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.

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  • Interesting Sam. I think when you are in Fantasy Fair Village it feels exceptional, but because it is in a spot where it intrudes on both Main Street and the castle, it is just acceptable.

    You sure are right about King Triton’s Carousel. It is completely out of place in the new Paradise Pier. It would look so much better if the canopy structure was wooden. While they are at it, Screamin’ and the Mickey Fun Wheel need more appropriate wooden looking queues as well. That whole back half of Paradise Pier is a regrettable mess of ugly old DCA and beautiful Victorian gingerbread. This really needs to be addressed. There’s potential here.

    • danielz6

      Uh lets not forget what is by far the biggest eyesore on Paradise pier…Jumping Jelly fish? A ride that was designed for the Little mermaid themed land of Tokyo Disney sea!

  • LoveStallion

    I say ax the carousel altogether. Most people forget it’s even there. But so long as it stays, it would be prudent to fix the canopy.

    However, I would argue that ditching the ride and reconfiguring the area a little bit to allow for a new ride would make the most sense.

    • DobbysCloset

      Carousel fanatics are sorta like roller coaster fanatics, only with less screaming. I could ride a carousel for hours…. But that canopy is indeed an aesthetic abomination. Not something that one notices while one is riding — one must pay attention to where one’s mount is going when one rides a carousel, or they’ll wander off back to the stable…

    • victoriaskitten

      The carousel is good if you have little ones to keep entertained while the big kids are on Screaming. Right now it’s a big help to me. In a few months and an inch or two in height a different story.

  • dano4

    I’ll play this game. I think the performances by Five & Dime, the Red Car News Boys, and Minnie’s Fly Girls Charter Airline are exceptional! I especially like the use of Mickey and Minnie. The crowds these perfomances draw in are amazing and I hope when they run there course, something close to exceptional (if not better) replaces them.

    Though I don’t remember to much about the former tenants, the area that houses Boardwalk Pizza & Pasta and the Paradise Garden Grill is at best acceptable. Kudos to the ambiance provided by the lush vegetation and live music, but the food offered is on par with a high school cafeteria.

    It’s regrettable that more hasn’t already been done to the area of Frontierland that houses the Big Thunder Ranch. I’ve read a few rumors about possible plans for new lands, attractions, etc., but until those work walls go up, they are only rumors.

  • Professortango

    The shows at Fantasy Faire don’t strike me as ultra contemporary, they do feel fresh and more universally entertaining though. They remind me of a Renaissance Faire show, which is fitting for where they are. It would seem odd for Disney to have tried to perform a straight Disney show telling the story of the movie in that space. This feels like a band of players presenting a classic tale in a European festival. It’s a huge win for me.

    • Yes, that’s it exactly – Renaissance Faire show – I love the two little shows in Fantasy Faire Village, but couldn’t quite put my finger on the style choice.

    • CCS

      Thanks for this. Looking forward to the Fantasy Faire “playlets.” Sam, “Aladdin” has tons of contemporary and cultural references, and over the years, they have been updated to reflect what’s going on at the moment. The Genie gets his best laughs with those lines.

      • victoriaskitten

        The Genie is why I go to the show. The jokes are a hoot and do go with what is happening in society.

  • Omnispace

    Thank you for reminding everyone what was so special about Carnation Plaza Gardens, back when it was a properly utilized space. My family used to grab a quick dinner there since it was such a wonderful location next to the moat and the Castle. The food wasn’t the best but as a kid all I wanted a plain hamburger anyway. For some reason I always equate the old Plaza Gardens with the musical “The Music Man” — a light and nostalgic impression of that time.

    • TodAZ1

      All of Main Street has always reminded me of the Music Man. In fact, the music loop that (up until a year or so ago) played on Main Street utilized alot of Music Man songs.

  • mickeyandme67

    Buena Vista Street: For me, it is only “Accepatable.” Although I feel like it is a vastly marked improvement over the previous concept, the Monorail bridge that mimics the Atwater bridge is an eyesore that blocks the view and in my mind, impedes the visual flow of the street. The details on the street and quality of retro-fit design is “Remarkable”, but the bridge knocks it down a peg in my opinion.

    Nice article Sam. Thanks.

    • brian11811

      But you can’t get rid of the bridge, the monorail goes over it. I think it adds to the ambiance, kind of like entering Disneyland by going under the railroad tracks.

      • QuiGonJ

        Well said. I think of it as the berm we didn’t get for DCA, as it does help separate the park from the esplanade.

  • DobbysCloset

    When I was 17 (1972) I ran away to Hollywood, looking for the Old Hollywood of the 1930’s which still remained, tattered and soiled, in bits and pieces. The way you are describing Buena Vista Street makes it sound like I might find a taste of it there and, for the first time, I am really wanting to re-visit CA.

  • DisWedWay

    Sam I still wish they had put the neon sign on the Carthay Circle Theater roof top. Having grown up with it in the 50’s and 60’s while visiting relatives, I really miss not seeing it there. Also Dan the Miner’s bronze statue with water running from his tipped miners pan in the fountain out front would have depicted the early California History the Theater once did outside as well as inside through historical scenes. Dan and Walt arrived on this scene pretty close in time back then. I too miss the Carnation Plaza Gardens and still feel it could have been reinvented in the 1920’s theme and not another that was several century’s back in time. Fantasy Fair would have been better behind the castle walls as you mentioned and not outside into the hub area. The Orbitron probably would have gone back on top of it’s old location in Tomorrowlnd, if Michael E. had allowed a greater budget to modify the existing Star Jets frame and support platform for the Orbitron’s added weight. The existing frame was not strong enough to do so, so an alternative was the hub area out front near the old House of Tomorrow location. They can still beef up the old location and move it there if the money is given. Love you work Sam.

    • DisWedWay

      Sam you are my Roger Ebert for theme Parks. I miss his reviews, as his loss is like a compass without a needle to point my way.

  • Big D

    The DCA carousel? Burn that mother to the ground!!!

    but that’s just my opinion…

    • DobbysCloset


    • victoriaskitten

      uhhhhhhhh okay.

  • Colorado Mouse Mom

    Very nicely written. I have to disagree about the Fantasy Faire needing to be placed behind the Castle walls. In all reality, the Faire is supposed to be the hub of a town outside of a castle. Those allowed inside the Castle were usually royalty, not peasants. So the placement just outside the Castle makes sense from a Storytelling perspective but not necessarily a logistical one.
    Last time we were there it was still under construction and while it does take away the feel of Main Street, the limited real estate is what was used. I am glad a real show will be going back into the Theater and the Faire was relocated.

  • yellowrocket

    Are you sure about the Disney Studios Pan Pacific not being the same dimensions as the Disney California Adventure?

  • Gullywhumper

    Love the article, also love the “Sam you are my Roger Ebert for theme Parks.” Statement! LOL; So true!

  • DobbysCloset

    This evening I just coincidentally had a meeting with a presentation from our local city planner over housing policy codes and all I could think of is this column, and that, with the help of a little pixie dust, the whole world can be planned to BE like Disneyland, or at least the best of it. I spoke up to include space for public gardening and community meeting facilities in dense multi-family housing.

    The Pan Pacific recreation brings back memories of driving by it, watching it fall into ruin, the whole Wilshire District of film noir locations, Farmers Market. By the time I made it to Hollywood in 1973 it had closed. I was told by an old-timer artist that his childhood in Los Angeles in the 1920’s and 30’s was paradise, that the weather was perfect and the movies were everywhere… Of course Roger Rabbit would have gone to events at the Pan Pacific as well, and Walt, and Mickey…

    Thank you very much for the photo. I hope they keep it long enough for me to see it.


  • soletrain

    this is great.