The Disney Theme Park Model as User Experience

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Walt Disney has been praised as an innovator of popular entertainment time and again—first with the mass production of animated shorts, then advances in synchronized sound, then the debut of the full-color, feature-length animated film. Yet his spatial experiments have proved to be even more forward-thinking. Well before the game engine, virtual reality, or now the metaverse, Walt Disney was the first to conceive of the built environment as a kind of software. He viewed his Disneyland park as an experiential laboratory that was pliable and mutable. This sui generis theme park was his sandbox, explicitly designed to be updated. Partly this was for his own creative urges, as he found the finite nature of film frustrating. But he was also deeply invested in what he saw as his relationship with Disneyland’s audience—not as a motion picture showman, but rather as a host looking after his guests. This theatrical vocabulary, in which staff are cast members and rides are attractions, has since proliferated throughout the hospitality industry. Walt Disney’s concern for his guests was ahead of its time and not unlike current trends in user-centered design, user experience (UX) design, and design empathy. This article suggests that by considering the Disney theme park model as a user interface delivering a user experience, iterated across the globe, we can think about architecture as experience design and bring fresh, user-centered approaches to the built environment.