“Disneyland will never be completed. It will continue to grow as long as there is imagination left in the world”. Imagination remains, but the world as Walt knew it then— as a purely physical experience — has changed. The walled garden of Disneyland was once one of the only ways to step out of reality and into fantasy. Today it’s one of many. If it’s a rather large, multi-faceted world after all, where does Disneyland fit?
I wasn’t allowed Disney as a child. My overtly leftie parents raised me, instead, on a diet of 1940’s musicals and a couple of VHS tapes of The Muppet Show. Rachel Mercer (rachelmercer), on the other hand, was a frequent “imagineer” at the happiest place on earth, watching all the films and visiting the parks across America. So, our planned descension on Disneyland Paris last week was nothing if not ultimate proof that strategists are born, not made.
If Cuba is brand free (for now), Disneyland is brand everything. All logo, all vision, all mission, all the time. In song. From the moment you step through the gates, no detail is overlooked, nor sales opportunity missed. After 36 hours in deep immersion (including two nights in the ‘palace’, fifteen rides across both parks, and one “dinner and show” with Micky, Minnie and some rather un-PC cowboys and ‘indians’) I was left totally overstimulated, but fundamentally impressed.
Disney win in three areas: Consistency, storytelling, and democracy. Starting with the former, Disney are the absolute, borderline OCD, king of brand consistency across touchpoints. If they can put a pair of mouse ears on it and sprinkle it with magic fairy dust, they will. From bathroom toiletries and carpet patterns, to doughnuts, weddings, apps, and cruises, what Disney lacks in subtlety, it more than makes up for in enthusiasm. This is a brand you don’t just experience, you live. Secondly, we’ve got to give them storytelling. Apart from the obvious (the films and animations that underpin the whole thing), Disney tell stories with architecture (palaces, olde timey saloons, and Bibbidy Bobbidy Boutiques) and people (even non-characters such as park staff were in full, smiley Disney mode). Again, it’s impossible not to fall into it all and believe.
Lastly, and the most surprising to me, was the democracy going on at Disneyland. Rachel told me that Walt Disney (for all his anti-semitism and racism), wanted Disneyland to be for everyone. Noone gets priority, everyone gets to be a Princess (or Prince). And it was. All ages, races, abilities, and backgrounds were there. I saw cute teens on dates, posh grandparents in furs, and vast, multi-generational families all queueing calmly for rides. And we were there too — pals looking for a bit of respite from the city grind. Disney means something to everyone and is loved. Kids love it for what it is today, and everyone else loves it for what it was to them as kids. Even I cling on to the happy memory of sneaking in a full watch of Aladdin at a friend’s house. Disneyland is where all those memories and happy thoughts come to life and are renewed. How many brands deliver that?!
But I saw a crack. Not Tigger with his head off, but a small innocent child. This child sat between her parents in the front seat of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. While her parents looked around and pointed at things, she was looking at an iPhone. Transfixed by the screen, this little girl was in a magic, fantasy land of her own. Disney had faded into the background — just another emission from the dull, physical world to tune out in favour of a digital one. And then I wondered about another crack. Maybe this girl didn’t want to be a Princess? Maybe her parents would raise her to be powerful and independent, so she’d want to be a President or a physician. Maybe she’d imagineer about engineering. As animatronics danced, and lights dazzled me, I realised I was in an ancient land. This was a land imploding beneath its own promise — a lack of imagination about imagination itself.
If you invented Disneyland today, I don’t think it would be what I found in France last week. With “the happiest place on earth” as a brief, and a target audience of today’s Gen Z’s and their families, you’re not going to arrive at 3 hour queues, explicit commercialism, unhealthy eating options and gendered stereotypes. Magic today lives in cutting-edge technology (like VR and AI), unexpected moments of delight (like Punchdrunk’s immersive theatre), and totally unique and personalised experiences (like Lost my Name and SoulCycle). There is limitless imagination left in the world, it’s just not at Disneyland. It’s time for them to go back to the bare necessities. It’s time to see an elephant fly.