Disney’s Storyliving Project Shows What the Senior Living Industry Is Up Against

Last week, the world got a deeper glimpse at Disney’s forthcoming Storyliving concept in California — including its 55+ housing component. Senior living marketers and project planners should be studying the details, if they aren’t already.

At first glance, the master-planned community and all its for-sale homes and bells and whistles seem to have little to do with senior living. And it is doubtful to me that the community will directly compete for senior living residents, including those in California, given the nature of the 55+ product type and its lack of care services.

But while it won’t be a direct competitor, Disney’s Storyliving concept and others like it are giving older adults an aspirational idea of what senior housing can be. Although operators know that a for-sale 55+ housing community is not in the same ballpark as even an independent living community, their customers may not. And that in a nutshell is the challenge.


The Disney brand is among the most recognizable on the planet. Conversely, with a penetration rate still hovering around 11%, the senior living industry is likely still relatively unknown to the majority of households in the U.S. In effect, this means that although many prospects might not understand assisted living or memory care, they have almost certainly heard of Mickey Mouse — and therefore even a single Disney-branded 55+ community could make an outsized impact on the public’s perception of what senior housing is and can be, much as Latitude Margaritaville has commanded an incredible amount of attention since its debut just a few years ago.

In this week’s exclusive, members-only SHN+ Update, I analyze this recent news and offer key takeaways, including:

– How Disney and other lifestyle-focused senior housing brands are setting the bar higher for senior housing, particularly with regard to socialization


– What future prospects might come to expect out of the industry’s offerings

– Ongoing projects that might meet the demand for a next-generation senior living product

Popularity of 55+ models

When I saw new plans for the new Storyliving project last week, I was struck by how Disney seems to understand one of the central value propositions of senior living: Socialization.

The first Storyliving project in Rancho Mirage, California — known as Cotino — is slated to include 300 homes for people of all ages, and amenities including Disney Imagineer-designed parks, paths for walking, a dog park, a membership-based club area and a bay with clear waters. The community’s project team includes Scottsdale, Arizona-based DMB Development, architecture firm WHA and creative input from members of Walt Disney Imagineering.

The 55+ portion of the community, called Longtable Park, is slated to include many of the amenities one might expect at a senior housing community, including space for grilling, bocce ball courts and shaded outdoor seating areas with landscaped surroundings.

What I found most interesting, though, was that the neighborhood’s “focal point” and namesake is a long table where residents can congregate for meals or other gatherings. Renderings show a peaceful park at dusk and a small crowd of people gathered around a table flanked by trees with string lights. I can almost picture a crowd of smiling celebrities gathered around it.

Although the Storyliving website notes that the long table was inspired by Walt Disney’s own love of having breakfast with friends around a large communal table, I suspect the project team included the table as a nod toward what many consider the true value proposition of senior living, socialization.

Storyliving is not the only lifestyle-oriented brand from a major entertainment franchise that seems to have grasped this notion. Another example lies with Latitude Margaritaville and its master-planned 55+ communities, which are packed to the gills with venues for dining, dancing, lounging and outdoor activities.

The success and popularity of Margaritaville tells me that older adults, particularly on the younger side, are hungry for opportunities to live what they consider a fulfilling second chapter that revolves largely around connections with their neighbors. I assume that feeling will extend to Storyliving, albeit with less of the laid-back party vibe.

While many senior living communities offer the full range of amenities to support socialization, I think providers would all do well to ask themselves: What is our “longtable”? That is, are we centering socialization enough in terms of the design of communities, in the marketing of them, and in the culture that we are striving to create among residents and staff?

Defining senior living for the public

It is known that residents and their families are doing more searches about senior housing before they talk with a senior living salesperson. And given the amount of press that brands like Disney and Margaritaville garner, I’m sure that many prospects will land upon websites and marketing materials and news stories for Margaritaville and Storyliving communities.

Although older adults may not be able to attain a spot in a community with all of those bells and whistles, many will surely still desire them.

Of course, Storyliving and Margaritaville are not senior living communities in myriad ways, but senior living is still not well understood by the general public. There is a real risk that prospects will see pretty photos of a Cotino or a Latitude Margaritaville and wonder why they can’t find anything like that in their price range near them. I can easily see a world where a prospective resident might choose to live at home for longer if they can’t find their desired right fit.

So, I think the challenge for operators and their marketing teams is catering to these desires while also keeping residents grounded about what senior living is and who it is for. While the needs-based nature of the industry no doubt will keep demand for senior living high in the years to come, I also think that operators have a huge opportunity to tap into the kinds of feelings conjured up by a community like Cotino.

Creating a feeling

Although senior living project planners probably can’t afford to add in manmade bays with crystal-clear water and sprawling Disney-esque amenities — at least not for a price point most of their residents can afford — they likely can still deliver experiences that make residents feel nostalgic or that they have a place in a larger community.

Disney and Margaritaville are national brands that elicit many of these feelings alone. And to achieve the same effect, I think senior living project planners have an opportunity to think creatively about the senior living model and what it can offer, and that marketers have an opportunity to convey that message in a tone and style that appeals to the incoming generation of older adults.

As I survey the industry, I do see some projects underway that I think could help deliver similar feelings as Cotino or Margaritaville.

One is a model that Maxwell Group, the parent company behind operator Senior Living Communities (SLC), dubbed Weller Life Communities. The concept houses residents in single-family dwellings, but charges them on a rental basis. Residents are slated to get a light layer of services, and have access to clubhouses and other upscale amenities one might find in a master-planned development.

Photos on the Weller Life website show a community with a variety of single-family home designs and an upscale clubhouse with a full bar and swimming pool. To me, these kinds of communities could offer some of the same appeal as a Cotino or a Margaritaville without the expensive brands attached to them.

In a similar vein are intergenerational communities like the ones that Brandywine Senior Living is building in Bethesda, Maryland; or that Garden Spot Communities is working on in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Although they might not offer sprawling layouts or single-family homes, they are operating under the hypothesis that tomorrow’s residents will desire closer-knit ties with their neighbors, only some of whom are older adults.

The challenge for these communities could be to foster a sense of community among residents who don’t move in with shared interests already baked in, as the residents of Storyliving presumably will be Disney fans, or the denizens of Margaritaville are largely Parrotheads.

I think one answer will lie in providers being bolder about defining themselves and their communities, and who they are setting out to serve — perhaps one community will be a hotspot for foodies while another will strive to attract artists, maybe a particular community will go big on local pride and draw many residents who are proud to be aging in the same place where they grew up, while another will aim to attract world travelers and offer appropriate amenities and trip planning.

In other words, I think as demand surges, providers must have the courage to differentiate themselves and go after a particular part of the market. As CorePower CEO Niki Leondakis put it when she was leading Revel Communities back in 2019:

“It’s about having the courage to say, ‘This is who we are. This is who we’re going to serve.’ There’s not an operating model or design theme or design identity or an experience — a lifestyle programming experience — that can be all things to all people.”

No matter how senior living operators try to achieve these new models, I think the forces driving them are here to stay. The bottom line for senior living operators is that they must raise the bar and set new expectations for how prospects perceive their communities in the years to come — or risk communities like Cotino doing it for them.

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