The Disney parks are at their best is when they become the stage where you can live out your cinematic fantasies. Family friendly of course. Disneyland is one of the first examples of virtual reality. In fact, Imagineer Tony Baxter suggested, “Disneyland defined the term ‘virtual reality.’ Today, the term is associated with a video game or a cyber environment, but for me, the Jungle Cruise is virtual reality! It’s as authentic a jungle as you can possibly have in the desert in Southern California—that’s the virtual reality of it.”

Los Angeles Times columnist Jack Smith joked in 1969, “[Disneyland] is better than the real thing. It is the jungle without tsetse flies; New Orleans without humidity; a pirate ship without scurvy; a Matterhorn without cold; a Main Street, U.S.A., without litter.” He noted that the Park’s formula of success was “respect for the past, real illusions, Prohibition, clean streets, and every day is a parade.”

In Walt and the Promise of Progress City, I note, “At the time of Disneyland’s design and construction, the movie industry was going through major changes to compete with television. Cinemascope and 3-D movies were all the rage.” Author and critic Norman Klein said, “The screen that surrounded and invaded and was immersive in scale seemed particularly appealing. It seemed modern, panoramic, wall to wall.” The 3-D trend tapered off rather quickly (only to return again many decades later) but it had an impact on the physical design.

Disney Legend John Hench suggested the best approach to creating an immersive environment was to apply a theatrical storytelling tool called the “Elements of Setting.”  In the theater and in motion pictures, production designers relied on six elements to frame the experience: location, time, historical time, seasonal time, daily time, and weather. John Hench tailored this approach especially for theme parks, saying that designers must focus on form, space, and time—with form being the story you are trying to tell.

Hench said, “Disneyland wasn’t really a radical step for Walt because even in the two-dimensional world of motion pictures space is implied. In fact, we used many of the techniques we had learned from the films and applied them to the third dimension. And when we set up a kind of story in our own mind, we would establish an imaginary long shot as if we were taking it with motion pictures.”

Architect and philosopher Charles Moore said, “Place is the projection of the image of civilization onto the environment.” How does the use of the Elements of Setting create a sense of place? How have these tools been applied to the parks?


Establishing a specific location is fundamental to the placemaking process at the Disney theme parks. There are different kinds of locations. In some cases, the story calls for an impressionistic picture that reflects the guest’s collective consciousness such as Adventureland, Fantasyland, or Tomorrowland. At other times, the location is supposed to be a representation of a real place like the World Showcase pavilions at Epcot, New Orleans Square, Liberty Square or the facades of Hollywood and Sunset Boulevards in Disney’s Hollywood Studios. In some cases, the space is a combination of both. Main Street USA at Disneyland is a blend of memories from Walt’s boyhood home in Marceline and Harper Goff’s Fort Collins. Or look at the beautiful villages of Africa and Asia within Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Whichever, when done properly the result is an immersive environment where the guests have an opportunity to suspend their disbelief and become part of the show.

From a design perspective, one of the cinematic tricks that the Imagineers utilize is called “shrink and edit.” In Walt and the Promise of Progress City, I describe this process when “the Imagineers take well-known iconic buildings, change the scale and some of the details and then arrange the structures so that they can make the most compelling composition.” The idea was to capture “the essence of one specific culture and creates a sense of place.” Instead of being a collection of exact replicas of famous buildings the result is that each pavilion captures the essence of one specific culture and creates a sense of place.


One of the most subtle yet effective uses of the elements of setting can be experienced as guests walked down Main Street. In the morning, the background music is peppy and bouncy. As evening falls, the background music changes to a mellowed playlist. At A Bug’s Land in DCA, the insect noises turn to cricket chirps in the evening.



“Disneyland has always had a big river and a Mississippi stern-wheeler,” Walt said. “It seemed appropriate to create a new attraction at the bend of the river. And so, New Orleans Square came into being—a New Orleans of a century ago when she was the ‘Gay Paree’ of the American frontier.” New Orleans Square opened along the banks of the Rivers of America on July 24, 1966 at a cost of $15 million. It was the first new land since the park opened and the first time that the Imagineers were challenged with creating an environment that was a representation of a specific place at a specific time: romantic, pre-Civil War New Orleans in 1850, when it was the most cosmopolitan and diverse city in America.

In an early press release, the Imagineers proclaimed that the Disneyland New Orleans was “a city of contrasts. Magnificently gowned ladies, genteel and gracious, strolled past benign Indian squaws selling sassafras root. Iron-lace balconies seemed even more delicate when compared with stretches of ashed walls. Intimate courtyards were lazy counterpoints to crowded markets.” This new section of the park would “be as exciting as a pirate treasure hunt, as colorful as a Mardi Gras ball, as memorable as a visit to the French Quarter.”

John Hench described New Orleans Square as “Disney Realism, sort of Utopian in nature, where we carefully program out all the negative, unwanted elements and program in the positive elements. In fact, we even go beyond realism in some cases to make a better show. The streets were much cleaner than New Orleans had ever experienced.” He noted, “Frankly, if we created a totally perfect, authentic themed experience where we had complete realism, it would probably be ghastly for contemporary people.”


It is said that in the art of placemaking, limitations encourage creativity. The imposition of seasonal time is one such constraint. Here is one example. Anyone who has ever visited Main Street USA in the Magic Kingdom will quickly recognize that they have entered a harmonious immersive environment of a fanciful east coast seaside town somewhere around the 1890s. What may not be so readily apparent to most guests as they rush down the street on the way to their favorite attraction is that they have arrived on a very specific day.

Today, the good people of Main Street USA are celebrating the Fourth of July. Look around and you will notice that they have decorated the second floor railings with red, white, and blue bunting. The buildings are capped with American flags flying. Plus, the use of seasonal time allows the Imagineers to justify why this little city has a parade every single day and fireworks every evening. You always have a parade and fireworks on the Fourth of July right?

Remember, Main Street is an illusion. One way to get around the pesky rule that dictates that all American flags must be lowered in the evening is to make sure that there is only one real American flag. That flag is the one of the pole in Town Square. All of the others are not real flags but ones that are slightly off. They may have too many stars or too few stripes.


With environmental control previously only available on a Hollywood soundstage, the Disney Imagineers have created environments of perpetual nighttime. One of the Imagineering tools is what they call “Atmospheric” architecture. The Imagineers define Atmospheric architecture as “creating the illusion that visitors are outdoors, although they are actually indoors.” The first application in a Disney theme park was the Blue Bayou within Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean. EPCOT has the San Angel Inn within the Mexican Pavilion. The Imagineers took this concept to the extreme with the Sci-Fi Dine-in Theater Restaurant.



Snow on the Matterhorn? Ice caverns inside? This is Southern California. A rain storm at the finale of The Enchanted Tiki Room? After all, this is supposed to be Hawaii.  Weather can set the mood.

What examples can you name?


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Sam Gennawey is an urban planner who has collaborated with communities throughout California over the course of more than 100 projects to create a great, big, beautiful tomorrow. Sam is a member of the Board of Directors of the Los Angeles Regional Planning History Group, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving municipal, county, and private sector planning documents from throughout Los Angeles County. Sam is the author of Walt and the Promise of Progress City which you can find on Amazon.