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An Education in Magic at the Magic Kingdom

Rating: 2 votes, 5.00 average.
by , 04-04-2012 at 08:12 PM

Imagine you are an honors student at Western Illinois University (WIU) and you ran across this advertisement back in March 2010:

“Not only is the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida, one of the most popular vacation destinations in the world, it’s also a great example of effective communication by a multinational corporation. Communication of messages and information is planned is the smallest detail yet it is blended seamlessly so that the casual visitor never notices the flurry of communication going on around them.

This Study Abroad Course allows participants a glimpse inside these carefully thought out communication processes. Three main areas of communication will be studied: nonverbal, organizational, and computer-mediated. By experiencing various tours and attractions at the resort, students will discover the layers of non-verbal communication utilized by the Disney Imagineers. Study of Disney’s organizational communication will be compared to actual on-site conditions. Specialized guest lecturers will round out the first-hand experiences.”

Sounds pretty cool, eh?

Luckily for me, I was selected as one of those ‘specialized guest lecturers'.

The class was called Communication Around the World and was put together by David Zanolla from the Communications Department. It was limited to Undergraduate Honors students. The course was limited in size and carried a pretty hefty reading list. David worked these students like they were rented mules, and they seemed to really enjoy it. And may I say, what a great group. They came informed, excited, and curious.

So, let’s go for a walk through the Magic Kingdom. What follows is an abbreviated version of the tour.

Stop 1 - The entrance plaza outside the turnstiles

The sunrise over the Seven Seas Lagoon, while standing in front of the Magic Kingdom void of guests, is a beautiful site. Simply breathtaking. The only other people were those waiting for the Steam Train tour.

While we waited for the waves of guests arriving for the Rope Drop I introduced the notion that the Disney theme parks are effective in non-verbal communication through the application of cinematic techniques on the design and construction of three-dimensional environments. This concept is at the heart of the design process and a signature Disney element. Since many of the early Imagineers came with theatrical backgrounds, it makes sense that they would try to achieve Walt’s vision with what they knew.

While standing in the empty open space overlooking the lagoon, I reminded the class that the arrival experience to the Magic Kingdom was meant to unfold in stages in order to heighten the guest’s anticipation while removing them from the influence of the outside world. It is no accident that the theme park is at the very northern edge of the Disney property and you had to drive a long way from the Interstate to reach the parking lot.

Walt Disney was very frustrated with the area surrounding Disneyland. He called it a “second rate Las Vegas,” and he always regretted not being able to purchase more land. If he got the chance to do this again he would make sure he had plenty of land in which to mold his dreams. I go into great detail about this experience in Magic Kingdom: A Grand Entrance Indeed.

Another way to understand how and why things are laid out the way they are is to remember that visiting the Magic Kingdom is the same as walking through a movie. That was the effect that the Imagineers were trying to achieve. So the Main Street train station acts like the movie theater marquee while standing on the red bricks in front of the Mickey planter is the equal to standing on the red carpet of the “theater” lobby. The ‘show’ begins when the ‘curtain’ rises as you pass through the tunnels underneath the train tracks.

As is my habit, I entered through the left hand tunnel.

Stop 2 - Town Square

The movie metaphor continues as you walk through the tunnels under the tracks. In order to create a smooth, seamless transition between scenes, the editor would typically create a cross-dissolve. One piece of film would fade while another shot subtly takes its place. Walking through the tunnels simulates that same effect. Your mind is fooled and you are transported from one environment into a completely different one.

As you enter Town Square, you become throughly immersed within a very rich environment. Then you turn the corner and take the long shot down Main Street. Guests are further delighted by the contrast of a castle from medieval Europe as the view terminus to an American town from the turn of the last century.

We took the Omnibus down Main Street and hogged the entire top bench. This gave me a chance to talk about other cinematic techniques that have been applied to the built environment, including forced perspective and paying respect to the artists and administrators in the form of tributes (the movie ‘credits’) in the upper windows along Main Street. The students identified other ways the Imagineers used visual and physical tricks to communicate to the audience in very subtle, yet very real ways. All of these tools are evident along Main Street USA.

Stop 3 - The Plaza Hub

At the Plaza Hub, I pointed out some of the urban design patterns that are embedded into the environment, including the way the park is organized and how architecture can facilitate crowd distribution.

As many know, the park is laid out in a radial plan called the “hub and spoke.” Along with the single entrance, this was a revolutionary way to organize an amusement park. The Plaza Hub is the crossroads and the paths radiate out from this hub. At the end of the corridors is an architectural element that acts as a view terminus or a “wienie” in the Disney nomenclature. Each path is marked with a gateway marker that imparts additional story information.

For example, the bridge leading into Liberty Square is modeled after the Concord Bridge, which is also known as the Old North Bridge. This is the spot where the Minutemen faced off with the British in 1775. This is the moment when our nation changed and an appropriate start to our journey through America’s past. According to the Imagineers, the bridge is “deep” in meaning and represents crossing the ocean from the Old World to the New World.

These are just three examples of the urban design patterns that have been echoed in virtually every other Disney theme park.

We walked up the ramp on the left of the Castle into Fantasyland.

Stop 4 - Where the Fantasyland Skyway station used to be.

The next objective was to illustrate how the Imagineers use the language of architecture and archetypal truths to tell a very specific story.

Let’s start with this example. How do you take people from Fantasyland to Liberty Square without creating a jarring transition? What does London (Peter Pan), Switzerland (The Skyway station), and Colonial America have in common? They all share a common architectural language and the Imagineers only have to adjust the surrounding context to create the environment they desire.

From this spot, you can see that the buildings feature heavy timber framing typical in the Tudor architectural style commonly found in Germany, Switzerland, Bavaria or England in the 1500s into the 1600s. The signage also helps to set the timeframe. Look at the entrance door to the Columbia Harbor House in Fantasyland and the signs are simple illustrations of fish and chickens that represent what is being served inside.

Pass through the passageway between the two lands and you end up in New England some time in the mid-1700s. As it turns out, the same romanticized Tudor design language was a very popular style in the Colonies as well. On the Liberty Square side, the sign leading into the Columbia Harbor House are in English text and adorned with eagles.

The language of Tudor design crosses the centuries and ties the two areas together. By changing the details and context just enough, the Imagineers have created a seamless transition, another cross-dissolve. There are a lot of examples within the Magic Kingdom where this happens.

Liberty Square is rich in architectural details. The regions along the Atlantic seaboard are represented by clusters of buildings in the appropriate style. For example, there is a section representing New England in the Cape Code style, which is defined by a low, broad frame buildings that are generally a story and a half. They feature steep, perfectly pitched roofs with end gables, a large central chimney, and very little ornamentation.These clusters were not random. There is order in the form of the address system. The story goes that if you add “18” to the house number, you will reveal the year that architectural style was popular.

Other details include the window above door 26 where you will see the two lanterns that Paul Revere has left behind, the wall at the end of the alley where you will see four interlocking fists, the symbol of trade unions or the sagging shutters and the leather straps. You know that story, right?

One amusing quirk about Liberty Square is the lack of bathrooms. True to the theme, there are no indoor bathrooms. Now I can hear some of you saying “but Sam there are bathrooms inside of Columbia Harbor House and the Liberty Tree Tavern.” Technically, the Harbor House bathrooms are inside of Fantasyland (remember the doors?) and the ones in Liberty Tree Tavern have been placed toward the back in Main Street.

Stop 5 - In front of the Haunted Mansion

The Haunted Mansion is set in New York’s Lower Hudson Valley. This is the land of Sleepy Hollow, The Headless Horseman, and Ichabod Crane. The exterior of the Haunted Mansion was designed by Imagineer Claude Coats, who felt that he wanted it to look a bit scarier then the one at Disneyland to give parents a warning. He felt that Walt’s direction to keep the Haunted Mansion super clean was a bit tame. The effects for this attraction were built at the same time as Disneyland’s and was ready six months before the park opened.

The Haunted Mansion is in the Dutch Gothic Revival style also known as Victorian Gothic or Neo-Gothic. This trend was started in England in the 1740s. The stone and brickwork is common to the English Tudor style as well. See how the common elements tie things together and prevent unseemly transitions? This style is defined by arches that thrust upward toward the sky and large stone foundations and cornerstones. The building has strong vertical lines to make it seem tall and forbidding. There is almost a claw-like appearance. If you look on top, some have suggested that the ornamentation is similar to chess pieces. Every piece is represented except the Knight. The Haunted Mansion is influenced by Harry Packer Mansion (1874) in Jim Thorpe PA and the Lyndhurst Mansion (1838) located in Tarrytown NY. Lyndhurst was the setting for the 1970 movie Dark Shadows.

Stop 6 - The Hall of Presidents

The Hall of Presidents is set in Colonial Philadelphia during the time period around 1787 when the United States Constitution was ratified. The buildings in this area are in the Federal Style. You see low-pitched rooflines sometimes with a balustrade. The windows are arranged symmetrically around a center doorway. Many times, there are narrow side windows that flank the doorway. Along the cornice are dentil moldings. They kind of look like teeth. You will also find elliptical or circular windows as well as oval rooms and lots of arches.

Stop 7 - Footbridge area

The cluster of buildings on the north side, adjacent to the Liberty Square entry bridge, are example of architecture popular in Dutch New Amsterdam (the forerunner of New York).

Speaking of beginnings, the idea for Liberty Square was first proposed for Disneyland but never realized. In the early planning stages for the Magic Kingdom, the Imagineers recreating New Orleans Square at Disneyland would not work. The real city was too close to Florida to be truly exotic. With the America Bicentennial on the horizon, a patriotic themed seemed like a good idea.

Here we are at the edge of a new society. Within Liberty Square, the gardens are rather formal in tribute to Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. The surrounding landscaping is informal and wild. The contrast is very deliberate. Look closely at the crates on the bridge you will notice they are marked TEA.

Stop 8 - Ye Old Christmas Shoppe

Across the way from New Amsterdam is Colonial Williamsburg. The Ye Old Christmas Shoppe is actually three structures that are combined into one shop. The three interiors have very distinct themes. There is a music teacher’s shop, a woodcarver’s shop, and the home of a Pennsylvania German family named Kepple. Walt Disney’s grandfather was named Kepple Disney. If you look closely, you can see where there are smellitizers that can pump in scents into the area.

Stop 9 - The Liberty Tree

At the heart of Liberty Square is The Liberty Tree. The tree represents the spirit of 1776 with each of the thirteen lanterns representing a different colony. The original Liberty Tree was the communal meeting place for Boston’s Sons of Liberty who were protesting the imposition of the Stamp Act. Early patriots replicated the tree in their communities as a symbol of their right to freedom of speech and assembly. The British troops were so threatened, they tried to cut down the Liberty Trees.

This particular tree is very special. This tree is a 130-year old Southern Live Oak found by Bill Evans on the property about eight miles away.Bill Evans is the legendary landscape designer for Walt’s home in Holmby Hills, Disneyland, and the Magic Kingdom. The plans to move the tree started a year in advance. The tree weighed 38 tons and had a root ball that was 18 feet by 16 feet by 4 feet deep. It was the largest tree transplanted at that time. To move the tree, holes were bored through the trunk. However, the holes got infected and larger plugs were drilled and filled in. Another Southern Live Oak was grafted into the base of the tree.

Another bit of trivia is the Liberty Bell. The bell was cast in 1989 and is the only one ever created from the same mold as the original.

We walked toward the banks of the Rivers of America to talk about the one thing that does not fit in Liberty Square, the Liberty Belle steam paddle wheeler. This type of ship came much later than the time period represented in Liberty Square. Oh they try to hide it with the loading dock but we all know it should be over in Frontierland.

The ship was originally named the Richard F. Irvine and was renamed the Liberty Belle in 1996. Once upon a time, there was a second paddle wheeler named the Admiral Joe Fowler. However, a dry dock accident crippled the ship and it was removed.

More trivia? How deep is the Rivers of America? Would you believe about 7 feet?

We have made it to the edge of the Frontier again. We'll soon be headed west into Frontierland. Come back next time to see how the Imagineers use their tricks to take us on a journey through time and space.

If you enjoyed today's article, then you will LOVE Sam Gennawey's latest book, Walt and the Promise of Progress City.

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  1. DragoHarley's Avatar
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    Okay, I read this word for word five times already and I loved it more each time. I have bookmarked this post and am going to read it over and over again, I just LOVED IT. I felt like I was THERE. And the next time I go, I am going to bring a printout of this with me and I am going to follow the same path that Sam took. It's just so awesome. I learned so much and I loved every minute. THANK YOU!!!
  2. michael darling's Avatar
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    ^^ I have to agree. You could go thru Liberty Square with a fine-toothed comb and explain every nook and cranny, and we would be very attentive readers. This area of the MK is probably the best themed and yet rushed-through section of the park. In fact, I wish they'd develop MORE of this area (not sure where)...perhaps along the river? Even a small walk-thru museum of Americana and historical items would be cool. I really like the small building just as you cross the bridge from the Castle Hub, where I'm guessing a tariff collector (?) would be. It has a flickering lantern, a toll book, and rations. At night, this area feels far from the rest of the park. The Hall of Presidents, in my opinion, would be even better if they only had Lincoln and Washington speak (or some other founding father). I realize that opinion is my own, and many would disagree, but the politics in this nation have become such that no matter WHO or WHAT party is in office, I cringe when the current leader is introduced, due to the audience members who cannot restrain their displeasure. Still, Liberty Square is a fave, and thanks for pointing out the address numbering and the TWO LANTERNS! I will search for those! Please share more, if you can!
  3. jkh1978's Avatar
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    Question about the liberty bell. The story I heard was that in 1976 there was a replica made for each state. Since Pennsylvania had the original, they were asked by Disney if they could have the replica for Liberty Square. I don't know what cast was used for those. On wikipedia, it said the foundry created a second, but that its housed in Philadelphia.
  4. kburford's Avatar
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    I loved today's column, thank you!! I would love even more analysis and pictures! I can do an okay job of 'seeing' your descriptions in my mind, but I've only been to WDW twice and never spent a good amount of time taking in my surroundings. Can't wait to learn more!
  5. BigThunder's Avatar
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    That was brilliant. Can't wait for the rest.
  6. sixalex's Avatar
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    Beautiful article! More please. Book idea? You've got my vote, er, dollars.
  7. SAMLAND's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by sixalex
    Beautiful article! More please. Book idea? You've got my vote, er, dollars.
    Thank you for the kind comments. It was fun reliving that tour. I didn't get into the fact that it rained like 2 inches during the half day tour. That was a comical challenge in its own right. As for a book...Try the current one and if I sell enough of those I can afford to write a second book...

    SamLand's Disney Adventures
  8. Skipper A's Avatar
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    I'm saying this because I used to work in Ad/Lib (Adventureland Liberty Square). The restrooms in the Liberty Tree Tavern stick into Adventureland, not Main St.
    Updated 04-13-2012 at 11:52 AM by Skipper A