The California Chapter of the American Planning Association is coming to the Disneyland Hotel for their annual conference in September. I penned this article with them in mind. But I think you hard core Disneyland fans will enjoy. - Sam
So you are coming to Anaheim to bond with your peers and learn the latest. You also thought you might take a little time out to visit Disneyland a monorail ride away. Who can blame you? Chalk it up to professional research. Here’s how.
Disneyland did not start out to become a showcase for innovative urban design and planning policies, but that is exactly what has happened. Not only did Walt Disney change the public’s perception of what an amusement park could be, his vision forever changed the public’s expectations for the public realm in general.
Disney got to play by a different set of rules. He did not use traditional architects and planners. Early on, he asked architect Welton Beckett to work on Disneyland but he declined. He told Disney he needed to use his own people, as they would be the only ones who understand what he was trying to do. These people became the Imagineers. They were primarily motion picture art directors or pulled from the Disney animation studio.
As a result of Disney’s decades long empirical research he insisted they set his park within a strong boundary with only a single entrance. Internally, he advocated the use of a radial, or hub-and-spoke, circulation system. His Imagineers employed cinematic tricks to manipulate the structures and space. By removing the visual contradictions they created a new time of public space, one built upon the architecture of reassurance.
The berm is the most important physical feature in Disneyland and is somewhat hidden after all these years.
If Walt Disney wanted to take his guests to the American Wilderness or an African jungle, he needed to make sure people were not seeing a freeway exchange, high-rise buildings, or transmission lines from inside the park. Landscaper Bill Evans figured out a way to eliminate any visual intrusions. The solution was to build a berm to shut out the sound outside. “Trees alone won’t do that. It takes about 100 feet of dense trees to block sound, but you can do that with about 20 feet of earth,” said Evans. “Then we garnish the berm with all the landscaping we can afford, and in this way we exclude the twentieth century.” The berm also created a horizon for many of the vistas within the park.
Walt picked Marvin Davis to be the master planner for Disneyland. From the very beginning, Walt was clear about his intentions for Disneyland. He told Davis, “I just want it to look like nothing else in the world. And it should be surrounded by a train.” He said he wanted the railroad tracks on the high ground so guests could preview all the wonderful things that he had in store for them.
Davis described the site design process for Disneyland, “Before they bought the property—I guess I must have done well. I know I did 129 different schemes for the solution of the thing…different entryways…until finally it developed into the scheme that it is now with the single entrance and the walk for the avenue, which is Main Street, up to the center of the hub. Walt’s idea was to have the whole thing as radials from that hub.”
Davis noted, “Walt was very circulation conscious, and he wanted a single entrance so that they could control the number of people that came in, and know the number that went out, and know what’s in the park.” The use of a single entrance was another way Walt defied conventional wisdom. The common practice at amusement parks and World’s Fairs was to have multiple entrances. Since movie theater operators only have one entrance and exit, they always know how many people they are serving. Walt wanted the same level of control at Disneyland. An additional benefit of the single entrance was that it reduced the level of stress for a guest visiting an unfamiliar place. The site plan provided for one entrance that moved people through a narrow corridor toward an open space. This layout could accommodate large crowds, and it provided immediate orientation.
What Disneyland called the “stage curtains” were the two tunnels that passed under the railroad tracks to the left and right of the station. As the show began, the opening scene was just on the other side of the railroad tracks. Borrowing from filmmakers, the tunnels acted as a cross dissolve between one realm to another, from the outside world into “the world of Yesterday, Tomorrow, and Fantasy.” A cross-dissolve is when the director needed to take the viewer from one scene to another seamlessly, he or she superimposed the tail end of the first clip onto the beginning of the second clip and faded the clips in and out.
Disney studied all sorts of public spaces and their circulation patterns. He said, “I’ve been studying the way people move at museums and other entertainment places. Everybody’s got tired feet. I don’t want that to happen in this place.” He called this problem “museum feet.” He described the feeling when “the ache of having walked too much just to get through the place” made the visit unpleasant. He figured that he could mitigate this issue through better planning. “I want a place for people to sit down and where older folks can say, ‘you kids run on. I’ll meet you there in a half hour,’” Walt said. “Disneyland is going to be a place where you can’t get lost or tired unless you want to.”
Disney and Davis decided that the best solution to avoid “museum feet was to lay out the park’s circulation plan like a bicycle wheel. This is known as the radial plan. It has also been called the hub-and-spoke pattern because the pathways radiate out in every direction like spokes connected to a hub on a bicycle tire.
This radial plan concept was so successful that the design pattern is embedded in virtually every Disney theme park. Walt remarked, “The more I go to other amusement parks in all parts of the world, the more I am convinced of the wisdom of the original concepts of Disneyland. I mean, have a single entrance through which all traffic would flow, then a hub off which the various areas were situated.” He added, “That gives people a sense of orientation—they know where they are at all times. And it saves a lot of walking.”
At the end of Main Street, just in front of the castle, is a circular park called the Plaza Hub. This is the central gathering spot within the park. “Walt observed how families made decisions about what to do next,” Imagineer John Hench said.” He concluded that they needed a lot of space, as they would stop and gather around with one child or two hanging outside the group.” The solution was the use of “hubs—open, essentially circular spaces that afford views in many directions—[and that] facilitate decision making. From a hub, guests can see and point to many of the choices they might make.” Hench added, “Decision-making is very fatiguing. Relating things that are unrelated is fatiguing…if you start wandering from one thing to another, not quite knowing what you want to see, you will wear yourself out.” He suggested that “You come to a point in the park that we know is a decision point, we put two choices. We try not to give them seven or eight so that they have to decide in a qualitative way which is the best way.” Walt and his team gave this careful consideration in an attempt to manipulate crowd flow. In the book Vinyl Leaves, author Stephen Fjellman said, “The Disney strategy is to disperse people as widely as possible and to keep them moving.” Even the stores along Main Street were planned with interior pathways to mitigate congestion on the street.
At the end of each pathway that radiates out from the Plaza Hub is what Walt called a “wienie” — a large visual attraction in each ‘land’, which caught the eye and drew people along preordained routes so that the crowds flowed smoothly. Walt observed that people move toward things that are inviting, and, borrowing from silent-era comedy films, he coined the term “wienie” to refer to such things. Why wienie? In The Vatican to Vegas, Norman Klein quipped, “The movie dog jumps on cue because someone wiggles a frankfurter off screen.” John Hench defined a wienie as “A beckoning hand [that] promises something worthwhile; its friendly beckoning fingers say, ‘Come this way. You’ll have a good time.’” They are the centerpieces of the scripted space.
In many respects, Disneyland is the world’s largest toy train set. Of the locomotives that circle the park to the buildings along Main Street, Walt said, “It’s not apparent at a casual glance that this street is only a scale model.” He added, “This cost more, but made the street a toy and the imagination can play more freely with a toy.” To achieve this effect, the Imagineers adapted a film technique called forced perspective and applied it to three-dimensional design. John Hench defined forced perspective as “a form of one-point linear perspective in which receding space is compressed by exaggerating the proximity of the implied vanishing point to the viewer.” In film, the process adds depth to the image. In three-dimensional design, the illusion adds height. The perspective is “forced” because the first floor of a building is full scale, the second floor is smaller in scale, and the third level is even smaller. As the structure continues to rise, the materials continue to get smaller in scale. Forced perspective is used to adjust the scale of the architecture to meet the storytelling need. These are not full-scale reproductions of historic structures. The size of the buildings has been manipulated and the unfolding of the spaces is purposefully staged to reinforce the overall narrative. Forced perspective also provided the Imagineers maximum flexibility in the design process. Forced perspective is the quality that makes buildings feel taller than they really are while making the environment more comfortable and intimate.
The physical space that the guest passes through is compressed, which aids in the storytelling process. This is why Disneyland seems cozy and friendly, particularly to children. In Magic Lands, John Findlay says, “The overall effect of the built environment was impressive but not intimidating.” Hench noted, “It’s one of the special charms of Disneyland that not only is the architecture related, but the ideas are related. You get the impression of ambience.”
The park is made up of a series of spaces that unfold before you. Hench said, “You begin with the first scene and move through. You don’t throw people into the fifth scene, where they cannot make sense of what is happening.” The payoff is a sense of welcoming, worth, value, and security.
Each of the lands at Disneyland represents a major cinematic genre of the early 1950s. Main Street, U.S.A. is home. Adventureland is movie exotica. Frontierland brings to life all of the westerns that were on television and in the movies. Fantasyland allows Walt’s animated films to come to life. Tomorrowland is a science fiction portal. John Hench suggested, “To design an enhanced reality we must intensify above all the visual elements of storytelling, creating a vibrant, larger-than-life environment.” Historian Karal Ann Marling described the result. She said, “In the movies, the experience is continuous and unbroken, but in Disneyland, it is discontinuous and episodic, like watching television in the privacy of one’s home, each ride a four- or five-minute segment, slotted in among snacks, trips to the rest room, and ‘commercials’ in the form of souvenir emporia. And it is always possible to change the channel.”
Most importantly, there is a real difference in the DNA between a theme park and the world outside the front gate. Each type of environment is driven by its own distinctive organizing system and we must define the differences so that we make the right choices to create places that are simultaneously serviceable and vibrant.
The “real” world feels alive when there is a certain disorderly vigor. A theme park succeeds when there is a lack of visual contradictions. It is virtually impossible to blend these qualities without creating a space that feels uncomfortable and undesirable.
Author Jane Jacobs described “the city as organized complexity.” Among other factors, architect Robert Venturi came to the conclusion that successful and dynamic urban environments contain a “messy vitality over obvious unity.” Both agree that it is this quality that is necessary if a place is to feel authentic and resonate with meaning to the users. Such places are embedded with quality, variety, and surprise. As a result, the environment puts you slightly on edge, and you feel more alert and alive in a delightful way. There is a delicate balance, however. Too much of this messy vitality and you will only encourage fear.
When asked about this difference, Hench said, “Most urban environments are basically chaotic places, as architectural and graphic information scream at the citizen for attention. This competition results in disharmonies and contradictions that…cancel each other [out].” He warns, “A journey down almost any urban street will quickly place the visitor into visual overload as all of the competing messages merge into a kind of information gridlock.”
Hench suggested that the only way to design a successful themed environment is to eliminate any visual contradictions. He defined a visual contradiction as “the active clutter that you see in the real world, which creates mixed messages, sets up conflicts, creates tension, and may even feeling threatening.” Hench taught his team, “If visual details disagree, guests experience active clutter, which has the same effect on the eye as a cacophony of noises has on the ear.” Hench elaborated, “Walt wanted all the details to be correct. What it amounted to was a kind of visual literacy.” He said that each space is like a “bead or charm in a necklace. The same thing was applied as you walk around the park. Continuity was the same. Whether you’re slow or fast, what you look at it the same.”
By eliminating the visual contradictions, Walt had created a world that was safe, clean, and existed within the earthen berm that surrounded his park. What he created was not a place about fantasy but a place about a sense of reassurance. Michel Sorkin, author of Variations on a Theme Park, noted that “The highly regulated, completely synthetic vision provides a simplified, sanitized experience that stands in for the more undisciplined complexities of the city.” Walt himself said, “Physically, Disneyland would be a small world in itself—it would encompass the essence of the things that were good and true in American life. It would reflect the faith and challenge of the future, the entertainment, the interest in intelligently presented facts, the stimulation of the imagination, the standards of health and achievement, and above all, a sense of strength, contentment, and well-being.” Hench said that Disneyland “tried to present an undilutedly rosy view of the world; contradiction or confusion were qualities the planners of Disneyland associated with the defective, poorly planned, conventional amusement park.” He added, “Disneyland offered an enriched version of the real world, but not an escapist or an unreal version. We program out all the negative, unwanted elements and program in the positive elements. We’ve taken and purified the statement so it says what it was intended to.”
One day Walt Disney was escorting the Evangelist Billy Graham through the park. Graham told Walt that Disneyland was “a nice fantasy.” This did not sit well with Walt. He replied, “You know the fantasy isn’t here. This is very real…The Park is reality. The people are natural here; they’re having a good time; they’re communicating. This is what people really are. The fantasy is—out there, outside the gates of Disneyland, where people have hatreds and people have prejudices. It’s not really real!” Seeking this reassurance is the reason people keep coming back repeatedly. As the plaque by the flagpole says, “Disneyland is your land.” Who would have thought almost 60 years later millions would take him at his word?
If you enjoyed today’s article, you’ll probably want to pre-order my upcoming book on Universal Studios history:
You may also enjoy my two recent books: