In 2009, I was proud to be part of the team that opened the Army’s new $100 million National Infantry Museum at the entrance to Fort Benning, Georgia. Every aspect of the museum was a product of themed entertainment design, from the architecture to the exhibits and even the placement of the restaurant, gift shop, and IMAX theater. This was acknowledged by The Themed Entertainment Association the following year when it awarded the project with the prestigious Thea Award.
The museum’s design can be traced to a fluke occurrence in the Summer of 1955 – the opening of Disneyland.
I call this a fluke occurrence because had the park opened ten years earlier or ten years later, it would have had a very different feel. The sensibilities established for Disneyland’s design would have been rooted in another decade, and so would everything that followed. The planning and opening of Disneyland correlated with the intersection of a period of entertainment technology and the socioeconomic fabric of American culture at the time.
On the entertainment front, broadcast television was replacing radio as the dominant entertainment appliance in the home. Disney was aware of this and took advantage of the medium to advertise both its films and its upcoming theme park. Disney’s television programs also cross-platformed with park attractions. Viewers could become familiar with characters, such as Davy Crockett, Mike Fink, or Zorro on television, then visit Frontierland to meet them in person – where they were often portrayed by the real television actors.
To combat television, studios began offering fare in a variety of widescreen formats, often in roadshows (limited run, from city to city), and often as formal affairs, complete with overture and intermission. Formats included Cinerama – whose first feature showcased a water ski show filmed at Cypress Gardens – and Paramount’s VistaVision. Disney preferred Fox’s CinemaScope process, and used this to distribute a number of shorts and features, including 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
Disneyland was designed as the three-dimensional embodiment of a motion picture or television environment. Beyond the cartoon and animated film characters that could be found throughout the park, Disneyland attractions were influenced by the company’s live action film and television shows of the 1950s and early 1960s. In addition to the above mentioned characters and franchises, other influential programming included Treasure Island, Swiss Family Robinson, and Third Main on the Mountain. In its earliest days, even when not directly, Disney was conscientiously infusing the park with its own intellectual properties.
At the same time that film and television were going through a golden renaissance, the economy was booming and wars were ending. Ten years before park opening, September 2, 1945, the Empire of Japan surrendered to the Allied Powers, bringing World War II to its conclusion. Two years before Disneyland’s opening, on July 27, 1953, the Armistice Agreement for the Restoration of the South Korean State was signed, ending the Korean War. Soldiers were coming home, but with the Korean War came an escalation in the Cold War and military strength was maintained at home.
Disneyland was positioned under the guidance of Harrison “Buzz” Price to take maximum advantage of both highway traffic and the forecasted expansion of another post-war 1950s phenomenon – suburbia. Often overlooked is the fact that the park was thirty minutes from the Naval bases of Long Beach and San Pedro and only an hour north of the Marine Corps’ sprawling Camp Pendleton.
Disneyland became the go-to place for servicemen to go on dates with their girlfriends or wives, take the kids for a family outing, or even the extended family when in town for a visit. This military patronage was not lost on other theme park developers and many of the new parks that opened in the 1960s and 70s were located within an hour or two of major military installations.
Sea World opened its California park near the Naval Training Center and Marine Corps Recruit Depot, placing it a short drive away from the numerous Naval bases that lined San Diego Harbor. The company’s Florida park was built 30 minutes away from the Orlando Naval Training Center and right down the road from McCoy Air Force Base, now the location of Orlando International Airport. It is not by accident that both parks featured a Japanese Village complete with pearl diving, where servicemen could treat their loved ones to the kind of the “authentic” experience they had encountered overseas and purchase for the sweetheart a pearl laden piece of jewelry to remove any skepticism of their “wholesome” adventures in the Orient.
A third Naval Training Center, this one near the Illinois-Wisconsin border, would soon find itself neighbors with another new theme park. In 1976, the Marriott Corporation opened Great America in Gurnee, Illinois, a twenty-minute drive from the Naval Training Center Great Lakes. A sister park, also known as Marriott’s Great America, opened the same year in Santa Clara, California, ten minutes from Naval Air Station Moffett Field and within an hour of the various Naval bases lining both sides of San Francisco Bay.
Industries are built upon achievements that precede them. Consider NASA. Every part of America’s space program has its roots in Project Mercury, which began in 1958. Sure, there were earlier agencies and projects, such as those with the rocket planes, but these can be considered tantamount to the films and television programs Disney’s staff worked on prior to Disneyland, which provided skills and disciplines for the development of the park itself. Just like themed entertainment design traces its roots to Disneyland, companies like Space X and Virgin Galactic can trace their roots to Project Mercury. Space exploration, like themed entertainment design, is a product of the 1950s.
There is no question Disneyland was very much a product of the 1950s and everything that went into its creation was as well. The principles of themed entertainment design, regardless of when the project is developed, all are rooted in the culture, ethos, and sensibilities of this one period of time. The Magic Kingdom is very much a product of the 70s, Epcot is a product of the 80s, Islands of Adventure is a product of the 90s, Aquatica is a product of the 2000s, and Chimelong Ocean Kingdom is a product of the 2010s. Yet they all can trace pivotal elements of their thematic design to that fluke of a moment on July 17, 1955.
Had Disneyland opened a decade earlier, at the close of World War II in 1945, it would have opened too soon to take full advantage of the post-war economic boom during its design and construction phase, followed by the recession of the early 1950s, which then sorted itself out by the mid-1950s. It likely would have been a diminished version of itself.
Had the park opened ten years later, in 1965, it would have been in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, the year of Martin Luther King Jr’s great marches from Selma to Montgomery and the year Malcom X was assassinated. In Los Angeles, the Watts Riots broke out. 1965 was also the year the first American troops were sent to Vietnam.
Had Disneyland opened ten years earlier or ten years later, it would have been a very different park, and all that followed it would be based on the sensibilities of the time period in which it opened. But in the middle of the 1950s, everything was in place, with that perfect happenstance of a golden age of studio entertainment intersecting with a prosperous socio-economic situation. Disneyland could only have opened in the way we know and love it in 1955.
What differentiates a theme park from a traditional amusement park?
One key aspect is the theming (although these days it’s quite common for an amusement park with an assortment of unthemed rides and buildings to refer to itself as a “theme park”) Theme parks tend to have a continuation of thematic elements throughout an attraction or area. This can be something subtle, such as at Disneyland, where the Plaza Pavilion building shared a roof line with the adjacent Enchanted Tiki Room. A common roof line shared by two different building styles eases the mind for the transition. This is an architectural thematic element. Not far away, Fantasmic! transforms a tranquil river into a tour de force, through thematic elements such as lighting, projection, pyrotechnics, music, fountains, costumes, animatronics, live actors, and three dimensional props and vessels.
The best advice I can give on getting good insight into themed entertainment design is to tour a park or attraction with a designer who didn’t work on the project you’re experiencing. In 1998, I had the pleasure of touring Six Flags Over Texas with renowned Imagineer Tony Baxter. I learned many things from him that evening. One thing was how to breath on a roller coaster to eliminate the queazy feeling in your stomach (he recalled teaching this to me when we encountered each other twenty years later). Another involved a stroll through a rather nicely themed Western town.
While there are parks which are able to maintain consistent theming throughout, a benefit of maintaining original ownership or having new owners who wish to uphold the previous owners’ design and operational aesthetics, most regional theme parks have suffered from what I call a “stick ’em there” mentality. This often happens when companies and parks are bought and sold and new attractions are purchased in the hope of making a good return on investment and are then plopped down without any concern for existing area themes.
By 1998, the concept of the six themed lands, each themed to a different flag that flew above of the State of Texas, was long gone at Six Flags Over Texas. So here we were in a very nice Western-themed town, when we came across the entrance to a Batman stunt arena. It just didn’t fit. For the first time, I heard Tony use the term “survival” when referring to themed entertainment design. Imagine that you’re stranded in the jungle, trying to survive. You keep hiking for days in an effort reach civilization. Suddenly, around a bend, you come across an H&R Block office. It doesn’t fit. Your brain doesn’t understand how or why H&R Block is sitting by itself with no other businesses around in the jungle you’re stranded in.
But there’s another factor at play here. For close to twenty years, I worked as a projectionist and theater director for a number of IMAX theaters. I have a number of colleagues and friends who were projectionists in regular movie theaters. There’s a reason I say “were.” As the number of muliplexes expanded and cinemas transitioned to digital, professional projectionists began to be replaced by theater managers and ushers who would go into the booths and press the start button. Eventually, they were able to do this from the lobby just by pushing a button on an iPad app. Without the oversight of projection staff, the quality of presentations tended to decline in the majority of theaters – masking was off, audio might be off, bulbs might be on the fritz. It was very easy for the popcorn popper to start the wrong film – and this happened quite often during the first big digital deployment.
For a number of the theater owners (there are exceptions!), the quality of the presentation didn’t matter so long as they were saving money on staff and turning profits on concessions – the true money maker for theater operators. It’s a similar situation with the “stick ’em there” philosophy in theme parks. A new ride, no matter where it’s located in the park, brings in guests, sells season passes, and once through the gate, those day guests and passholders will spend their money on food and retail and games. Quantity over quality.
There should be this cognitive dissonance from coming across a Batman stunt arena in a Western town, but there’s not, because the “stick ’em there” parks have accustomized us to this.
Then, there’s Fantasmic!, which takes the audience to a completely different realm than the land that they’re viewing the show from, but it works, because the show begins and ends with the same river and Tom Sawyer Island that see during the day. This transitional effect is much different than a Batman stunt arena permanently located in the middle of the Old West.
There’s a castle at the end of Main Street. This shouldn’t work. It should confuse your brain. But it does work. If you stand in the middle of Main Street and look back forth between both ends, you’ll see the castle on one end and the elevated train station on the other, creating counterpoints to each other. There are slightly different sensations at Tokyo Disneyland and Shanghai Disneyland, but both take advantage of the spacing of the castles from the end of those parks’ equivalents to Main Street to create counterpoint to the elevated park entrance structures at the opposite end.
It is often said that Main Street is based on the Marceline, Missouri of Walt Disney’s youth. If it is, it is through the eyes of a man in his mid-50s recalling his childhood. Disneyland’s Main Street is sanitized and paved. During the short period Disney lived in Marceline, the island of Manhattan was adapting to the influx of the automobile and had changed over approximately 70% of its granite pavement to asphalt. In the small town of Marceline, only 350 miles from what the Census Bureau then considered the Frontier, horseless carriages were still a rarity. As seen in the photo at the top of this post, taken around 1908-1910, the streets of Marceline were still dirt.
Which leads to an ugly little secret of the themed entertainment design industry and of tourism in general – there is no such thing as historical accuracy.
New facts are discovered and old beliefs are reevaluated as a consequence. This also happens with the evolution of social movements and new ways of thinking. It can be a positive catalyst for change, such as how the Civil Rights Movement brought about a reevaluation of how we view Southern plantation culture, or it could go the other way, such as when a totalitarian regime attempts to eliminate knowledge of a person or event. In numerous historical attractions, the boring parts of stories or contradictory elements of an individual’s character are often be omitted.
Updated building codes, new construction methods, safety requirements, the paving of roads and driveways, wheelchair accessibility – all ensure that from a structural standpoint, no historic building is one hundred percent historically accurate. Even the addition of a security system detracts from that accuracy.
With each successive generation, the pace of life changes, attention spans shorten, technology improves. A design or program which might work for one generation may likely not for their grandchildren. John Huston’s 1976 film “Independence,” created for Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia is a very different kind of media presentation from recent ones created separately by Dennis Earl Moore and Joseph Cortina for George Washington’s Mount Vernon.
We go down Main Street and we think it’s the Main Street of Walt’s youth because that’s what we’ve been told to believe. We think we know Walt. We think he’s our friend. We love him like an uncle.
Unless we’re a family member, colleague, associate, employee, or friend who spent significant time with Walt, we don’t really know the man. We know a facsimile of him, a corporate version, a character based upon the man.
We can visit the various Walt museums – Walt’s Barn, The Walt Disney Family Museum, The Walt Disney Birthplace, and The Walt Disney Hometown Museum – and learn about the man. But unless we were priveledged to talk with him in a two-way conversation, we will never know the true Walt.
We have the oral and written histories of those who knew Walt and we can piece those together into something tangible. But as those individuals pass away (in just the past few years we’ve lost Marty Sklar, Roger Broggie Jr, Ron Miller, and not too long ago, Walt’s nephew Roy and daughter Diane), we lose the direct connection. When this connection ceases to exist, one of two things tends to happen – the individual is lost to history or they become mythological. The actions of the Walt Disney Company, aided by many, many fans, has already determined that Walt will remain a part of our historical mythology.
Prior to television, prior to cinema, prior to radio, mythology was a very real and common thing. People would often exaggerate their exploits for the press and, of course, the press would be more than willing to oblige, for exploits sold papers.
What follows is partially true. It’s a myth based around a real person. It was partially created by that person and partially created by the media of his time. Some facts we’re not sure of, as a symptom of mythology is that in many cases the facts themselves vary from source to source.
Captain Paul Boyton was either born in Dublin, Ireland or Pittsburgh Pennsylvania. At the age of 15, he joined the Union Navy and fought in the American Civil War. Then he joined the Mexican Navy and finally the French Navy, serving during the Franco-Prussian War. Supposedly.
He returned to the United States and founded the United States Life-Saving Service, the predecessor to the Coast Guard. He was appointed Captain and put in charge of the Atlantic City, New Jersey branch. He was 17. Supposedly.
While in Atlantic City, he got hold of a rubber suit, similar to today’s dry suits. The suit was intended to assist in rescuing swimmers. Boyton took the suit and floated down the great rivers of the world. He wrote a book about it, titled: “THE STORY OF PAUL BOYTON: VOYAGES ON ALL THE GREAT RIVERS OF THE WORLD, PADDLING OVER TWENTY-FIVE THOUSAND MILES IN A RUBBER DRESS – A RARE TALE OF TRAVEL AND ADVENTURE, THRILLING EXPERIENCES IN DISTANT LANDS, AMONG STRANGE PEOPLE. A BOOK FOR BOYS, OLD AND YOUNG.” It was written in the third person.
He knew Jules Verne. Verne wrote about him in his book “The Travails of a Chinaman in China,” which is a much shorter title than Boyton’s own book.
Boyton was the first person to swim the English Channel solo in a rubber suit.
One day, as the story goes, he was walking down the street in New York when Peruvian operatives approached him and asked him to spy on the Chileans with his rubber suit. He agreed, on the provision that he be made a Captain in the Peruvian Navy.
In 1887, Boyton joined Barnum’s circus tour of Europe. The highlights of the tour were the skeleton of Jumbo the elephant, who had died two years earlier after being hit by a train, and Boyton, performing in his rubber suit in a six-foot deep pool dug under the tent at every stop. Boyton would submerge and then pop up in another part of the pool numerous times during the performance. Crowds were astounded.
In 1888, Boyton returned to the states and settled in Chicago, where he ran a sea lion circus on the shore of Lake Michigan. In 1893, Boyton visited the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. It’s said he became enamored with a new ride featured at world’s fair called the Shoot the Chutes. though some sources state he first encountered the ride while on his European tour.
Boyton purchased the rights to the ride and began operating Shoot the Chutes in London, Antwerp, and Chicago. In 1885, he purchased a parcel of land (either sixteen or twenty-five acres, depending on the source) on New York’s Coney Island, whereupon he built Sea Lion Park.
Though best known for the Flip Flap, the world’s first looping coaster, the centerpiece of Sea Lion Park were the performing sea lions, which, depending on the source, numbered anywhere from five to forty. Over time, the park acquired a number of other exotic animals, including an elephant, bears, and a Florida alligator (who had survived being hit by a train in Florida, but was killed by Boyton’s dog when it tried to escape).
Boyton figured a way to modify the Shoot the Chutes, causing the boats to fly off the track into the air. According to Coney Island historian David A. Sullivan: “Boyton held contests to see which animals could ride the chutes best: dancing bears liked it, lions tolerated it and baby elephants would go nowhere near it.”
Though Sea Lion Park lasted less than a decade, it is considered by many historians to be first true amusement park. Prior to Sea Lion Park, amusement parks were often biergartens, trolley parks, or boardwalks that could be entered and exited from many directions and which often held many of the same offerings as a carnival or fair midway.
Learning from his time with Barnum and how the entire operation acted as a single ticketed event, Boyton fenced off Sea Lion Park, creating a single paid entry point.
This Boyton model allowed Walt Disney to differentiate Disneyland from the many roadside attractions found in neighboring towns. It allowed for the controlled flow of guests, funneled down Main Street and then through the entrances of the various lands. There’s a castle at the end of Main Street. We’ve gone through a portal beneath the rail road tracks, what happens if we go through the portal into the castle? But wait. There’s a portal to adventure and a portal to the frontier to our left. There’s a portal to the future to the right. These are portals into themed lands.
But what if the portals were doors in edifices of concrete and metal and glass? What if we went through the portals blind? This is our next stop on the ride – the Engaging Portals Concealing Ordinary Themes. You may know it as EPCOT.