What Disney teaches us about NeuroArchitecture

By Andréa de Paiva

Disney is one of the most successful companies in the world. Since 1955, when Disneyland was inaugurated in California, and 1971, when Disney World opened in Orlando, its theme-parks have been attracting tourists from all ages and cultures. But, after all, what makes Disney so special? In today's article we will discuss which elements of NeuroArchitecture contribute to such success.

Magic Kingdom, Disney World - Orlando
Magic Kingdom, Disney World - Orlando

Who has never been moved by The Beauty and The Beast or the Lion King?

Who has not heard the seven dwarfs song or Hakuna Matata? It is important to

highlight that these stories belonged not only to our childhood, but some of them also belonged to our parents' and others already belong to our children's. Characters, songs, settings, tales that are deeply engraved in our culture and memory. Therefore, to go to Disney is also a chance to visit old and fond memories.

A good deal of the elements present in the parks remit to the characters and stories we have known for a long time. It can be the decoration of inside and outside spaces or even when we cross with one of the characters who is posing for pictures and hugging the fans. This richness of sensorial information (images, smells, sounds, textures) activates our involuntary memory. This is the kind of memory that arises in our thoughts automatically, without effort. This happens when sensorial features, in some way, are similar to the features present when the memory was created [1].

Even before arriving in the park, the expectations are high. If it is your first time there, at least you heard a friend telling you about it. Or you watched a documentary or saw an advertisement piece about the parks. Recent studies in neuroscience show that expectation can change perception [2]. Hence, even before arriving, your brain and body are getting prepared to a wonderful experience, putting you in a more open and relaxed state.

The entrances for the parks are designed in order to contribute to that. The whole trajectory in the parking lot, the tram that gets you from the car to the entrance, the spacial disposition of all elements there that, most of the times, hide the park, revealing only a few components that represent the magic of the place: a garden in which the color of the flowers form the face of a dear character or the cuts of the trees define a classical scene from a movie. All this set of things helps to put you in the right mental state to forget the problems of real life and enjoy the experience of being in a world of fantasy.

Magic Kingdom's entrance
Magic Kingdom's entrance

As already discussed in our article about emotions, when architecture is capable of evoking positive emotions, it also alters the filter through which we perceive reality. All sensorial perception can change: a sweet smell can seem sweeter, the rhythm of a song can seem more contagious, a beautiful landscape can seem prettier. Before entering the parks, all the spatial elements contribute to make us already feel positive.

Finally, after entering, we realize we are in a world of fantasy. All the employees (cast members as they are called) are smiling and very kind. Everywhere is clean, there is no trash in the ground. Wherever you look you see smiles and people having fun. The smell of each restaurant is irresistible. There are characters of your childhood ready to hug you and take a picture with you. Even the queues for the rides are full of elements to keep us distracted in this world of fantasy.

It is worth to point that the more primitive areas in the brain do not know to distinguish exactly reality from fiction. Thats why watching a horror movie alone at night can be so scary. Consciously you know that it is not real, but even so your heart beats faster and you jump from the chair, preparing your body to fight or flight, as if you were living the story. In the case of a Disney theme-park, such effects might be mote sutil, but they are still there. Part of you (the most primitive part) lives that experience like if it was real.