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How Disneyland uses its 'magic' to get you to spend more money

MarketWatch logo MarketWatch 8/18/2018 Jacob Passy
a group of people in front of a building: Over the 63 years that Disneyland has been open, it has redefined tourism and culture in America.© Provided by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Over the 63 years that Disneyland has been open, it has redefined tourism and culture in America.

When Disneyland opened, its first day in operation was a disaster. Many of the park’s attractions weren’t in working order yet. Restaurants ran out of food and water fountains ran dry. The line of motorists trying to get in stretched down the freeway in the sweltering Southern California heat.

But it didn’t take long for Disneyland to overcome that first disappointing day. Last month, the Walt Disney Co.’s (DIS) first theme park celebrated its 63rd anniversary. But what few people realized during the celebrations: The park has come to influence the tourism industry in ways big and small.

Disneyland’s home of Anaheim is emblematic of the Earth-shattering impact Disneyland had on the surrounding area: What was once a rural community known for its orange groves, it’s now a sprawling city in its own right, chock-full of hotels and motels.

“Walt Disney had a visionary new idea for family entertainment: a place where family members of all ages could have fun together,” Liz Jaeger, Disneyland Resort’s director of external communications, said in an email. “Today, that idea continues to be as relevant as it was 63 years ago, and it lives on around world.”

But Disneyland’s influence has extended far beyond the confines of Anaheim. Here are five ways the groundbreaking theme park has influenced society and travel:

It helped change how — and where — people shop

Disneyland is arguably not just one of the country’s first theme parks, but also one of its first shopping malls, too. “Disneyland was, and still is, a mall,” James Farrell, the late professor of history and American studies at St. Olaf College in Minnesota, wrote in his book, ‘One Nation Under Goods.’ “It’s a mall — in the original sense of a pedestrian promenade — and it’s a shopping center too.”

When visitors first enter Disneyland, they stroll down Main Street U.S.A. Inspired in part by the hometowns of Hollywood set design Harper Goff (Fort Collins, Colo.) and Walt Disney himself (Marceline, Mo.), the architecture and decor of the gift shops and restaurants located on Main Street U.S.A. were meant to recreate the feeling of being in the downtown shopping district of a small American town around the turn of the century.

Disneyland was built right almost concurrently with the first shopping mall in the United States, the Southdale Center in Indiana, which opened in 1956. Walt Disney’s views on urban design were very much inspired by the Southdale Center’s architect Victor Gruen.

Unlike most American towns, visitors could pass through the shops of Main Street U.S.A. without going outside. Because the shopping mall concept had not yet spread across America’s suburbs, Main Street U.S.A. was therefore the first time many consumers experienced walking from one store right into another indoors.

Disneyland’s imprint can be seen on shopping malls and districts around the country. “There are tons of shopping districts that have taken the concept of old-timey America to create environment,” said Jim Hill, a theme park historian and blogger.

The Grove, the popular open-air mall in Los Angeles, seemingly borrowed from Disneyland with its old-time architectural style, complete with an electric trolley. And the country’s largest mall — the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn. — has an amusement park inside.

Related video: 10 things you probably don't know about Disneyland (provided by USA Today)

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It revived the concept of the pilgrimage

Before Disneyland first opened, Walt Disney hosted a series of television specials called “Walt Disney’s Disneyland,” which helped finance the theme park’s construction and fuel excitement for its opening. The park’s opening day was also captured in a live special, “Dateline: Disneyland.”

“Baby boomers grew up watching Disneyland be built up on TV, creating a group of emotional stockholders in the company,” said Jamie O’Boyle, senior analyst at the Center for Cultural Studies and Analysis, a research institute in Philadelphia.

The emotional connection that formed between the television audience and Disneyland soon morphed into a passion not unlike a religious conviction. And in that manner, a trip to Disneyland (and later Walt Disney World in Florida) became the 20th century version of the religious pilgrimage. “Disney created a place that people treated like a pilgrimage,” O’Boyle said.

In medieval times, Catholics would travel long distances to visit the nearest major town or city with an impressive cathedral. They wore special clothing and would bring back relics. They toured somber depictions of the Stations of the Cross, which O’Boyle likened to “the first dark ride” — the genre of amusement park rides that includes “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “The Haunted Mansion.”

A trip to Disneyland reflects those traditions. People dress in Disney-inspired clothing, collect trinkets and see the attractions. Even the focal point of the castle calls to mind the grandeur of cathedrals like Paris’ Notre Dame. The placement of both Disneyland and Walt Disney World even accounted for Americans’ ability to travel long distances by car, as both parks were located conveniently near major highways.

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It popularized the concept of monorails

Transportation was always in Disneyland’s DNA: Before Walt Disney set out to build the theme park, he created the Carolwood Pacific Railroad, a rideable miniature railroad located in the backyard of his Los Angeles home. And Disneyland Railroad was one of the park’s opening day attractions, shepherding guests in a scenic loop of the park.

Four years after Disneyland opened, the park entered the history books when the Disneyland Monorail entered into service. At the time, the monorail on had one station — nevertheless, it was the first active monorail built in North America. Walt Disney famously believed in monorails as the future of public transportation, including them as an element in his utopian vision of an American city, the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow.

While monorails never quite caught on as Walt Disney intended, more did crop up around the U.S. Travelers to airports — including those in Orlando and Newark — ride them to get to their terminals. And visitors to Seattle and Las Vegas can hop on a monorail to visit major tourist attractions.

And of course other Disney theme parks — including those in Orlando and Tokyo — have their own monorails. The monorail system at Walt Disney World is one of the largest in the world, and politicians even cite it as a model of a well-run public transportation system.

Don’t miss: The chilling reason Walt Disney World got rid of ‘Do Not Disturb’ signs at some hotels

Even if monorails never really replaced subways as the preeminent form of public transportation, Disney parks’ monorails still represent the first exposure to public transit for many visitors — arguably contributing to the greater demand for expanded transportation options elsewhere. “They walk into the real world and say, ‘I want a monorail,’” Hill said.

Indeed, Disney parks are still viewed as a perfect testing ground for new concepts in transportation, with some arguing it’s the perfect location to try out autonomous vehicles.

At Disney, almost everything became an ‘experience’

Blending fantasy and reality touches every aspect of a Disney vacation. At restaurants, you can dine while Mickey and Minnie walk around you. Walking down Main Street, you are serenaded by the Dapper Dans barbershop quartet singers.

Disney has even turned waiting in line into an experience. Take the Haunted Mansion, which opened in 1969: While waiting in line for the creepy ride through a Southern Gothic mansion, guests walk past a pet cemetery, wait in a windowless room with magically stretching portraits and then must walk down a hall with paintings that seemingly transform. “Disneyland isn’t a passive place,” O’Boyle said. “It made entertainment much more interactive.”

Guests who visited Disneyland didn’t just bring home souvenirs; they also brought back their higher expectations. As a result, destinations ranging from Las Vegas casinos and major museums to even Broadway plays have had to infuse interactive features and entertainment into their offerings. Indeed, experience design is now its own field. “People don’t want to look at stuff in glass cases anymore — they want something you can engage with,” O’Boyle said.

It gave fans a place to meet their favorite characters

The most profound effect Disneyland has arguably been on the amusement park industry itself. While the park isn’t generally believed to be the first theme park — California’s Knott’s Berry Farm and Holiday World (previously known as Santa Claus Land) in Indiana jockey for that title — it certainly defined and revolutionized the concept.

And one of the biggest ways Walt Disney did this was by incorporating pre-existing characters and stories into the themes of the park’s different lands and rides. “Walt took classic carnival rides and reinvented them,” Hill said. “Dumbo the Flying Elephant is really a ‘spinner’ attraction you can find anywhere, but it’s the characters that made it special.”

Read more: Is the free food offer at Walt Disney World really worth it?

Existing characters and media franchises — intellectual properties, or IPs, in theme park lingo — are now inescapable. Universal Studios (CMCSA )has Harry Potter; Six Flags (SIX)  has the characters from DC Comics and Looney Tunes; and Ohio’s Cedar Point (FUN) rollercoaster park has Snoopy and Charlie Brown. Overseas, new rides and even entire theme parks are based on franchises such “The Hunger Games” and “Planet of the Apes.”

Earlier this year, Disneyland Resort’s second theme park, Disney California Adventure, debuted Pixar Pier, a new version of the area previously known as Paradise Pier. It features a series of classic boardwalk attractions based on Pixar films such as “The Incredibles” and “Inside Out.” And, of course, a new section of Disneyland with a “Star Wars” theme will open next year.

Jacob Passy is a personal-finance reporter for MarketWatch and is based in New York.

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