How do you get people to evaluate and document what they see and how they feel within the environments that they live, work, and play? That is a question I am frequently asked during my day job as an urban planner. After facilitating something north of 750 community meetings and charrettes, I have come to learn that a process built on curiosity, clarity, creativity, will generally gain the confidence of the people and they will feel the magic (when apprehension turns into awe and delight) and work toward a great big beautiful tomorrow. Given the chance, the right tools, and the right strategy, community stakeholders tend to make good choices. Amazing, eh? Like I said, it’s my day job.
Do you have to go to school to learn what are the proper elements that make up spaces that are alive, functional, and beautiful? No. Inside, everybody knows what is right. Most of the time they just do not know how to articulate what they are feeling. My experience has shown me that the best places are those that share these three elements in abundance; quality, variety, and surprise. Places that have a higher degree of life tend to be filled with such moments. Isn’t that why we go back to the parks so often and fight to keep them whole? Although each of these elements may seem subjective, ask enough people and you will be amazed how common their wants and desires are.
When you look at a specific place, I try to keep this in mind. Every act of construction should be an opportunity to either repair, enhance or embellish the public realm. If not, just leave it alone. Kind of like the theory that people are less critical when rides change at the parks as long as they are being replaced by something superior.
With all of that said, you cannot manage something you cannot measure. So we have to find some sort of a ranking system. I suggest we rank what we experience as exceptional, acceptable or regrettable. It is a fun game and if you will indulge me, I would like to give it a try as it applies to the Disneyland Resort. I hope you will play along in the comments below.
EXCEPTIONAL: Buena Vista Street
I am impressed. With the exception of Disneyland (and that may simply be for nostalgic reasons), Buena Vista Street is currently the best entrance statement at any of the North American Disney parks. It is certainly the most people friendly. Echoing the tried and true model at Disneyland, DCA’s welcoming statement is a condensed retail corridor with a triangle plaza at one end and a circular plaza at the other. The street packs a lot of energy into a very small space.
Although the CALIFORNIA letters out front were popular, the reproduction of the Pan Pacific Auditorium entrance is just charming. Better than the squish and squashed version at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Tearing down the Post-modern tribute to the Golden Gate bridge was also a good idea. Replacing it with a historic bridge along the Los Angeles river and hiding the Monorail makes sense. It somehow protects the authenticity of the themed space (ponder that one).
Ever notice that unlike Main Street USA, there is a lack of color along Buena Vista Street. Like architecture throughout the Southland, most of the buildings are muted earth tones with bright, colorful accents. There is a variety of facades reflecting the fetish for revivalist architecture at the time. And the use of architectural details are layered in the best tradition of Disney theming. Some may not like the overhead wires for the red car but I feel they successfully add a “roof” to the tiny street.
One of the great things about Buena Vista Street is the abundance of places to sit. Contrast that with Main Street at the Magic Kingdom. There are so few benches you feel as if you are loitering. There is a little trick that urban designers use to create a greater sense of ownership, something very important in order for people to relax. Notice that the seating in front of the Fiddler, Fifer, and Practical Pig Cafe has movable seats. There is a long standing urban design principle that suggests people will always feel more comfortable if they have control over their seating. Even when the plaza featured the Hub Cap, the most popular space were the chairs in front of the ice cream train.
For those looking for little surprises, grab a seat on a bench underneath one of the windows. Like Center Street at Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom (and the Port of Entry at Universal’s Islands of Adventure) they are little audio plays taking place on the second floor. If you have to be patient but listen. While you are at it, enjoy watching the parade of people passing you by on Buena Vista Street.
ACCEPTABLE: Fantasy Faire
There has been a lot of debate on how the Fantasy Faire intrudes upon the Plaza Hub. This is a tough one. Although the venue should have been placed behind the castle walls, the synergy with the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique and the countless dollars that the area will generate has pushed it forward and almost into the Hub. You can think of it as a pop up ad when you go to a website.
In it’s favor, the addition is not as bad as the Astro Orbiter, which should be high up on a tower and not stuck in a hole. I also think it is better than the permanent temporary stage that sits in front of Cinderella Castle at the Magic Kingdom. We won’t talk about the Mickey hat at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Even Walt knew you had to do this every once in awhile when he placed the Monsanto House of the Future right in front of Tomorrowland.
The area seems to function well and does serve a need. The overall feel reminds me more of Florida than Anaheim. But there is enough fun eye candy to make it worthwhile. The Figaro animatronic is cute touch. I hope they maintain it and he stays on the balcony for a long time. The Maypole with the light effects is precious. There is a small tribute to the Carnation Plaza Gardens and keeping the hidden turret old-school is another nice touch. And my favorite element is the Clopin’s Music Box. I have not visited the Princesses but I have seen the two new shows. I was surprised at how many contemporary references are made throughout the show. That would be something I would expect at Knott’s or Universal. Our innocence is gone.
REGRETTABLE: Carnation Plaza Garden
Sticking with with the same space, let’s talk about the reality of the Carnation Plaza Gardens. I understand that the space had been underutilized for some time now. However, that was not the fault of the design or theme. It was a problem of programming. Or the lack thereof. Let me explain.
Once upon a time this was the place to be when the sun went down at Disneyland. Around the perimeter where the Princesses are today, were windows where you could buy an ice cream. There was even a special flavor of ice cream exclusive to the area – Fantasia. You could grab a seat and watch some of the best big bands anywhere and some of the most amazing dancers. You could even hit the dance floor and work up a sweat. I have fond memories of one summer in the 1980s that had back to back the greatest big bands touring America. When they took the ice cream away and then started to cut back on the music, it was no wonder it became a ghost town.
REGRETTABLE: King Triton’s Carousel of the Sea Canopy
The time has come to rebuild the Post-modern canopy of the carousel to match the turn of the last century theme of the pier. Not long ago they did some minor cosmetic changes to the stores but the canopy was not included in the project. Instead, what remains is a big, giant wound that reminds us of what was. Really, how much could this cost? Imagine the difference as one looks overs the lagoon at the pier. One of the hallmarks of Disney design is the recognition that it is the little things that add up.
Next week will will consider even more examples from the Disneyland Resort and evaluate what category they fall in; Exceptional, Acceptable, or Regrettable.