Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Anti Food Court

One of the things Walt Disney World's designers were able to do in its' spatial design which has not been able to be effectively replicated at Disneyland before or since is a very particular way of breaking up space to give a good number of interiors and exteriors a sense a peace or remoteness. This is not just the quiet dignity of the New Orleans Square or Liberty Square shops with their intimate scale and unpretentious decor, but the most seemingly isolated of areas where it's hard to remember you're even in a public space, never mind a Disney park. Disneyland's nicest example is by dint of design, Walt Disney's New Orleans Square apartment. There are a few others.

One of the key efforts directed towards the Walt Disney World project was increasing the sense of insularity which began with Walt Disney's berm and eventually led to Disney purchasing more property than it likely ever will know what to do with. Once the outside world has been screened out, what's the next logical step? Screening out the Walt Disney World resorts, which is why Main Street's Exposition Hall is where it is. And from there? Screening out the Magic Kingdom itself.

So WDI started deploying a variety of methods including the false portal, a window or door which leads to nothing but what the designers want it to. This creates desired but impractical space. The Magic Kingdom is a masterwork of angles and how to screen out undesired elements, and through manipulating sightlines, almost any intrusion can be removed. This erases undesirable but physical space. What else do you do? Put up frosted or stained glass, and by then practically anything you want gone will vanish into thin air.

The Columbia Harbour House in Liberty Square is one of those astonishing spaces of seemingly limitless peace within its' dark stained walls, yet it is sandwiched between three major attractions, two major paths and is one of the largest food courts in the park.

Sometime around the opening of New Orleans Square, which featured the most restaurants and shops per capita of any space in Disneyland, WED began to rebel against the notion of a "food court" and change the rules as to what could constitute a major cafeteria. Cafeterias, by nature, are large, plain, open spaces which exist to shuffle diners in and out as quickly as possible. They must be large and open to facilitate sightlines and help the diner find her seat quickly. So how do you make a cafeteria which fulfills all the physical, practical needs of a cafeteria but which subverts its' apparent form?

It all has to do with managing awkward spaces. How to transform a big warehouse painted black on the inside into a variety of interesting locations and settings is the endless challenge of themed design, and short of setting the bulk of the attraction outside and at night (Pirates of the Caribbean anyone?), various methods must be used to suggest a variety of interior divisions without any actually existing. The Haunted Mansion used a variety of arches, wall treatments and curtains to accomplish this, and this is more or less the extent of what the Columbia Harbour House has at its' disposal to accomplish the same task. Harbour houses were public houses where sailors and shipmates would drink and sleep, a theme which calls for a number of subdivided rooms. Columbia's answer to this is to keep the space open for the utilitarian purposes of the cafeteria the building actually is, but dress areas as if the dividing walls have simply been removed (below).

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This logic is so extensive that you can actually figure out where the hallways and rooms would be if the publick house were divided correctly; another trademark of Walt Disney World cafeterias is that they generally offer about a thousand ways in and out of them from different angles. The Columbia Harbour House has what must be a record five entrances across two lands, and each has what is clearly an entrance hall.

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This foyer entrance, copied from a thousand New England houses, is authentic feeling in every respect, including leading directly to a door which leads into a kitchen, as is the custom in houses of that area and era. Compare this entrance to the one from the Harbour House and one from Pecos Bill's Tall Tale Inn and Cafe below, and consider that neither of these three are what is considered the "Main Entrance", and you'll begin to see how the network of entrances and exits that these establishments entail by apparent necessity have been turned into remarkably well conceived transitory spaces. The Harbour House entrances are both spitting images of entrances common to taverns dating from the nineteenth century and the chandeliers and vaulted beamed ceilings of Pecos Bill remind of an especially nice Mexican manor house.

This is, of course, a storytelling device - nobody wants to feel like they've shuffled in through the cook's entrance - but the point is that it's hardly necessary. Even today most Disneyland eateries stream guests in and out through a fixed entrance and exit, but The Magic Kingdom builds cafeterias which could very well be what you always expected to find if you were to break through one of those hollow facades the rest of the land is comprised of. They implicitly extend the space of the land by filling in part of a matrix which is mostly hollow, but which we believe to be full of spaces just like this.

The spaces inside the Harbour House transform based on what area of Liberty Square is visible from them; the nicest room is the one facing the river on the south side; what I always called the "Captain's Room" for its' tasteful white wood paneling and patterned wallpaper. It's also nearest the big anchor hanging off the facade over the street and reminds one of coastal cottages off Cape Cod in Massachusetts.

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The "room" West of it features the same wallpaper but dark paneling and fewer windows and faces inland, looking directly over to the Hall of Presidents through the square, house-style window while the circular (watergoing) window in lined up perfectly with the riverboat landing.

One of the stranger features of the Harbour House is a number of rooms and features which seem to be making an effort to remind one of being onboard a ship. Although this isn't necessarily out of theme with the house itself, it is out of theme with how these harbor houses were actually built! These two rooms, plus the detail on the walls themselves (one of Walt Disney World's prime examples of "get me a lot of [nautical] brick a brack"), makes the otherwise handsome Harbour House a bit flakey. It must be said, however, that the two rooms are very well done. One is a spitting image of a galley, complete with doors to the kitchen and false skylights. The other is a rather unique little room which pedestrians on the street level actually walk under to pass between Liberty Square and Fantasyland.

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The windows on the south-facing Liberty Square side are traditional windows set at waist height off the floor, with the north-facing Fantasyland windows being much smaller, almost miniature. While the room is symmetrical, the Fantasyland side seems to slope down much more abruptly while the Liberty Square side seems almost normally shaped. Reinforcing this impression is the square paneling with square placard hung on the Liberty Square side, while a white door with a rounded top embellishes the curve of the Fantasyland side. This is, in some ways of thinking, a literal embodiment of the duality of the room, with the "square" side on the side of history and the curvier, lilliputian side playing up the fantasy angle.

Moreover, besides all of these patently brilliant touches, the Harbour House seems, on certain late afternoons when the glut of tourists have departed with their children in tow, to be a kind of zen perfection, a pocket of sanity where one can climb high and watching the comings and goings of Liberty Square but not participate. Then most of the strange eccentricities of design and the imposed requirements of the place's actual function can be forgiven or forgotten and the best details can come out: the spatial arrangements and variations, the sedate music, even the hardwood flooring made with irregular little nails all builds to what is probably the finest and most atmospheric in fast food themed design at Walt Disney World.


omniluxe said...

Finally someone who appreciates the brilliance of the Harbour House took the time to record some of its more remarkable features. Every one of those rooms has a name (the Annapolis Room, the Cape Cod Room, etc.) I will dig out the building plans to share with you ASAP. I don't know if you remember this but there was a second kitchen and serving counter on the second floor for many years. The kitchen is likely still there - it's where the baked potatoes were cooked - but the serving counter (which by the time I worked there in 1985 was only used for private events) was walled in. Nice overview.

Julie said...

What a lovely post! I am a huge fan of the HH. Like you said, in the late afternoons, it's a great place to go. When that setting sun seems to be burning your eyes, it's a welcome respite -- calm, peaceful. I always emerge refreshed and ready to take on the rest of the day.

Lou Mongello - said...

Brilliant post!! Thank you for taking the time and effort to showcase a remarkable building for so many reasons. It's filled with detail, story, history and your post and thoughts on it were just outstanding. One of my favorites of all your posts. Bravo!!

P.S. Omniluxe, if you don't mind me asking, I would love the opportunity to see the plans you referred to as well. If possible, please email me at lou (at) Thanks!

Paul (from Idea Sandbox) said...

I love your site! Great work. I created years ago to discuss Walt's plans for his EPCOT.

It's great to meet other passionate Disney fans!

f.doyle said...

That was a beautiful post - I worked in CHH last year as International College Program and the whole post made me remember my time there and how much I enjoyed working in it as a location. I love going upstairs and how calm and peaceful it is - even when it's so busy downstairs! A lovely post - thank you again! (And additionally thank you for the pictures which brought a warm smile to my face!)

Josh said...

As always, a beautifully written and illustrated post! I'm a huge fan of the Columbia Harbour House - ever since I was a kid, I've enjoyed dining on the 'bridge' between Liberty Square and Fantasy Land.

Stephen said...

Oh, I'm definitely sending this one to my family. A whole brilliantly-written article about our favorite late-night getaway in the park? They'll go nuts. Thanks so much.

Van said...

I've been a long-time reader on your site, but today I come out of the lurking darkness to post.

Brilliant post! I read the first few lines and said (out-loud, in the middle of my office) "Yes! Thank you!" I'm glad to see someone else realizes that this is an excellent example of how a "food court" can still be themed with the rest of an area and not be a sore thumb in the middle of a well-themed area.

Very well done!