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The Neuroscience of Disneyland

By Paul J. Zak on Oct 26, 2020 3:37:59 PM

Pirates of the Caribbean—that's easily the best ride at Disneyland. At least for me.

Southern Californians have an ongoing debate about it. Most of us who live near Disneyland have been going there since we were kids, and as adults we get to enjoy The Happiest Place on EarthTM with our own kids. Disneyland offers a Southern California annual pass that is discounted for people who can go at lower-traffic times like mid-week or winter, so most Southern Californians have lots of Disneyland experience. Could we use science to figure out which ride is really best?       

Among the many innovations Walt Disney and his imagineers developed was wrapping each ride around a story. Even the wait to get on rides like Space Mountain or Indiana Jones Adventure have engaging story elements. If we agree that the best ride at Disneyland is the one that is most immersive, then we can determine which rides are hits.

Immersion team members went to Disneyland wearing smart watches with the Immersion app to find out which rides our brain valued the most. We went mid-week and could not test every ride because some were closed for maintenance. There were only four of us—two men and two women—so this is a semi-scientific study.      

Every ride we went on produced neurologic responses that were at or above the 98th percentile of immersion across every kind of experience we have measured for thousands of people. Walt Disney and his imagineers know how to create hits. Our data showed that the most immersive ride was Space Mountain. If you have not been on this attraction, it is themed as a spaceship with moving lights and sounds while one rides a rollercoaster in the dark. The next highest immersion ride was Splash Mountain, a log flume ride based on characters and songs from the 1946 Disney film Song of the South (featuring the song, "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah").   It ends with a 50 foot drop that drenches riders with water. I was in the front seat and was soaked down to my underwear--yeah, it was a blast. 

The data showed that waiting in line for themed rides created immersion in the 90th percentile. This confirms Walt Disney's narrative-driven design.  Indeed, averaging all the rides we went on, immersion while entering was nearly equal to immersion during the rides.  Waiting to get on one ride, Thunder Mountain Railroad, was more immersive than the ride itself!   

Where was Pirates of the Caribbean? For our group it was dead last, producing immersion that was 19% lower than Space Mountain; Pirates was even 10% lower on immersion than Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, which is for the six-and-under set.   As we've discussed before, what people think they enjoy and what immerses their brains are often very different.  I've probably been in Pirates so many times that it has lost its luster.  During my next visit to Disneyland, I'll make Space Mountain my first ride!

In the 21st century when many of us can enjoy unlimited entertainment online, why are people leaving the house all?    Here is the answer: The experience economy is most valuable when one has an actual experience.   If you create experiences, you can guess that your creation is amazing, or you can measure immersion and know for sure. 

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Paul J. Zak

Written by Paul J. Zak

Paul’s two decades of research have taken him from the Pentagon to Fortune 50 boardrooms to the rain forest of Papua New Guinea. All this in a quest to understand the neuroscience of human connection, human happiness, and effective teamwork.