Urban Planner Walk Through Liberty Square To Frontierland – Part 3

by on July 5, 2009 5 Comments

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Hello. This is continuation of my walk through the various lands in the Magic Kingdom. This week we see how Liberty Square and Frontierland share a a lot of things in common but remain distinctly different in feel.

For more of this type of stuff I invite you to visit SamLand’s Disney Adventures.

To see Part One go Here.
To see Part Two go Here.

From an architectural point of view, Frontierland is nothing special. Covering the basic industrial sheds that house the attractions is a thin veneer of shops. This design technique is called the “decorated shed” and was identified back in the early 1960s by architect Robert Venturi. The decorated shed is a way of adopting the tactics from commercial strip buildings by applying signs, materials, iconic and familiar architectural elements so that you can enrich the symbolic content and create something memorable.

Today you see this everywhere and usually very poorly done. But this was a new idea when Disneyland was first developed and the Magic Kingdom was to take it to the next level. What Frontierland does really well is to take the ordinary – the decorated shed – and use it to create an extraordinary urban environment.

I like to think about Frontierland as a big outdoor room. Posing as the southern wall are the building facades of Frontierland. This would almost be a strip mall if it weren’t for the careful attention to detail. Instead of flat storefronts, each provides depth with uneven surfaces and changing materials. The wooden walkway provides a different sound underneath the feet and they act as a buffer between the hustle and bustle of the main concrete walkway and the private interiors of the stores. The shallow storefronts allow one to peek in and see what is on the back wall. Very inviting. In fact, if we could just line big box stores like Wal-Mart with local goods and services in this manner we would create more livable places all over America.

Our northern wall is Tom Sawyer Island and the Rivers of America. You might even think of this wall as our big window looking out to the frontier. The island shows some development and a lot of life when kids are running around. But it is beautiful open space that has matured into something so much more. Remember this was all by design and planted for certain effect. The water is wide and occasionally the Liberty Belle passes us by on her journey to the backcountry.

Off to the side are the rafts spinning back and forth between the island and the mainland. But it is a lonely river. Only the rafts and the Liberty Belle inhabit this domain. I am spoiled by the addition of the canoes and the Columbia to Disneyland’s river. I miss the tipsy Keel Boats. Progress means traffic.

The east wall is the Diamond Horseshoe Saloon and a corner view of Liberty Square. Liberty Square looks so small when you turn back. This visual effect is another reminder of the American past and the story that links the two lands. The western wall is a path that leads to nowhere and the deflected view of Splash Mountain. Once upon a time this would have been the site of the Western River Expedition.

What is the Western River Expedition you ask? It could have been the next step beyond what was delivered in the Pirates of the Caribbean. When the Magic Kingdom first opened it did not have the big Disneyland hit attraction. The thought was the Caribbean was too close so New Orleans Square or Pirates would not be exotic enough. Instead, the entire area that now contains Splash Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad plus the train station would be under one giant building. This building would be called Thunder Mesa Mountain and contain a dark ride second to none designed by the master himself, the legendary Marc Davis. This light hearted romp through the American west would have been a boat ride featuring Native Americans doing a rain dance that causes it to rain, a bank robbery where even the horses wear masks, the prairie dogs and buffaloes that eventually made it to Epcot, gunfights, and the town of Dry Gulch featured in BTMRR. Oh yeah, the show building would have been covered by the rollercoaster.

Sadly, the early visitors just clamored for Pirates. So the park quickly tossed together the Reader’s Digest version that exists today and only built the rollercoaster. What could have been? Back to our story about the time trip through Frontierland.

Below you are a variety of surfaces that divide this long narrow room into multiple experiences. Earlier I highlighted the way the wooden walkways along the buildings interacted with both the interiors but help frame the boundary of the main walkway. In both Main Street USA and Tomorrowland, the buildings are strictly built out to a certain line. Within Frontierland, the main pathway is framed by the irregular alignment of the buildings and the little median of trees and carts on the other side. This median creates an opportunity for that “path less traveled” with the boardwalk. You might say that the wooden pathways define civilization. In context to the times, the finest roads in America were the plank roads. Within this tight corridor you are provided with three different pathways with very different experiences.

My particular favorite path is the boardwalk along the river. You would think the attraction of water would be so strong as to make this a congested pathway. But whether it is the visual obstruction caused by median of the trees and carts or the way it seems to jog in and out and not look like a short cut, people seem to stay away and follow the rest of the herd on the hot concrete. I love this element. They have carved out a series of connecting small rooms where one can take ownership over their spot even for a few brief moments. Plus you have the water with the Liberty Belle and the action on the other side to entertain you. It is nice on this edge of the frontier.

And this river is the perfect tool to assist us on our journey through time by connecting the original colonies to the westward expansion. The river is always reminding you that you are always on the edge of the wilderness. The story is moved along by the walkways and spaces that are framed by iconic buildings. And the organizing principle for the buildings in both lands is the same which makes this combination of elements unique in the Magic Kingdom.

Next week we will see how the buildings that hide the attractions – those decorated sheds – are used to tell the story of the American western expansion.

We will finish this tour next week.  Thanks for reading.

Posted on July 5, 2009

5 Responses to “Urban Planner Walk Through Liberty Square To Frontierland – Part 3”

  • Love the boardwalk against the river. I am always amazed how lightly traveled the boardwalk is.

  • Given the choice of walking on hot concrete dodging people or taking a stroll along the planks just outside of the crowd…give me the boardwalk. There is a teeny tiny version at Disneyland very close to Splash Mountain.

    Thanks for reading.

  • this has all been fascinating reading so far, Sam, looking forward to the rest.

    thank you so much for taking so much of your time to research and write all this

  • Thanks for the kind words. It is a fun way to relive my walks through the parks. I finish up Liberty Square and Frontierland next week and then move on to Tomorrowland.