Monday, January 23, 2017

The Safe Design of Mediocrity

      “No great thing is created suddenly.”
                                      --Epictetus, Stoic philosopher

Anyone familiar with the theme park industry knows about Disney’s “Black Sunday” – the July 17, 1955 “International Press Preview” event, which most people remember as Disneyland’s opening day. That’s because it was nationally televised. Ninety million people tuned in – and much of the park wasn’t ready.

There were reports of workers still planting trees as the guests arrived. A gas leak in Fantasyland temporarily shut down two areas of the park.  To meet the deadline, the plumbers told Disney that he could have either water fountains or toilets--but not both. So the water fountains were dry and some people – in keeping with the American cultural distrust of big business - decided it was a deliberate act to increase drink sales for one of the park sponsors, Pepsi-Cola.

Twice the number of expected guests showed up due to counterfeit tickets--so many that restaurants ran out of food. And to top it off, July 17 was one of the hottest days on record; some papers reported temperatures as high as 101 degrees. Women’s heels sank right into the freshly poured asphalt.

The unveiling was far less than perfect, and the press was not kind, citing guest complaints amid the chaotic scramble to make things work. Among the many complaints: guests were shocked to see that Disney’s Main Street, USA was actually filled not with rides but stores.  Real storefronts, selling real merchandise, unlike the amusement park model of cheap memento trinkets.  Housewares, clothing, gifts, books, records, stationery, plus cigarettes and other tobacco products — along with the mementos.

Disney scrambled to fix the park’s many problems by Monday’s official public opening and, despite the bad press, people were already lined up at the gates before they opened.

The crowds came despite the news coverage because Disneyland was unlike anything people had ever seen before. It was virtual reality long before that term was invented. Guests could walk the streets of places they had seen only in the movies and cast themselves in the hero’s role.

And, yes, they could shop on Main Street, USA.  The shops were fully-themed to another era – the “Gay 90s” – a term we find amusing now.  But it simply meant the 1890s, a period Americans had come to think of nostalgically as a happy, more carefree time.

The architecture was the most optimistic style imaginable – American Victorian – a style that even in the 1950s people thought of as “old-timey.” Everything was more elaborate than it needed to be; windows were stained glass or inscribed with names of faux-businesses in elaborate gilt script – or had elements of both. Every interior surface was elaborately wallpapered or stenciled. Every outdoor surface was brightly-colored and heavily adorned with contrasting scrollwork.

It was the architecture of Walt Disney’s childhood; the same sort of architecture then being demolished as too unfashionable for the modern post-war world. Here guests were immersed in a new but somehow quite familiar experience, steeped in a collective memory fast disappearing from living experience.

It turned out to be inspirational as well. Main Street, U.S.A. is credited as the birthplace of the Main Street revival movement of 1980, the National Trust’s first property acquisition (1957), the Historic Preservation Act of 1966, and eventually, the Trust’s National Treasures portfolio (2011). That’s quite a legacy.

Sixty years post-opening, what is now happening that’s new and forward-looking from Disney designers?

From current examples, it’s hard to tell – and nothing reminiscent of what made Disney the gold standard for the experience economy.

Last fall I toured the new Disney Springs in Orlando expecting a real enhancement of the former Downtown Disney that began as a low-rise suburban California-style mall in the early 80s and grew without much of a plan.  What I saw was startling – not in a good way.  The new entrance, in the area Disney unfortunately chose to name “Town Center,” is an outsized high-end mall. In Disney’s promotional material this “Center” is described as “Spanish architecture inspired by century-old towns in Florida….” In fact, it is indistinguishable from any other pretentious high-end shopping mall around the country.

Unlike Main Street, USA, the symbolic town center of all America at Disneyland and Walt Disney World, this one is overbearing, uninviting, and carries none of the welcoming or community-making attributes that such an important entry should show.  Did current Imagineering have no idea what a town center is? Because, despite the name, it is not centered in relation to the “town.” It’s centered on the parking lot.

Instead of a unique experience, we get the usual cast of mall characters: Johnston & Murphy, kate spade new york, Lucky Brand, Lacoste, MAC Cosmetics, L’Occitane en Provence, Pandora, Sephora, Sperry, Tommy Bahama, UGG, Under Armour, Uniqlo, Vera Bradley – in other words, the same brands you can find in every affluent mall, and on every shopping street in any major American city, as well as the twin Premium Outlets that anchor both ends of Orlando’s International Drive.

My personal favorite is “Luxury of Time by Diamonds International,” where you can - again from the Disney Springs own website - “peruse coveted collections of designer watches and elegant fine jewelry at this upscale boutique.”

This brings a whole new level to the Disney family experience. The family can chow down on D-Luxe Burgers while dad slips off to Luxury of Time to drop upwards of thirty grand on the Hublot King Power Rose Gold Automatic 48mm Watch On a Rubber Strap that he saw on the store’s Disney Springs website.

The wealthy are just as welcome to spend their money at Disney Parks as anyone, but how many guest actually feel welcome to browse in that environment when one of the hallmarks of an upscale shopping experience is the implication of exclusion?  Disney’s new Town Center may be pretty, but not unique, not new, not welcoming, and the opposite of innovative – the safe design of mediocrity, pre-approved by popular demand in other places also inspired by Disney vision decades ago.

In other words, not Disney.