Samland: Thoughts on Starbucks on Main Street at Disneyland

Written by Sam Gennawey. Posted in Features, Samland

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Published on October 03, 2013 at 1:00 am with 22 Comments

It seems that everybody has an opinion on the inclusion of a Starbucks on Main Street at Disneyland. I went to the park this week and was inspired to toss my two cents into the wishing well.

First a disclaimer. I don’t drink coffee. Never liked the stuff. Give me a Diet Coke in the morning and I am a happy guy. Therefore, I cannot comment on whether the coffee is a step up or down from what was served before. I did like the idea that you could get refills all day at the old Market House. I suspect that Starbucks is not so generous.

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Walt Disney’s version of Disneyland was meant to contain large set pieces that represented the various movie and television genres of the day. He invited his guests to become the characters and to play along. That was part of the magic of Disneyland and it was the start the theme park industry. His Imagineers created spaces that people wanted to be, regardless of whether they were going on rides.

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It was not only an aesthetic consideration, it was financial as well. At the time, you could buy a general admission ticket, buy tickets for individual attractions, buy souvenirs, and food. For a broad pleasurable experience which would also generate a lot of money, Walt wanted to see some folks standing in lines, a lot of people eating, and the rest milling about, hopefully in the shops. A lot of people would find it fun just to sit around. That is why many older Disneyland fans from Southern California seem to have this weird connection to the park. It was a park.

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What does this have to do with Starbucks? I believe that the coffee house is beautifully designed and decorated. It is function over form, which was the priority. It is not really themed but it is an attractive retail space using an overlay of historic items designed to maximize revenues. Just like your local Cracker Barrel.

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The original Market House was built around the heart of the Main Street USA community – the pot belly stove. Want to have a relaxed chat with a neighbor? Play checkers. Need more local news? Pick up the party line phone. The Market House was like the Upjohn Pharmacy across the street. They were less stores and more like museums. Their real function was supposed to help to reinforce the illusion that you were some place from another time.

Am I overthinking this? Maybe. But architect Charles Moore, a fan of Disneyland when most professionals held the park in contempt, said, “Place is the projection of the image of civilization onto the environment.” What may be a vacant lot to some can be a holy space to others.

With the rise of Paul Pressler and his successors, the thinking about space has changed and everything is judged by how much money can be made per square foot. After all, management schools teach us that you can only manage what you can measure. Maximizing square footage is the thinking of a shopping mall manager. Pressler may be long gone but his approach continues to drive the park’s design to this very day. If there are exceptions please highlight them in the comments.

I applaud the Imagineers for retaining three signature elements; the pot belly stove, the impromptu checker board game on a barrel, and the party line phones. The stove has been placed in a new space called the Book Rest. Nice space. The stove is no longer the center of attention. It is tucked oddly in a dark corner. The queue for coffee is the new focus. The history geek in me notes that Walt personally made miniature versions of pot belly stoves and sold them.

I typed this article while sitting on a nice little bench at a table toward the back of the Book Rest. I think it is supposed to be a bookstore (Mr. Peavidy, Bookseller) but I am not sure. It feels like a library. It is nicely decorated with period books and artifacts. I think it may turn out to be a a great “Hey I will meet you at…” spot.

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Instead of the checkers board near the stove, they have been separated. The protective little railing that surrounded the stove and game board is long gone. That sense of security while playing a game is gone. But who plays checkers, right?

Since everything at WDI is about story, I am sure that there is a very eloquent back story that supports what the guests now see. Just like the Carnation Cafe has nothing to do with the ice cream company and has to do with a guy’s wife. I look forward to the Disney Parks blog revealing that story or if somebody with a press release can send it my way, I will highlight it in a future column.

I could get really picky. Just look at the roof. The air conditioning vents are pretending to be structural beams but it is obvious that this is a modern air conditioning system covered by a fake wood veneer. Next time you are at the park look up at the ceilings of the older stores and you will see what I mean.

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Don’t get me wrong. Disney and Starbucks are going to make a lot of money. Coffee fans have a real alternative (I know how crazy some of you get before your first cup). It is hard to imagine how they could accomplish the goal of moving hundreds of people through a space while retaining any sense of charm. Today’s Disneyland is not Walt’s park. But look for me typing away at the Book Rest the next time you visit….

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About Sam Gennawey

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.

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  • DobbysCloset

    “That is why many older Disneyland fans from Southern California seem to have this weird connection to the park. It was a park.”

    Is this why I am considering retiring there? Because it was once my neighborhood park? Gosh. “I am not weird; I am gifted.” It’s a plaque I had that just got passed on to my six-year-old friend who is quite bright.

    And wasn’t Carnation Ice Cream once served at Disneyland?

    As a planner you are well aware of the need to queue the modern human responsibly, accommodating their larger space requirements. I wonder if the Book Rest caters more toward the petite? What would you say is their seating capacity?

  • hannibal8

    When looking back at the history of the Market House I think it’s important to remember Walt’s visits to Greenfield Village (once in 1940 and again with Ward Kimball in 1948). The Swift Market House was very similar to the General Store at Greenfield. The idea, as you mentioned, was to show a representation of days-gone-by. I think one of the few places on Main Street that still displays the feel of an open air museum is the Fire Station. Since those early days all of the spaces have become more commercial. Ironically, having Starbucks step in is almost a throw back to the early days when Walt was running out of money and leased out spaces on Main Street and other locations around the Park. This incarnation is not as cozy or cluttered as the Market House, but there are some nice little nooks. Maybe over time, some of that influence will creep into the rest of the store.

  • Disneylandguest

    “It is function over form, which was the priority. It is not really themed but it is an attractive retail space using an overlay of historic items designed to maximize revenues. Just like your local Cracker Barrel.”

    I think you are being overly-critical.

    I’ve been inside the new Market House. I think it looks great. I think its fantastic that they were able to find a place for the stove, phones, and checker boards. You seem to be forgetting that while Main Street is supposed to be a tribute to small town America. This is the year 2013. The crowds are massive today, and NOT small town-sized. Traffic-flow is important with the kinds of crowds that the park gets today. Disneyland shops have to be functional (in order to handle the crowd demands of a popular park in 2013.) as well as appropriately themed. And the new Market House is appropriately themed.

    The old market house had a problem, it had NO SPACE FOR LINES.