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The Ecology of Magic: Designing Campus Environments

October 31, 2019 Alan Acosta University of Massachusetts Chan Medical School

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Alan Acosta HeadshotIn early October 2019, my partner and I met up and spent time with relatives at Walt Disney World (WDW) in Orlando, FL, USA. Although I am not as much of a “Disney-aholic” as some of my friends and colleagues, I am definitely a big fan of WDW and look forward to visiting every year to 18 months.

On this latest trip, we made our way to WDW as I was coming off stressful days at work. I was concerned I would not enjoy my time at WDW because my mind would take me back to the many things I had going on in the office. Fortunately, as we drove onto and started walking around on the property of our WDW hotel, I let the magic wash over me and I began to feel at ease. Each day, at each park, with each attraction, I let the fun and enjoyment entertain me at the happiest place on earth. I soon forgot about my obligations at work and felt the magic.

Feeling the Magic

One day my partner and I were waiting in line for an attraction and talked about how the biggest reason I was able to relax and enjoy myself is because of how strategically and effectively WDW structures each property, park, and attraction to subtly and not-so-subtly allow each person to feel their vision of magic. The waiting area for the attraction where we were when we had this conversation carefully recreated the world from one of Disney’s popular movies.

For the entire duration of our wait, we walked and wound our way through the exterior and interior of the attraction, and each turn brought us deeper inside the world, preparing guests to fly. The sounds, the visuals, the soft music in the background, and the texture of each interactive part of the attraction drew me in, building the anticipation. Finally, after an hour in the line and being setup for the experience, my partner and I were whisked away on a four-minute flight through a beautiful, screen-simulated world, paying off the setup with pure exhilaration.

Many have written about the legendary ways that WDW intentionally and meticulously designs every inch of their property and attractions to maximize the experience of each guest. No matter who you are, no matter where you are from, no matter what your life experience, WDW crafts magic in a way that makes it feel specifically tailored to your needs and interests.

Ecology of Magic

As I got further and further into my visit, I realized that the ecology of WDW, the feeling you get when you are at WDW and get the “Disney experience,” is one higher education institutions can learn from and work to create on their individual campuses.

At higher education institutions across the United States, institutional leaders talk about what they want their institutions to be like or how they want reputationally to be known.Typically, these conversations focus on the size of the institutional endowment, institutional placement on national rankings, research dollars raised, staff and faculty salaries, degrees awarded, and other metrics of what is considered institutional success.

Campus Ecologies

These institutional markers are important, but what often gets lost in these conversations is how institutional leaders want its students to feel—how do campuses design its ecologies to give students the experience it wants students to have?

Campus ecologies, like WDW, can be strategically constructed to make students feel the experience they want. Institutions must be mindful of all the details of the student experience and how it is crafted to support the specific experience they want. Studies by higher education scholars outline the elements essential to understanding how to create an effective campus ecology (Strange & Banning, 2001).

Feeling of Belonging

Details to be considered include, but is certainly not limited to, campus green space, building design, staff training and competencies, and institutional branding; all are essential components of creating a dynamic campus ecology. Higher education leaders need to invest more time and energy into constructing effective and intentional campus ecologies for all students. Being thoughtful about the institutional ecology can have many benefits. 

One benefit is that an effective campus ecology supports students’ sense of belonging at the institution. Sense of belonging can be instrumental in student success, particularly for students from historically marginalized populations (Harper & Quaye, 2009).

Institutional Ecology

The creation of an effective campus ecology does not rest or stop at the institution’s senior positional leaders.Constructing a specific feeling or experience is also highly important at the departmental or office level.Higher education professionals throughout an institution’s organizational chart can ask themselves several key questions:

  • How are your department or office’s programs and initiatives structured?
  • How are the programs and initiatives promoted and marketed?
  • What does your department or office’s staff training and ongoing professional development look like, so you can teach the kind of institutional ecology you are working towards?
  • How accessible, from the physical building to electronic or published materials, to each student is your department or office? What other departments or offices can you collaborate with to create the ecology you are designing?

These questions can provide higher educational professionals invaluable insight into the creation of an effective campus ecology.

Institutions must invest time, energy, and resources into creating a campus ecology designed to give students a sense of belonging and an exceptional academic and extracurricular experience. Beyond the institutional benefit, focusing on the campus ecology in an intentional way provides students with leadership experience, optimal learning environments, life lessons, fond memories, and magic to last a lifetime..


Harper, S.R., & Quaye, S.J. (Eds.). (2009). Student engagement in higher education: Theoretical perspectives and practical approaches for diverse populations. New York, NY: Routledge.

Strange, C.C., & Banning, J.H. (2001). Educating by design: Creating campus learning environments that work. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


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