The removal of the Court of Angels in New Orleans Square to make room for an expanded Club 33 has become the latest polarizing issue between traditionalists and those who are apathetic about change. How people view this little piece of construction says a lot about how they view the park in general.
For those who are sad to see this little out of the way space go away, it represents one more example of Disney corporate greed over Walt Disney’s vision of creating exotic immersive environmental experiences for everyone. For those who never noticed The Court of Angels before or recognize that it represents an underutilized area that nobody visits even on the busiest day, their opinion tends to be “Get over it, things change.”
For anybody who has read Samland before knows, I am in the former camp. But I don’t want to get into that debate. Instead, I am going to take the opportunity to focus my lens on how filmmaking is used in Disneyland’s environmental design and how The Court of Angels is a wonderful example of an essential pattern to quality urban planning.
First the film link. One of the things Walt Disney loved to do was to add little surprises throughout the park that guests could stumble upon. In filmmaking they were known as interstitials, events between the major events. Within the best films, you need occasional pauses in the action to catch your breath. If you remove them, the film would be a chaotic jumble of raw emotions. Disneyland and Walt Disney World were designed with interstitials in mind and that is why they are not a Six Flags style amusement park.
The Court of Angels is an excellent example. Another favorite that is highlighted in The Disneyland Story: The Unofficial Guide is the petrified tree in Frontierland. In July 1956, Walt and Lillian had driven through Colorado, near Pike’s Peak, just outside of Colorado Springs. Walt saw a “Petrified Trees for Sale” at Pike’s Petrified Forest. He pulled in and told Lillian to wait in the car. She was not happy with the detour and was starting to get agitated. When her husband returned, he proudly proclaimed that he had just bought her anniversary present; a petrified tree stump. The 5-ton stump was still in Colorado on their 31st anniversary on July 13, 1956. When she said that it was too big for the mantle, Walt brought it down to Disneyland. On Walt and Lillian’s 32nd anniversary, July 13, 1957, the 10-foot tree stump was installed next to the Rivers of America.
For urban designers, an outdoor room such as the Court of Angels is recognized as essential element to creating spaces with a higher degree of life. In A Pattern Language, architect Christopher Alexander said, “An outdoor space becomes a special outdoor room when it is well enclosed with walls of the building, walls of foliage, columns, trellis, and sky; and when the outdoor room, together with an indoor space [the shops], forms a virtually continuous living area.” It is my belief that the Court of Angels satisfies that need and that is why so many people are lamenting its passing.
For today’s management, it is a tough call. They are being pushed to maximize the revenues for every square foot of the park and a beautiful “underutilized” space is very tempting. It is not like they have not already tried before. Look at the holidays when the space has played host to an expanded retail display. The baseline for revenues had already been set and it must be obvious that Club 33 should have a higher yield. But is that enough to close off a beautiful space to the general visitor? You be the judge.