the hall.  It also breaks the whole "National Parks lodge" feeling that they are trying to replicate and makes it feel more like an assembly line.  I don't have a great answer for this one, but to me it felt like Disney chose to sacrifice customer experience for efficiency.  A valid choice, but maybe not one I would have made.

A bit later, as we were nearing the front of one of the countless lines, I got the inevitable "I need to use the bathroom" from one of my children.  Out of the line, off to the bathroom we go.  We used the facilities and were preparing to wash our hands when something odd struck me…  At a place where it's really all about the kids, where each experience is carefully crafted, where everything is considered — the washbasins were set too far back in the counters for a four-year old to reach them without being lifted up.  The adults had no problems but the kids?  They were out of luck.  Sure, it's a minor inconvenience in the overall scheme of things but compare this to the experience at some store like Whole Foods.  

At our local Whole Foods, the counters are the same height and the sinks are set back at a normal distance, but they have placed a small retractable step underneath each counter.  Pull it down with your foot, the child steps up, uses the sink, steps down, and the step retracts.  Brilliant.  This is what I would have expected to see at Disney more so than a grocery store.  The Disney situation felt like it was designed, though I'm sure with great care, by an adult using an adult perspective.  If that adult had considered the problem from the perspective of a small child, I'm sure they would have seen and addressed the issue.  But they didn't.

Food time…  What are you going to do?  Leave the park and try to find reasonably priced food somewhere in Anaheim?  No.  You're going to find food in the park, pay quite a bit for it.  And be happy about it.  So at lunchtime we sought out and found a deli-type restaurant that looked pretty good (and honestly, the prices weren't too bad and the food wasn't horrible) and made our selections.  Here's where the user experience broke down again.  Many — not all but many — of the employees (sorry, cast members) in the restaurant seemed really annoyed to be serving customers.  No smiles, no "how can I help you's", just emotionless slapping of orders on plates.  I know that they serve many, many people each day.  I know that this is not a job I would want (or could probably even do very well), but this isn't Bob's House-O-Meat.  This is DISNEY.  You are a "cast member."  The simple lack of a smile and basic friendliness caused the entire Disney cloud of magic to dissipate for that 45 minutes in the restaurant.  Probably not what Disney had intended.

We had a great time.  The kids loved it, we loved it, and we'll likely go back some day.  But it struck me how easily the UX veil can be pierced by a few small items that may have been simply overlooked.  It struck me that large amounts of time and money devoted to a UX effort can be undone quickly and easily.  Sometimes it's the little things that make all the difference.