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.

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