Friday, February 19, 2016

Go Away Green: Three Years Later

About three and a half years ago I published a little essay called Go Away Green, discussing the illusionistic aspects of disguising show buildings inside theme parks.

What are show buildings? They are those big ugly unthemed warehouses which house the sets that the actual attractions take place in.

This doesn't count as spoilers any more, does it?

Quite unexpectedly, Go Away Green turned out to be one of the most consistently popular essays I've ever put out. I think it speaks to the ongoing interest not only in the "backstage" aspect of theme parks, but in the nuts and bolts that go into making a place work. It takes a lot of dedication to care too much about those big featureless walls, so perhaps a followup is in order. Moreover, a lot has changed at Magic Kingdom since 2012. A Fantasyland expansion has come online, previously empty restaurants have been reinvented, and the entire center of the park was demolished and rebuilt. That's a lot of places which previously had very obvious exposed show buildings. What is to be done about them?

The question is not a new one, but the rules about it do change depending on the age of the park we're talking about here. Disneyland has never made much of an effort to wall off its various areas from each other, because everything is so near together it would be almost impossible to do so. Because it's consistent in this approach, it isn't that big of a deal that you can see a Swiss mountain from Frontierland...

...or that the red rocks of Utah are visible from the front lawn of a New Orleans cafe. It's just the way things work there.

Magic Kingdom's designers made a more consistent effort to visually integrate the various areas of Magic Kingdom, but there wasn't much more of an effort to screen the areas off from each other. You can still see parts of Fantasyland from Liberty Square, parts of Adventureland from Frontierland, and so on. There is a move towards subtle visual integration - notice how the shape and size of buildings in Liberty Square subtly echo the shape of Cinderella Castle - but WED Enterprises was still content to allow everything to smush together organically. It's part of the fantasy nature of the park.

Flash forward to 1992, and Disneyland Paris - by far the most integrated effort at a theme park yet - didn't just have a berm around the entire park, but berms separating each themed land from every other one, too. With the traditionally allowable exception of the castle, once inside any of Disneyland Paris' lands, everything is screened off. It's even almost impossible to see Big Thunder from the top of the Swiss Family Treehouse due to very careful positioning. Each "land" in Disneyland Paris is treated as if it is effectively a separate theme park.

WDI carried this quite far. Due to the practicalities of running a theme park, Main Street and Frontierland sit right next to each other. Not to be outdone, the rear of the Frontierland buildings facing Main Street have Victorian false fronts, and the rear of Main Street facing Frontierland is disguised as barns.

Frontierland from Main Street (thanks David G)

Main Street from Frontierland 

It's all very intricate and impressive. My question is: does any of this at the end of the day really matter, or is this just the sort of thing super-fans (and theme park designers) care about? Does anybody except readers (and writers) of blogs like this really care that It's A Small World has nothing to do with the rest of Fantasyland?

In my original post I pointed out that around 50,000 people a day walk under the gigantic unthemed wall in Magic Kingdom's Fantasyland and never give it a second thought. They simply don't see it. I compared this to misdirection in a conjuring trick - real-life stage magic.

In short, I'm still not at all convinced that in the end this matters all this much. Don't get me wrong - disguised infrastructure like the examples above at Disneyland Paris fill me, as a park fan, with delight. They're one of the reasons I got into this in such a heavy way. I stopped my touring of Disneyland Paris to admire them.

So it's in those specific terms of praise that I think the following discussion should be couched. As a fan and admirer of park design, I think it's great that WDI finally addressed some of the lapses in theme which I will single out below. Yet, in the larger sense, I also think it's worth being skeptical about the objective value of such things. In the end, after all, isn't this all to some degree just a game?

Enough preface, let's look at some show building.... camouflage.

In 2015, after a year and a half of on-again, off-again work, Magic Kingdom finally finished up a long-delayed bypass around Main Street. Disneyland built one too, and while Disneyland's is a lot of walls and only used on emergency occasions, Magic Kingdom ended up with a wide open air boulevard that they end up using basically every night. They compensated by filling the whole thing with trees.

It's not much to look at, which is okay in the sense that it's rarely seen in daylight anyway, but what's interesting is how the curtain of trees affects Main Street day-long, Areas which once offered very stark views of the rear of Tomorrowland...


...have been somewhat filled in and give a sense of some remove between areas.


Until the late 90s, large trees were planted behind this wall to block views like this, and even if it's due to a firework crowd flow outlet, it's nice to be able to stand on Main Street and enjoy the illusion of a park just beyond this wall again.

Other rough corners were not exactly removed so much as covered up to the point where only the truly sharp eyed would notice them.

On the Hub side of Main Street, the most visible gap of theming in Magic Kingdom - the entirely visible rear of Main Street - is no more. The rear of the buildings, once painted in Go Away Green, now have painted on brick details, interestingly acknowledging that this is the actual rear of Main Street for any who would bother to look.

The remaining protrusion onto the Hub, the side of the Plaza Restaurant, received a rather simple dimensional facade wrap and a few new trees. This doesn't stand up to close scrutiny, but as I pointed out in my original article, very few will choose to look at this as opposed to the gigantic castle off to the right.

With some extra trees and from a bit of a distance it becomes very hard to distinguish from the more fully realized architecture, which was the point all along:

Over in Fantasyland, so much of the area has been redeveloped that a great deal of modification of sightlines had to take place. New walls have done up to block rooftop AC units (one wonders what modern WDI would make of the endless miles of plain white roofs once visible from the Skyway), and extra paint has been brought in to disguise plain walls.

Previously this was bare walls & exposed infrastructure
One small area of rockwork was rebuilt at least three times, increasing in size each time, to prevent the new show building for the Belle story time attraction from being seen from the Village Haus restrooms. The bizarre result:

To me that looks like a rock floating weirdly in midair, but I guess at least it isn't the view of the back of a corrugated metal shed.

Elsewhere in New Fantasyland, sightlines have been scrupulously maintained. One of the most impressive is this artificial rocky cliff which blocks views of the Little Mermaid show building from every possible vantage point, including the nearby Storybook Circus:

Only in aerial photos can you appreciate how extensive this detail is. It works from all perspectives, including the top of new the roller coaster:

Scott Keating

Yet in other ways the fully-articulated modern theming extravaganzas in New Fantasyland sit weirdly cheek to jowl with the more illusionistic or just plain simple 1971 architecture. My absolute favorite, the west side of the Hall of Presidents show building, is still proudly sitting out in the open:

Depending on the season, Haunted Mansion's show building is no big secret:

Other areas of Magic Kingdom weirdly combine areas you feel you probably shouldn't be seeing with  evocative detail. There's this detailed fence atop the Adventureland Veranda which helps distract from the plain wall behind it:

The side of the Peter Pan's Flight show building can be glimpsed between two Fantasyland structures, simultaneously offering visible pipes and a themed turret:

These wooden logs on the Frontierland side appear to "hold up" an Adventureland facade:

The exact spot where Adventureland (left) becomes Frontierland (right)

It's worth remembering that Disneyland mostly just lets her architectural style smash together like two trains. The concept of transitory architecture was pioneered for Magic Kingdom.

But on the other hand from the train it's very easy to see the stark naked rear of Pirates of the Caribbean, Fantasyland, and the unthemed overpass which I remarked on in Ten Big Design Blunders. Now that the backside of Main Street has been painted over, filled with trees, and basically banished, this is probably the single largest intrusion of the "outside world" into Walt Disney World left.

If we broaden our horizons a bit we could talk about the colossal show building for Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, which sits out in the open like a shelled peanut:

Or this illusionistic slight of hand on the Disneyland Railroad which passes by so quickly it's easy to forget it's disguising a giant warehouse as... a giant warehouse.

Again, we must ask: does it truly in the end matter?

I think in order to answer that we have to question the extent to which a non-committed audience is likely to respond to the little holes where the illusion slips out. Many guests don't even see obvious details, never mind these weird little gaps where something unintended slips through. You can technically see the Contemporary from Liberty Square, but almost nobody bothers to look to see it.

To what extent does something that's basically subliminal affect the overall perception of the whole?

Tokyo DisneySEA goes to unprecedentedly elaborate means to screen out its back-of-house areas from guest view. If even subliminally, touches like that add to the luster of the park, and make it seem like a more impressive, a complete package. Disneyland Paris and Tokyo DisneySEA enjoy sterling reputations in part because the detail they are built with is staggering. It's possible that even if the majority of audiences don't stop to look at every little thing, the mere fact that it's there impresses on them in some subliminal way.

This is why I think that sweating the small stuff adds up. The measurable difference is played out every day in the park - in reputation, word of mouth, and demand. Mind-boggling spectacles like The Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean, Tower of Terror, The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, and Kilimanjaro Safaris still do command long waits because word of mouth has made them into the tentpoles of their respective parks, and audiences respond to them for the crazily elaborate experiences that they are. They may not see everything, but the richness of the experience alone is arresting.

But it's worth remembering that Disneyland and Magic Kingdom are unique. Compared to something like Disneyland Paris, the design of both of the stateside parks is far less intricate. These parks are stepping stones towards the modern extravaganza parks represented by an Islands of Adventure or a Tokyo DisneySEA, and to some extent I think they should stay that way.

Magic Kingdom is the last Disney park to have that sense of naive architecture that you get at Disneyland. Yes, it's bigger, and yes, over the years Disneyland has made the texture of their park much more intricate. But intricacy is different than sophistication, and I wouldn't want to live in a place where weirdo design touches like those logs holding up those Magic Kingdom facades or that too-small-for-people bridge in Disneyland's Adventureland were "sophisticated" out of existence. These places are, after all, historical objects as well.

Al Huffman

Floating around the perimeters of theme parks, show buildings are the white phantoms of the art form - ever present, rarely seen. In a place so full of richly satisfying distractions, isn't it interesting how much we can learn about them by choosing to look at things we aren't supposed to see?


Do you enjoy long, carefully written essays on the ideas behind theme parks, like this one? Hop on over to the Passport to Dreams Theme Park Theory Hub Page for even more!

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Breakfast at the Riverbelle Terrace

Growing up out East, I didn't really have a lot of ideas about what the heck that Disneyland was all about.

In a pre-internet world, my only insights into the place - and indeed the mere fact that it was distinctive from Magic Kingdom at all - came from two sources: the 1990 "The Disneyland Game" published by Parker Brothers - where I first learned that the castle out there wasn't like the castle I knew, and that the Haunted Mansion looked even less like the gothic structure which had so impressed me.

It took a few years, but the next bombshell was a VHS tape called Disneyland Fun. That was how I learned the words to Grim, Grinning Ghosts long before it was possible for me to get to Magic Kingdom regularly. Long before I knew what the Matterhorn was, I was trying to pause the tape to figure out what the heck the monster inside it was.

I still watch Disneyland Fun the night before every trip out to Disneyland, because once you get as familiar with the parks as I am, some of the things that really make you feel like a kid again come from unexpected places.

I took this photo on my second trip in 2005
I didn't get out to Disneyland until I was nearly an adult, so a lot of my key formative impressions of the place came through such twice-removed sources as VHS tapes, TV broadcasts, books, and much later on - the internet. I devoured library copies of The Art of Walt Disney and Disneyland: The First Quarter-Century for any hint of the atmosphere of the place. And very high on my list of early impressions about Disneyland was breakfast at Riverbelle Terrace. I did not yet even know its name, but I recognized that wrought iron patio instantly upon seeing it.

Although the tradition of the Mickey-shaped pancake hasn't totally vanished from Walt Disney World, the adorable fruit faces lasted only a few years after I began visiting, and the notion that I could enjoy that again out West stuck strong with me. Seeing the beautiful, open-air patio only impressed me even more.

Perhaps it all goes back to one of the few keenly remembered thing about one of my earliest trips to Walt Disney World, in 1992. My family stayed at Dixie Landings and I was entranced by the Mill Food Court - the endless pancake operation at the griddle, seeing the pancakes set up and get flipped through the glass window, and the hot morning Florida light filtering through the glass enclosed room stays with me to this day. Perhaps on some deep level I connected to Riverbelle Terrace for being the new equivalent of that distant memory.

Something about such a peaceful location in such a bustling intersection stuck strong in my mind, and does to this day. Few things feel more authentically, uniquely Disneyland than sitting out on that patio with a cup of coffee admiring the view towards New Orleans Square.

The view of the Terrace burned into my five-year-old mind
Earlier this year, Disneyland announced their intention to move breakfast to the nearby Rancho del Zocalo. While I'm sure the Mickey pancake will survive and there's certainly nothing special about the food at Riverbelle on a taste level, it is a tradition none the less. The feeling of being out on that patio really is something distinct that I feel won't translate to Rancho.

So one overcast Southern California morning last month, I set out for my last Mickey pancake, camera in tow, in an attempt to capture something of the atmosphere of the morning bustle of Riverbelle Terrace.

It's nice to know that the beautiful dining room will still be in use, and the kitchen will likely be putting out far better food than it ever has. But the thing about Riverbelle Terrace is that it was one of those spots at Disneyland where you could get onto the wavelength of the past. While you were eating there, it didn't seem so long ago that it was called the Aunt Jemima Pancake House and Walt Disney himself was walking Main Street. There was something comforting about knowing that that restaurant had been turning out box mix pancakes since 1955. Sitting out on that patio was good for your soul.

So grab your $9 pancake and let's take in one last breakfast on the Riverbelle Terrace.