Dumbo the Flying Elephant was a technical triumph for early Imagineers – “Imagineers” being the affectionate name for Disney park engineers. The attraction debuted in 1955 in California's Disneyland. It became so popular that it was later replicated in four other Disney parks around the world.
It’s also an iconic staple in American culture. In fact, a Dumbo car sits in the Smithsonian’s American Museum of American History, representing an achievement of imagination, technology, and American entertainment.
For decades, millions of Disney park guests have ridden the attraction, taking in aerial views of Fantasyland and steering their own personal Dumbo car up and down with a joystick. The user experience (UX) - or, guest experience, in Disney terminology - is delightful and interactive.
Because of high popularity and a rather limited ride capacity, wait times have traditionally been very long. The queuing area has also been crowded and unbearably hot under the summer sun. Still, guests have endured these pain points to hit this can't-miss family attraction.
In my own family, an often-retold story is that at age four I waited in line for Dumbo with my grandfather under the oppressive Florida sun for 40 minutes before admitting that I needed to go to the bathroom and, no, I couldn’t wait until after we had ridden. Obviously frustrated, my grandfather had no choice but to take me to a bathroom. He then led me by the hand to start the Dumbo line all over again, perhaps a little more weary than before, but he knew it was important for his granddaughter to have her turn to fly.
The Imagineers’ solution in Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom was to reinvent the Dumbo experience when they developed the 2012 New Fantasyland park expansion. With the luxury of added physical space, they gave Dumbo the Flying Elephant its own immersive surroundings called Storybook Circus, an air-conditioned play area replacing the queue, and a thirty-two-car capacity instead of sixteen.
Storybook Circus makes the Dumbo guest experience itself is much grander. And with some creativity, Imagineers transformed the old, boring, back-and-forth queue into an indoor play experience. Young guests are free to roam a thematic playground located in an air-conditioned circus tent, while adult guests hold a pager, designed to look like a circus ticket, that buzzes when it’s their family’s turn to ride.
But the good parts of the classic Dumbo experience remain: guests ride in the iconic Dumbo car, fly in the air, and steer Dumbo’s flight.
When discussing this redesign in One Little Spark!: Mickey’s 10 Commandments and The Road to Imagineering, Marty Sklar pointed out that one circle of Dumbos fly clockwise, whereas the other set spins counterclockwise. This subtle design choice makes it feel less like a duplication of an existing structure, and more like a visually fun expansion.
Guests who value the classic experience are not let down. And now, there is the added fun of Storybook Circus and a playground preceding the main attraction, along with the alleviation of long, hot, boring wait times.
Why It Matters
Disney Imagineers decided to rethink a traditional attraction, keep the classic experience in tact, and eliminate the pain points associated with it. This same line of thinking can apply when you're solving important problems, not only entertainment problems.
Imagineers faced a challenge that is similar to what many designers face when tasked with redesigning a beloved logo or software interface. (In a positive example of this, Work-Order artfully handled a 2016 redesign of the Kodak logo with lot of care toward Kodak's legacy.) There is always danger of backlash when you mess with something that people hold close to their hearts.
After the redesign, the attraction is still as enjoyable as before. It remains outdoors, providing aerial views and the anticipation that builds when guests spot the spinning Dumbos from afar. Imagineers understood the strengths of the existing experience.
But Imagineers also understood the issues that guests had been enduring (long wait times, boring queue, and hot sun) and alleviated them through a fundamental redesign of the attraction experience (doubling capacity, providing a play area, and providing an indoor space for comfortable waiting). The ultimate goal was to improve the guest experience, and this goal guided the rest.
(Pssst. If you like this stuff, there was a great UXMag article by Joseph Dickerson a few years ago on Walt Disney and UX Design.)