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“Weird Wiring”: Disney, Urban Planning and Sneaking out of the Boat

 mel mcgowan theme park designer and urban planning disneyland and disney

Mel McGowan (left) is President of  Visioneering Studios, a national architectural / urban design firm , where he leads the creative concept development, programming, master-planning, design, and project management efforts of the company.


With a background in film and a decade-long stint with the Walt Disney Company , Mel has designed and managed a portfolio of projects for world-class resorts including, including the Disneyland Resort Hotels / Downtown Disney District, the Morongo, and Fantasy Springs casino resorts. He is also known as a leading church designer and a unique voice in the integration of sacred and secular space. 

Blooloop's Chad Emerson (right) caught up with Mel to talk Disney, urban planning and “extending themagic”.
Chad Emerson:  Share with us how you first got started working in the amusement and recreation industry.
Mel McGowan: The real story goes way back to my earliest memories. My dad was a GI who “moonlit” at Disneyland when our family was re-assigned to the US, so my 2 earliest memories were of bombs going off in Vietnam and of looking down the lights at Main Street USA. This may have caused some “weird wiring” that led to me drawing up theme park plans and future cities from the age of 11 on. After studying Architecture and Film and the University of California, I fused the two during a 10 year stint at the Walt Disney Company, where I was paid to work on the redevelopment of the Disneyland Resort while using that as a living laboratory for my Graduate School thesis on Disney Urbanism “beyond the berm.” 
Emerson:  What were some of the most rewarding projects you worked on while with Walt Disney Imagineering and why? 
McGowan: I think that what we pulled off in Anaheim is a bit unappreciated, particularly by the core Disneyland fan base. In the late 90s, you had the “crown jewel” of the Disney theme park empire (Disneyland) surrounded by decaying urban infrastructure and the commercial strips of Fifties motels rented by the hour for prostitution or by the month for “almost homeless” housing, as well as some notorious gang-infested neighborhoods acrossdesign and plan from mel mcgowan at visioneering the street from the Disneyland Hotel…not exactly a sustainable setting for “The Happiest Place on Earth.” It was extremely rewarding to be part of the “redemption” of a part of the city. Rather than just add a second 55-acre theme park, we took the original 160 acres and cast a vision for an 1100 acre “Resort Garden District, ” which has resulted in new attractions, new hotels, redeveloped affordable housing, as well as Downtown Disney, which really provides the first walkable, “urbane” district in the OC suburban sprawl, which I believe that people were really hungry for.
Emerson:  What were some of the most challenging ones?
McGowan: My dad made the mistake of telling me about his days working Disneyland Security and finding kids that would sneak out of the boat and try to spend the night in one of the Pirates of the Caribbean village sets…I thought that was a great idea! I became fixated on the idea of creating an opportunity to create an experience in which you could “extend the magic” by spending the night in a Disney park. After a few false starts with a Main Street Hotel proposal and a Wilderness Lodge concept on the Rivers of America, we finally got an opportunity to pull this off with Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel. 
Well there are reasons why this hadn’t been done before and hasn’t been done since. Not that I wouldn’t do it again, but it did take some extra brain damage and coordination to solve the operational and design issues associated with doing an “in-berm” hotel which basically has no back. Vertical mixed use, with subterranean parking, ground level retail, and upper level lodging was new for Disney. From a budget perspective, people don’t realize how vastly different theme park budgets are from hotel budgets. But when people enter that atrium and there eyes go up, it is definitely one of those “exceeds las vegas mob experience mel mcgowan design visioneeringexpectations” / “wow factor” moments.
Emerson:  These days, what types of projects are you working on and how did your time in the amusement industry influence those projects?
McGowan: Visioneering Studios was launched by a number of themed attraction alumni to take what we learned and apply the skills of “environmental storytelling” to create “destinations that lift the spirit.” These have taken on quite a diverse expression. Our latest three project openings, within days of each other illustrate this. 
We just opened the Las Vegas Mob Experience as part of the Tropicana’s makeover, which really blurs the line between a museum and an “E-Ticket” attraction experience. The visitor basically takes a personal journey through the rise and fall of the mob-built city. At the end of the interactive experience, you find out whether you’re “made by the mob, ” turned informant, or “whacked.” 
In the Philippines, we had the privilege of designing a village for victims of child-sex trafficking for an organization called My Refuge House.  Rather than an “institution” we used the local vernacular Khmer style to design a circle of homes and an open air pavilion which surrounds a “Healing Garden”. One of our clients purchased a hilltop site which has a 270 degree view of the ocean, which each of the bedrooms look over. Last month, dozens of girls were rescued from being raped and relocated to this unique “city on a hill.”
On the site Denver’s old international Stapleton airport, we converted an amazingly cool “Jetsonian” mid-century modern Hanger 51 into a different kind of “destination that lifts the spirit”… a church! A highly themed children’s multi-media theater was filled with props and custom designed elements that convey the themes of discovery and flight. We used airplane wings for environmental graphics and took full advantage of the soaring “cathedral-like” volumes of the hangar to create a unique kind of sacred space for the next generation.
I really wish I could tell you what’s next, but I’ll just say that we have signed a few Confidentiality agreements lately. Stay tuned!

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