What Senior Living Operators Can Borrow From Disney Design

Though some senior living operators use expensive amenities and state-of-the-art facilities to boost their image, they might receive more referrals if they had an overarching theme to pull their communities together.

That’s according to a new report authored by Scott Girard, director of imaginality and planning at landscape architectural firm Brad Smith Associates. Girard would know better than most. For 34 years, he lent his talents to Walt Disney Imagineering, the part of the Burbank, California-based entertainment conglomerate that imagines, designs and builds all Disney theme parks and resorts. He’s also a self-professed “theme park rat.”

In the report, titled “The Story: Connecting the Dots Between Themed Development and Senior Living,” Girard says senior living operators should try to craft a narrative for prospective residents and their families in the same way that Disney does for its guests.

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“This coming tidal wave of Baby Boomers… grew up at the dawn of the theme park experience,” Girard tells Senior Housing News. “Outside of the theme parks, you began to see themed shopping centers, dining environments… and that is what the Baby Boomers are expecting in their retirement years.”

But before you can have a theme, Girard adds, you need to have a story.

Creating a ‘Main Street’

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Walt Disney theme parks often evoke a warm and fuzzy feeling in their guests, and that’s largely by design. But it doesn’t take film-quality special effects or a theme park budget to create that atmosphere. In fact, with just a little guidance, most senior living providers can conjure up a similar experience in their own communities.

Take, for example, Disney’s Main Street, U.S.A., an attraction that doubles as a feast for the senses. Visitors can smell popcorn, hear ragtime bands and see an old trolley roll down the road—all in their first 30 seconds after entering the theme park.

“As you walk down Main Street, the whole notion of that space is that it’s a safe space, it’s a secure place,” Girard says. “That’s all planned.”

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Senior living operators can also create their own “main streets.” In lieu of a streetcar, companies can use themed design to brand a resident or family member’s initial experience, or their “arrival,” as Brad Smith Associates founder Brad Smith calls it.

“Think in terms of the eldest daughter who is tasked with finding a good location for mom’s end of life. What is the first impression from entering the property?” Smith tells SHN. “All of that thoughtful design has to go into it.”

Making an entrance

Rendering courtesy of Brad Smith Associates

Different communities have approached their “arrivals” in different ways. At Tuscan Gardens of Delray Beach, an offshoot of Venice, Florida-based Tuscan Gardens, Brad Smith Associates incorporated features found in the Tuscan region of Italy, such as herbs and rows of grape vines in the landscaping, lemon trees in large pots adorning patios and short, hand-stacked stone walls.

Brad Smith Associates also oversaw the design of The Cottage at Cypress Cove, the memory care wing of a continuing care retirement community (CCRC) in Fort Myers, Florida. The firm worked to come up with the community’s seaside theme, which includes design elements like computer-controlled fountains, towering palm trees and ocean-themed etched glass water sculptures.

Photo courtesy of Brad Smith Associates

“The design approach was one that embraced the notion of providing a safe, secure garden for the memory care residents that would have free access to the outdoors,” Girard says. “While standing water is never a feature in memory care spaces, water is very much a theme in the garden at The Cottages.”

In both examples, the communities were able to use those features to stand out from their competitors, Smith notes.

“The benefit is tremendous in terms of the user experience,” he adds. “That brings raving fans that bring more referrals that brings more business. It’s kind of the gift that keeps on giving.”

Written by Tim Regan

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