The market magic of Disney World


I spent this past New Year in Disney World for a friend’s wedding. I had been there once before with my family when I was ten years old. I loved it back then—there was so much to do, so much to see, and there were so many rides. Of all the home movies my dad took of my siblings and I as we grew up, the videos from that trip are without a doubt our favorites.

So it’s not surprising that I was very excited about my trip this time around. I was looking forward to experiencing the Disney magic, but I was also excited to experience another kind of “magic.” That magic is what happens when you are the customer of a very well-run business. Disney World is a wonderful example of how successful a privately owned plot of land can be. There is so much to talk about, so I’m going to split this up into a few entries. I’m going to give somewhat of an overview and talk about some infrastructure to start.

$11.25 for a smoked turkey leg and being envied by everyone who walked by
$11.25 for a smoked turkey leg and being envied by everyone who walked by

Other than the child you may come across who decides it’s time to cry for awhile, it is very difficult to find anyone in Disney World who is unhappy. That’s impressive because Disney World is very expensive: it costs about $100 to enter one of their parks, hotels are expensive, and the food is far from cheap. When people are spending a lot of money on something, they expect a quality of product that reflects that price.

Now this atmosphere of general happiness may have to do with the fact that literally everyone there is on some sort of vacation, so that should be a big reason for the happy moods. In the very least, Disney World takes steps to maintain those happy feelings.

If there’s an issue that arises, just about any employee is prepared to help you. And they staff their facilities to make sure your questions are handled quickly. I was waiting in line at the hotel concierge and an employee walked up to help me. It’s nice to feel like people care about you.

I didn't know there were this many people in the entire world
I didn’t know there were this many people in the entire world

My friend described Disney World as “just one big people machine.” It’s true. I don’t think I could have been there at a more crowded time—it was unbelievably mobbed, especially in the Magic Kingdom—but they made it work. As more people packed in, they started to put tape on the ground with arrows to direct the foot traffic. Employees lined the paths to help with the flow as well. The lines for the rides were long (as expected, but thank goodness for FastPass), yet getting around the park was surprisingly easy.

Getting around between the parks and the rest of the Disney World was easy as well. Disney World has a network of roads, waterways, and even railways to help people get from place to place. Even getting from the Orlando airport to the hotel in Disney World was easy. Disney provides a free service where they coordinate with the airport to shuttle people headed to and from the resort. The only frustrating part of the entire trip was dealing with the TSA in Orlando (they were actually considerably more miserable than the Philadelphia TSA).

Unless you’re a nerd like me, you don’t think about all of this when you visit Disney World. Like any of the other smooth voluntarily interactions we enjoy on a daily basis, we take much of this for granted. No one has to go to Disney World and it costs a lot of money to spend time there, but it’s the most-visited theme park in the world. No one had to tell Disney World how to run itself, how to treat their customers well, or which attractions to build. They just did it.

Compare this to any number of government services such as the DMV, the Department of Veterans Affairs, or the aforementioned TSA. Has anyone ever had a “Disney World” kind of opinion of them? What makes businesses like Disney World different?

The answer is two words: profit motive.