Spontaneity: The Missing Ingredient in Disney Parks


Feelings of frustration, exhaustion, and being overwhelmed may be some of the last words Disney “imagineers” – people who are part of the “creative engine that designs and builds all the Walt Disney Company theme parks” – want to hear when guests visit their various theme parks around the world. Sadly, these words describe my recent trip to Orlando and it turns out that many other families regularly feel the same way.

Like 21 million others, I recently had the opportunity to spend the day with my young son in Disney’s Magic Kingdom, a place dubbed “The Most Magical Place On Earth." For me, the theme park was anything but magical.

Rather than being able to stroll in the unique and heavily themed environment and enjoy my son’s whims and curiosities, all hallmarks of a great public space, the entire park experience had to be planned well in advance and this functionally eliminated whimsy, spontaneity which creates joy and meaningful experiences. So, when my son wanted to head in a particular direction or try a certain ride, we had to explain to him that it simply could not happen and the experience just not fun or pleasant.

More specifically, because of the large numbers of people present in the park even at non-peak times, the Disney Company now asks that you sign up for a limited number of “fast passes” in advance of your trip. While many people have learned how to game the system, the idea is that because the wait times are so intense, you can have three rides or shows with relatively short, reasonable wait times. After your limited number of 3 experiences are gone – you have to wait and all spontaneity ends. So, if you want join in on Peter Pan’s Flight, try It’s a Small World, or hop on a horse on the Prince Charming Regal Carrousel without a fast pass- all rides intended for young children - you and your party should be ready to stand in line for close to 2 hours all for a few minutes of “magic;” this kind of wait is very trying with a little one under 2 or for most children.

The problems go well beyond long ride lines; movement in the park itself regularly restricted and seating is severely limited and character interactions are heavily controlled and scripted making for an absolutely miserable experience. Gone are the days one could “run into” characters while walking around; now they are in controlled spaces where one waits for hours to snap a photo with mascots like Mickey Mouse or Tinkerbell.

While it is understandable that characters can no longer roam freely in the park for the delight of the younger guests due to safety concerns, many of the features that make spaces great and the thrill of random encounters are entirely gone. These developments would disappoint Walt Disney himself.

As originally conceived by Mr. Disney, the original park. located in Anaheim, south of Los Angeles, as “a place for people to find happiness…It will be a place for parents and children to share pleasant times in one another’s company” which all “…started from a daddy with two daughters wondering where he could take them where he could have a little fun with them, too.”

Disney may have had good intentions about sharing quality time together as family and the parks have been so successful in achieving his stated goal of having visitors “feel they’re in another world.” But now the parks today are so crowded, controlled and require meticulous advanced planning if one has the slightest hope of avoiding multiple hour long waits for rides, shows, and experiences which is simply impossible for many families with young children.

Given these norms in the parks, places like the Magic Kingdom become “dead spaces” and joyless. Noted urban theorist Richard Sennett deftly made this point in his 2002 book The Fall of Public Man and would describe these parks as lifeless because they have essentially eliminated meaningful chance encounters with others. Gone is the spontaneity, chaos, and even a bit of danger which collectively make help create spaces both authentic and joyous. The parks themselves are tidy and quite pleasant - there is music, landscaping, and attractive areas for congregating for staged events – but the range of genuine and unplanned engagement is minimal.

In contrast, I have been able to travel with my son to other walkable areas around the country from Savannah to Fargo to San Francisco and the experiences there were filled with enjoyment because we were able to explore and make choices on a whim.

I hope I never forget my day walking in Savannah where my son and I started walking from Wright Square and we eventually wandered into an antique map shop which was in the basement of a townhome on Monterey Square, one of Savannah’s 22 squares throughout its historic center, and later found ourselves visiting the Book Lady bookstore off of Chippewa Square or the Planet Fun toy store on East Broughton street. We eventually found ourselves at the Savannah City Market for lunch where there were local food specialties on offer that are not prominent in my hometown of New York.

What made the day so special was not just what we found and did but that our walk was unplanned. To be sure, there were elements of danger due to some aggressive panhandling in a few areas, and my son and I were able to explore and genuinely engage with the place and people without lines and meticulous planning . Imbibing the spontaneity and randomness was truly fun in ways that the Disney parks sadly lack.

None of this is to suggest that people do not have wonderful experiences at the Disney parks or to argue that a truly spontaneous and fun experience must occur in an urban area with its own historical features. After all, most Americans, particularly those with families, live, unlike mine, in suburban, exurban or small town environments.

However, as I spent time in the park, I spoke with dozens of families who had the same concerns that being in parks without being able to make real choices. Dozens of online reports have expressed the same sentiments and it is clear that if the legacy of Walt Disney is to be genuinely exemplified by the company in the current day, the Walk Disney Company needs to pause and re-think how to better enable families to be impulsive in the parks and allow for unplanned fun.

Samuel J. Abrams is professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

Photo credit: B64 via Wikimedia under CC 3.0 License.