The design of Disneyland

This week, after more than a year of being closed because of the coronavirus pandemic, Disneyland is reopening to the public.

For diehard Disney fans, that is much-welcomed news. After the difficulties and stress of this last year, who couldn’t use a trip to the Happiest Place on Earth?

Just a few years ago, before my first-ever visit to the park, I never would have described myself as a Disney fan (even the mere utterance of Disneyland usually inspired an eye roll). Earlier this week, as I watched the livestream of Sleeping Beauty’s Castle being lit up preparing for visitors’ arrival, I found myself yearning to hop on a flight to Anaheim, California.

In addition to the rides, the fireworks, the parades, the shops, the water shows, the churros, what is remarkable about Disneyland is the design that has gone into every physical element of the park.

The gardens. The park spaces. The building facades. How they organize (and hide) winding lines for rides. From the moment you walk into the gates, you are transported into another world where each vista is beautiful and each corner welcomes a new land, experience, surprise.

From the berm that lines the exterior of the park to hide any views of the surrounding city to the forced perspective of Sleeping Beauty’s Castle to make it look larger from the ground than it actually is, each detail has been created with the visitor’s perspective and experience in mind.

Not to mention the perfectly curated flowers that change with the seasons, the perfectly spaced trash bins that empty through underground tubes approximately every seven minutes, or the perfectly-scented aromas of fresh popcorn or baked goods that waft through the park through another underground system. No detail has been overlooked to transport visitors to another world, a world where every visible part is beautiful.

Working in the “real world,” especially in the field of community development, it is easy to turn a cynical eye to the perfectly designed park, with its fake facades, overwhelming nostalgia, and consumer-centric experiences.

What city would ever be able to afford an underground system for trash removal? Who would ever consider a system to pump pleasant smells to be a reasonable expense?

In the “real world,” places are much messier and much more complicated to create.

When Walt Disney first proposed the idea of Disneyland, he sought to create a place where parents and children could create special memories together in a safe environment that was filled with wonder and nostalgia at every corner.

What if we aspired to create and transform the places we live and visit with that same intention — focusing on how people move throughout them and experience them, striving to create a beautiful experience?

Beautiful places — whether Disneyland, the great cities of London or Paris, or a park, garden, or building come to mind — have the power to inspire us and leave us feeling refreshed and rejuvenated.

Beautiful places do not just need to be regulated to places where you buy a ticket to enter or a city where you visit once in a lifetime. What if we strove to build beautiful places all around us?

“Here you leave today — and visit the worlds of yesterday, tomorrow, and fantasy,” a plaque reads as you enter the park. Beautiful places — whether natural or by design — have the power to do that, welcoming us to leave today and instead visit the worlds of yesterday, tomorrow, and fantasy.

Magical places, indeed.

Anne Gentry graduated from Brown University with a degree in comparative literature and has studied in Italy and South Australia. She is currently executive director of the Alpena Downtown Development Authority.


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