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How Disney got it right and lessons for the cruise industry

February 27, 2011

I have a lot to say about Disney.  Being inspired by Walt Disney in the early days of my career actually led me to work as an Imagineer at Disney World in Florida.  I learned firsthand how to create Disney magic through storytelling.  I was assigned to Wathel Rodger’s one of the original Imagineers while he was art directing in the Florida Parks.  Seeing the park through the eyes of one of the creators was a once in a lifetime experience and one that left me with a great respect for how Disney delivers the ultimate guest experience.

Today, at IDEA we use that guest experience approach to help destination brands all over the world tell their stories through design, development and taking a fresh look at their tired infrastructure.  Everything about a destination should tell a story, and every story should be an important part of their brand.  If you don’t brand yourself then others will brand you.  Unfortunately, we see cruise lines direct ports and port authorities to fall into this trap all the time, where the lines dictate arrival sequence and brand the port for their own agenda.

For cruise lines guests the arrival and story of a destination are important to defining the destination. I like to use Disney’s design approach as an example of an arrival into a branded experience done right.  They focus on the guest experience and a guest-centric story and they design from the guest perspective not theirs.  They deliver the promise – with the highest level of service.  Disney has created a high value brand that people don’t mind paying for. They don’t have to offer deep discounts when the economy goes south because of the long term investment they have already put into their brand.

Cruise lines need to realize that a cruise experience is like a book or movie; it has a beginning, a middle and an end.  The onshore experiences are like chapters in that story and each must follow the guest’s expectations to deliver the story in each chapter.  Like an author, the destination designer cannot allow one chapter to not meet the expectation of the reader; they must carefully craft each line in the story.  From the moment passengers board the ship until the time they depart they need to create a magical experience.  The movie doesn’t stop when people get off the ship in a destination; this is all part of the story, the part where the story must deliver.  Unfortunately Cruise line executives tend to leave those chapters to chance and forget that they are integral to the cruise experience.

Often times when we are designing for guest experiences we find that problems stem from people within the cruise line not realizing they are in the entertainment business.  Too many times decision makers don’t have the experience or background in branding or entertainment and make the wrong design decisions.  I’ve attended and spoke at cruise industry events and have been shocked to see when asked, “have you ever taken a cruise”, the limited number of hands raised. Can you believe that at times only 5% or less of the attendees who work in the Cruise Tourism Industry have taken a cruise!  Next time I will video the response so you can see what I mean.

My advice to the cruise line industry, and taking Disney’s approach as an example:

  • Tell your story
  • Really know what your customer is looking for in your story
  • Know what your brand stands for and show it in everything you do
  • Don’t try to be everything to everybody
  • If you haven’t already, and you want to be in the cruise industry, take a cruise
  • Realize you are in the entertainment business and tell stories through great guest experiences
3 Comments leave one →
  1. Myra Callaway permalink
    September 21, 2011 5:01 pm

    Hi Hugh!
    It is your long lost friend from college, Myra Dowling Callaway!
    Just checking up on you through your blog. My daughter, Elizabeth, is a freshman at UGA and is an art major. She thinks she needs to know EXACTLY what she will be doing for the rest of her life at age 18. We are exploring careers together and I thought I would contact you and see if you could shed some light and inspire this young 18 year old talent.
    Hope to visit your company in Orlando so she can see first hand how artists can make a living!
    Hope to see you soon before another 30 years go by!

    • August 9, 2012 9:40 pm

      Myra, just saw your note on my blog site! Great to hear from you. I was just in Statesboro moving my daughter Hope into her home there. She is a Junior and excited about her own place. Let’s stay in touch, you can reach me via email at Take care !

      • January 18, 2021 8:02 pm

        Myra great to hear from you! You can reach me on my email at We can discuss your daughters career and discuss the Disney Article. Let catch up!

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