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Quality, variety and surprise. How Walt Disney created a very real fantasy

walt disney shows disneyland plans to orange county officials visual contradictions 1954.jpg

What happens to our brain when we enter a well-designed theme park? What is the difference with regards to the spatial design process between theme parks and the world outside the front gate? Sam Gennawey looks at why Walt Disney eliminated visualsam gennawey disney visual contradictions contradictions.

To start, each environment is driven by its own distinctive organizing system, and we must define the differences so that we make the right choices to create places that are simultaneously serviceable and vibrant. Think of it as the difference between Apple’s computer operating system and Microsoft. Both do the same thing but in very different ways.

The “real” world feels alive when there is a certain disorderly vigor. Jane Jacobs‘noted author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities and savior of large areas of historic Manhattan’described “the city as organized complexity.”

Among other factors, architect Robert Venturi concluded that successful and dynamic urban environments contain a “messy vitality over obvious unity.” Both agree that it is this quality that is necessary if a place is to feel authentic and resonate with meaning to the users. Such places are embedded with quality, variety, and surprise. As a result, the environment puts you slightly on edge, and you feel more alert and alive in a delightful way. There is a delicate balance, however. Too much of this messy vitality and you will only encourage fear.

A lack of visual contradictions

A theme park succeeds when there is a lack of visual contradictions. It is virtually impossible to blend these qualities without creating a space that feels uncomfortable and undesirable. When asked about this difference, Imagineer John Hench said, “Most urban environments are basically chaotic places, as architectural and graphic information scream at the citizen for attention. This competition results in disharmonies and contradictions that’cancel each other [out].” He warns, “A journey down almost any urban street will quickly place the visitor into visual overload as all of the competing messages merge into a kind of information gridlock.”

Hench also suggested that the only way to design a successful themed environment is to eliminate any visual contradictions. He defined a visual contradiction as “the active clutter that you see in the real world, which creates mixed messages, sets up conflicts, creates tension, and may even feeling threatening.” Hench also taught his team, “If visual details disagree, guests experience active clutter, which has the same effect on the eye as a cacophony of noises has on the ear.”

Hench said, “Walt (Disney) wanted all the details to be correct.” “What it amounted to was a kind of visual literacy.” He suggested that each space is like a “bead or charm in a necklace. The same thing was applied as you walk around the park. Continuity was the same. Whether you’re slow or fast, what you look at it the same.”

A spacesuit in Frontierland

This never-ending aspiration to eliminate every visual contradiction was in complete harmony with Walt’s vision. One day, early in the park’s history, while Walt was making his usual rounds, he spotted an employee dressed in a spacesuit, walking from the backstage area near Frontierland on his way to Tomorrowland and he decided he needed to find a way to make sure this did not happen again. Walt did not want guests to see anything that was not specifically designed for each space. In Walt’s mind, this was a disconnect that destroyed the carefully constructed theme, and that was unacceptable.

By eliminating the visual contradictions, Walt had created a world that was safe, clean, and existed within the earthen berm that surrounded his park. What he created was not a place about fantasy but a place about a sense of reassurance.

Michel Sorkin, author of Variations on a Theme Park, wrote that, “The highly regulated, completely synthetic vision provides a simplified, sanitized experience that stands in for the more undisciplined complexities of the city.” Walt himself said, “Physically, Disneyland would be a small world in itself’it would encompass the essence of the things that were good and true in American life. It would reflect the faith and challenge of the future, the entertainment, the interest in intelligently presented facts, the stimulation of the imagination, the standards of health and achievement, and above all, a sense of strength, contentment, and well-being.”

disneyland construction 1955 visual contradictions

Disneyland – not escapist or unreal

John Hench said that Disneyland “tried to present an undilutedly rosy view of the world; contradiction or confusion were qualities the planners of Disneyland associated with the defective, poorly planned, conventional amusement park.” He added, “Disneyland offered an enriched version of the real world, but not an escapist or an unreal version. We program out all the negative, unwanted elements and program in the positive elements. We’ve taken and purified the statement so it says what it was intended to.”

The park is made up of a series of spaces that unfold before you. Hench said, “You begin with the first scene and move through. You don’t throw people into the fifth scene, where they cannot make sense of what is happening.” The payoff is a sense of welcoming, worth, value, and security.

When somebody suggested the only reason people go to Disneyland was escapism, John Hench took offense and disagreed. He said, “There was never a Main Street like this. But it reminds you of some things about yourself.” He added, “What we are selling is not escapism, but reassurance.” A visit to Disneyland reassures us that things will be okay. Here, everything works, places can be clean, people can be nice, and the pace of the world feels right. Marty Sklar and John Hench have described the urban design for Disneyland as the “architecture of reassurance.”

sleeping beauty castle under construction

Curve the sidewalks! Make the corners round!

Evangelist Billy Graham once told Walt that Disneyland was “a nice fantasy.” This did not sit well with Walt. He replied, “You know the fantasy isn’t here. This is very real’The Park is reality. The people are natural here; they’re having a good time; they’re communicating. This is what people really are. The fantasy is’out there, outside the gates of Disneyland, where people have hatreds and people have prejudices. It’s not really real!”

Walt was not designing a reflection of a real town. He was designing Disneyland. Every tiny detail came under similar scrutiny from Walt. For example, when Bill Martin showed Walt drawings of Main Street, “[Walt] went over my plans with a fine-tooth comb. I’d drawn sidewalks on the blueprints with square corners and Walt said: “Bill, people aren’t soldiers! They don’t turn in at sharp angles! Curve the sidewalks! Make the corners round!'”

Images. Alligator for Jungle Cruise, Disneyland construction, castle construction, Flickr/Tom Simpson.

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Sam Gennawey

Sam Gennawey is an author, award-winning urban planner, and public speaker. He lives in Los Angeles California.

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