Designing Disney's Theme Parks - The Architecture of Reassurance

A book review

A couple of posts back, I mentioned, perhaps cryptically, that I'm interested in exploring the design of experiences within spaces. One of the ways that I've been doing that recently is through reading a wonderful selection of books, found of course through some diligent searching of Amazon.

One of the books that's given me the most pleasure so far is called Designing Disney's Theme Parks - The Architecture of Reassurance. I've recently finished reading it (cover to cover), and so I thought I'd celebrating by writing a brief book review.

Designing Disney’s Theme Parks - The Architecture of Reassurance

As you might have guessed from the title, this is a book about the design of Disneyland (and the other Disney theme parks). It's not, however, just a bit of behind-the-scenes marketing bumpf published by Disney. Instead, it was written to accompany an exhibition of the same name, which was produced by the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal, and then toured around a few North American institutions. I wish I had been able to visit the exhibition, but sadly it is no longer touring, and so the book is all we have. Both the book and the exhibition were produced in collaboration with Walt Disney (and in particular Imagineering, the group that design the parks), but the authorial voice is independent, and academic.

Furnished throughout with beautiful photos, original drawings and artwork, the book starts by looking at the precursor to Disneyland and modern theme parks, the temporary World Fairs and Expositions. These had many of the elements that we now see in theme parks - rides, themed buildings - but also often had a high-minded morality, with lofty aims to educate the populace in matters social and technological. Contrasted with this were the amusement parks that the fairs helped spawn, such as the Coney Island complex. As more out-and-out commercial operations, these shed the high culture in favour of the more profitable thrill rides, 'girlie shows', gambling games and vaudeville acts. Predictably, this led to a degree of moral outrage among the more righteous corners of American society. Into the middle stepped Disney, who created a park that drew heavily from the craft of entertaining crowds that the amusement parks had created, whilst containing it within an environment that was still 'moral', but without an overbearing 'heavy didacticism'. This sets up the main argument of the book, that the Disneylands are designed with an 'architecture of reassurance' - safe, unchallenging places.

A strong narrative thread running through the book is that of the story of Walt Disney himself. Disneyland, for instance, was never a planned extension of the Disney brand. Instead it was borne from the personal obsessions of Walt Disney, who became depressed by problems with his film studios, and, when told by a Doctor to step back from the business and 'get a hobby', retreated into his own little world of producing miniature trains and automata. He spends months playing with train sets, visiting Railroad Fairs, and eventually even setting up a sit-on steam-powered railway in his back yard. This toying eventually turns into the blueprint for a theme park (complete an all-important circular steam train). When his film company refused to fund the project, he sets up an independent company, WED Enterprises, to pursue the plans.

Interestingly, from a modern perspective, the book reveals how one of the main marketing tools used to ensure that the opening of the first Disneyland was a success was a behind-the-scenes TV show. Called Disneyland, it mixed Disney cartoons with live-action content, featuring Walk Disney himself, generating buzz for the park under construction. Whilst it'd probably be classed as advertorial today, nevertheless the tactic of using a 'documentary' to promote an attraction, or film, is now quite standard.

The book is full of further insights, such as so much of Disneyland is about nostalgia of the past and escapist fantasy. Main Street USA, the entrance and central promenade for all the parks, depicts a place that never really existed - a perfect, harmonious, reassuring street. In Disneyland Paris, even Tomorrowland, the ostensibly future-looking themed area, was renamed Discoveryland, and celebrates a nolstalgic look at the future, from the era of Jules Verne.

Architecturally, the book sets out some of the key concepts established by Disneyland. The fact that the park is an enclosed site, with visitors paying once to enter, is all important for creating a reassuring space. So important, in fact, that Disney created a literal wall, or 'berm', to enclose the park and obscure views of California that might disrupt the illusion of the park. The book reminds us too of how cars are banished from the park, with visitors walking through the park or using the train. Whilst this was a quite sensible response to the urban problems of congestion, we can't pretend that Walt was a grand public transport advocate, as the Autopia ride was quite literally a misplaced vision of the wonderful future that motorways ('freeways') would bring.

Another concept that the book discusses in some detail is the idea of a visual 'wienie', a term Walt Disney himself invented to describe an architectural visual magnet, attracting and drawing the eyes of the visitors, enticing them to venture further into the park, and providing a reassuring presence as they walk around. The central wienie in each of the Disneyland parks is, of course, the Cinderella castle, an icon that now firmly represents the parks. Whilst only Disneyland features something so ostentatious as a giant fantasy castle, the idea of a visual centrepiece can be seen in all sorts of attractions, and find myself thinking about which exhibits play this role in various museums.

The final two chapters of the book seem a little tacked-on. There's a compendium of criticisms of the Disneyland ideologies, which feels like a sop to those who might claim the book is too admiring of the theme parks (which it isn't). Then the final short chapter is an oddly-edited interview with Frank Gehry (the celebrated architect of the Bilbao Guggenheim, who worked on some Disney projects), which is interesting, but an abrupt ending.

Reading through the The Design of Disney's Theme Parks is a rewarding experience, rich in details and illustrations you can pore over. This isn't a book for fans of Disney films (which I'm certainly not), or even particularly for Disneyland fans (the modern rides and rollercoasters are barely discussed), but if you're interested in the psyche of an immersive themed environment, then it's certainly a compelling read, and offers a rare insight into a world that can be quite secretive.