An Urban Planner looks at the MK Main Street USA – Part 2

by on May 27, 2009 3 Comments

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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 two 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

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.

Why does entering the Magic Kingdom quickly allow us to shake off the outside world and feel safe and comfortable and allow us to play? Marty Sklar, a 53-year veteran of Walt Disney Imagineering, described this phenomenon as the “architecture of reassurance”. To really see how this works, there is no better example than Main Street USA.

To start I have to put on a different pair of eyes. Today I will don a pair that allows me to see the park as a virtual reality experience. A three dimensional cinematic event. Since Walt Disney and many of the original Imagineers came from the movie industry, it was natural that the dimensional planning would reflect that passion and knowledge and use many of the same tricks.

I have learned one more thing that has helped me understand why this whole thing works. This place is the world’s largest scale model train set. Walt’s passion for all things train and transportation is legendary.

The lessons learned by the Imagineers at Disneyland were applied at the Magic Kingdom to improve many parts of the “show”. By remembering how to use patterns like quality, variety, and surprise as organizing principles you can feel that special thing even before you get to the main gate.

It starts with Cinderella Castle. Or at least the spires. Like a marquee on a movie theater, the spires of the castle beckon you from a distance. This 189 foot tall castle is so tall that it is visible for miles. As with most things, there is a reason for this.

Those early visitors to Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom (pre-EPCOT Center) had to drive a long empty undeveloped 6 miles from the freeway to the reach the parking lot. The height of the castle is visible for much of the drive and provides a comforting reassurance to visitors that there really was a theme park waiting not too far away.

Notice that you can see the spires while driving but you cannot see the entire castle. Like a movie, first you get the long shot to set the scene. The close ups will come later. The Imagineers wanted to heighten the guests’ anticipation and took advantage of the journey to the park to do just that.

Let’s compare Disneyland before the construction of Disney’s California Adventure with the Magic Kingdom of 1971. At Disneyland, guests would drive right up to the front gate. Oh sure, sometimes you were parked so far from the front gate you felt you were in Garden Grove. But the tram was always nearby and that put you right there.

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 it would be different. He had the land.
You are not within walking distance of the front gate. In fact there is no legal way to walk to the Magic Kingdom from the main parking lot. You are over a mile away. With a huge lake. Alligators. Disney security.

So those who drove park their cars at the Transportation and Ticket Center (TTC). Already you are confronted with a choice you don’t confront in most everyday situations. Do we take the ferryboat or the sleek monorail?

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 you will notice how the road dips below a viaduct. Pay attention because 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. They skirt around the lagoon and drop you off in an exclusive area to the side.

Remember this is a cinematic experience. From the parking lot, the train depot is way off in the distance, much like the long shot typically used as the first shot in a movie. The ferry or the monorail takes you closer in the same way that camera pans from a long shot to a medium shot. You know you have arrived when you get the close up of the train depot.

When you go to the movies you entry through the lobby. The entrance plaza is the Magic Kingdom’s lobby. The train depot is the Marquee. You hand your ticket over to the cast member and enter the main part of the lobby. Look down at the red bricks. Those bricks simulate the movie theater’s red carpet.

The train station is meant to block your view of everything behind. The Imagineers have controlled what you can see and when you can see it. This allows them to allow for the story to unfold at their pace.

On Monday I will take you under the railroad tracks and on to Main Street USA.

Posted on May 27, 2009

3 Responses to “An Urban Planner looks at the MK Main Street USA – Part 2”

  • This is really good stuff. I enjoyed it as much as I thought I would, can’t wait for the next installment. I feel like I’m watching a mini-series on the Disney channel. I can’t wait until you get to Toontown. The one land Walt did not play a part in creating.

    • Thanks for the kind words. It will be a struggle to find many kind words for Toontown Fair but I will try. I am a huge fan of Toontown at Disneyland but find the Florida version kind of weak. But it does have its charm.

  • Very interesting stuff. I knew that they scaled the higher floors along main street but I never realized they designed the park from a director’s perspective.