The Walt Disney company has grown to become one of the largest entertainments and multi-media enterprises in the United States, worth nearly $130 billion in 2019. It is hard to imagine that in 1998, such a powerhouse company had quite humble beginnings on the World Wide Web (WWW). Pictured to the right is a screengrab from the Wayback Machine Internet Archive of the Disney.com site from 1998. At first glance, the white background with contrasting neon colors and various font styles capture the attention of the viewer. However, continuing to browse through the site proves to be difficult due to the aggressive usage of different colors and formatting.
The most prominent features of the site are in the top-center of the page, and have links to games, family events, and an online shop. Other notable sections include a daily “Highlights” section, a link directory, and even opportunities for live chats. This specific site version is from July 1998, just a month after the hit movie Mulan was released. Interestingly, there are very few prominent mentions of Mulan on this page, besides a couple of thumbnails containing images of supporting characters from the movie. There is also no advertisement of new TV shows on the Disney Channel or for new attractions at Disney World. The lack of marketing might be because websites were not yet used for digital advertisement, but it might also be representative of Disney attempting to engage users for longer on the site. The links to the sections on Disney Channel and Disney World are on the side of the page, encouraging people to navigate through the site and explore the pages. The existence of the live chat function is likely also for increased user engagement, and even nods to successful BBS chat rooms of the previous era. Designating chat rooms on the site to connect with other users about events and maybe even to share tips about visiting the theme parks are a surefire way to make users return to the site. When people regularly use the site, the designers are likely to garner more support for making site updates and potentially securing a larger budget to work on it. The site gets more visitor engagement, which encourages the developers to add more features, which in turn attracts more users.
In terms of the site’s audience, the page touts itself as “a web site for families,” a clear indication of the target users. Much of the page’s content revolves around a family experience, including “the ULTIMATE family directory,” “Family Fun on the Fourth,” and a dedicated “family” tab. This makes sense for the time, as households shared one computer, and the site is expecting the family to be spending time browsing it together. By visiting the links from the directory, the other pages have a similar layout to the landing page (shown in the picture), and they also display a variety of colorful thumbnails. Comparing it to the interface of another media site from 1998, Nick.com (the official website of Nickelodeon), more of an emphasis on information than aesthetic. For reference, the Nickelodeon has an attractive green colored background, with animations of famous Nick characters displayed prominently on the main page, with only a few actual words directing users to other pages. Overall, the 1998 Disney website is successful in targeting family users who are more interested in the events and programs that the site has to offer than the visual design.
In comparison, the Disney site from November 2013 really does look 15 years more advanced than its 1998 predecessor, in that the landing page is toned-down, streamlined, and has clear intentions of being a site to market new movies and TV shows. In the screengrab on the left, also taken from the Wayback Machine, the homepage of the site is entirely focused on advertising Frozen, which had premiered just a week before this site capture. The colors of the page are much more neutral, and the theme and fonts are also more uniform throughout the first page. The homepage notably has a header tab at the top of the page that directs visitors to their desired pages, like the 1998 site also did. Instead of a highlights section, the page has a “Featured Games & Activities” section at the very top of the screen, attracting users to engage with the most prominent content. When users first visit the site, it almost functions as a site only for Frozen, with the “featured” section and landing page dominated by images of the characters. There is a very small Disney logo in the upper left corner of the site to indicate page creators, but the conspicuous advertisement of the movie is a sharp contrast from the 1998 site, which barely mentioned Mulan, which had also debuted just before the site capture.
Besides the movie marketing, some of the site content has remained similar to the 1998 site. The directory at the top still links to different sites about TV shows, other movies, and the Disney parks. However, two sections from the 2013 site— “create” and “blog”—are indications of a new age in web design and website functions. The “create” tab leads users to a digital workspace to draw, color in characters, and even stitch photos and movies together. This feature encourages users to associate the site with creativity and is likely a feature that keeps users returning. The “blog” section is actually reminiscent of the live chat function from the 1998 site, as it allows bloggers to share tips about visiting Disney parks, post thoughts about movies and TV shows, and even show off Disney themed crafts and recipes. However, the absence of a dedicated chat function on the 2013 site is not surprising. With the rise of so many other ways to stay connected, from unlimited texting to social media, there is little need for websites to create their own platforms for user chats. The search function from the 1998 site is also missing from the 2013 site, which is more unusual for a website that has a directory and hundreds of different pages. This might also be a ploy to increase user engagement, where users must spend more time and navigate to other pages to find what they are looking for, it might an indication that the site is so user-friendly that people can find what they need without any issues, or it might even be the developers assuming that the users are becoming increasingly intuitive in finding the desired pages.
With changes to the functionality and site content, the target audience of the site has also shifted. While the 1998 site proudly marketed itself for families, the 2013 site is more elusive in catering to a specific audience. There are features for both children and adults, but they are all independent of each other. It is expected that children or teens are attracted to the games, video clips, “create” section, and music, while adults tend to use the blog, information about the parks, and the online store. One major difference in consumption between 1998 and 2013 also depends on the physical devices that people are using to visit the Disney site. In 1998, families tended to use one central computer, but in 2013, most households had more than one computer in the form of laptops, tablets, and smartphones. Removing the language about being a “family” site is also a way that Disney may have fostered inclusivity and encouraged a more diverse user pool, instead of defining explicitly who the site is for.
Since 1998, Disney has also ventured into web browsers by collaborating with InfoSeek to create Go Network, an all-in-one web portal to streamline Disney content, including ABC and ESPN. The goal for Go Network was to consolidate all Disney brand media into one, searchable site, making it much more convenient for users to access and associate with Disney. After nearly 15 years of expansion and restructuring, Disney dropped the Go Network branding in 2013 and returned to separate sites for each of its branches. This failed venture might even be a reason that just months later, the 2013 site was simpler and contained less Disney branding. Regardless of this speculation, the design and functionality changes between 1998 and 2013 are common to other websites as well and follow the trends of web design through the years. The Disney site will likely continue to become more streamlined and user friendly as web design also progresses.