An Urban Planner looks at the MK Main Street USA – Part 3

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Editor’s note: This is a guest post written by Sam Gennaway, an Urban Planner who runs the fantastic SamLand’s Disney Adventures blog. This is part three of the INTRODUCTION TO THE URBAN DESIGN SERIES of posts he’ll be contributing here. Sam visits Disneyland on a frequent basis and toured with the Unofficial Guide team on our recent Disneyland Trip. You can also follow Sam on twitter: @samlanddisney

www.samlanddisney.blogspot.com

For me, urban design is the process of creating places and policies that lead to environments that are alive, respect people, and have meaning.

This series is where my interest in the Disney parks collides with my professional curiosity as an urban planner.

Last week our trip to the Magic Kingdom began in the Transportation and Ticket Center parking lot and ended up in the plaza in front of the Train Depot.

In this article we will venture under the tracks and walk right up to Cinderella Castle. Notice how wide and deep the tunnels are on both sides of the giant Mickey planting. Their purpose is to add to the cinematic experience by acting like movie theater curtains. They provide a clever physical transition from the point the lights are on (the courtyard) to the main show (Main Street USA). Your reward, once you have to passed through the portal, is the full impact of an immersive environment unlike any other.

You have made it through the tunnel. Welcome to Town Square. Be sure you take a moment and say hello and thank you to Roy Disney. He is sitting with Minnie. This would not have happened without him.

Walt Disney World’s Main Street is a bit fancier than Disneyland’s. It feels like a much wealthier city and has a lot more east coast influences as would be appropriate. The overall scale is larger as well. If both were model train sets the Magic Kingdom would be HO scale and Disneyland would feel like a N scale.

Town Square functions as the civic center. To the left is the City Hall and nearby is a fire station and a real functioning barbershop. Like every other Disney theme park, Guest Services is on the left hand side.

One thing I love about the Magic Kingdom’s Main Street USA is the real barbershop. Okay, quick story. I was visiting a few years back and waiting along the wall for the rope drop. I bumped into a local man who visits every six weeks to get his haircut. That is his regular barber. I asked if he felt guilty bumping some kid from his first haircut and he suggested if the kid couldn’t run fast enough it wasn’t his problem.

In addition to the Civic functions you have stores. The Emporium dominates the west side corner. Stores and restaurants plus the full-scale Exposition Hall fill out the east side. The scale of Exposition Hall was determined because they needed to block the view of the Contemporary Hotel off in the distance.

Touring tip. Inside Exposition Hall is a wonderful air-conditioned theater with Mickey shorts, a history of cameras, other left over kind of stuff that I love. Plus there is a terrific camera shot opportunity area with props.

As we walk down Main Street, I will highlight three of the design tricks that enhance the experience – the “wienie”, the hub-and-spoke, and the use of scale.

One design pattern that is used throughout the Disney theme parks is what urban designers call the view terminus. This pattern at the end of major streets has been used in Chicago with the Board of Trade Building, New York with the Met Life Building, and in nature in Yosemite with Half Dome.

In Disneyspeak this is better known as the “wienie”. A wienie is a feature placed on a distant spot to add character or to provide a memorable element as a tool for orientation. The Train Depot and the castle spires during the entry experience are good examples.

Walt came up with term wienie because he needed a “beckoning hand” to draw people through the park. John Hench wrote that this “beckoning hand” suggests, “Come this way. You’ll have a good time”. Being a big fan of corn dogs himself, Walt new that a wienie could not be resisted.

The most significant wienie in the Magic Kingdom is Cinderella Castle. Its spires are the first thing you see when coming to the park and it is the one design element that is visible virtually throughout the park. The height works as a wayfinding tool. Wherever you are you can find the middle and the exit.

The castle draws the viewer toward the next marvelous organizing element – the hub and spoke.

In front of the castle is a large circular open space called the Hub. At the north edge of the Hub is the castle. The benefit of having such a strong center element was Walt’s way of dealing with a problem he called “museum feet”. He described the feeling when “the ache of having walked too much just to get through the place” made the visit unpleasant.

To avoid “museum feet” he laid the park out like a bicycle wheel. This pattern is called a “hub-and-spoke” and is meant to always bring people back to a familiar common point. At the Magic Kingdom, the hub is the Central Plaza right in front of the castle. The paths to the different lands radiate out from this center like the spokes of the wheel.

Each land has its own visible wienie, which draws you deeper into the park and helps the operators spread out the crowds. I will talk about each land unique “wienie” when we get there. I will also highlight other design details that enhance and embellish the stories the Imagineers are trying to tell.

The third cinematic trick is the use of forced perspective. John Hench defines 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”. Force perspective is the design pattern that gives the buildings the appearance of greater height. This design pattern is even more prominent throughout Disneyland because of the park’s smaller size.

Remember when I mentioned how the Magic Kingdoms was a blend of a movie going experience and a scale model train set? Virtually all of the buildings in the Magic Kingdom are not built to actual scale. On Main Street USA the Exposition Hall and the Train Depot are the only exceptions. I mentioned the reason for Exposition Hall. The Train Depot convinces your brain that the exit isn’t all that far away at the end of the day.

The designers had the flexibility to use the scale that best helps advance the story. For example, the first-floor facades are built approximately 90% of full size. The second floor is 80% of full size and the upper floors are even smaller. The storefront windows are lower than usual so that children have better access viewing the displays.

The use of forced perspective is what makes the Main Street USA buildings seem taller than they really are and the Castle seem farther away then it really is. It is used to slow you down on the way home for a bit more shopping since the train station seems closer. These optical illusions trick your mind and your feet.

Brilliant. Watch for these design patterns as the reoccur through the Magic Kingdom, Disneyland, and many of the other Disney theme parks.

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Posted on June 1, 2009

9 Responses to “An Urban Planner looks at the MK Main Street USA – Part 3”

  • Sam, another great read. I’m wondering if the makeover Main Street recieved in the 90′s has taken away any of the original intent of Main Street. Also the use of Exposition Hall to block the Contemporary is very clever, but has Disney now lost that blocking out of the outside world by building Bay Lake Tower?

  • Thank you. It is my belief that ever since the Paul Pressler era, a lot of the charm of Main Street USA has been sucked out of the area. The fact that everything is a store (the fire station, the penny arcade, the movie theater, etc.) doesn’t allow for the surprise necessary to make the place magical. The removal of Center Street to expand the Emporium didn’t help. The last cool thing is the barbershop.

    As for Bay Lake Tower, when I was there in January I didn’t notice it from Main Street. I will have to pay more attention next time. I have also recently learned that one reason this building is full scale was there was consideration of making it a real hotel. Something that would happen later at Disneyland Paris.

    • I used to love the Penny Arcade. On our honeymoon my wife and I spent a lot of time playing the old fashioned arcade games and watching the penny movies. And the movie theater was a great place to relax on a hot summer day.

  • by Josh Hendy on June 1, 2009, at 2:23 pm EDT

    “The fact that everything is a store (the fire station, the penny arcade, the movie theater, etc.) doesn’t allow for the surprise necessary to make the place magical.”

    Heh. Commercial real estate developers learned that the most profitable use for almost any piece of land is a strip mall, and Disney discovered the same thing. Magical no, but it’s a real mainstreet USA isn’t it?

  • Interesting point. Sadly, you are right. If we are to compare Main Street to other successful Central Business Districts, it must have 3 elements: Quality, Variety and Surprise. I think that the variety has been diminished by the removal of these special places and the surprise is very weak.

    At Disneyland there are a lot more of these special little places. I will start to highlight some of those in future posts.

    I also notice a lack of benches and people watching sitting spaces at WDW.

  • Someone’s been reading the Imagineering Field Guide to the Magic Kingdom!

  • Don’t forget “The Architecture of Reassurance”, the recently released book “The Art of WDW”, and interviews with some of the Imagineers. Lots of great books out there.

  • by euripedes923 on June 2, 2009, at 8:33 pm EDT

    Seriously, and without any offense meant for Sam’s excellently-written column…this is almost word for word from “The Architecture of Reassurance,” “The Field Guide…” and a couple of the backstage WDW tours. In other words, it’s a well-written recap of information that’s been widely available for many years, and nothing more. Personally, I would not present this as any kind of unique take on WDW’s architecture, regardless of Sam’s experience as an urban planner. I am not questioning his integrity or professional judgment, I am simply pointing out this is hardly a fresh viewpoint. I enjoyed reading it and look forward to other summaries.

  • Hello euripedes923

    I haven’t done any of the backstage tours at WDW so I am glad to hear I am consistent with the “official” voice of Disney.

    This set of articles is meant to be a summary of basic design cues from the parks to enhance the visiting experience and to provide some context. There are almost 200 hundred books that deal with the design of placed based entertainment districts with many of them focusing on the Disney organization. It was my thought that most people don’t have the time to read all of them or to put together some of the different threads that define why the experience is so profound.

    As for a completely new take on the parks, I am working on applying the standards identified in Christopher Alexander’s THE NATURE OF ORDER, A PATTERN LANGUAGE and the process of unfolding as a way of looking at urban design within the parks. You know, the 15 Structure Preserving Transformations that are a part of all successful urban spaces. I hope to release some of these articles on my blog later this summer. To date this is an angle that I have seen before but you can tell me if I am mistaken.