10 Truths Disneyland’s Creation Story Reveals About Marketing

We’ll get to Disney. But first, we’re going to go off the beaten path, and discuss the magic of buying things.

One of my favorite books is Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping. Yes, it was, in fact, published more than ten years ago. But that’s part of what makes it so amazing.

The premise is that we know very little about what actually leads us to buy something. Sometimes we, as the buyer, don’t even know! Did you really need that tray of cupcakes? Or was it just placed in the perfect eye-level spot; and you had enough room in your basket for it; and your hands weren’t full?

That’s why the author, Paco Underhill, went and watched in malls, grocery stores, and department stores, as customers shopped. And, what’s great about his analysis of physical brick-and-mortar shops, is that I think nearly everything he learned can be applied to our websites. Because websites are actually stores – just online.

So, in the same way that customers walk up and down the aisles of a grocery store in a haphazard fashion until you provide better signage, customers may also stumble throughout your website. Seriously, watch your mom buy something on Amazon sometime. It’s really wild how differently people navigate our online shops.

Let me make sure you’re onboard, with two specific findings from Paco:

  1. Paco found that as people come into your store from a parking lot, they need a landing strip – some time to decompress and get adjusted after their dash from the parking lot. One way stores can solve for this is by placing baskets or seasonal merchandise (pumpkins, etc) right outside their doors or right within their doors (hello Walmart greeters!). This makes people relax right as they cross the store threshold, thus extending its square-footage.
  2. The other insight he had was that the minute you get into a store, no one is ready to admit they: 1. don’t know what they want or 2. that they can’t find it. So when you try to provide maps and directories or help right up front, people walk by it. Furthermore, they tend to navigate towards the side of the road they drive on (so in the US they go right). So, you want to put items they’ll love first on the right.
As people come into your store from a parking lot, they need a landing strip. So start your store earlier by putting baskets right outside your doors. Apply this to online shops by adding a promo banner at the top of your page. Click To Tweet

You could apply these findings to an online shop a number of ways:

  1. When people arrive at your homepage, they need time to adjust. And, something to get them to slow down. This is why top banner promotions, such as Hellobar, tend to actually help increase conversion on a page. Give viewers some breathing room with one continuous image or uncluttered background
  2. And since people don’t know what they want, and aren’t ready to admit it, don’t give the majority of your above-the-fold real-estate over to an empty search bar, like the one on Epicurious, without providing any context. Alternatively, look Google is the king of optimization, and their logo or doodle takes up a good chunk of space before they even let you search despite that being the product they’re known for – because giving some landing space works and people aren’t ready to ask before then! Basically, don’t pop up your chat bot until people have settled in, move your search so it’s not immediate, and put your near the bottom of your homepage.

I could go on, but that’s all a way of saying: because of reading that book, I’m always thinking about how to take ideas from physical spaces and apply them to digital spaces.

Luckily for you, I recently read Disney’s Land, a book about Walt Disney and the invention of the amusement part that changed the world. So, today, I’m going to share some possible takeaways for businesses and digital marketing, that I gleaned from one of the most unique places on earth created by one of the greatest American brands of all time.

Discover 10 marketing insights inspired by the ideation and development of Disneyland:

  1. Exclusive early access
  2. Set up distribution
  3. Be a jack-of-all-trades
  4. Create BOFU content
  5. Study the competition
  6. Consider context
  7. Build relationships
  8. Put service first
  9. Care about details
  10. Believe in your abilities

1. Allow early exclusive access to gauge interest & learn

The Carolwood Pacific

Back in December of 1949, Walt Disney became obsessed with model trains. Specifically, life-size model trains, and laid the first track for a train garden called The Carolwood Pacific, in the backyard of his new house, which would eventually come to feature his prized train Lilly Belle. The muscular Lilly Belle could haul two-thousand pounds and fit eleven people. The garden was immensely popular, and Disney hosted parties for all types of Hollywood people. The train would glide around the track peering down from a berm into what Disney named the Yesdin Valley. By the time the Carolwood Pacific was done, Disney had spent $50,000. But he had basically created a railroad, which he used as an example of what he wanted to do next.

Do a soft launch for a small group of members

Walt basically built a beta group of customers bought into the idea that adults could come together and play, in theme-park like environments. All the while he was able to learn more about the aesthetic he most liked, how to actually create something physical from nothing, discover the people who could help him build a park in the future, and how to entice guests with a compelling offer.

Marketing ideas:

  • Create pre-sales
  • Use beta testers for new feature launches
  • Create limited-time events
  • Miniaturize items your audience uses for work – imagine small ring boxes with a lifelike desk setting tucked inside

Indulge your hobbies – make things!

Walt was able to point at The Carolwood Pacific later to prove his track record, when he went to pitch his vision and secure more funding. So, don’t be afraid to spend time going all in on hobbies. Figure out the smallest tests you can run to prove a larger point.

Marketing ideas:

  • See if there’s any audience overlap between your personal interests and your target audience by checking in Google Analytics
  • Get out from behind a screen and make things: bake, draw, do 3D printing, and see what ideas they spark
  • Hold themed contests to see if you get any user-generated content that sparks new insights

When in doubt, use your name

You might have caught that Yesdin Valley is just Disney spelled backwards. Disney also names his Disneyland workshop WED (his initials) when he’s told he can’t use Disney in its name. Similarly, I was just listening to Diane Von Frustenberg’s design class today, and she suggested young designers just use their name as their brand. So, there you have it from two pros: just use your name simply, or in creative ways (initials or backwards or initials backwards or take the number in the alphabet that your initials appear, so if for example your initials are MM name your company ThirteenThirteen – which is the address Walt gave Disney in honor of mickey mouse) whenever you need one.

Marketing ideas:

  • Use your name for your brand
  • For a product line
  • For a new feature
  • For your Facebook Group, Twitter handle, etc

Gosh, you have to spend money to make money

$50k in 1950s is no joke. (However, later he spends $140 million – in today’s dollar value – on a river!) I get heart palpitations when I spend $50 on a hobby. The point is: it takes a lot of cash to get big things moving. That’s why they say success begets success. So, watch your cash flow (when do you have to deliver the thing vs. when you get paid); it pays to make connections in the hopes of finding friends with cash; and it can take a big investment to kick something off, so don’t be disenchanted if you don’t see immediate results from a small spend.

Marketing ideas:

  • Check payment processing and payout dates on the tools you use like Stripe, Apple Pay, and Paypal
  • Build your network online (LinkedIn) & offline (check Eventbrite & Meetup to find local relevant events)
  • At least once a quarter test a big spend (3x the norm) on a marketing campaign you really believe in, or to create a new marketing tool you can provide to drive organic visitors
Walt Disney spent $50,000 on a train garden in his backyard, The Carolwood Pacific. Click To Tweet

2. Iterate on your idea & find an audience


OK, honestly, this is why I love Walt: he’s as obsessed with dioramas as I am. His next stunt was to try to create a set of miniature dioramas, featuring 24 scenes of life in an old Western town, and send it out as a traveling exhibit he named Disneylandia. Anyhow, he tested the waters by displaying his first scene “Granny Kincaid’s Cabin” at the Festival of California Living in the winter of 1952. Apparently “People would watch and watch. They wouldn’t go away.” Basically, it was a huge success.

Build on elements that work

Walt was getting joy from making physical objects, creating unique lifelike settings, and had trains on the brain. As you find components that work, think about how you could piece them together differently.

Marketing ideas:

  • When you find a CTA that works well, apply it to every page
  • Take your blog posts and turn them into a podcast, which becomes a live TV show
  • Turn your blog posts into books that you list on Amazon, and online courses you teach on SkillShare
  • Make your most popular visuals into stickers and postcards and calendars
  • Make your popular photographs into coffee table books
  • Create a book from a series of emails
  • License your content to other companies

Nail distribution

Making sure your audience is accessible through some channel is critical. Disney tried to figure out how to send the diorama show on the road, landing upon the idea of a twenty-one car train that would park in cities across the country while paying audiences walked through it.

Marketing ideas

  • Build interest-based audiences on channels like Facebook and Pinterest to see if you can even reach enough of the right people, before making any assets
  • Blog hop tours
  • An email “fairytale” drip that depicts a different scene/story in each
  • Online scavenger hunts
  • Geocaching contests
  • A specialized niche event tour in a handful of cities
  • A box similar to an “animal crackers” box that has a scene inside
  • A series of jokes that you reveal once a week
  • Host webinars in movie theaters

Experience the location of your product first-hand

Disney just couldn’t find the right place to have the diorama train. The best he could find was a rail yard in one town and a couple of visits to it gave him a dispiriting vision of children picking their way through a maze of dangerous machinery to get to the exhibit train. He also couldn’t make locations in department stores work, so he decided to “do this thing for real!” Always, experience your product and its placement first-hand: don’t rely on someone else telling you about it.

Get feedback from real people as quickly as you can, but only once the experience is right. Think minimum valuable product, not minimum viable product. Had Walt presented the same dioramas in a bad setting, he would have gotten a bad result. Context is a critical part of your product experience.

Marketing ideas:

  • Watch people use your website
  • Watch people use your competitors’ websites
  • Remove pop-ups from your website because they disrupt the experience so much
  • Go to your top referring sites and navigate to your website right after them to get a feel for the complete experience, to see how you could improve the landing page
  • Remove unnecessary links, images, and spammy comments from every page – aim for 50% white space at least

3. Fill the gaps by picking up new skills

Disneyland amusement park

As Disney tried to bring his first actual Disneyland to life – “the streets and stores from other eras, the parade of Disney characters led by Mickey Mouse, the bright lights, the band playing, the variety of restaurants, the scenes and settings of cartoons to serve as the background for concessions, water rides through enchanted lands, the birds who could sing, four thematic activity areas, the monorail” – he eventually came to realize, after speaking with many people, that what he needed couldn’t be supplied by architects.

Disciplines meet at rough edges

An architect friend told Disney, “No one can design Disneyland for you. You have to do it by yourself.” That is his studio people would have to do it. What Disney sought had more to with movies than with architecture. As a result, Disney continually had to learn totally new things on the fly, to keep everything moving. There’s real career opportunity for people who can effectively bridge gaps between disciplines, and power forward.

Marketing ideas:

  • Build a knee-level understanding of every marketing discipline
  • Take classes, read books, listen to podcasts, stay on top of trends
  • Don’t let problems fester because you’ll always be the tie breaker
  • Approach problems with a growth mindset
  • Spot a repeatable gap and potentially create a new discipline

Own the experience from start to finish

Despite their brief tenure, the architects he had initially hired did make a vital contribution to the park: the supreme importance of having just a single entrance (with that you could control your visitors’ experience beyond it).

Marketing ideas:

  • Cleverly encourage website visitors to close other browsers
  • Block other website pages from being accessed until after they’re logged in (similar to how Pinterest makes you login after scrolling for a little, or how news sites now block you with a paywall)
  • Only allow one entrance to events you hold
An architect friend told Walt Disney, "No one can design Disneyland for you. You have to do it by yourself." Click To Tweet

4. Begin by creating content very tied to the product you want to sell

Disneyland the television program

Walt worked with his brother Roy Disney to get ABC to go in on financially supporting Disneyland as part of them getting access to Disney TV programming. Walt promised “an entirely new concept in television programming with the use of both live action and cartoon techniques in a series of programs based on variety, adventure, romance, and comedy” as part of this brilliantly bundled pitch.

The programming that Walt Disney promised to ABC for their financial backing of Disneyland
Disney’s proposed TV programming

As you can see above his programming was a little…sparse. But, it turns out, selling can be effective when your pitch is a vision of vagaries with relatable themes (stories! the one human connective thread). Shonda Rhimes, for example, shares in her class that she pitches using phrases such as “and then there will be an incredibly funny scene” but doesn’t get specific about how it will be funny or what will be funny because it opens up the door to debate and get lost in the details.

Marketing ideas:

  • Open your sales decks with just imagery
  • Create product packages pairing super popular items with less popular items for a discount
  • Try vaguer copy to increase click through in ads
  • Spend the extra money for a visual solution that’s not stock photos (you can find great illustrators in Paying Jobs Posts groups on Facebook or on Fiverr or Upwork)

Answer the questions people have right before they buy your product

Eventually, before it launched, the TV programming evolved into each week having a different topic, but all the topics would be anchored to the park’s four lands. Basically Walt was creating bottom-of-funnel content for his not-yet open park.

Marketing ideas:

  • Create “cost of” blog posts
  • Create comparison posts of your product vs similar ones
  • Create ways to use your product blog posts
  • Create characters! (Like Microsoft Word’s Clippy but better)

Hinge your content bets

Walt used Tinkerbell to introduce the series, because she was a well-known character, but not part of the most popular group, and also appealed she equally to men and women. So in case the series was a bust, his most successful characters wouldn’t be tainted.

Marketing ideas:

  • Test giving the campaign spot light to one of your lesser known features
  • Send emails to only 5% of your whole list to make sure they’re good/everything is set up OK, before sending to a larger list
  • Create unisex designs / use unisex colors if you want to expand your audience

Use more visuals because they’re incredibly compelling

Similarly Disney used a map he had an animator draw, and a mission statement to sell the vision of the park initially. Rides were subordinate to story and setting both in the actual park, and in his pitch.

Marketing ideas:

  • Create a mission statement for each channel you’re on
  • Capture excellent product photography – invest in professional photographers, models, and lighting
  • Use gifs of using your software products
  • Or use video of your products (video is even allowed in Pinterest marketing pins now)
  • Imagery can’t be an after-thought: it should be the first thought

5. Learn everything you can from your competition

Disneyland the park

Disney and his crew researched by visiting anything comparable to their future park to determine the operations manual (trying to solve things like what should the ratio of women’s to men’s toilets be). They clocked the duration of dark rides, and studied per capita visitor expenditures. They visited Tivoli gardens and amusement parks in Copenhagen looking for a model.

Buzz Price gleaned the most valuable information from the San Diego Zoo which provided a good predictor of market penetration, attendance, and seasonal variation.”

Marketing ideas:

  • Make up your own metrics because what you set as a goal will impact everything you do
  • Clock the time it takes to navigate your purchase flow
  • Clock the time it takes from first interaction to customer support issue actually solved
  • Focus on the time it takes someone to buy their second product
  • Look at not just similar companies, but similar industries when examining the competitive landscape
  • Take things you learn from brands you love, no matter what space they’re in

Be bullish on doing things differently

The reaction from other park owners at the time was that there was no way Disney’s park would work, because there was “not enough ride capacity,” “no proven money makers like ferris wheels,” and “Walt’s screwy ideas about cleanliness and great landscape maintenance were economic suicide.”

Marketing ideas:

  • Close your online shop in the evenings, on weekends if you’re in B2B, or maybe Mondays for B2C, and close on holidays
  • Don’t advertise on every possible channel, only align with the ones that match your values (likely to be a digital marketing trend shortly)
  • Limit your product inventory
  • Don’t provide bags

6. Lead with lofi mock ups, always

Sleeping Beauty’s Castle

Disney insisted they create models of the sleeping beauty castle before making the real thing, as he distrusted blueprints. They can lie he said, and models don’t. And they’ll save you money. “A model may cost $5,000 but it’s sure less expensive than $50,000 to fix the real thing.”

Marketing ideas:

  • Draw prototype sketches on paper for landing pages or infographics, rather than mocking them up in Photoshop
  • Print out web pages on paper to look at them in a new light
  • Always evaluate multiple vendors for a type of tool
  • Invest money in what could pay off in the future, versus always being reactive, but begin with small tests (about 20% of your typical budget)
  • Always send emails to be proofed by your colleagues, same thing with direct mail inserts – get a physical copy before you sign off

Context is king

For the Sleeping Beauty Castle, they tested multiple colors, and Walt picked the one with pastels because it would look better against the blue sky. When designing always keep in mind the context of your design.

Marketing ideas:

  • Use contrasting colors in ads
  • Put the biggest hook in a central place on your website
  • Put your product that most leads to a second purchase on your homepage
  • Create an attraction that can’t be missed, like a content tool or special sale
  • Take the content people already love most and build more out of it – make it into an in-person event, make a poster, make a book.
Disneyland main walk way with Sleeping Beauty's Castle

7. Collect and inspire people

Training Disneyland staff

When the guy who goes on to train Disney’s first set of park staff pitches the executives on his vision for the training, he shares this story:

Two men are laying bricks. somebody asks one of them what he’s doing, and is told “I’m laying bricks.” To the same question, the other man answers, “I’m building a cathedral.”

Give people a mission

Rather than tell people exactly what to do, paint them a picture of where you want to go.

Marketing ideas:

  • Next time you post a job listing really focus on the specific mission and vision
  • Lead with where your product will be a year from now externally, and five years from now when you sell your vision internally
  • Use analogies, especially in presentation decks

Stay curious because it opens you up to meeting more people

As Disney was creating his park he had to find people to train the staff, to scout the land, to buy the land, to fill the Mark Twain river with clay covered walls, to build the oddly shaped Mr. Toad cars — basically he needed people with skills of every kind. He found them everywhere: through other people, in his favorite hobby shops, from his past work experience, in his studio, and so on. You never know what skill sets you might need in the future, so it’s best to connect with folks, even outside your discipline.

Marketing ideas:

  • Challenge yourself to set up coffee dates on a regular basis with other professionals
  • Join Facebook & LinkedIn groups
  • Ask questions as you run into people in shops, coffee places, checking out at the grocery store, and on the bus

Find people who complement your strengths & treat them well

Also, Roy Disney was really the operator, who was able to keep the lights on. And finding your opposite, is a great way to keep things on the rails. If you’re more of a vision person, pair up with a detailed implementer-type person, and vice versa. The other important thing Walt did was take the effort and time to treat people well. After Disneyland opened up, he asked the two guys who ran a company who built many of the rides how they made out on Fantasyland (they’d originally pitched and won the business based on flat bids). They admitted not so well, and so he paid them a bundle more – proactively!

Marketing ideas:

  • Create your user manual so you know what you’re good at and how you operate
  • Ask for feedback from employees, colleagues, and bosses
  • Hire a diverse staff by pro-actively reaching out to diverse people via LinkedIn with a pitch
  • Try to find people with both a broad mix of marketing skills, and a deep expertise in one or two areas
  • Try to get people raises before they ask for them

8. Think differently about customer support

Disney Guest Services

During training, staff members were equipped with the mantra: we don’t have customers, we serve guests; we don’t have crowds, we have an audience. They were also told a smile is a magic mirror because seeing a smile makes people smile. This brought to life an entirely new type of customer experience.

Make each team a competitive advantage

When creating Disney Guest Custodial Services, Disney spent hours discussing his gospel of cleanliness with American Building’s foreman, and then sent the guy off to spend a weekend haunting the lobby of a top-notch hotel to observe.

Marketing ideas:

  • Be super fast with your chatbot and power it by real people
  • Commit to support and content in multiple languages
  • Commit to no 404 pages or broken links
  • Provide pro-active customer support, by asking if people with stuff in their cart need help, or if they spend a lot of time on a page
  • If someone has something in their cart and doesn’t purchase for a long time, send it to them anyway!
  • Get something personal made for customers as a surprise, like a drawing of them or a keychain with their name
  • Provide answers to frequently asked questions on all pages

9. The devil (and the difference!) are in the details

The Jungle Cruise

For the jungle river boat ride even details such as sound were considered. One particular device, especially devised for the Disneyland project, moves the background noises from one section of the jungle to another quite realistically (it was a continuous automatic fader). And Disney ceaselessly strove for reality in his realm of artifice “To heighten the illusion, a different sound track is used during the evenings, this second track was actually taped in the African jungle at night and brings authentic sound to the listeners.” Basically do not settle for less than the exact experience you believe your customers deserve.

Marketing ideas:

  • Invest more time in subject lines
  • Double down on no spelling mistakes
  • Add easter eggs to your website and product
  • Make your product hang tags unique
  • Make your packaging re-usable for something purposeful
  • When you write something, sleep on it, and then revisit it the next day
  • Argue over rounded edges vs straight edges – make the details your business

Keep it clean!

Another thing that was to make Disneyland different was its cleanliness which Disney stressed from his earliest plans. He ordered that only ice cream bars with flat sticks be sold – “nothing with round sticks, people trip on them.” Disney used hot dogs to map trash cans. He would grab one for lunch, walk until he was done eating it, and indicate that was the spot for a receptacle.

Marketing ideas:

  • Declutter your website by removing things in sidebars and pop ups
  • Reduce friction by filling in forms as much as you can for people
  • Help people bookmark or save their favorite products and easily return to them

10. Believe in your vision and ability to execute


Autopia, which proved to be one the parks most popular attractions was in the hands of 23 year old Bob Gurr, who began his 2012 memoir with a proud statement:

“Trained as a car stylist, I contributed to ventures worth over $175 million, all without ever obtaining an engineering degree. In fact, my training was free, all learned on the job. No one ever asked for my qualifications. If I had no experience in a new task I’d keep my mouth shut and go full speed ahead.”

Don’t let imposter syndrome stand in your way

So many people – woman especially – suffer from constant worry about not being good enough or not having relevant experience. Trust that you can do it, if you put your mind to it.

Marketing ideas:

  • Apply for that job post even if it says you need more years of experience (and remove concrete years from your posting)
  • Be open to candidates who have transferrable skills vs. prior experience with the exact type of work execution you need done
  • Break up the project into little goals, give yourself mini-rewards at the end of each, and keep going

Put your Disneyland marketing ideas to work

I hope you’ve enjoyed this waltz through one of the most iconic amusement parks in the world. Up next, get the book Disney’s Land to learn even more, and support my affiliating. Or continue to improve your marketing with Pinterest marketing strategies.

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Walt Disney wanted to create a set of miniature dioramas, featuring 24 scenes of life in an old Western town, & send it out as a traveling exhibit he named Disneylandia. Click To Tweet

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By Megan Mitzel

I'm the wearer of overalls behind the marketing advice website Marketing Overalls. I'm also a senior marketing director with more than ten years of experience leading acquisition and lifecycle marketing at successful startups. Before that, I got a business degree at UNC-Chapel Hill. Before that, I owned a seashell shop. And that's the tea on me.