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Parkology: Disneylandia Debunked ‘ Myth #2 “Disneyland was a reaction against Coney Island and traditional amusement parks”


disney california advernture paradise pier

Disney California Adventure – Paradise Pier

mel mcgowan theme park designerby Mel McGowan

Related: Parkology: Coney Island the First Theme Park? / Parkology: Disneylandia Debunked – Myth #1 “It all started on a park bench”

The generally accepted notion is that the traditional amusement park was a “pit” and that Walt “launched the bar” so high that he created an entirely new paradigm. One of the most repeated criticisms of Disney’s California Adventure 1.0 was the “sacrilege” of Walt’s philosophy and aversion to such parks by incorporating Paradise Pier – a land themed as a traditional amusement boardwalk/pier.

James Rouse’ first “Festival Marketplace” – Faneuil Hall

James Rouse’ first “Festival Marketplace” – Faneuil Hall

In justifying his assertion that Disneyland was the greatest piece of urban design in America, James Rouse (inventor of the “Festival Marketplace” and community developer) said, “it took an area of activity—the amusement park—and lifted it to a standard so high in its performance, in its respect for people, that it really has become a brand new thing.” Disney Legend Buzz Price called it “Walt’s Revolution.” In his typical fashion, Buzz Price had a razor-like insight that what was revolutionary about Walt’s creation could be quantified in terms of two interrelated variables: length of stay and per capita spending.  Disney was able to raise the length of stay from the industry average of 2 hours to 7 hours, and from a per capita spend of $1 to $6 by his second year.

The Original “White City” – Chicago World’s Fair 1893The Original “White City” – Chicago World’s Fair 1893

The Original “White City” – Chicago World’s Fair 1893

white city amusement park chicagowhite city amusement park chicago

White City Amusement Park – Chicago

In multiple biographies, Coney Island and other “carnies” provided Walt with lessons in “what not to do.” An oft-told story is the gathering of the leaders of some of the largest amusement park operators at a 1953 amusement park convention around Cuban cigars, caviar, and a case of Chivas Regal where they skewered Walt’s plans for being impractical, unmanageable and economically unsound. What this “reactionary” narrative ignores, however, is the clear lineage from World Fairs (eg. The Midway Plaisance of the World Columbian Exposition to the 1939-40 World of Tomorrow NY Fair) to Luna Park (which ended its 41 year run in 1944), as well as existing well-run and maintained parks of the day which Walt visited and “benchmarked” including Tivoli Gardens, Knott’s Berry Farm, and Cincinnati’s Coney Island.

Coney Island OH 

Coney Island OH

Opening in 1886, and originally dubbed “Ohio Grove, the Coney Island of the West, ” Coney Island was renowned for its own spotless version of the Midway Plaisance and for decades of consistently quality management and entertainment in its historic Moonlite Gardens (still standing). As a result of repeated flooding of its riverside site and in order to position itself for the future, park owners decided to relocate the attractions to a new 1, 600-acre site in 1971, dubbed Kings Island.

Hanna-Barbera Land,  by Bruce Bushman

Hanna-Barbera Land, by Bruce Bushman

Bruce Bushman, one of the Disney’s original WED Imagineers was hired as one of the key designers of Kings Island. Post Disney, Bushman had returned to his roots as a layout animator for Hanna-Barbera and designed multiple theme parks (including Bible Storyland and Hanna-Barbera Land), which went unbuilt. After Taft Broadcasting purchased Coney Island and Hanna-Barbera, Bruce was a natural choice to design a home for these characters, just as he had designed Disneyland’s Fantasyland as the home for Disney’s animated cohorts. Kings Island’s “International Street” was carefully designed by Bushman as a grand world’s fair axis terminating with a scaled down Eiffel Tower as the park’s central icon. The four blocks were designed with Italian, Spanish, Swiss, and German motifs. The Midway Plaisance of the Chicago World’s Fair, lined with internationally themed buildings had returned! However, the postmodern simulations did not end there. Beyond the Eiffel Tower was a quite literal re-creation of the original Coney Island Mall, itself inspired by the Midway Plaisance, featuring vintage 1920’s rides and gingko trees relocated to the new site.

The Midway Plaisance reborn – at the relocated Coney / Kings Island OH

The Midway Plaisance reborn – at the relocated Coney / Kings Island OH

Along with another historic amusement resort (Cedar Point, opened in 1870), these two Ohio parks, along with Knott’s are the flagship parks of the 19-park Cedar Fair chain, run by former Disneyland President Matt Ouimet.  Ironically, his predecessor (Ed Schott–Coney’s President) was presented with a $1 check by Walt Disney for “consulting services” upon his benchmarking visit in 1956. The check is still held in park archives. Ohio’s Coney Island lives on through directly inspired and nostalgically themed “lands” and midways at Kings Island (Coney Mall), Kings Dominion (Candy Apple Grove), at Cedar Point’s 1963 landscaped makeover of its Midway, as well as at its original site along the Ohio River, where the Moonlite Gardens still stand amidst amusement rides, shade trees, picnic groves and the Sunlite Pool “plunge.”

Moonlite Gardens – A True Survivor

Moonlite Gardens – A True Survivor

Another noteworthy consultant to Walt was George Whitney Jr., whose father and uncle owned San Francisco’s Playland on the Beach. Walt recruited him specifically because of his experience at Playland. He became Disneyland’s 7th Cast Member, serving as Director of Ride Operations from 1954 to 1958. He planned and placed attraction queues, as well as mapped out the locations for entrances & exits. Whitney’s overall planning created more efficient loading on attractions and better flow of guest foot traffic. He was honored for his service with a window on Main Street, above the Market House. Upon his father’s death, he returned to San Francisco to run the legendary Playland on the Beach.

George Whitney’s Window on Main Street

George Whitney’s Window on Main Street

During my tenure at Disney, one of my key insights that I still carry with me was the value of being humble enough to always be able to learn something from “the other guy.” Whether it was hotel operations from Marriott, valet parking operations from Las Vegas or animal care from the San Diego Zoo, we kept our “ears to the ground”. Disney remembers how her father would constantly be pacing off distances when they were out on family outings.  He was constantly absorbing, benchmarking, learning, and synthesizing. Walt found something to learn from mechanics on break as well as corporate titans of industry. Lesson learned.

For the Disney / theme park “purists” that reject the lineage and debt to the humble little trolley parks and boardwalks, their reception to “Toytown Trolley Park” will be interesting. In the midst of the most immersive, elaborately themed park on the planet, the new setting for Toy Story Mania at Tokyo DisneySea will bring the story full circle. One can easily imagine a young Walt Disney peering through these gates to catch a peek inside Kansas City’s own Electric Park, and garnering the first seeds of inspiration for Disneyland.

toyville trolley park 

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