An Urban Planner looks at the Magic Kingdom – Part 1

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Editor’s note: This is a guest post written by Sam Gennaway, an Urban Planner who runs the fantastic SamLand’s Disney Adventures blog. This is part one of the INTRODUCTION TO THE URBAN DESIGN SERIES of posts he’ll be contributing here. Sam visits Disneyland on a frequent basis and toured with the Unofficial Guide team on our recent Disneyland Trip.

Early in my education as a urban planner, I was taught that urban design is the process of creating places and policies that lead to environments that are alive, respect people, and have meaning.

My professional curiosity makes me wonder how you create a design policy structure that leads to places that exceed in their performance to the relationship of their purpose? My simple brain has wrapped itself around three things to look for – Quality, Variety and Surprise.

One way to describe what I mean is to compare urban planning to preparing a gourmet meal. My wife is a splendid cook and I have learned if you want to succeed you can improve the odds with three things: a great recipe, quality ingredients, and some talent at cooking. When you possess all three you can create something truly special and memorable.

For the urban designer, a great recipe begins with a vision, a purpose, and strong guiding principles. These become the foundation of a good plan. The guiding principles, or backstory in theme park nomenclature, tie all of the design details together.

The ingredients used in a meal include all sorts of the same stuff. Salt, pepper, saffron, capers, bay leaf, and the other usual suspects. You use certain things at certain times because they give you certain results. I have learned that in design there are patterns or a design vocabulary that does the same sort of thing.Patterns are the solutions to problems that reoccur over and over again in our built environment. Learning about these patterns and applying the properly is what keeps urban designers busy.

Other ingredients include the blend of all sorts of materials, technology, showmanship, and magic that embellishes and enhances the story.

Talent is the ability of the urban designer to rise above the ordinary. This talent is rare and that is why there are so few special places within our urban environment.

So does it take years of training to recognize good urban design from bad? Not really. You just have to remember to think about it as you look around. The average person may struggle in the way they describe what they see but in their heart and heads they know what works and what does not work. For the people I work with, this is the excitement and challenge for us as urban designers – exceeding people’s expectations.

Urban designers have been influenced by World’s Fairs and theme parks going back to the London Great Exhibition of 1851. The biggest influence was the World’s Colombian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago. Walt Disney’s father was a carpenter and work on this project before Walt was born. The Civic Centers of Pasadena, Indianapolis, Washington DC, San Francisco and dozens of other cities owe a debt to that fair.

Are there differences in designing theme parks versus urban design in the real world? You bet. The successful and dynamic urban environments outside the theme park gates work because there is, as Robert Venturi once said, a “messy vitality over obvious unity.” This is important to supporting what Jane Jacobs described as “the city as organized complexity”. This is what makes the real world work.

John Hench, who spent more than 60 years working for the Walt Disney Company, stated that the goal of the theme park designer is different. He said that the job of designing theme parks is to eliminate visual contradictions. These visual contradictions are the active clutter that you see in the real world, which creates mixed messages, sets up conflicts, creates tension, and may even feel threatening. Marty Sklar, another long time Walt Disney Company executive describes it as the “architecture of reassurance”.

Removing visual contradictions reminds me of a Walt Disney story. One day, while he was making his usual rounds at Disneyland, Walt spotted a guy dressed in a spacesuit walking from the backstage area through Frontierland on his way to Tomorrowland. That is a visual contradiction of the first order!

Disney Imagineers have integrated lessons learned from Disneyland into every theme park they’ve built. Throughout articles on this blog, I will point out some of the significant design patterns and details that you will see along the way.

Starting next week, I will be taking a tour of the Magic Kingdom, land by land. First stop: the arrival experience and Main Street USA.

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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.

2 thoughts on “An Urban Planner looks at the Magic Kingdom – Part 1

  • May 26, 2009 at 12:00 pm

    I for one cannot wait for this series to begin. Sounds exciting and fresh whichis exactly what you’d expect from an urban planner. I’m very interested in his reaction to parks other than the Magic Kingdom where some of what was already mentioned does not appear to be strictly adhered to. For example, it is not uncommon to see an employee in a Tower or RNRC costume strolling past Star Tours.

  • May 25, 2010 at 7:18 pm

    I have been seeking pretty much everywhere for this kind of knowledge… I’m ecstatic somebody really has got the resolution to an amazingly elementary issue. You possess no perception the quantity of internet websites I’ve been to during the past hour or so. I am grateful for your info


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