A couple of weeks ago, I was in Disney World for what’s recently become an annual trip. I’ve always been a fan– I spent most of my childhood in South Florida which means I was either going to love everything Disney or develop a deep aversion to it– which makes it as nostalgic a vacation choice as it is a “magical” one.

If you’re a Forrester client, you’ve seen Disney mentioned in research and speeches many times– and for good reason. They’re frequently on the forefront of innovation across the company, its products and brand extensions, all of which contributes to making it one of the country’s most admired companies. As a consumer, these annual vacations give me a tangible glimpse into both the constant iterations of their digital commitment and the consistency with which they embrace and apply their brand promise. On the other hand, the experience also reveals just how difficult it can be maintain such a high standard once a brand has established it.

Here’s what stood out this trip:

Disney continues to demonstrate its brand promise– “magical” experiences abound

All of us marketing analysts at Forrester talk about the importance of demonstrating and delivering your brand promise, not just communicating it. And if you’re joining us atMarketing 2016 next week, you’ll hear this emphasized many times. Disney never fails to impress me on this front. For example:

  • There’s a new addition to the guest arrival magic. Before my plane landed, I got a text message and an email telling me which room was ours, complete with a map of where I’d find it at the resort. I didn’t need to go to the front desk at all, it said. Just go right to the room, tap the MagicBand, and voila! You’re in.
  • Several rides now take photos without the rider realizing it. Long-range sensors match the rider with the photo and it simply appears in the app or in your online account the next time you look at it. Imagine how magical that seems if you don’t analyze long-range sensors as part of your job!

Immersive customer experiences are everyone’s responsibility

I’m not a customer experience analyst, so I won’t make a guess about how journey mapping or other CX and customer service tools and strategies shaped these incidents, but as a customer they stood out as comparatively small ways that Disney goes above and beyond what many of its competitors do.

  • At Star Tours, a rider thought she lost her wallet on the ride. As we were boarding, the “captain” of the “starship” had everybody look for the wallet and, when we didn’t find it, he asked the “traveler” to wait in the “landing bay” until the next “ship was ready to board” so he could ask a “baggage handler” to help her find it. Point is: The customer was taken care of and the entire exchange happened in character so no one was taken out of the story the ride creates.
  • When the crowd is particularly big following the fireworks at the Magic Kingdom, cast members open up backlot exits to help alleviate the congestion. Previously it meant going from being immersed in the Disney experience, to walking through the loading docks and employee parking, and then funneling back out onto Main Street USA, which was jarring and odd. But now the whole backlot is styled like you might expect the back of the stores on Main Street to look if it were a real street. It’s not fancy and there are no “attractions”, but it’s far more seamless an experience.
  • After waiting in line for about 30 minutes, one ride went out of service in a big way and everyone needed to leave the area. It’s an amusement park and these things happen, but anticipating that some people wouldn’t cut them as much slack about the wasted time as I would, cast members gave every single person a paper FastPass to be used on that ride whenever they chose.
  • One night, a woman in our hotel was feeling ill so her husband went to the store to buy bread or crackers. They were sold out so the cashier told him to go to the food court and see if the soup station had any crackers left. Not only did they give him an entire bag of saltines, they offered to heat up plain chicken stock and have it sent to the room– all free of charge– if the woman needed it.

The pros far outweighed the cons to me, but as I said, once a brand raises customer expectations, it carries the burden of meeting them. We expect our experiences at Disney World to be so magical that any misstep may seem like a much bigger deal than it otherwise would. For example:

  • After a man tried, unsuccessfully, to bring a gun into the park last December, Disney has wisely raised the visibility and thoroughness of their security. However, this led to long lines just to get bags checked and many people were confused and angry that Disney, of all brands, hadn’t figured out a better way to do it.
  • It was the last week of spring break so the crowds were enormous. Everyone uses the app in the park now to find out wait times for rides and where to meet characters, and as a result, there were many times that it was painfully slow. Similarly, they now have real-time bus tracking so you know what your wait will be to get from your hotel to whatever park you’re going to. But it wasn’t always working– perfectly or at all– and people were getting extremely whiny about it. Imagine: having to wait to find out your wait times! Seems silly out of context, but again, Disney itself has set the expectation of a smoother overall experience.
  • For at least the last couple of years, there’s a requirement to scan your finger to enter the park. I’ve accepted this as a necessary step to prevent fraud and augment security, but I know plenty of people for whom this is a deal-breaker for a trip to Disney World. When I got home, I went in search of the official explanation and it turns out, the picture of your finger is turned into a numerical value and isn’t stored. What’s more you can opt to show a photo ID instead. This is all very clearly spelled out in the privacy policy, but if I hadn’t gone looking for it I wouldn’t have known. In retrospect, I wish Disney had communicated this in some way at the entrance to the parks. Sure, it wouldn’t matter much to most people, but it seems like a rare communication miss for the brand.

One final thought: I’m well aware that my own emotional response to the brand, which is driven as much by long-time loyalty as in-the-moment enjoyment, is inextricably linked to how I interpret these experiences. Other people will undoubtedly have experienced the same immersion and met it with eye-rolling or thought the offer of free chicken soup is the least Disney can do considering how expensive the rest of the trip is. But isn’t that the point? As we’ve said many times, emotional context, connection and reaction are absolutely key to customer experiences and brand trust– and if my own connection to the brand wasn’t so strong already, my feelings about this trip may have been quite different. Ultimately, the key learning here for other brands isn’t just that you have to demonstrate your brand promise in every single customer touchpoint– it’s that you have to consider how your customers feel in each of those moments, too.