Last week I decided to apply a tool I use at my day job to give me a reason to spout out a bunch of opinions about the state of the Disneyland Resort (Exceptional, Acceptable, or Regrettable Part 1).

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. 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 you see and what you 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 with your comments.

EXCEPTIONAL: Ellis Island Boys


If you are a fan of jazz from the 1920s as performed by bands bands like Squirrel Nut Zippers then I have a suggestion on where you need to eat lunch or dinner at DCA. Head for the Paradise Pier Gardens, grab a table underneath the trees, and prepare to be entertained. This is a case where the music and theme mesh perfectly. The band fits the era of the beer garden. They are incredibly talented and have a rather broad repertoire.

As for the venue, this is another home run from the DCA remodel. With an intimate sunken dining area protected by a canopy of trees. It is easy to scoot around tables and chairs to fit your needs. And there are solid dining choices – Greek skewers and Italian food. Plus, if you ever need a reminder of how tacky DCA 1.0 was, just go into the bathrooms. They are leftover from the grand opening.

Exceptional, Acceptable and Regrettable: Carsland Gateways 

There are three ways to enter Carsland. Which one best embodies the elements of quality, variety, and surprise? There is quite a bit of difference if you are trying to make a good first impression

For those in the know, the exceptional way to enter this new land is through the Monterey Bay food court. The rock arch perfectly frames the Zen view. There is a sense of depth and grander that is due to the use of color and the sheer size of the structure. You get a peek at the cars racing through the bunny hills and plenty of places to sit to enjoy the view. The Acceptable entry is up Radiator Spring’s Main Street. It is exceptionally pretty at night.  The wienie (view terminus) of the mountains behind the fire station is effective. If you stare at the flashing traffic signal you may discover that the third blink really is a bit longer. The regrettable entrance is the one from A Bug’s Land. It is obvious this is merely a service entrance until Carsland expands in this area, which it surely will.


ACCEPTABLE: Silly Symphony Swings

TIme to get hyper-picky. The Silly Symphony Swings is just a simple carnival ride dressed up a bit. Taking the swings out of the orange peel was a good thing. Oddly, this is one of my wife’s favorite rides at DCA. It is called the Silly Symphony Swings but it stars Mickey Mouse and is themed to his The Band Concert. That was not a Silly Symphony but an entire different Disney series. Okay being picky but I know I am not alone.

EXCEPTIONAL: The Retiring of the Colors Ceremony on Main Street

The day I wrote this, it was 30 years to the day that the Vietnam war ended. I can think of no better day to honor those that have served our country in the armed forces. Walt Disney understood that Disneyland was an American weapon in the Cold War. Because of the free enterprise system, only in America could somebody conceive of such a place as Disneyland.

The flag ceremony is one of the oldest traditions in the Park and a daily reminder of what Disneyland has stood for for almost 60 years. The show is tweaked now and again. On that day, the Dapper Dans sang, the Disneyland Band played, and veterans and active duty personnel were invited to come together around the flagpole in Town Square in a touching ceremony that is not to be missed.


REGRETTABLE: The Vinylmation Invasion


Have you ever been to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Islands of Adventure? One of the things I was most impressed with is how the shops and restaurant helped to reinforce the theme for that particular area. This was an innovation first developed for Disneyland. A trip down Main Street was both a shopping and dining experience as well as an opportunity to step back in time and visit an old-fashioned pharmacy and grocery store. Needed that cool plastic helmet? You could only find that in Tomorrowland. Or a coonskin cap? Better hurry over to Frontierland because that was the only place you could buy one.

This seems to be a lost art at Disney these days. Now the merchandise machine makes sure that everything is available at every single store regardless of theme. Why Jack Skellington is in Adventureland at Disneyland is beyond me when you can walk a couple of hundred feet to New Orleans Square to a store dedicated to the guy.

This lack of consistency strikes right to the heart of the Disney park experience. This was a quality that used to set them apart from the competition. In many respects, the real breakthrough at the Disney theme parks with regards to physical design is was what John Hench and Marty Sklar call the “lack of visual contradictions”. John Hench, who spent more than 60 years working for The Walt Disney Company, stated that the goal of the theme park designer is different than that of the urban planner. He said that the job of designing theme parks is to successfully eliminate visual contradictions. Visual contradictions are the active clutter that you see in the real world, which creates mixed messages, sets up conflicts, creates tension, and may even feel threatening. Marty Sklar, another long time Walt Disney Company executive, describes the process as the “architecture of reassurance.”

Not to offend those who collect Vinylmation characters but do we need to have one store in every single land at both parks in California carrying the same product, merchandised in the same manner, regardless of theme? The only lands in Disneyland that do not carry the stuff are Fantasyland and Critter Country. But Main Street makes up for that with 2 locations.

Score points for Universal and subtract some magic from Disney. I fear that we will soon be overrun with Duffy or those little Mouseketeer hats or something else in the very near future. There was something to be said for creating a sense of urgency with exclusive merchandise.

Now it’s your turn. Give me something Exceptional, something Acceptable and Something Regrettable at Disneyland.


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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.