Walt Disney World (FL)

An Urban Designer Looks At Main Street

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One way to understand how the Magic Kingdom is organized is to think of the park as a virtual reality 3 dimensional cinematic experience contained within the world’s largest scale model train set. Since Walt Disney and many of the original Imagineers came from the movie industry, it was natural that the dimensional design planning would reflect that passion and knowledge. And Walt’s passion for all things train and transportation is legendary. This organizing principle begins even before you reach the main gate.

It starts with Cinderella Castle. Like a marquee on a movie theater, the spires of Cinderella Castle beckon you to visit. This 189 foot tall castle is so tall that it is visible for miles. There is a reason for this. Early visitors to Walt Disney World had to drive 6 miles from the freeway through undeveloped land to reach the park. The height of the Castle is visible for much of this drive and provided a comforting reassurance to visitors that there was a theme park waiting not too far away. Notice that you can see the spires but you can not see the entire castle. By design, that view will come later.

To add to the guest’s anticipation, the Imagineers have made the journey to the park part of the experience. At Disneyland, before the addition of Disney’s California Adventure theme park, guests would drive right up to the front gate. There was no transition from the real world to the magical land beyond the gates.

At the Magic Kingdom, most guests park their cars at the Transportation and Ticket Center. They then leave the real world behind by taking one of the exotic transportation systems such as the monorail or one of the ferries to the front gate. Even the resort buses drop you off the side of the entrance.

The movie going analogy continues as you approach the front gate. It is here that you hand the cast member your ticket and enter the lobby. In this case, the lobby is forecourt in front of the train station. Look down at the red bricks. Those bricks simulate the movie theater’s red carpet. Notice that the train station now blocks your view of everything that is behind it. Once again, the Imagineers are trying to control what you can see and the environment unfolds in a way to keep the story together.

As you enter the tunnel under the railroad, notice how wide and deep they are. The tunnels act like the movie theater curtain and provide a transition from the lobby to Main Street USA.

Once you pass through the tunnel, the first immersive environment is Town Square. Town Square functions as the civic center with City Hall, a barber shop, stores and other services. And just like every other Disney theme park, Guest Services are on the left hand side.

As we walk down Main Street, let’s admire three of Walt’s team great design ideas – the “wienie”, the hub-and-spoke, and the use of scale.

One common design pattern that can be found throughout the Magic Kingdom, and all other Disney theme parks, is the view terminus. 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. Walt came up with the 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 knew 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 idea of having such a strong center was Walt’s way of dealing with “museum feet” which he described as “the ache of having walked too much just to get through the place.”

To avoid “museum feet” he laid out the park as a hub-and-spoke. Just like a bicycle wheel, there is a hub at the center and there are spokes that radiate out from that center. At the Magic Kingdom, the hub is Central Plaza right in front of the castle. The spokes lead to each of the lands.

As you walk down Main Street pay close attention to the storefronts. Here, you will see another design pattern that is used throughout the parks. The concept is known as forced perspective. A common technique used in film, 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.” Forced perspective is a design pattern that gives buildings the appearance of greater height.

Remember the analogy to the movie going experience and the scale model train set? Virtually all of the buildings in the Magic Kingdom are not built to actual scale. The designers can choose the scale that best helps advance the story. For example, the first-floor facades along Main Street are built approximately ninety percent of full size. The storefront windows are lower than usual so that children have better access viewing the displays. The second floor is eighty percent of full size, and the third floor is even smaller.

The use of forced perspective is what makes the Main Street buildings seem taller than they really are and the Castle seem farther away. If you turn around, the full scale Train Station does the reverse and makes the walk to the exit seem much closer. The results are optical illusions that trick your mind and feet.

Watch for these design patterns as they reoccur throughout the park.

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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.

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