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Game Design in Real Life: Lessons from a Disney Vacation

Game design lessons can be found everywhere. In this article, the first in my "Game design in real life" series, I take a look at some of the design lessons that can be learned from the design of Disney World.

The post below is reproduced in full, and was originally published August 31, 2017.  The original post, and many others, can be found at


I believe that, at it’s core, game design is about creating an experience. Many of the principles of game design – pacing the experience, creating an atmosphere, and drawing out emotion and suspense – can also be found in numerous places in the real world. In the same way, I believe that there is a lot that game designers can learn by looking outside of their own field. In this new series, I hope to both take a look at the game design lessons that can be learned by examining other fields, as well as how game design principles can be used to improve the real world.

During my honeymoon in Orlando, Florida I spent a lot of time at the four main Disney World parks – Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, Hollywood Studios, and Epcot. For this article, I want to share some of the design lessons that I learned there and how I believe they can be applied towards game design.

Warning: If you haven’t ever been to Disney World, this article may contain spoilers (including Pandora in Animal Kingdom)

Cut Down on Down Time


One of the most striking things about walking into Disney World is just how many people there are. The entire time I was there I was completely surrounded by crowds on all sides, and the crowds stretched back as far as my eyes could see. With this many people, it was no wonder that there were long lines for nearly every single ride. The funny thing was, despite the long lines the waiting never really felt that bad. The reason for this is that Disney used a number of very clever design techniques to make the waiting a lot more bearable than it would have been otherwise.

Just like Disney has lines for their rides, every game has some amount of downtime. This is the time spent doing set up work, shuffling decks of cards, re-setting pieces before each turn, etc. These actions may be necessary for the game, but they are not the reason that people play, and are generally just accepted as a necessary evil in order to get to the actual fun parts of the game. But, just like Disney found ways to make their lines more bearable, so too can a game designer make the downtime in their game more enjoyable for the player.

  • Make the Waiting Part of the Journey
If you have to wait, might as well wait with C3PO


One thing that set Disney lines apart from other theme parks that I have been at is the fact that their lines were more than just simple back-and-forth lines of people. Instead, each line was carefully decorated and arranged in such a way as to enhance the immersion of the ride itself. The lines were decorated with lights, art, scenery, and sometimes even animatronics that helped to immerse you in the world before you go on the actual ride.

One method to reducing the upkeep time in your game is to make it part of the experience of the game itself. One game that uses this technique is Mouse Trap. This game has gone through a number of different variations over the years, but the basics have always remained the same. First, players work together to actually build the mouse trap. Then, once the trap is build players try to capture eachother in the machine. The main attraction of this game is watching the Rube Goldberg-esque machine actually try and capture the mouse, and building the machine is the “downtime”. By integrating the construction of the trap into the game itself, this downtime is reduced and actually becomes part of the experience.

  • Break it into parts

The longest line I waited in at Disney was for the Flight of Passage ride at the newest park, Pandora in the Animal Kingdom. My wife and I arrived at Animal Kingdom as soon as it opened, and as soon as we made it through the gates we both rushed towards Pandora to get our spots in line. By the time we got there, the line was already out of the normal queue area and was streaming almost out of the park.
Worth it

I waited in that line for over 2 hours, and I know there were people there that waited much longer than that. Even so, that wait felt much shorter than it actually was because it was broken into a number of different sections. First, the line was literally broken into parts – as you advanced, you went through a number of unique rooms and environments. This way you were never in one “place” for too long, and when you got bored of one room you soon moved to another.

In addition to breaking up the line into different rooms, they also broke up the actual ride into different sections. Before you would get on the ride, you would first go through a couple of different rooms for “preparation”. Not only did this make the line overall feel shorter (when you enter the first “preparation” room there is a tremendous sense of relief, even though you are still not yet on the actual ride), but it helped to keep the line moving at a relatively constant pace, instead of only moving periodically.

There are a few ways to integrate this lesson into game design. One possible way to break up the busywork of your game is to have it split up so that while one person is playing, another player is doing some of the upkeep work. Another way is to have it so that the upkeep responsibilities are distributed and rotated among players. In games that have a “dealer” for example, this responsibility can be rotated among players so that the downtime of shuffling and dealing gets spread out.

Immersion and Attention to Detail

One of my wife’s favorite attractions at any of the Disney World parks was Toy Story Midway Mania.While the ride itself was quite fun, I think that the most striking thing about it wasn’t the ride itself, but the scenery.  In this ride, every object is scaled up immensely to give the illusion that you, the rider, is the size of a toy.  From the crayons being slightly dulled from use, to the structures constructed out of giant tinker toys, every detail of the ride was constructed to make the illusion as seamless as possible, which created a very unique experience

Not all theme park experiences are this successful in immersing their customers in the world they are trying to create. Besides the Disney parks, my wife and I also spent a day at Universal Studios. The main reason we went to Universal was because I have been a huge Harry Potter fan nearly my entire life, and I was overflowing with excitement to see the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. In fact, we saved this park for our last day in Orlando as a sort of “grand finale”.

Fun Fact: It is impossible to look at this image and not start humming

Unfortunately, I didn’t find the experience to be everything that I had hoped for. Everything seemed to hold up at first – I arrived at Diagon Alley, which looked almost exactly as I had pictured it. After entering Diagon Alley through the Leaky Cauldron, we made a bee-line for Ollivander’s wands, and both of us bought our own “magic” wands. My wife even got to go through the choosing ceremony, which was very exciting.

After buying our wands, we walked all around Diagon Alley in search of the golden marks that indicated that we would be able to use our wands to affect the park. However, try as we might we could almost never get the “magic” to work. We would end up waving our wands over and over in front of the very obvious large cameras that were supposed to be tracking our wand’s movements, but nothing would happen. In addition, as we further explored the park we discovered that a number of the shops around the Diagon Alley area were either just facades, or we would open the door and see something like a room full of cleaning supplies. All of this ended up really breaking the immersion and dampening the experience.

As I mentioned above, I believe that designing a game is really about designing an experience. To this end, I believe that creating a complete world through your game that the players can immerse themselves in can be a very powerful tool. Not every game needs to be this immersive – in fact, there are a number of wonderful games that are totally abstract – but I do think in a game with a strong theme it is important to be careful not to have extraneous mechanics or components that end up breaking the immersion without pretty strong gameplay reasons.

Variety is the Spice of Life

One of my favorite parts about my time at Disney World was how distinct every different park, section, ride and attraction felt. Every park I went to had a number of different types of rides, from thrill rides and roller coasters to slower, more experience oriented rides and even short films and live stage shows. My wife is not a big fan of thrill rides (especially ones with significant drops). Fortunately, because Disney had so many different types of attractions we were able to avoid those types of rides and still have a very full experience.

In addition, each of the four parks felt very different. I enjoyed my time at Magic Kingdom, but I really wouldn’t want to go back for a long time because I did everything that I wanted to do, and saw everything there that I wanted to see. The next day though, when I went to Animal Kingdom I didn’t feel burnt out. It felt like a completely different park, with a different atmosphere and new types of shows and attractions.
Would you like to be the old man with no legs, or the painter with the head tumor?


In the same way, I think that games need to be able to provide more than one kind of experience. Not all players enjoy the same things, and I believe that great games are the ones that allow players to tailor the experience around their own personal playstyles. In addition, I think that a good game needs to have enough depth that it can be played over and over again without the player feeling burnt out or thinking that they have seen everything there is to see. Instead, each time you play the game it should feel unique and different.

One way to add variety to your game is by adding a certain amount of randomness. In games with cards, this is often achieved by shuffling the deck so that they are drawn in a random order. Other games have built in randomizers, such as dice or spinners. Finally, one of my favorite ways to add variety and replayability to a game is by encouraging players to try different strategies. One way to do this is by giving each player certain abilities or powers that encourage particular playstyles. This prevents players from simply developing one strategy that they always use, but instead forces them to adapt to their own abilities, as well as those of the other players.

Until Next Week

That’s all I have to say today about Disney World and game design. If you liked the article, you can follow Rempton Games here on WordPress, Facebook, or Twitter so that you will always know when I post something new. If you didn’t like it, let me know in the comments and let me know what I can do better next time. And join me next week, when I will be continuing my series on designing a Trading Card Game draft by talking about counters and removal!

Community Questions of the Week

  1. What are some other examples of game design lessons in real life?
  2. What do you think could be improved about the world by applying game design principles?
  3. What are your thoughts about the role of counters and removal abilities in a trading card game?

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