Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The Disney Effect: Sixty Years after Theme Park Design


“A triumph of historical imagination.”

 --Richard Snow, Editor

American Heritage Magazine (1987),

on Disney’s Main Street, USA


Behavior is belief

We study popular culture – not the “Big C” Culture of the fine arts and great literature, but the “little c” culture of our popular entertainments, consumer goods, pastimes, volunteerism, and all the other experiences and artifacts that people “vote” for in the most meaningful way possible – with their time and dollars.

We do this because these investments are reliable indicators of underlying beliefs and values that have proven worth for the millions. We are searching for the cultural assumptions that drive American decision-making – the subconscious, unspoken, “rules” that everyone shares even though they are unware these even exist. Most consumer research is about “what” people do. We’re searching for the “why” people do them.

Behavior is how culture is truly expressed. In the words of George Bernard Shaw; “What a man believes may be ascertained, not from his creed, but from the assumptions on which he habitually acts.”

So we watch what people do in their everyday lives.  One of our core laboratories for studying large groups of strangers cooperating, adapting, and competing for goods and services is the Disney theme parks.



For 60 years, the theme park devised by Disney Imagineering has shown a leading cultural influence for the design of public spaces and the shared ideals that make them so valued and “viral.” Disney has always been a cultural translator of Old World stories, retold and reinterpreted through American values.

These themes and narratives are tangible expressions of the folktale as defined by Joseph Campbell: “told and retold, losing here a detail, gaining there a new hero, disintegrating gradually in outline, but re-created occasionally by some narrator. It is a democratic art—an art on which the whole community of mankind has worked.”

We defined the theme park for The Guide to US Popular Culture (2002) as “A social artwork designed as a four-dimensional symbolic landscape, evoking impressions of places and times, real and imaginary.” Disney’s theme park and the traditional amusement park were as different as hamburgers and hot dogs – both entertainments but for very different tastes.

The essence of the theme park is its value as cultural invention, channeled by the highly evocative art of thematics (context-based), unlike the kinetic experiences of amusement parks with their thrill rides (effects-based).

As the original theme park, Disneyland was born at the convergence of several social and technological developments after World War II: the expansion of the middle class, California development, the Baby Boom, the national highway system and automobile ownership, and the rise of television as a universal household medium.

Disneyland re-created the park idea as a middle-class destination reachable mainly by automobile rather than public transportation, and to appeal across generations of “guests,” from young children to older adults, conceived by Walt Disney as “a family park where parents and children could have fun—together.”

As the Los Angeles area grew in population and diversity, the park became engulfed by the city, creating a more accessible one-day venue.  In contrast, Walt Disney World in Florida, surrounded by a green belt, featuring multiple parks necessitating a multi-day stay at on-property hotels, remains a total (multi-day) destination resort.


After six decades of operation and many millions of visitors, Disneyland has influence as a high-profile cultural institution that pervades every aspect of the built environment as a mainstay of the Experience Economy.  According to Peter Blake in his essay “The Lessons of the Parks” (1973), in terms of design applications, Disneyland acts as an urban lab for the testing of design and building technologies.  The theme park is now considered an idealized urban center “unattainable” by ordinary design strategies, a “very serious, very creative experiment in urban design.”

As the engine of theme park design, thematics is a compendium of techniques borrowed from animation and filmmaking rather than architecture: the familiar storyline, identifiable archetypal style that architect Phillip Johnson terms “organization of procession,” stagecraft, iconography, special effects, audio-animatronics (3-D animation), and color palette coordination.

As impressive as the technological innovations of a Disney park are, they are not what makes these places important. It’s the story they are used to tell. Every story needs a hero – and technology is not the hero.

The late Imagineer legend John Hench, who worked for the Disney Company for over 60 years, described how these features are all led by the concept of “story,” “show,” and “enhanced reality,” tightly focused to evoke specific times and places with strong cultural resonance. These distillations – from musical cueing and food to landscaping, lighting, scaling, signage, sounds, surfaces, textures, and smells – play off perception and collective memory to create “instant moods.” 

These are achieved by high-profile motifs, layered detail, and multi-sensory environmental designs, favoring images over signage to tell stories and give direction.  Inherent in theming’s sense of place as theater is the legacy of style revival or nostalgia in latter-twentieth-century design, and the multi-media assemblage of art forms and styles from many eras, traversing the range from crafts to high-tech (as in filmmaking). Overall, these techniques serve to convey an integrated pastiche of collective memory and American shared values.  In Walt Disney’s words, “Disneyland would be a world of Americans, past and present, seen through the eyes of my imagination.”


Beyond the berm

The adaptive use of technology to solve human problems in the built environment made Disneyland, according to architect James Rouse, “the outstanding piece of urban design in the U.S.” to exert broad and lasting effects on the American city.  The Disney Effect can be seen in towns of “authentic” American design: Celebration, FL, Reston, VA, and Columbia, MD recreate the small-town ideal as showcased by Walt Disney in Main Street, USA.

In the theme parks, Disney’s Imagineering design team pioneered the total-control governance of utilities and building process; integrated design, and computer-controlled information, communications, and operations (a byproduct of the space program), prefabricated modular construction, sequestered infrastructure, and ecology-minded development.

Disney also organized crowd behavior in the form of switchback lines to minimize the feel of waiting in line, the pedestrian mall and the psychology of way-finding, multilevel, multiform mass transit (favoring rapid transit over the automobile), and the concept of “guests” to replace  visitors or customers. The techniques perfected at Disneyland are featured in banks (line theory), food courts (theming), airports (people movers), museums (total-immersion exhibits), and customer service (“guestology” training, which even includes hospital patients).

 Most important, the mind of Imagineering sees every component within a bordered system (the park itself is a recap of the animation art form), with synergistic subsystems. “The one thing I learned from Disneyland,” Disney said, “was to control the environment.”  He was also referencing the immediate retail, accommodation, and transportation circling the park itself.

 Accordingly, Disney’s famous integrated marketing links built space with the formats and content of film, television, video, and merchandising. Although Disney is famous primarily for his animated characters, it is the theme park that is his greatest contribution to public life.

According to historian Richard Snow, even the National Trust’s adoption of main streets across the country as “sacred spaces” was inspired by archetypal Main Street, USA. Snow himself was inspired by his childhood visits there to make the past his profession (history).

 Out of the distilled imagination of American history Disney created a townscape in Main Street, USA, possibly the most important 4D artwork ever created. It is a streetscape instantly recognizable by its stylized capsule iconography. At the opposite end of the time scale, Tomorrowland’s prefabricated all-plastic Monsanto House of the Future (1957-1967) was like nothing ever seen before—yet instantly recognizable to all as a “Futuristic” dwelling.

Over a half century after Disneyland’s inception, it is safe to say that few urban spaces remain untouched by the Disney Effect. This effect constitutes a radical shift from one type of design and design vision to another: from effects-based (materials, physics, engineering) to context-based (human perception and values).

Cultural values

The Disney parks’ enormous success is based on the way they operate as a “national trust” of mainstream cultural values. For this reason alone, they must be considered a category completely distinct from amusement or thrill parks, whose value is in the immediate gratification of successfully challenging physical and mental limits.

The Disney theme parks offer a ready-made index to American culture. The historic draw of Disney parks lies within the themes and stories from many times and places, recreated as based on core American values. 

For our work, Disney parks make an excellent lab for studying group behavior because the power of the themed environment lies in embodying critical shared cultural values as embedded in history, innovation, adventure, and fantasy. This is “entertainment” in its original meaning: that which engages the attention.

Theme parks are remarkable and even unique in their ability to resolve the inherent conflict between individual and shared values and create an art form – the “Art of the Show,” as Hench’s (2003) title puts it, as a platform for shared experience that works across generations and subcultures.  It models an international language suited for global export.

As a master communicator in image and symbol, Walt Disney did what all great artists do: he made the invisible and abstract concrete, in a form that can be experienced directly. Disneyland made the popular imagination visible in a way that few other landscapes, including Greenfield Village – Henry Ford’s pastiche of the American past – have been able to do. For that reason, it is not hard to understand why Walt Disney World, the amplified, expanded version of the Disneyland prototype, is the world’s leading tourist destination.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

First Technology: The Invention of Fire




“1.5 million years ago…a band of hominids kindled a fire on the African savanna and realized it was a good night light as well as a heater.”  --US News, “Lighting the Way” (May 26, 2001), 47



We think of ourselves as living in an age of life-changing technological advances. But do they really change our lives?  The Internet may enable us to cheaply and instantly communicate worldwide, but it was the invention of writing about 5,000 years ago that made such communication possible. The Internet just adds more speed to the equation, as did the telegraph and the telephone before it.


The fact is that all our personal technology are just tools to speed up behaviors that we have been doing since before modern humans walked the earth. We’re so fascinated by the ethnographic dazzle that we don’t think about the fact that you have to track back millennia to antiquity to find a truly life-changing innovation.   


Back in 2013, the November issue of The Atlantic asked a panel of 12 experts - scientists, entrepreneurs, engineers, historians of technology, and others - to list innovations that have shaped the nature of modern life. All qualifiers for the list had to appear after the widespread use of the wheel, about six thousand years ago.


That ruled out fire, which our hominid forebears started controlling about 350,000 years ago. That’s pre-modern human. We don’t think about fire very much these days, but we should, because it was literally the first “life-changing” innovation. It did more than act as a “night light as well as a heater” because the very mastery of fire itself changed us from hominid into human.        


Fire grew our brains. It allowed us to cook our food, which meant we could eat and absorb more protein. Bigger brains meant we could now dominate the planet and invent civilization through mastery of technology and science.  Not bad for openers. Of course we can think of fire as the gift we gave ourselves just by borrowing and controlling a natural force bent to the human will and purposes.


Fire made us who we are in creating a new world that crossed from day into evening through the night, providing the light and warmth of the communal hearth.  Cooking, energy, defense against man and beast, the communal hearth, taking back the night.  This proto-invention turned homo erectus into homo sapiens, the only surviving species of the primate tribe Hominini.


Fire was our first keystone technology--the creative platform for every other to follow that jump-started our collective mastery of tools, nature, and the arts.



400,000 years ago, in the Low Acheulian period, homo erectus controlled fire in a gradual process of progressive mastery, like culture itself, that marked the earliest homo sapiens.  In fact, this was mankind’s first tool, and it was an awesome one: literally a force of nature.  It was the proto-invention that from that time on made all others possible.  Control over fire and water, the twin elements of human survival, were the first achievements of the brain and body that carried the human race forward to dominate the world. 


We think of technology as electronic attributes of the modernity.  Yet the greatest inventions came far before, through the ancient world, and in the case of fire, pre-homo sapiens nearly half a million years before that.


My partner once flew southeast east from London to Nairobi crossing the Sudan on a moonless night. He described the ground lighting. Below was just blackness, no cities, no roads, no sign of life. Except for one thing. Even from 35,000 feet you couldn’t miss them.  They were like bright orange embers embedded against the blackness.   They were like nothing he had seen before from the window of a jetliner.  They were campfires alight across the vast plain of the Sudan. Each one an island of light and warmth and safety in the cold black desert. 


Here was the ancient and original lighting: thousands, maybe millions of years old, and still lighting up the night to protect from predators, provide warmth, and most important, provide the center for the “circle of life” – our earliest ancestral sites of safety, disclosure, unburdening, sharing of ideas, plans, hopes, dreams, fears, and the future. 


Campfires are among the earliest of all human relics.  The oldest are, like the ones visible from the air, on the African plains, the birthplace of human history.  Campfires have played and continue (in other formats) to play a central role in our lives as the focal point of human life, as the most social of all primates. 


David E. Nye’s book Technology Matters (2006) elaborates on the origins of technology in the first adaptations of fire that made it a human talent.  The long human evolution of tool-making began with this single element by the makers of fire.  In the creation of fire control, Cicero pointed to man’s ability to “create a second nature.”  All of science, and the understanding of the physical world, arose from the first flame of the campfire.  


Like the power of writing much later, fire was transformative, the original power-tool transformer, external to the human brain and muscle.  The terms hearth, health, heat, and heart do not just invoke one another by sounding alike; they are all linked together in language, the shorthand for abstract thinking to express these closely connected concepts.


The earliest evidence of fire under the hand of humans is in scorched stone remains and in the remnants of habitation flooring. Outdoors, proto-humanoids had found a magical circle, that of the communal campfire, from which to view their world, their circle, and the skies, stars, and planets at the same time.  The stage setting of the circle of life is in faces lit by the fire’s warmth, looking out through the glow into other faces. 


The lighting industry tries to duplicate the original low lighting of the campfire with dimmer switches and LED candles.  Low lighting is a signal of safety, calm, intimacy, connection; it heightens awareness, dilates the eyes, making them appear more interesting and alluring, especially across the sexes, and awakens the senses in general, including touch, taste, and hearing.  The dimming of auditorium lights signals the start of a new mode of thinking with the first words of the speaker on the podium; it refreshes attention and attitude, relieving the action cast of mind tuned to direct sunlight at midday.


Associated with night in a protected situation, the campfire is the heart of the introverted human soul, keyed to connection and contemplation over extended periods of time.  It recalls the seminar, for deeply connected thinking with others, as well as in-depth introspection possible only under the solo thinking style.  It is introspective in its energy, and at the same time the essence of the bonding glow between people, relaxing their guard in a common focus of warmth, light, and security.


The campfire galvanized the deep ties between food and sociability.  Social occasions far into the future would include warmth, light, and food – the aromas and visual stimulus that feature in carnival and ceremonies, from the most exuberant to the solemnity of oaths taken by torch or candle.  The light of religious faith as votives, and candlelit dinners for romance.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Shopping… Or Buying?

I.                 Shopping as Experience

A recent article, “Mindful Shopping,” (Rosemary Counter, Real Simple, March 2016) featured advice for women on how to become shopping-resistant, or at least to resist buying things in general.  These suggestions covered impulse buying, shopping addiction, peer pressure, emotional issues--anything that would indicate that “you’re not thinking practically.” Thinking, that is, to evaluate material acquisitions carefully and in the context of their long-term value in order to rule out “temporary desires.”  

Although the article keeps referring to “shopping,” what the writer is really talking about is buying – and this is a critical distinction often poorly understood, even by experts.  For example, retail anthropologist Paco Underhill’s bestseller Why We Buy should have been entitled How We Shop. You can read through the book a dozen times and learn a lot about shopping behavior and how to more efficiently position your product in front of the shopper.  But learn absolutely nothing about what makes people decide to actually purchase a particular product.

Because there is a real distinction to be made here, key to understanding this primal human behavior, which is the critical differences between buying as opposed to the shopping experience. Our hunter/gatherer ancestors understood the difference. Shopping is gathering – and most of what is gathered is information.  Actual buying is much more like hunting – a dedicated search to isolate a single prey with the intent of bringing it home. Buying can involve shopping but shopping isn’t dependent on buying.

Online “shopping” is often more like hunting. This is borne out by the fact that 3D store retailers complain that people shop their stores, then once the buy decision is made, go online to make the purchase. Basically the online hunting behavior of the quick, most efficient, kill—after gathering information about the main options on the ground.

What is shopping?

The Dalai Lama once said, “Shopping is the museum of the twentieth century” which, for a guy who eschews material goods, is very on-target.  We subconsciously scan our environment every waking moment – it’s how we determine, among other things, our place in the social hierarchy. Shopping is simply a dedicated application of that primal process. We are also a tangible species.  Meaning we need to touch things to feel the weave of a fabric, the heft of a camera, or the motion of a car. It’s been calculated that picking up and holding an item makes an emotional connection that increases likelihood of buying by 60%.

There’s a reason that 68% of consumer decisions are made at the point of purchase – we need the validation of our senses to make a final decision. When you consider that these are simply outcomes of automatic subconscious processes of our brain, it’s little wonder that shopping in stores and malls is the top leisure experience for Americans, and has been for the past century.


Shopping gives us a massive amount of information about our physical and social environment in a tightly condensed and edited package. We’re searching out many kinds of opportunities here (shopping), not a single item to be checked off the list (buying).  Making selections and purchasing may be one of the goals of shopping as experience, but not by any means the primary one.  Many a productive shopping trek takes one to many stores over several hours, yet the outcome isn’t a purchase, but a wealth of ideas that may take time to germinate and blossom into eventual purchases down the line. 

Shopping for cars, for instance, does not start in the showroom. Our research determined that people start noticing the difference between their car and other cars on the highway at least six months before they even realize they are in the market for a new car. Overall, the car-buying process involves at least 18 months spent in scanning first the highways, then the ads, then the showrooms in order to funnel down to the best fit to our latest driver identity.

II.               And many other priorities are at work in the shopping universe

There is a strong gender component, of course. Women tend to be far more detail-based and relationship-oriented than men. Hence the inter-gender issue of the wife dragging the husband along for a long and frustrating experience that men are generally not wired for.  (Suggestion to retailers; provide day care for husbands – if only comfortable armchairs and a TV off in the corner, otherwise he will soon amble up and mutter “OK” – which every woman knows is male code for “I’m done here. Let’s go.”) On the other hand, the wife or girlfriend in the sporting goods store with the male shopper, even without any intention to buy, wants more time to look around.  It’s hunting versus gathering.  This is the fundamental style difference in how people relate to the world for sale: buying versus shopping.

Shopping is also a social experience. Women tend to shop with friends or relatives. They validate each other’s decisions. It’s all part of the social hierarchal process that runs beneath our conscious horizon. The exception is grocery shopping, with the significant other hauled along for heavy lifting and paying (in the trade, supermarket workers refer to husbands as “wallet carriers”).

Most important, shopping gives us a valuable index to what other people are thinking about and valuing.  As tastes change across the seasons and over the years, shopping is the landscape showcasing those shifts in taste, in styles, in materials, color palette, and design.  This landscape scanning always helps us to position and scrutinize our own preferences alongside and in contrast to those of others.  We are social primates, which means constantly comparing our own thinking and behaviors to that of others and to benchmarking against a group norm (these groups change out mentally, depending on what life arena we’re thinking about—family, school, work, community, future, aspiration). 

Shopping (typically in malls) offers a secure, inviting public space for solo or group excursions, offering food, entertainment, restrooms, and affluent d├ęcor.  It is the mandate of high-end malls, especially, to design for an environment that makes shoppers feel affluent while they stroll, socialize, and dine.  In shopping people can bond as they deliberate and speculate on the many objects of culture on display, in an exercise identical to, as the Dalai Lama pointed out, museum-going.  The museum shop, we find, is the best way to index what’s on offer in the galleries, and the ideal start, rather than finish, of any museum visit.  No buying is generally involved.  But museum shops offer the value of amulets or souvenirs so important to marking and recalling expeditions, which visitors have just completed.


Window shopping is the fine tradition of a form of imaginative projection.  As we scan the display of jewelry, candy, clothing, shoes, cameras, pens, or perfume, we are invited to project ourselves into an array of thematic worlds.  There we can savor the potential keyed by simple objects or ideas. We can enjoy glimpsing a life featuring these “props” as active agents in a lifestyle or story starring our own hopes and ambitions.  Marketing and advertising students are actually taught that they are “creating desire,” which is nonsense. Desire pre-exists in the brain of the shopper. They can’t tell you what they want. They may not even be aware they want it. But they will recognize it when they see it (Steve Jobs said people decided to buy once he showed them his products, not before).

The job of marketing and advertising, then, is to tap into what’s already in the mind, and remove any obstacles that might block shoppers’ recognition of value.  In other words, buying can’t operate without full consent and cooperation from the shopper. 

Americans are very good at understanding and creating shopping environments. We’re not so good at creating buying environments. We know that picking up an object signals an increased tendency to buy, but we don’t know what made people pick it up in the first place. In fact, most new products, and their advertisements, fail by a ratio of nine to one.  We’re selective about what we actually take home and even more choosey about letting products into our lives by regular use.  Ask anyone about how many unused or underused products are taking up space in their home (and how hard they are to manage, store, or get rid of).  Professional organizers have built an industry out of this problem of productive buying versus imaginative shopping.  Yet the answer to matching strict buying behavior to the benefits of scanning and projecting desires is not to limit imagination but to recognize these activities as distinctly separate, each with their own ethic, ideals, and goals. These imaginative impulses are embedded in the culture and can only be activated by sellers, not created.   

Shopping isn’t about procurement. It is closer to surveying, exploring, dreaming, goal-setting, identity fantasy—the deliberate process of creative re-creation of the world to explore and match up to the many potentials of the self.  To understand how shopping works, we need to look at the brain that runs on the agenda of cultural values.