Friday, December 07, 2007

Visual Structure in New Orleans Square

Whenever close analysis is attempted of themed environments on any scale, the question ultimately arises as to what constitutes a “success” or “failure” on that level. Although it is often difficult to “read” the overall intentions of an area, it is undeniable that certain areas invite and excite a sensation of satisfaction and suspended disbelief more successfully than others do: nobody will contest, for example, that Disneyland’s 1983 Fantasyland is more inviting and appealing than The Magic Kingdom’s 1971 Fantasyland.

I have come to the conclusion that much of the overall appeal of these successful spaces can be loosely and poorly described as a “stratifying” effect on the viewer’s perception of the thematic space. This is not so abstract as it sounds: where one feels that, for example, an exceptional themed environment like The Magic Kingdom’s Adventureland could potentially go on forever, a less successful area feels more limited in scope. So while Disneyland’s Frontierland terminates rather anticlimactically in the Rivers of America, one feels they could walk on into the wilderness and keep walking forever in the current incarnation of the Magic Kingdom version of that same area. All those beltways of roads and railroad tracks just out of sight beyond the berm seem to melt away.

The Triumph of Romance

The most successful themed environment ever constructed for a Disney park is also one of the smallest. New Orleans Square is the last themed environment to feature the direct guiding hand of Walt Disney himself; it is also unmatched in the American parks for beauty, elegance, atmosphere, and that intangible element of stratification.

If these successful “lands” immediately establish a kind of visual grammar that the spectator will apply to his or her exploration of the area, then New Orleans Square takes ample advantage of its limited space by presenting most of itself to the attentive viewer at a single glance: a tall stack of ornate structures comprising two full city blocks jutting out of a curving backdrop of similar buildings; a shaded park with a railroad station, and a plantation Mansion. It can be photographed in its entirety from its northward boundary to its’ southward boundary from Tom Sawyer’s Island.

Although not part of the original designs, this “visual grammar” is immediately apparent from your first impression of the square no matter from which angle you approach it; it is defined by the “Pirates courtyard” dug in the late 1980’s to alleviate traffic congestion. This beautiful succession of curving lines presents an arc of bridge that allows you to travel level with the ground, passages under to the recessed courtyard beyond, and two great swooping lines up to the Disney Gallery above the attraction. This architectural flurry of lines says definitively that in this area, you will travel both above and below the surface of the earth. While these five curving lines add visual interest, they effectively intensify the verticality of the Square: situated higher than the other Disneyland areas, with more levels, it begins to resemble a very tall sandwich.

New Orleans Square is also unique in that it situates its’ high volume pedestrian area as far away from the bulk of the area as possible: one may pass by the Square without actually passing through it, and this is a uniquely high amount of waterfront footage. So, in order to experience the charm of New Orleans you have to enter and go exploring.

Essentially composed of six large structures, once inside the Square itself nothing seems to exactly parallel any other building: the casual wanderer loses her bearings on where each building rests in relation to the other. Addtionally, the pedestrian walkways commonly narrow down to their slimmest possible space while still being able to cram 40,000 people through a day: the overall effect is of an exploration rather than a quick jaunt on the way to Splash Mountain. The effect is aided by a remarkable succession of eateries and shops; even Main Street USA pales in comparison to the staggering variety and quality of the commercialism per square foot on display here.

Smaller touches add to the overall effect that this area multiplies in layers into infinity: two beautifully dressed tiny courtyards do not give the effect of being mere transitional spaces between shops, but beautiful discoveries exclusive to the tourist that finds them. Each and every space encountered is richly dressed – although the One of a Kind Shop has been gone for many years, there still seems to be a staggering amount of real antiquity on display here. From upper windows recorded vignettes are played out to the attentive listener as the auditory backdrop to thematic arrangements of props along these upper balconies: the lady with the bird, the voodoo lady, and the artist painting the river have become characters as recognizable to Disneyland fans as signifiers of this area as the Ghost Host or the pirate auctioneer.

Notice how the steps have not been covered up on their underside; visually

clarifying the architecture as well as making the tableau look more visually complex than it really is.

This stratifying effect is useless without attractions to anchor it, but New Orleans Square has the two greatest themed attractions ever conceived as its’ anchor. It is important to consider just how well The Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean fit into the area: the astonishing pedestrian space is, after all, a very complex way of hiding these two huge attraction show buildings from the public.

The Square grows in richness once you add Pirates and Mansion to your understanding of the vertical space created by the area: just below the feet of the pedestrians, boats are flowing through a windswept grotto full of decaying pirates. The effect is enhanced by the fact that these scenes are actually under the area, and once one calculates that she can not only go up three full levels, but also down another five, does the full scope of the area become clear.


New Orleans Square is fueled by a strange sort of romanticism. Although clearly influenced by the “romance of the magnolia”, Disney redefines this essential American myth into new territory by introducing into it a dreamlike sense of magical forces at work, many of them sinister. Once inside Pirates of the Caribbean and The Haunted Mansion, day fades away to night and visitors are drawn deeper and deeper into dark labyrinth-like spaces by omnipresent forces and often against their will. Guests essentially find a particularly dank and forgotten portion of the bayou and are sent down a waterfall by a ghoulish living Jolly Roger in Pirates of the Caribbean, only to subsequently stumble on a horde of cursed treasure that sends them back in time. The Haunted Mansion’s Ghost Host lures you into a windowless, door less room and offers you suicide as a means of escape. Both attractions are frontloaded with death imagery both grotesque and comic: the pirates are out of view until we come upon only their dilapidated remains, having met an unpleasant end in pursuit of riches. The Haunted Mansion’s door-less chamber is essentially a catalogue of potential fates for the unwary visitor… funny but unsettling, because there is actually no escape in sight.

These two attractions orbit each other in maddening circles both intentional and unintentional. The Haunted Mansion is overloaded with seafaring visuals: a sailing ship weathervane, a captain’s spyglass pointed back towards Pirates on an upper level of the façade, the ghost schooner portrait hanging in the portrait gallery. The way Marc Davis painted a portrait of a young lady hanging in the hideout of the pirates in the first half of Pirates of the Caribbean recalls a piece finished long ago for the Haunted Mansion of a woman becoming a stone medusa. Popular Disneyland legend pegs this medusa lady as being a Voodoo queen who really did live in New Orleans in the first part of the twentieth century; and the Voodoo lady’s balcony in New Orleans Square is situated halfway between Pirates and Mansion. And, of course, it takes a certain kind of creative genius to fill an attraction about pirates with so much nautical mystery and superstition.

The arch is redefined by New Orleans Square into a central motif: a signifier both of very ancient design and of transitional spaces. The experiences of Pirates of the Caribbean and The Haunted Mansion can be basically refined to incessant movement through a succession of arches, always towards apparent increasing danger. . One moves both towards and away from danger through multiple arches at the very start and end of Pirates of the Caribbean, and the Haunted Mansion’s rooms are mostly divided by Victorian arches.

The arch, especially in the context of the Old South, is a signifier of death: tombstones and crypt doors are defined by arches. Even outside the attractions, reminders of the staggering amount of death imagery found in the area is constant, from the ghoulish chants of the Voo-Doo Lady high above, near the train station, to a tiny and unmarked crypt along the shoreline of the Rivers of America. It is small and uncommented upon.

The keystone for Disneyland’s conception of the Old South is the Blue Bayou, and it is the true heart of the area: so important that it is essentially considered its’ own attraction that guests pass through on their way to Pirates of the Caribbean. Of Disney’s “indoor-outdoor” spaces, it is the most perfect. Constructed not as a block, as later attempts will be, but a pure wide open panorama which must be viewed through a thick cluster of (mostly fake) vegetation, the area is built not for the boats traveling through it but for the nearby inside eatery that looks into it. No matter what the noise level, the bayou always seems calm and serene. It starts Pirates of the Caribbean out not on a bang, but on a moody lament.

Out of this mire of conflicting ideas of high culture, vulgarity, hidden demons, and moonlit romance emerges the premiere themed area of Disneyland. The net effect is that it’s simply impossible to see and do everything New Orleans Square has to offer. The more details one percieves, the further back the intangible formula for success retreats. But perhaps, ultimately, it’s simply because Walt Disney had more ideas for the area than it could possibly contain. Every space has his personal signature of quality of it, needed or not: from his private apartment overlooking the Rivers of America to his personally purchased, antique, utterly inoperable espresso machine in Café Orleans. Of the four chief architects of the area – character designer Marc Davis, show scene and layout men Claude Coates and Herbert Ryman, and master dreamer Walt Disney – it is Disney’s overreaching goals that succeed above all. New Orleans Square is too much for one bend in the river, but, taken as a unit, it is a high water mark of what theme design can do.


I wrote this piece three years ago now; back when I was trying to write my book all in a go and now, looking back, I realized that had I actually finished it, it would've been a more appreciation-based effort than the analysis I'm trying to do here now. It also would've been the most florid trash; I've cut half of my overladen romantic prose out of this and it still embarrasses me. But it was the first time I started naming things that places do, which is worth sharing.

Appreciation and analysis needn't be two unrelated approaches, but I find that much of the Disney online community stops dead at appreciation and never goes over into real analysis. Which is fine, because saying "X exists" is two thirds of "X exists because", and is still significant. I say: don't tell us that something's there, tell us why it's there. Then we'll start cracking the old chestnuts and getting somewhere.

Anyway I hoped you liked it. I'm getting burned out on talking about the parks so expect some filmic analysis post here through December.