Wayfinding at Disney

by Jeff Kober, contributing writer

Wayfinding at Disney

Are we there yet? Are we lost? Where's the bathroom? I have a question...

Statements you hear at Disney? Yes, and many other places as well. These questions are at the heart of wayfinding. Recently I read an article on wayfinding in the Wall Street Journal. It was a discussion of how people find their way (wayfinding) in unfamiliar locations, such as airports. Wayfinding is often used to refer to traditional navigation methods used by people to get from here to there. In more modern times, wayfinding is used in the context of architecture to refer to the customer's experience of orientation and choosing a path within a built environment. It also refers to those architectural and design elements that aid a customer's orientation.

Though others do it well, Disney is one of the great benchmarks for wayfinding. Walt Disney's concept of the wienie at the end of the stick, the spoke-wheel hub concept and the idea that guests tend toward the right (with the exception of Tokyo Disneyland) were all wayfinding practices long before the word became popular. Such lessons in wayfinding could benefit any variety of businesses,

  • Mass transportation centers – bus, train, airport and subway stations
  • Meeting/gathering centers – convention centers, hotels and office buildings
  • Retail – stores, malls, payment centers and restaurants
  • Entertainment – parks, theaters, museums, stadiums and multiplexes
  • Recreational – parks, zoos, theme parks, beaches, gyms and health clubs
  • Public – schools, universities, government buildings, neighborhoods and hospitals
  • Streets – roads, highways, parking lots and garages

The vehicle (excuse the pun) by which to finds one's way is as varied as the places requiring it. From pocket compasses to OnStar, there are many ways to find where you are going,

  • Directional signage – labels, ceiling signage, billboards and sandwich boards
  • Announcements – verbal instructions and guidance
  • Maps – guide maps and GPS systems
  • Informational centers – building directories, kiosks, Web sites and phone trees
  • Layout – layout of pathways, entry ways, exits and landscaping

From "Which aisle has the hummus?" to "Where is gate C13?" we all depend on wayfinding techniques to get us where we need to be. Disney has a lot of experience on how to make wayfinding more successful. Consider the following examples:

Walk In the shoes of the guest – Have you noticed the occasional signs in the parks for the visually impaired? They have Braille cues attached to them to assist those needing guidance. Here's the trick: notice that the map on the sign is laid out in the same fashion as is the park. Meaning if the map is laid out from south to north, then the sign is placed so that it is facing from south to north. That didn't always happen. When the signs were originally placed, some were placed in an orientation different from that of the park. The result was directional confusion to the visually impaired. The message, as always: Walk in the shoes of the guest.

Use words, numbers, symbols, and colors – Those who really want a vacation from their vacation should grab a tube and float down Castaway Creek at Typhoon Lagoon. Not only is it a great way to kick back and watch the world go by, it's also a great means for getting around the park easily. The trick is figuring where to get out. Disney made this easier by creating signage that includes four elements: a color, a shape, a word, and a number.

Symbols and colors can be effective means of identifying a certain location or place. It isn't enough to randomly assign symbols, names and colors. Sea World Orlando tried to imitate the Typhoon Lagoon pattern with the colors, shapes, and words. It is a lovely park, but it suffers from a sprawling design that creates confusion as to where you are. Disney-MGM Studios suffers to a lesser degree from the same sense of sprawl. It was never originally designed to be as big as it has become. Wayfinding in sections of that park can often be confusing.

Contrast that with the radial/wheel and spoke design of any Magic Kingdom, or the figure-8 design of Epcot. If you haven't designed your facility well, maps and signage do little to help, especially if you are not in front of that particular sign. There's no substitute for a well laid-out facility.

Make wayfinding friendly – When Epcot celebrated it 25th anniversary, Disney published an example of what its park's guide map looked like on opening day. In many ways it was a very cool map. Its design was unique; square, with a rotating dial that when turned would identify a specific location with a description of that location. It actually evolved from a similar style map used at Disneyland as a souvenir in previous years.

It was a great keepsake; the problem was one of functionality. The map was bulky and large, you couldn't fold it and put it in your pocket, it didn't even fit in most purses. People didn't know what to do with it, after getting tired of carrying it around, they simply discarded it. You would find them lying around everywhere. The custodial teams quickly gave voice to their frustration in having so much extra waste to pick up. The message: Wayfinding must be friendly—and functional.

Wayfinding can be emotional – Can any sign be more emotive than the Disneyland sign that was at the entrance to the Happiest Place on Earth for so many years? Or that first glimpse of the Matterhorn from I-5? Driving from Phoenix, Arizona to Disneyland, my brother and I would keep an eye out for the Matterhorn. We were closer to San Bernardino than Anaheim, but we wanted to be the first to see the snow-covered peak. There is something emotional about connecting to your destination.

Contrast that to the early years at Walt Disney World. There was little cue that you had arrived at the Walt Disney World Resort other than signage that looked like it belonged in a national park. It was typical freeway signage, except the base color was National Park Brown instead of Highway Green. Some say that Michael Ovitz's best contribution to the Walt Disney Company during his short stay was his remark on first arriving at Walt Disney World. Being unfamiliar with the property, he inquired as to where was it that you actually entered Walt Disney World. The end result was signage not only at the entrance but throughout the property that is unique and that has created emotional ties to the millions who have passed through its gates ever since. You see families pulling over to take photos (not entirely safe). My youngest child yells out each of the Disney characters as we cross the threshold. There can be a strong emotional connection with arriving at one's destination.

Go with the flow – There is a story of gardeners at Disney who were upset with guests cutting through a particular flower bed in the park in order to get from one location to another. They were putting up barriers and signs to keep guests from cutting through. Walt thought differently; he instructed the gardeners to install a sidewalk through the flower bed. He trusted guests to know the right way to go. It was simply a matter of getting out of the way and facilitating it to make it happen.

Anticipate the need – You've been there—it's that moment when you realize: "I've lost my car." With thousands of parking spaces in any given parking lot at Disney, it's bound to happen. In fact, it's been happening since July 17, 1955 when Roy Disney gleefully looked upon the traffic backed up along Harbor Boulevard trying to get into the park. Since that day, people have needed help finding their cars to get back home. I have an entire article dedicated to this, and many of you probably know how Disney helps you to find your car, but know that Disney has had to anticipate and answer that need for many years now. Great wayfinding solutions require anticipating the need.

Successful wayfinding is critical to any physical space. Miami International Airport, according to that same Wall Street Journal article I mentioned previously, is spending some $12 million in signage to address the needs of a new $2 billion terminal. The airport also expects to spend up to $30 million overhauling its wayfinding processes across the entire airport. The cost for not doing so is huge. It's not just about loss of revenue or frustrated passengers who have missed their flights, but it's about safety. The attorneys alone will want to ward off potential liability, with matters as small as stepping on and off of a moving ramp.

What does it look like in your organization? It may not be a multi-million dollar focus, but it may be something you want to focus on. Whether you're a small shop owner, someone whose staff travels from site to site or even if you build web sites. All of these depend in some way on successful wayfinding techniques.

It's a blend between where you want them to go and what you want them to know, do and feel; as well as where the customers want to go and what they want to know, do and feel. Wayfinding is a critical strategy for great customer service and for successful organizations. So take these lessons from Disney in wayfinding, and practice a little magic in your own business.