DESIGN: A walk through WDW’s Liberty Square through Frontierland – The Finale

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Part One is here
Part Two is here
Part Three is here

Of course there is this and much more at SamLand’s Disney Adventures.

I am always amazed when I walk through Liberty Square and Frontierland in the Magic Kingdom. You have to credit the Imagineers for pulling off the impossible. Just like Liberty Square, Frontierland is designed to be a journey through time and distance. The story line will take us from St. Louis in the early 1840s to a ghost town after the gold rush boom in the 1880s. They have created a three-dimensional, immersive environment that moves you through time and space. And most people never even know it as they run to BTMRR or Splash Mountain.

The story of Frontierland begins where Liberty Square ends. Liberty Square is an impression of the idealized vision of Colonial America using design elements from the thirteen original colonies. That provides the eastern anchor for our journey. Frontierland celebrates the great westward expansion that followed the Louisiana Purchase.

The first building we come to in Frontierland is the Diamond Horseshoe Saloon. This is a movie interpretation of a grand show palace that would be common in St. Louis in 1840. St. Louis became known as the western gateway and the starting point for many pioneers.

For the next stop we move west to the Colorado Rockies. The time is now the 1850s. Here we find a northwoods union hall. If you look inside you can see one of my all time favorites, the Country Bear Jamboree. Oh I miss this one at Disneyland. Pooh, puh! While waiting for the show notice the marks on the floor. Those would be bear claw scratches.

As you go west, notice how each building uses the short hand of iconic design elements, materials, and different architectural styles to enhance the time travel story. There are clues to the year many of the building facades were built if you look closely enough. For example, the Town Hall was built in 1867. Pecos Bills Saloon is dated 1878. Texas James Slaughter owned the Frontier Trading Post. He was a real life person and Disney TV character who was famous in the 1870s.

Our journey continues westward to the great desert Southwest of the 1860s-70s. The designers use carefully chosen plant material and Spanish Mission architecture to recreate the cinematic image of a western town. Lots of Zorro influence. You know the use of Spanish influenced architecture wasn’t just serendipity. The designers had a problem they had to solve.

Dial up Google Earth and look at the aerial photo of the Magic Kingdom. You will notice that the west side of the park is basically one giant building with two different personalities. The south side faces Adventureland and the building facades enhance that theme. The north side facades advance the Frontierland theme. There are a couple of spots where you go from one realm to another. The designers have spent a great deal of thought on how to make those transitions very smooth.

In the movies, it is known as the cross-dissolve. A good example of this is the transition from Frontierland to Adventureland.

Pecos Bills Café’s architecture is in the Spanish Mission style, which was popular in the Southwest desert region of that period. However, those same Spanish influenced design cues were also appropriate for El Pirata Y el Perico right across from the Pirates of the Caribbean. If you are going to Pirates, you will be going from North America to a Caribbean island one hundred years earlier. The effect is subtle and not startling. But if they didn’t do it you would notice that something is just not right.

Now we take a little detour from our westward journey to visit the Deep South in the 1860s. This is the setting for Splash Mountain. At Splash Mountain, we can see how the Imagineers try to create a sense of anticipation through environmental design. They do it in a way that would be familiar to any filmmaker.

When you to the movies, before most feature attractions are previews. There is also a preview when you pass by Splash Mountain. The larger path takes you past the drop. This view exaggerates the height of the drop as the logs fall into the Briar Patch. There is another path, a boardwalk that is set beyond the drop. Here, not only can we see the horror on the guests faces as they drop but also we can see the happy payoff as they laugh and feel alive. These pathways help bond the viewers with the participants.

Our final stop on this westward journey is the little mining ghost town of Big Thunder. The peaks of Monument Valley influence the mountains within Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. The designers have used forced perspective to make them seem larger.

Since our journey took us from the east coast to the west coast, it is appropriate that the last thing you see in Frontierland is the Disneyland Railroad train station. The Rivers of America and the Liberty Belle are a symbolic link between Liberty Square and Frontierland. This waterway recognizes the importance of rivers and canals to the start of the American expansion. The Frontierland train station represents the completion of the transcontinental railroad and the end to the great expansion.

There is one more design element that is unique in Frontierland. It is the use of multiple pathways to provide variety to your experience. You can walk along the raised wooden plank sidewalk along the building facades. Or you can walk in the street with the herd of people passing through. You can also get a taste of the rural life by walking along the boardwalk at the edge of the Rivers of America. Not only does this provide a set of options for the guests but it creates huge capacity to move people without looking like a giant sidewalk.

I mentioned at the beginning of this series that Liberty Square and Frontierland become a time machine. They take you back to real places at specific times. To take a ride on the Time Machine start on Main Street USA. The time is around 1900. Cross the bridge toward Liberty Square and you go back in time to the founding of the nation. The path toward the west will take you to the 1880s. Get on the train and exit at Main Street. You are back in the 1900s. Talk about the Grand Circle Tour.

Sam Gennawey

Sam Gennaway is an Urban Planner who runs the fantastic SamLand’s Disney Adventures blog. Sam visits Disneyland on a frequent basis and toured with the Unofficial Guide team on our recent Disneyland Trip.

3 thoughts on “DESIGN: A walk through WDW’s Liberty Square through Frontierland – The Finale

  • July 12, 2009 at 6:45 pm

    This was a wonderful tutorial bringing to light things I did not know. Please write more I enjoyed this immensely

  • July 13, 2009 at 9:16 am

    Our family travels back to WDW in September. I will definitely look at things with a new perspective. Great insights, great information, great articles. Keep them coming.


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