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Urban Planner Walk Through Liberty Square To Frontierland – Part 1

by on June 21, 2009


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.


There is just no way around it. I can’t talk about what is going on with Liberty Square without talking about Frontierland. Both lands share the same organizing principle, as this series will highlight. Both lands are adjacent to the Rivers of America and use that asset to enhance the story. These land combine to become the Magic Kingdom’s time machine.

This is one of my favorite things about the Magic Kingdom – how Liberty Square and Frontierland work together to project upon the environment the history of the American western migration. Pretty deep, eh? Let’s step into that time machine and see how the designers pulled off this clever bit of urban design.

It might help for you to get into the right frame of mind for this article. If you are like me when you visit the Magic Kingdom, you like to imagine that you are walking onto a three-dimensional movie set that is the stage for your own personal film. Each land is designed to inspire you by contributing the key movie theme that can be the foundation for your experience.

In the Magic Kingdom you have the choice to enter a world of fantasy and childhood delights or go on an exotic foreign adventure. You can blast into a sci-fi future or visit the unreal world of the toons. But this journey will be a time travel story and we are about to take a step back in time.

When planning an urban environment you have to start with something. You need to pay attention to the centers that already exist. By this I mean that special quality that sometimes is hard to name but you know in your heart and head exists. The best urban environments have this quality and a theme park is certainly an urban environment.

For Frontierland and Liberty Square that center was purposefully created and is the Rivers of America and Tom Sawyer Island. This band of green space defines the edges for both lands in subtly different ways. The river also becomes the connection between the different lands and provides the necessary continuity. But I am getting ahead of myself.

We are going to start this journey from the Hub. As you know, adjacent to the Hub is Liberty Square, Tomorrowland, Fantasyland and Adventureland. Liberty Square, Tomorrowland, Fantasyland feature similar arrival elements consisting of a strong gateway and a feature that is moving off in the distance. That moving feature is the proverbial “wienie” and is meant to draw you into the land.

Frontierland is not adjacent to the Hub like it is at Disneyland and Adventureland doesn’t have the “wienie” feature. Why? It wouldn’t be an adventure if you knew what was beyond the gates, right?

Imagine you are standing next to the Partners statue and facing due west. We are going to walk that direction. You will see how the time machine effect starts even before your feet touch the wooden bridge. In the movies the editor will use a technique called a cross-dissolve to transition from one scene to another. There are physical versions of cross-dissolves throughout the Magic Kingdom and this is how you can spot them.

The designers have used paving materials as one way to create that smooth transition. As you walk from the Hub to Liberty Square, notice how the smooth pavement turns to brick and then wood as you cross over the bridge. This subtle transformation helps to plant the seed that you are entering a different time and place. Going from Main Street USA to Liberty Square means you have to turn back the clock 150 years from small town America during the early 1900s to the east coast at the time of the founding of the nation.

As with everything you are about to see, even this bridge is loaded with meaning. Nothing is there by accident. The bridge was meant to be a copy of the Concord Bridge AKA the Old North Bridge where the Colonials faced off with the British in 1775. The moment when our nation change is the start of our journey through America’s past.

Once through the brick gates the main element is the public square. The Square is framed by the iconic buildings, the boathouse, and the splash of green just off into the distance from Tom Sawyer Island. That public square is the center and focus of the entire land just like how the space would have functioned in Colonial days. The Liberty Tree balances the large Hall of President’s building and softens the space. That tree is one of the largest trees ever transplanted at Walt Disney World.

To embellish and enhance that special place, additional little areas are carved out behind the main buildings. No other land at the Magic Kingdom provides these types of discoverable spaces. These new centers in turn make each other special and that creates an urban landscape that is rewarding, functional, and memorable. It is one of the reasons New Orleans Square in Disneyland is so well loved.

The river is more than just a backdrop that frames one side of the outdoor room known as the public square. Its real magic is how it is used as the thread that moves the back-story along. And that back-story is nothing less than the quintessential time trip from colonial days through the American western migration.

Next week we will cross that bridge and explore what is on the other side.

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

by on June 1, 2009

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

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.

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

by on May 27, 2009

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.

An Urban Planner looks at the Magic Kingdom – Part 1

by on May 23, 2009

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 one 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.

Early in my education as a urban planner, I was taught that urban design is the process of creating places and policies that lead to environments that are alive, respect people, and have meaning.

My professional curiosity makes me wonder how you create a design policy structure that leads to places that exceed in their performance to the relationship of their purpose? My simple brain has wrapped itself around three things to look for – Quality, Variety and Surprise.

One way to describe what I mean is to compare urban planning to preparing a gourmet meal. My wife is a splendid cook and I have learned if you want to succeed you can improve the odds with three things: a great recipe, quality ingredients, and some talent at cooking. When you possess all three you can create something truly special and memorable.

For the urban designer, a great recipe begins with a vision, a purpose, and strong guiding principles. These become the foundation of a good plan. The guiding principles, or backstory in theme park nomenclature, tie all of the design details together.

The ingredients used in a meal include all sorts of the same stuff. Salt, pepper, saffron, capers, bay leaf, and the other usual suspects. You use certain things at certain times because they give you certain results. I have learned that in design there are patterns or a design vocabulary that does the same sort of thing.Patterns are the solutions to problems that reoccur over and over again in our built environment. Learning about these patterns and applying the properly is what keeps urban designers busy.

Other ingredients include the blend of all sorts of materials, technology, showmanship, and magic that embellishes and enhances the story.

Talent is the ability of the urban designer to rise above the ordinary. This talent is rare and that is why there are so few special places within our urban environment.

So does it take years of training to recognize good urban design from bad? Not really. You just have to remember to think about it as you look around. The average person may struggle in the way they describe what they see but in their heart and heads they know what works and what does not work. For the people I work with, this is the excitement and challenge for us as urban designers – exceeding people’s expectations.

Urban designers have been influenced by World’s Fairs and theme parks going back to the London Great Exhibition of 1851. The biggest influence was the World’s Colombian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago. Walt Disney’s father was a carpenter and work on this project before Walt was born. The Civic Centers of Pasadena, Indianapolis, Washington DC, San Francisco and dozens of other cities owe a debt to that fair.

Are there differences in designing theme parks versus urban design in the real world? You bet. The successful and dynamic urban environments outside the theme park gates work because there is, as Robert Venturi once said, a “messy vitality over obvious unity.” This is important to supporting what Jane Jacobs described as “the city as organized complexity”. This is what makes the real world work.

John Hench, who spent more than 60 years working for the Walt Disney Company, stated that the goal of the theme park designer is different. He said that the job of designing theme parks is to eliminate visual contradictions. These visual contradictions are the active clutter that you see in the real world, which creates mixed messages, sets up conflicts, creates tension, and may even feel threatening. Marty Sklar, another long time Walt Disney Company executive describes it as the “architecture of reassurance”.

Removing visual contradictions reminds me of a Walt Disney story. One day, while he was making his usual rounds at Disneyland, Walt spotted a guy dressed in a spacesuit walking from the backstage area through Frontierland on his way to Tomorrowland. That is a visual contradiction of the first order!

Disney Imagineers have integrated lessons learned from Disneyland into every theme park they’ve built. Throughout articles on this blog, I will point out some of the significant design patterns and details that you will see along the way.

Starting next week, I will be taking a tour of the Magic Kingdom, land by land. First stop: the arrival experience and Main Street USA.