How a Dropped Ice Cream Turned Me into a User Experience Designer

Greg Robleto
4 min readApr 13, 2023

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The classic ice cream of Disney World, the Mickey Mouse bar,

I started building websites in the early nascent Internet days, the Netscape Navigator days. I was in college and seeking to learn more about building websites, but courses available at the time (this was the late 1990s), were all through the Computer Science department and were geared towards software development. So as I progressed through C++ and Data Structures, I was being pulled deeper down the stack to becoming a back-end coder.

But while I could write software code, I didn’t have a passion for it. I did not idle away my free time in software code like I did building HTML sites. (There was no CSS back then, it was only HTML, and you used tables for all complex layouts).

Nearing the end of college and unclear about my direction, I impulsively took a semester off to intern at Walt Disney World. They came to the campus to recruit, and within 24 hours, I was hired and heading to Orlando to open a new theme park, Animal Kingdom. I didn’t realize it then, but that experience at Disney World would set me on a career in user-experience design.

So what about the Ice Cream Cone?

While at Disney, I found a culture that prided itself in delivering “Magical Moments,” which means going above and beyond to provide a delightfully great experience.

One day, a few months in, after the park had opened, I was working at the Kilimanjaro Safari ride and observed a kid carrying and then suddenly dropping his Mickey Mouse ice cream bar. The kid and the parents were distraught; I could read the disappointment on their faces. I empathized; those ice cream bars are not cheap.

I approached, introduced myself to the family, noted the situation, and asked if I could help. I walked the family back to the ice cream stand and relayed what I saw to the attendant. I asked if she would provide this family with a complimentary replacement, Mickey Bar. She was happy to oblige.

The joy we both saw in the kid’s expression when he was handed the new Mickey bar was heartwarming, and so was the parents' delight in turning around a bad situation. The frustration and disappointment may possibly have ruined the rest of their day. All that negativity was extinguished through a simple act to improve their experience. It stuck with me.

That’s what I want to do. I want to see the results or know that my work has a real impact on real people. It became clearer to me I wanted to find a career in making better experiences.

Wait, Disney was okay with this?

Yes, More than okay; they encouraged it. I can’t say if the policy is still the same; (I hope it is). When I was there, it was systemic in the culture; they wanted every cast member at every level to vigilantly look for ways to delight the guests, to make these Magical Moments.

I did not get reprimanded for costing the company one ice cream. I got an acknowledgment/award for making a Magical Moment that likely turned around a family’s whole day, certainly more valuable than one ice cream.

Is this story true?

I can’t recollect clearly if this happened to me and I remember it, or if it was an example offered in how to do a Magical Moment or both: it was an example provided, and then it happened to me. I think, most likely, it was that last one.

But the story’s authenticity isn’t particularly relevant; what matters is the impression it had on me and the path it started me down. It changed my trajectory from going deeper into coding to focusing on the front end and the design, the parts that are interacted with by the user. My focus stayed there because that was where I could have the most impact and create delightful experiences.

This post does not reflect the thoughts or opinions of my employer, who is no longer Walt Disney World, but even if it were, it wouldn’t be my place to speak for the policies and culture of the company. All thoughts here are my own, and references to policies are my interpretation, including that the Mickey bar is expensive but not overpriced. It is costly but worth it. I stand by that statement and will be taking no follow-up questions.

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Greg Robleto

Creative leader at the intersection of design, product, and tech. Writing mostly about design, CSS, product strategy, leadership, investing, and more.