Because I've been alternatively sick, stressed, distracted or otherwise just sick of Disney I've been out of the writing groove for a while - and probably lost some regulars in the process, sadly, because blogging often favors regular content over valuable content. So in order to get back into a rhythm, and also to steal from the ongoing habit of compiling yearlong lists over at Progress City USA, and also because they're fun, I'm going to start April off with a list! A nice list, hopefully, and one that will encourage discussion, as the format is apt to.
I started this list off with a few requirements in mind, since a list as general as this is open to a lot of interpretation. For one, I wanted to keep the entries limited not to individual rides, eateries, or specific single establishments, unless they really, really deserved it, but to whole areas of themed design. I think all of the areas below are unique or groundbreaking moments of design that really pull everything together into a unique synthesis - a fully orchestrated moment of design. Second, I intentionally tried to choose some areas that are not often discussed or lauded in the "mainstream" of Disney media, or alternative ones if possible. Next, I wanted to choose places either minimally ruined by the forward march of "progress", so that these orchestrated works can be observed in their original, or kinda-original, form. Finally, to give places not much discussed here at Passport to Dreams their due I hoped to choose a variety of new and old places that I really do think are remarkable. The order of these is haphazard and debatable, but I think all of these really are the pinnacle of great design to be found here in Florida.
8) France Pavilion, EPCOT Center (1982)
Making an argument against World Showcase is tricky because these areas are some of WED's best contained designs, tiny little lessons on how to extend artificial space, stack up layers of visual "data", and create evocative atmosphere - in a very small footprint. I find France to be the best of these, with her beautiful multi-pronged street layout, evocative space, layers, glass enclosed sunrooms, and rewarding interiors; especially the wine and food store with its multifaceted transformations, and the perfume shop with her just for show but no less beautifully art noveau upper level. What helps tremendously is that WED's 1982 France film still plays unprofaned, actually extending the space and beauty of the pavilion without resorting to cheap jokes or Post-Themed-Attraction mockery. France may be the last place left to see untrammeled 1982 EPCOT Center, and always makes for a rewarding hour or so of quiet observation.
Little documented because of the small size of the location and its near constant stream of traffic is an excellent stairway inside the Petite Bakery which creates a whole false upstairs area, similar to but even better than the little stairway and landing in Der Teddybar at the Germany pavilion, and the beautiful interior of what was once known as the Bistro de Paris, now Chefs de France. It and the upstairs restaurant switched names in the early 2000s, but no matter the name, both establishments give a real convincing atmosphere and make the upper levels of France feel as alive as the real Paris it represents. Seeing those real people moving around behind that real glass in real interior spaces is the sort of trick which makes a false space come alive - the same trick used in New Orleans Square and Liberty Square, and to my mind the true mark of a design team which understands their medium and will exploit it best.
7) Fort Wilderness (1971)
It's sort of easy to overlook Fort Wilderness as one of the great design revolutions of the Vacation Kingdom of the World, especially in the long shadow cast by the Contemporary and Polynesian Village. While it's arguable that the true daring spirit of the Contemporary was in its building process rather than what the resort itself offered, the Polynesian really was the first "theme resort" carried out to such perfection, and the standard it set became the expectation from Disney instead of the beautiful exception it truly is. Today the Polynesian is rarely surpassed, but it is still, essentially, only a beautifully themed hotel. Even further removed from it's cultural point of origin as a campground is Fort Wilderness; so far removed, in fact, that it's nearly impossible to equate it with the gated field or parking lot that "Campground" means in every other tourist part of the world.
When Fort Wilderness was a fully actuated experience - a staggeringly short period of time really - it was easily the equal of anything Walt Disney World could offer. When River Country's water slides emptied into the then still blue and safe waters of Bay Lake, Pioneer Hall stood her ground to the Great Ceremonial House, four real steam trains plowed along through the Florida brush and activities like canoeing and horseback riding weren't something you had to go out of your way to find, the resort was truly Something Else, something above and beyond what could be found anywhere else. Today the steam train is long gone and River Country, with her beautiful slides and boardwalk through the cypress walled in, stands like a sentinel awaiting a merciful wrecking ball. But moments of peace and beauty are still found at the Meadow Trading Post, where stepping into it one feels as though it hasn't been touched since 1971. If you follow its back doors out across the wooden bridge you'll find yourself near the Sing-A-Long stage and the canoe rentals, where wanted posters that haven't hung in Frontierland for decades are still present, and I doubt that even the most jaded of Walt Disney World historians could feel that all is not right in the World again.
6) Harambe (Africa), Animal Kingdom (1998)
Harambe is over hyped. Harambe is so exceedingly oversold in Disney fan circles that you'd think it were the resurrection of Walt Disney in architectural form. But if that it so, it is because it is really the real deal - a beautifully orchestrated creation, convincingly aged and decayed, honestly third world - from the bad but omnipresent English to the tacky 80's computer lettering starting to shows its' face near the 15th century fortress.
It may be the most convincing argument for the new corporate philosophy at WDI. Partially as a result of Eisner's story mandates (ironic coming from the man who predicted that Raiders of the Lost Ark would be a failure), the WDI of the 1990's developed a design theory somewhat analogous to The Method Acting - if the WED designs of the 1970's can be liked to the 19th century traditions of acting. WDI's current design concept creates a "back story" (rather than a "theme") and follows it out to astonishing lengths as a substitute for invented artistic creation. Only those items really from the time and place depicted must be used - I wouldn't be surprised if real African nails were imported to build Harambe, lest the Themed Design Gods let loose lightning from the sky and flatten WDI's creation to spite their vanity. I don't have too much faith in WDI's current fetish for "authenticity", but if let loose with a generous budget a creation such as Harambe is guaranteed, then the aesthete in me says, anything that gets the job done.
The Tusker House, while now more difficult to explore at your leisure, is still an astonishing interior, a rambling odyssey of rooms appended to an vaulted-ceiling tourist lodge with a central "exterior" courtyard linking them all together - easily Disney's best food court creation of the WDI era. Across the street, a beautifully realized shop helpfully informs us it is a restored 16th century mansion, and the only disappointment is the inevitable seletion of Disney merchandise near the back. Fresh fruit is served out in the shade near the Kilimanjaro Safaris area, a common sight at Disneyland, but this was the first place at Walt Disney World to do so; and Kilimanjaro Safaris and the Gorilla Trail attractions really expand the time and place of Harambe in rewarding ways.
I have two remaining problems with Harambe outside of my artistic distaste towards the guiding principles behind it. One is the entrance to the Safaris, which are hid rather disconcertingly behind a very fake tree. Of course this is a pattern which the park itself follows, and a necessary step towards evoking the convincing wilderness setting of the Safaris, but compared especially to the good storytelling sense of the similarly themed Jungle Cruise's boathouse - the last outpost before heading into the wild lands - the entrance to Kilimanjaro Safaris does neither justice to the attraction it is setting up nor provides a very compelling reason to walk to the back of the area to get to it.
That point is debatable, and depending on your point of view is either an odd choice or a nice inversion. My next point is just bad design sense, which is the placement in Harambe of the "Train Ride" to the Conservation Station attraction. Although the Harambe train station is nicely done the train ride (which isn't really even a real train) takes riders out of the densely themed Africa area, past what is visibly the side of the Safaris attraction, down past a number of ugly backstage buildings and deposits riders at a building which comes off as little more than a science museum with a petting zoo. The building and the backstage tour of the animal areas is intended to balance your experience of the animals in the park, but it also ruins the illusion of the best themed space in the entire park, including bringing you past the backside of the facades you'll be walking past on your way out. If the train went from near the center of the park to the very back it would be fine, but intentionally destroying some of the best work WDI has done in a US park in the 1990's still confuses and confounds. Otherwise, as the East Coast flagship for WDI's current design philosophies, Harambe does not disappoint.
5) Morocco, EPCOT Center (1984)
A key transition point from the WED era of artistic representation to the WDI era of logic-driven recreation, Morocco was largely paid for by King Hassan II, who had an influx of expendable cash at the time and stepped in when Disney backed out of various deals with Africa, Israel and Spain for their next World Showcase pavilion. Much of the ornamentation in the pavilion was executed by Moroccan artisans, but the layout and design is pure WED era genius. The nearest point of comparison, to my eye, is New Orleans Square at Disneyland, as both achieve their lovely depth effects by routing spectators around a series of relatively small retail spaces bisected with a variety of alternate paths. Both lands are essentially cul-de-sacs; both feature beautiful secluded courtyards, both feature replicas of real locations and both even have vocal snippets of just out of sight "residents" echoing down from on high.
There is not a real term yet for the effect achieved when spectators are asked to traverse an extensive perimeter of a building, but it is used here and in Disneyland, and provides an atmospheric prelude to the Florida Adventureland. Another Stratification effect exploited very well in Morocco is a variance between real and false portals; doors that are blocked, windows that look into shops, balconies that lead nowhere. There's even a market which seems open air, but is cleverly enclosed. Indeed, if there is a single problem with the Morocco pavilion, it is that although it is beautiful, there is very little to actually do there. For those of us who don't spend a long time looking at the design of such an attraction, the pavilion sometimes feels like a chute towards the anchoring restaurant and not much else. Nestled unsteadily between the much more exciting Japan and France pavilions, Morocco is still an important if perhaps mostly abstractly intellectual accomplishment (similar to Animal Kingdom) in being designed for designers only - the last breath of one era of designers and the first of another who saw those Moroccan artisans at work, saw the beautiful result, and got to thinking.
4) Wilderness Lodge (1994)
Wilderness Lodge is, somewhat embarrassingly, not a Disney design, although they have gone to great lengths to obscure that fact. What is important about Wilderness Lodge, outside of its beautiful lobby, brilliant landscaping, inspired central courtyard or well conceived location, is that is the first fully achieved Disney resort under the Eisner regime, where the hotels are just as important accomplishments as the theme parks are. We should remember that between 1988 and 1994, the period between Eisner's first real efforts to remake Walt Disney World lodging and the opening of Wilderness Lodge, Disney had already designed and opened eight resorts, and allowed two others to build on property. One can argue that the three resorts in the new "Moderate" category were filling a growing demand - Caribbean Beach, Port Orleans and Dixie Landings - and the Disney Vacation Club / Old Key West complex was something else as it originally was not open to regular guests. The Grand Floridian Beach Resort was filling up prime real estate near the Magic Kingdom, but many of the others today seem a little excessive.
And none of them has been done on the level of Wilderness Lodge. The Grand Floridian and especially the Yacht and Beach Clubs today seem slightly cheap at the edges, in construction closer to something like a Best Western, with their endless drywall expanses covered up with some cornices and nice wallpaper and little else. Wilderness Lodge is stuffed to the gills with detail, from the metal bands holding together real timbers, to the rough stone floors. All of Disney's previous Eisner-era hotels fell apart in the details, but Wilderness Lodge is strongest there, just like the great old WED designs of ten years earlier. That it was then no more expensive to stay at than the Grand Floridian was remarkable, and people voted with their dollars, so the Grand Floridian is today home to receptions and conventions but Wilderness Lodge overflows with the devoted. It is an astonishingly beautiful place, from the twisting road leading up to it as the landscape nearly subliminally changes to the great northwest, to the clever use of animal footprints in the cement around the resort to make the very domesticated pathways feel more like muddy trails (this was the first time Disney did this and it is now very widespread).
Wilderness Lodge is also noteworthy as being the true invention of the modern upscale Walt Disney World dining experience, with Artist's Point, a high end eatery which didn't require a tuxedo to attend and whose interior design and culinary focus hasn't dated in the past fourteen years. While Victoria and Albert's was always the old boy's club, intentionally pricing out most of the resorts guests, Artist's Point was accessible and excellent. While Disney has since rushed to update restaurants like Flagler's and Narccosee's to the Artist's Point model, it and its host resort remain the true turning point in the vision for resorts in the 1990's at Disney, and the only truly timeless work of the whole of that group.
3) Caribbean Plaza, Magic Kingdom (1973)
The very first essay on this blog was about Caribbean Plaza, and I still find myself enchanted with this quickly produced but still brilliant area of Adventureland. As noted on Widen Your World, it truly does deserve to be called called the eighth "Land" of the Magic Kingdom, warranting that title by care in design and central attraction much more than the area that did claim it in 1988, Mickey's Birthdayland. Although mistreated much more extensively than any other entry on this list, Caribbean Plaza still impresses, with it's beautiful plantings, arches, and details. Shops used to abound in every little nook and cranny of the area although over half of them have now been closed, ruining the plaza-like effect of the area when the Pirates entrance flowed into the House of Treasure, open air Bazaar, and on into the Arcade area. It was Stratification in harmony, layers going back through endlessly complex layers of arches, pillars, open air courtyards and splashing water fountains, with the dark Castillo del Morro looming in the back as the dark entryway to the grim morality play which is the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction (it was these arches which inspired me to invent the term Stratification, by the way). Even the placement of this expansion area next to the Jungle Cruise's first few bends in the river works out wonderfully, as the fortress feels built right on the outskirts of the jungle, the key transition between Adventureland and Fronteirland where the plants stop oppressing the structures and start to be confined into orderly planters, flowerpots, and baskets - civilization in progress, and whether you enter from the Hub or the Plaza, Adventureland is in fascinating contrast.
Different areas of the complex still boast their original names, inscribed on hand painted imported tiles: Plaza del Sol Caribe, Torre del Sol, Fuente Ceilo Azul, and more. Caribbean Plaza also features some of the best forced perspective in the Magic Kingdom, by dint of it's more intimate scale. Although the cannons along the roof of the Castillo no longer fire, the Taco bar has taken over two of the stores across the way which were conceived to sell things such as nautical flags and scrimshaw, and the bandstand is today abandoned, Caribbean Plaza is still a beautiful corner of Walt Disney World, a lovely lament of a time that never really existed, and a fascinating effort by the Pirates of the Caribbean design team to extend the aesthetic of the Caribbean town Claude Coats had designed six years earlier into a living, breathing space. Spend some time wandering around and truly feeling the design some bright Florida twilight and, underneath the loud Hans Zimmer music which plays there today, you will find a yearning beauty which still beats on.
2) Sunset Blvd, Disney-MGM Studios (1994)
From a short but priviledged time in the early 1990's when WDI could spend money as they pleased if it was at the service of a promising concept, Sunset Boulevard at Disney-MGM Studios is the Florida property's most beautifully executed, fully concieved "land" in the Eisner era, a richly rewarding experience from the first curb at its' intersection with Hollywood Blvd to the last rooms of the Tower of Terror. In the days when the view of the Chinese Theater was not blocked, one could walk up the richly detailed Hollywood Boulevard, turn at the splashing fountain, and walk down Sunset Boulevard and feel she was in the best designed theme park ever built. That the themeing stops just out of sight, past the Brown Derby and the art deco arch to the Animation Courtyard, is one of the great injustices of Disney theme parks, but then again nobody was meant to walk back beyond that point in the original designs anyway.
Set in wartime Hollywood, Sunset Blvd's details seem to extend into every corner of the project, from the shops to the often beautifully period specific nature of the individual food outlets in the Sunset Ranch Market. History geeks and Wartime Disney fans can go apolopletic looking at the themeing in Rosie the Riveter's or the nearby Victory Garden, or the Disneyana on display in the Beverly Sunset shop. As one nears the Tower of Terror, the pavement starts to break up, revealing paving bricks from an even earlier era underneath, and the walk up the path into the Tower of Terror is a truly remarkable achievement, from the crumbling staturary, signs pointing to different areas of the resort which extend the false "space" of the hotel, and the brilliant, evaporated fountain which heralds the entryway to the Hollywood Tower Hotel. There may be no better attraction entrance in modern Disney design.
Sunset Blvd is nearly impossible to top, so perfectly judged is its ambiance, although two factors greatly dimish the effect. The first is an unfortunate Planet Hollywood On Location store, hawking a non-Disney restaurant located several miles away which is not inside the Studios park. Second is the unfortunate placement of the modern-era Rock and Roller Coaster, and although inside a secluded courtyard and through a vaugley deco arch, the effect is jarring and depressing, considering it's been there longer than not. These two outside-Disney outside-theme elements notwithstanding, Sunset Blvd is undoubtably the high point of the changes wrought on the Florida property throughout the 1990's, and ought to serve as a blueprint not only for how to do WDI's modern design goals justice, but expand a theme park and build a beautifully realized "land" without compromising the original vision.
1) The River District, Magic Kingdom (1971)
This may seem like a slight cheat to some, but it's a totally logical inclusion for me to make, because by dint of signs at the Hub, early guidemaps and the design of the park itself, Liberty Square and Fronteirland are really one unified expansive area, and if we judge this area as WED's most unhindered "essay" on America, then we find a rambling but beautiful piece which includes American architecture, American music, American food, American superstition, American history, American patriotism, American wildlife, American art and even Native Americans. Although it's conjectural to say, had the area been finished as planned in 1971 it likely would've made any future consideration of Disney's America largely redundant.
Liberty Square in particular can stand up to the best of the best of WED or WDI's accomplishments, and it does all it does and makes it look remarkably easy as the area is remarkably small and rather basic in design. The recent enclosure of the Hall of Presidents in refurbishment tarps accents how much the spectator's experience of Liberty Square pivots around that single structure, so much so that it isn't a land so much as it is "Hall of Presidents and friends". But it is comfortable, intimate, and now that nearly 40 years have elapsed, cozily wooded and sedate. Moreover, the land is integrated, with several "districts" it passes through without feeling like the rambling odyessy through found architecture at EPCOT Center or Disney-MGM. For the first time in Disney themed space, the river feels intimate, essential and ancient , and it flows out into several "other rivers" which symbolically link Liberty Square with Fronteirland.
The Florida Fronteirland may be classified as a "lost land", so different is it from its intended version to the version that exists now. If part of the allure of Liberty Square is that it is a fully articulated accomplishment from the greatest era of Disney designers and its' attractions are chock full of MAPO figures, effects, and WED designs, then the effect of Fronteirland, which would've had two brilliant Marc Davis designed attractions executed on a beyond-lavish scale, may just have overshadowed it. Fronteirland's minor interior spaces such as the shops certainly can't compare to the thick atmosphere of Liberty Square's, but the river has an atmosphere about it that it may just go on forever. Tom Sawyer Island is a brilliant creation, more mysterious as it grows in year by year, still a little this side of spooky, still a little dangerous feeling as you slide through the narrow interior of Injun Joe's Cave or the Escape Tunnel. This doesn't feel like a Disney design where the worklights come on at night, this feels like you could die in there.
Just in the way that the Jungle Cruise extends the "world" of Adventureland, a short riverboat ride away is the "backwoods" of the river district, where the whole area suddenly comes alive as a beautiful pastoral of America, multiplying on and on. The little white beacons which look so nice and mysterious at night littered around the river pointing out such romantically named bends in the river as "Devil's Elbow" and "Crawdad Shoals", the beautifully conceived Indian Village which has been tactfully located on both sides of the railroad tracks so that from both the train and the riverboat it extends just out of sight, making it seem much larger than it really is, to the beautiful Marc Davis designed scenes which punctuate the landscape, the river is hauntingly perfect. Davis' hand is evident in nearly everything on the West side of the Magic Kingdom, and had Thunder Mesa been constructed as planned the Magic Kingdom would've doubtless been the singular mecca for themed design students until the 1990's brought the masterful work at Disneyland Paris. However it should be noted that much of Disneyland Paris is, at heart, building on the work not at Disneyland, but at the Magic Kingdom.
Two Marc Davis scenes along the river strike me as especially brilliant and deserve extended treatment here. The first, Beacon Joe, is actually a thrifty lift from the original Pirates of the Caribbean's Blue Bayou prelude. In the Blue Bayou scene the figure is an interesting curiosity, but out in the open air, under the bright blue open sky, the scene, which is actually significantly closer to the design Davis initially drew for the Thieves' Market project at Disneyland, achieves the force and beauty of his best work. With an expanded shed to rock next to, a new little gag involving Beacon Joe's dog and a jumping fish, a tactful music change, and placed in front of a real Florida swamp, the scene becomes a real slice of Americana, and the atmosphere and music of the scene colors the rest of the riverboat ride. Beacon Joe is the real gateway to the frontier, and it's easy to forget that all this, from the foliage to the artificial bird calls, was designed by Disney.
The next brilliant scene is the river pirate cave, and Davis, perhaps borrowing a page from Claude Coats, creates fascinating implied space with a cave which twists just out of sight and voices echoing menacingly from within. A kissing cousin to his pirate cave from the queue of Florida's Pirates of the Caribbean, another haunting tableau which lures in any active imagination due to what is unseen rather than what is seen, the River Pirate Cave rewards a nighttime ride on the riverboat to view the rarely seen but brilliantly simple light effect where sword fighting pirates cast their shadows on the receding cave wall.
If there is an overall failure of design in the river district, it is that it is stupidly bisected by the parade route, the only time this mistake has been made in a flagship "castle park". Marty Sklar reveals in the E-Ticket that the Magic Kingdom was redesigned late in the game to accommodate double the number of people per year originally planned for; the intimacy of the River District was a likely casualty of this. If an alternate universe existed where the long limbs of the Liberty Tree could brush the sides of the Hall of Presidents and the view from inside Fronteirland was as impressive as it is from the river (it kind of resembles a Western strip mall as is), then the major design errors of the area could be corrected. Still, even with the issues it faces, I find the River district and the four areas it embodies - Liberty Square, Fronteirland, Tom Sawyer Island and the wilderness - to be among Disney's most assured, fully articulated, haunting and beautiful creations.
What do we learn from these selections? I find a few patterns, and let's call them Foxxy's Rules of Themed Design:
A) Stratification counts, and if you're going to do it, put as many layers of space between the spectator and the "back wall" of the area as possible, using arches, doors, windows, and skylights. When you hit the back wall, immediate and reckless deployment of false portals - windows, doors, arches, caves, balconies or anything that appears to lead to something just out of sight - becomes nessicary. Your area will go on forever.
B) Allow areas to bleed together using said portals, especially windows, not only to bring customers into eateries or shops, but to allow all your hollow, empty spaces to come to life by impling that they could, too open up to areas you could go into.
C) Avoid contradictions. John Hench said it, and it's true. Limit your Planet Hollywoods On Locations, Backstage tours, cheap drywall expanses and put in things that matter. Detail matters. Observe why Wilderness Lodge only gets better the closer you get to it, but the Grand Floridian is only truly great in the wider picture.
D) You can't have capacity at the same time you have very intimate show. Take to heart what's been proven in New Orleans Square and World Showcase and route your huge pedestrian pathway outside your richly detailed area, but give them the option to go back into your themed area and explore - and reward them for doing so with an astonishing experience. Imagine a Liberty Square with 40% less road through the middle of it. Break up non-essential large pedestrian paths with planters and trees as much as possible.