Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Liberty Square: Successes and Failures

As the only area unique to Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, Liberty Square offers a unique if frustrating challenge for the serious student of theme park design. Unique, in that its’ detail, scope, and honesty is unmatched anywhere in the Magic Kingdom. Frustrating, in that a series of design hindrances hoisted on the entire park seriously curb its’ intent, especially compared to Disneyland’s masterfully planned New Orleans Square, which it encourages comparison to through both terminology (“Square”) and staple attraction (The Haunted Mansion).

What is sure about Liberty Square is that it is earnest, detailed, and complex. Born of a desire to bring American History to life in a serious and meaningful way, it isn’t hard to see that compared to the beautiful excesses of Adventureland, the designers of this area truly believed that this would be the conceptual heart of the park and the strongest tie to Walt Disney’s patriotism and interest in bringing history to life. For the time, this was in lockstep with the rest of the nation: with the bicentennial in 1976, Liberty Square was the most popular and potent area of the park. Today, it looks rather sentimental and perhaps too simple.

Liberty Square is filled with details, although ironically many of these are hidden from all but the most discerning eye. Buildings are filled with authentic propping and details which mark this area as the site of extensive planning and research. A quick glance at the interior of the Columbia Harbour House or Diamond Horseshoe reveals an incredible wealth of detail. Authentic hats and canes adorn umbrella holders tucked away into corners. Figureheads loom from rafters above the seating areas. In this fashion Liberty Square at least matches The Haunted Mansion in level of detail. It ought to. It was built by the same people.

These gables above the Heritage House intersect in a very sophisticated and realistic way.

But it has a unique problem of being one of the most poorly laid out areas of the entire park. Successful Disney themed areas present the visual equivalent of a “thesis statement” right off the bat, no matter where you enter the area from. Liberty’s Square’s buildings all face away from the central Hub; entering it from the most logical path means you’re going to be passing a lot of the sides and backs of buildings which have perfectly realized fronts which the guests won’t see unless they turn around and look back! Worse, many of the buildings are placed back, far away from the main throughfares of the park, tucked away behind trees and bushes. These facades are charming and interesting when you bother to walk far enough back to appreciate them, but who’s going to bother to actually do that?

Making the problem worse is that Liberty Square has a parade route right through the center of it. The widened pathway not only makes the area seem impersonal, but the forced perspective becomes more obvious. This is a casualty of Magic Kingdom’s mantra of designing for high capacity: it’s a design choice which creates awkward areas like the Fantasyland-Tomorrowland transition. New Orleans Square has it’s’ cake and eats it too: intimate streets and a huge pedestrian space. It’s achieved by placing the pedestrian walkway well outside of the Square itself, not trying to force traffic entering Pirates or Mansion down those tight and beautiful alleyways. Liberty Square could benefit from six to eight feet less sidewalk from building to building and building to river.

There is furthermore no revised “weenie” at the end of the street; the location of Disneyland’s Riverboat landing has not been revised. But Orlando’s river is located several feet below pedestrian level. Since the riverboat unloads a full level lower than it loads for capacity purposes, it has lost a full ten feet of height from street level. Thus, it can’t loom over anything or impress anybody: it doesn’t look any larger than its’ loading platform!

Liberty Square once looked like this. I know, it's scary.

Worse, subsequent development has actually hindered the area. In 1973 a new extended queue (Liberty Square was popular, I tell ya) for The Hall of Presidents was built, in the process covering up an area between the side of the Presidents show building and the south of the Harbour House which had been a beautiful village green with an unattractive white veranda-type-structure (See above). Not only did this deprive this village of it’s green – a key component of any Northern town as any Yankee will tell you – but it raised a huge white obstruction in front of some of Liberty Square’s most authentic looking facades: the townhouses lining the west side of the Presidents rotunda. Now you have to fight your way even further back off the main road, through an ugly food market, to appreciate these entryways. Trees grew up taller than the building themselves, covering or dwarfing the Georgian revival details, and now street level eatery umbrellas make nice hedges and brickwork even more difficult to admire. It’s not as supremely unattractive looking as EPCOT Center’s behemoth American Adventure building, but it’s not distinctly more appealing, either.

Once off towards the north to the Mansion or the south towards the Horseshoe things improve and unify, but too late to make much of an impression. Which is an awful shame as WED has worked some beautiful stuff into Liberty Square. There are beautifully sculpted hitching posts which you may not see because they’re usually full of guests leaning against them. Facing the Rivers of America, in an inconspicuous window, are two lanterns, lit by night. If you stand below the window, face straight out in the direction the lanterns are, then walk in a straight line out towards the river, you’ll end up in front of a small rise with cannons and munitions in the shadow of an elm. A country on the eve of independence indeed!

The heart of Liberty Square isn’t actually the Hall of Presidents or the Liberty Bell, strong contenders but ultimately too self-important. It’s the interior of the Liberty Tree Tavern, beautifully appointed in seven rooms with seven fireplaces and full of authentic feeling dressing. The place actually appears to be in use with its preponderance of occupied coat racks, hats, and china cabinets. The glass is wavy and when inside on quiet afternoons the effect is total: the world of the area is “stratified” upon the viewer’s consciousness, and Liberty Square could go on forever. It’s a potent moment of design in an area which sometimes otherwise feels like a rather monotonous march of historical reverence.

Interior detail: Liberty Tree Tavern, George Washington room