Magic Kingdom: A Grand Entrance Indeed
by, 09-07-2011 at 07:22 PM
A few weeks ago I took a look at first impressions and the arrival experience for Epcot. This week, I will turn my attention toward the Magic Kingdom.
Getting to the entrance turnstile at the Magic Kingdom is no easy feat. You can’t just walk up to the front door. You have make decisions on how to get there. This is all by design. Why is this so? Well, we have to visit Disneyland in Anaheim to understand why. So let’s travel back to the beginnings of Disneyland.
For many years, Walt Disney was thinking and dreaming of building a family entertainment facility. To find the perfect location, Walt hired the legendary Harrison “Buzz” Price. Price ran the Stanford Research Institute, which would later become Economic Research Associates (ERA). You can learn a lot more about Buzz Price here and here.
To give Price guidance, Walt laid down only a couple of constraints. He did not want to purchase land that was near the ocean because people would be distracted and it would be more expensive to maintain the park. What he wanted was lots of flat land. He would create his own mountains, valleys, and rivers. After considerable research Price found the perfect property in Anaheim just one hour south of Los Angeles in rural Orange County. Ever the numbers guy, Price calculated that this area would be the center of the Southern California population within 25 years. By 1980, he was only off by 4 miles.
To Price’s trained eye, the Anaheim property had a lot going for it. Adjacent to the property was the right-of-way for the Santa Ana freeway, then under construction. This major highway would connect Los Angeles to San Diego. Price knew the City Manager and he felt Anaheim was a small city with ambition. The city was looking for new industries to balance out the tax rolls.
Walt convinced his brother Roy that he was really on to something with this Disneyland idea and the two of them gave Price the go ahead to purchase as much land as they could afford, which wasn't much. Just as Walt predicted, Disneyland would become an instant hit and millions of visitors would flock to Anaheim. As much as the Disney brothers wanted to acquire more property, they found themselves priced out of the market.
Disneyland in 1956
While speaking to Cast Members at Disneyland’s tenth anniversary in 1965, Walt said, “If we could have bought more land, we would have bought it; then we would have control of it, and it wouldn’t look like a second-rate Las Vegas around here. But we ran out of money, and by the time we did have a little money, everybody got wise to what was going on. We couldn’t buy anything around the place at all.” Former Disneyland President Jack Lindquist noted, “Harbor Boulevard, across from Disneyland, frustrated [Walt] tremendously. He was very disappointed in the city of Anaheim for not exercising greater control of the development that existed outside the park. Less than ten years after Disneyland opened, Harbor Boulevard was an example of ugly urban sprawl at its worst.”
In the early days, the first impression most guests had was not exactly magical. What they found was a jumble of tacky roadway signs that tried to compete with the iconic Disneyland gateway marquee. You turned in to the parking lot line, drove under the high-tension power line towers that crossed the property, paid your fee, and then were efficiently guided to your spot by a friendly cast member. From there it would only a short walk to a parking lot tram (unlike the way the Mickey and Friends parking structure is set up today). The tram would whisk you to the front of the park where you bought your tickets. Once you passed through the turnstiles, you experienced the familiar process of spaces unfolding and the Disneyland experience began.
When Walt decided to set up an east coast operation, he knew he wanted much more control over his surroundings. He had his team secretly purchase 27,258-acres of central Florida land for $5 million through an amazing process of dummy corporations. When he was done, he owned 43 square miles, twice the land of Manhattan, and enough space that the City of San Francisco would fit comfortably within his borders. Walt always said that the Florida Project gave him “the blessing of size.”
Walt knew what he wanted and he instructed his Imagineers to put the theme park at the far north end of the property as far away from the main highway as they could go. This served two objectives. First, the theme park was a familiar concept and it would become the "wienie" that would draw guest in and take them through the property past his real dream - the City of EPCOT. The second objective would be to create an arrival experience that would be far different than the one visitors experienced in Anaheim.
Back when the Magic Kingdom first opened, once guests left the main highway, they had to travel almost six miles. You had to leave the safety of the newly completed Interstate highway and drive north into a vast wilderness. The Imagineers knew that they needed to reassure the visitors that that they were not just driving into a swamp in Central Florida. The solution was Cinderella Castle.
The spires of Cinderella castle are visible up to two miles away. The castle in Florida is more than twice as tall as Disneyland's Sleeping Beauty Castle. The original idea for a tall structure came from Walt. He encouraged the idea of a tall iconic design element for Disneyland but the lack of money made that impossible and it was not until the Florida project that the concept could be fully realized.
In Since the World Began, Disney historian Jeff Kurtti said the Imagineers felt it was “critical that Cinderella Castle be seen from afar.” Disney historian Michael Broggie, wrote in Walt Disney’s Railroad Story, that Walt would remind his Imagineers that “this is a magical place. The important thing is the castle. Make it tall enough to be seen from all around the park. It’s got to keep people oriented.” The castle would act as a beacon that could be seen throughout the park and by all of the resort hotels, the monorail, and the ferries in the area. The height of the castle was not just an aesthetic issue. The design process was driven by functionality.
As I stated earlier, getting to the front gate at Disneyland was pretty easy. You either walked from your car or hopped on the free tram. For many of us, we would count the tram as our first ride of the day. For Walt Disney it was all too jarring. There was no transition from the real world to the magical world beyond the gates. Walt hated that. At Walt Disney World, he knew it would be different. This time he had the land.
Getting to the front gate at the Magic Kingdom is a very different experience. The actual entry turnstiles are over a mile away and guarded by the Seven Seas Lagoon filled with bacteria, alligators, and the ever-present Disney security. After you have arrived at the parking tollbooth, you continue to drive a ways to a huge parking lot. The familiar parking lot trams await and you are whisked…to the Transportation and Ticket Center (TTC). Here you buy your tickets and then you are confronted with a decision. Which method of transport do you take to get to the next destination?
In the beginning, you only had one choice. The monorail. However, ferryboats were soon added to accommodate the growing crowds. The monorail was sleek and futuristic. It gave you a preview of the hotels, especially the spectacular atrium of the Contemporary Resort. As one Imagineer said, without the monorail the lobby would resemble “a place where the Goodyear Blimp comes to mate.” Another way to get to the front gate would be by a more traditional old-fashioned ferryboat.
Today, there is yet another option. Resort guests can take a bus to a depot along one side of the theme park. Even the resort buses have a magical moment courtesy of Admiral Joe Fowler, the construction genius for both Disneyland and Walt Disney World. As the bus gets closer to the Contemporary Resort you will notice how the road dips below a viaduct. If you pay close attention, sometimes you will see the ferry from the Wilderness Lodge passing overhead. The road goes below the connection between Bay Lake and the Seven Seas Lagoon. The buses then skirt around the lagoon and drop you off in an exclusive area to the side of the Magic Kingdom’s entrance.
Since people who came from the movies designed the Magic Kingdom, it seems logical that they would unfold the sequence of spaces you have to travel through as if they were storyboarding a film. The show starts with a wide shot that provides a panoramic view of the adventures that wait. From afar, the first things you spot are the spires of Cinderella Castle or the great white dome for Space Mountain. Throughout your journey, the view is constantly deflected and sometimes removed just to tease you and heightening your anticipation.
From the long shot, we move toward a close up of the train station that acts like the movie theater marquee. It also blocks your view of everything behind. Once past the security gates and turnstiles, you step on the red bricks (carpet) of the movie theater lobby. Instead of a curtain hiding the screen, the Magic Kingdom uses the tunnels that go below the railroad tracks to achieve the same effect. As you pass through the tunnel (the curtain rises) the show begins with two quick visuals. The first is the immersive environment of Town Square in Main Street USA. The second comes when you move into the space and see, for the first time, Cinderella Castle from the base to the crown. Throughout your journey you have been constantly teased by the spires and now comes the full emotional pay off. The Imagineers have controlled what you can see and when you can see it. This allows them to unfold the story at their own pace.
Walt Disney World and the Magic Kingdom would be different from Disneyland in other ways. Disney wanted to make sure that people knew that going to Walt Disney World would be much more than just another visiting another theme park. They were very keen on selling the entire resort or vacationland experience. At the time of the Magic Kingdom’s opening, Disney did not have the rights to build any hotels in California. So the emphasis was always on improving the theme park. In Florida, Disney had a chance to get in to the hospitality business in a major way.
Early promotional materials highlighted the attractions that were unique at the Magic Kingdom including Liberty Square, Country Bear Jamboree, The Hall of Presidents, Space Mountain, the Mickey Mouse Revue, and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. The materials were also heavy on pushing the amenities such as boating, golfing, and other resort activities.
As you have seen, by design and at great cost, the transition from the parking lot to the Magic Kingdom’s front gate is nothing like the Disneyland arrival experience.
What was your first impression when you arrived at the Magic Kingdom?
Introducing My New Book
In October, my new book, WALT and the Promise of Progress City, will be available. Just in time for your holiday gift list!