Disney has carved a strange place in the consumer’s mind. Few other brands command the love and respect of a group of fans the way Disney can. Not many people set goals to see every Six Flags park, collect every variation of Great Value pasta, or to decorate their homes like natural architecture symbols. But Disney fans try to visit each of Disney’s parks, impulse buy pins, plush, figurines, and hundreds of other collectibles, and decorate their homes to match Disney architecture. Simple themes – like the American Frontier, a European Village, or a Tropical Paradise – are instead labelled as Frontierland, Fantasyland, and Adventureland, whether they are actually connected to the Disney places or not.
This is partly because of Disney’s skilled marketing teams. But the reason these teams have been so successful can be attributed to nostalgia. Disney thrives on nostalgia. Here are several websites that describe Main Street as nostalgic – one, two, three, four. It’s a common claim, but there’s no connection between Main Street and most of the parks’ visitors. I grew up in a city that had a downtown area similar to Main Street. Though the architecture was a bit different, the size of the building, the kinds of stores, feel of the area was similar. I never wandered around downtown for the nostalgia. Since Main Street was based on a real turn-of-the-century aesthetic, it’s not hard to find downtown areas around the country that look similar, but they don’t evoke the same nostalgia. So what gives the Disney version its appeal?
Stress. Stress is recognized by psychologists as a source of nostalgia   . In the 1950s, America’s commercialism and branding was really growing. Advertising on radio and TV helped spread brand awareness. With this came a pained stress that America was leaving behind its traditional roots, including its turn-of-the-century ideals. This caused stress for guests, as they longed for simpler times. That’s not quite the source of stress Disney relies on today. Instead, Imagineers plan to create and relieve stress throughout the park. When describing nostalgic experiences, people often make themselves the protagonist, and talk about momentous experiences with friends. The emotions are almost always positive, unless the story focuses on how the negativity was overcome . This is essentially an emotional roller coaster that causes the nostalgia, and the Imagineers try to create it on their real roller coasters. Let’s look at some examples.
The classic storyline for a theme park attraction is, “You set out for a regular day, then something takes a turn for the worst.” Star Tours is a tourist ride, meant to see some of the beautiful parts of the galaxy. But then the ship is hijacked into a fight between the light and dark sides of the Force. The Indiana Jones Adventure is a calm archeological site, until someone looks into the eyes of the idol. Expedition Everest is a train through beautiful landscape, until an encounter with the vicious yeti. Every story has a villain, and every villain is defeated. This constant cycle of stress and release – with your friends – implants memories in you that your brain won’t forget. When you reminisce and retell the stories, you focus on the feats of the stories. And after all, you are the star of your own adventure on each of these attractions. You and your friends have conquered it – together.
Research shows that nostalgia builds desire for brands. Particularly in social situations, more positive views are given for ads that play on nostalgia and sociality . The strength of advertisements is increased by nostalgia . Since Disney plays so heavily to this nostalgia in its marketing and blogging, it gets the reward. People become attached to the parks, movies, and merchandise, even if the themes weren’t very interesting in the first place.
- Wildschut, T., Sedikides, C., Arndt, J., & Routledge, C. (2006). Nostalgia: Content, triggers, functions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91(5), 975–993.
- Wilson, Janelle L. Nostalgia: Sanctuary of meaning. Bucknell University Press, 2005.
- Youn, Seounmi, and Seunga Venus Jin. “Reconnecting with the past in social media: The moderating role of social influence in nostalgia marketing on Pinterest.” Journal of Consumer Behaviour 16.6 (2017): 565-576.
- Seehusen, Johannes, et al. “Individual differences in nostalgia proneness: The integrating role of the need to belong.” Personality and Individual Differences 55.8 (2013): 904-908.
- Hartmann, Benjamin J., and Katja H. Brunk. “Nostalgia marketing and (re-) enchantment.” International Journal of Research in Marketing 36.4 (2019): 669-686.