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Theme Parks: Viral Marketing and the WOW Factor at Disney

Five Questions for Todd Heiden (below right), PR Strategic Planning & Project Management Director for Disney Parks


Chad D. Emerson

1.  How did you get started in the amusement park industry and, in particular, your emphasis on new media technologies?todd heiden director at Disney parks themed entertainment

I first joined Disney World back in 1989 – fresh out of university.  I had participated in a Disney college recruitment presentation my senior year but realized I wouldn’t be able to take part in this experience as I was gearing up to graduate.  Upon graduation, while a lot of my friends were taking time off to travel, I decided to head to Disney World to try my luck…and I’ve been here ever since.

As for new media technologies, I’ve been a bit of a tech geek since I was young – probably since my dad brought home our first proper hi-fi stereo setup in the 70’s.  I’ve always been fascinated with computers and the internet, and when the opportunity came along to join the PR team and help examine some of the more recent new media campaigns and platforms, I jumped in with both feet.

2.  What has been the most unique new media project that you’ve worked on in the amusement industry?

In terms of new media, I would have to say the most unique project that I’ve worked on would be what we refer to as the Online Virtual Storyteller…basically, a viral email campaign that can be found at  We had seen several viral campaigns online and were inspired to try our hand at creating something significant that would help support our newly launched marketing campaign, What Will You Celebrate, and touch our guests in a more personal and fun way.

3.  What about the most challenging project?

As the PR project manager for Disney Parks’ first ever viral email campaign, I would have to rank this campaign up there as being the most challenging project that I’ve ever worked on.  While we didn’t develop the technology for this campaign, there was a lot of back of house discussions that took place to help explain our concept to people who had very little experience with viral campaigns.  To be fair, “viral” does have certain negative connotations to a lot of people so renaming the campaign to something more innocuous – like Online Virtual Storyteller – helped overcome some hurdles.  Actively promoting the campaign internally also helped at the end of the day.

When you work for a company whose main brand is their image, there are a lot of legalities that need to be addressed before you launch a viral email campaign.  Are we compliant – to the letter of the law – with CAN-SPAM and COPA laws?; are we misleading guests with any messages that could be misconstrued?; and so forth.  There were days when I spent 3-4 hours on the phone with our Legal team to help explain the project and to discuss concerns.  At the end of the day, we all had to be in a happy place with where this was going and how it was being presented to the world at large.

4.  Disney recently unveiled an extremely well-received viral marketing campaign.  Tell us about that campaign and the inspiration behind it.

Disney is blessed with visionary talent, and I have the fortune to work with one such leader.  Never short on ideas and always looking for the next big thing, he had been the recipient of various viral campaigns and felt the time was right for us to try our hand at one. 

There were several campaigns that inspired us, one relating to the recent U.S. election and others relating to popular cable programs.  Based on what we saw, we knew that there were several routes that we could take and that we’d have to quickly determine which route was best for our purposes.

In order to be successful, we determined that the program had to place the user in the center of the experience (positive ego trigger) and give them a tool that they could easily forward to their friends and family, making them look like they’re “cool” and “in the know.”  The program also needed to be user friendly, avoiding viral deterrents (e.g. too many fields to complete hence too time consuming) and had to lead the user to believe that this could, indeed, be possible before bursting their proverbial bubble.  Additionally, given the number of viral campaigns now entering the marketplace, it was important that the program have a unique ‘WOW’ factor. 

We decided the program would feature a news angle as it was deemed the most believable of the treatments.  A “news site” was built ( with a video window embedded on the page.  A user receiving the program through email from a friend or contact would be directed to this page where they would experience a personalized video featuring a news reporter, placing them directly in the middle of the magic at Disney’s Magic Kingdom Park.  The reporter would talk about how the Park was being dedicated to one person – for the entire upcoming year.  The user would go on to discover that they were that person and would see their name on a banner over Main Street USA, see attraction names changed to feature their name, see food carts that included their names, and ultimately see their name featured in the Park’s nightly fireworks.  In between, Mickey, Donald and Goofy would appear alongside the reporter for a brief interaction, with Goofy eventually saying the individual’s name as he exited the screen.  Essentially, we provided two ‘WOW’ factors: visual and audible.

Upon completion of the video, the user would be directed to the “Spread” page where they would now have the chance to play the joke on their friends and/or family members.  They would enter their friend’s details and then select a celebration from a drop down box: Birthday, Congratulations, Graduation, Wedding, Anniversary, Reunion, Retirement, Graduation, Promotion, Quinceanara, Holiday, New Year’s, Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, 4th of July, or simply if they were just wanting to have fun.  Depending upon the celebration choice, the video would subtly change messages at the aforementioned touch points. 

After entering this information and hitting SEND, the user would then be directed to the “What Will You Celebrate” landing page on the site where they could learn more about the actual campaign and view special vacation offers.  Special geo-IP scrubbing was introduced to the program to insure that the offers were relevant to (and legal in) the country where the user resided:  U.S./Puerto Rico, Canada, and Rest of World.

Another option found on the bottom of the “Spread” page was the ability to customize a video to one’s self and create a unique code that could be embedded on their blog or web page.  This would play to the ego of the user, allowing them to be the star of the video.

5.  Of all the new technologies that Disney Parks have used in a marketing context, which one do you personally find most interesting and why?

Disney is an innovative company always looking to the future, looking for new ways to engage the consumer.  Marketing and our viral email campaign aside, in-park at Epcot our Imagineers have recently added the new Disney’s Kim Possible World Showcase Adventure where guests of all ages become secret agents, teaming up with members of Team Possible to save the world from various comical villains and their mad inventions.  This attraction employs state-of-the-art technology using an interactive device (“Kimmunicator”) to allow guests to control top-secret equipment hidden inside the World Showcase pavilions, creating an ultra-interactive adventure complete with mystery and excitement: start a volcanic eruption; activate a waterfall; cause a statue to rise from a pond; awaken a sleeping puppet – and more!  In a time where emerging generation expects more immersive, personal and interactive experiences, this particular attraction/experience is, in my opinion, timely and full of possibilities.

See also:
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Attractions: Cause Marketing Can Boost Business

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