Friday, April 09, 2021

The Mall as Disney; Disney as the Mall

"What [Disneyland] is all about is inhabitation, the human act of being somewhere where we are protected, even engaged, by a space ennobled by our presence  Inhabitation is a powerful reality that architecture is supposed to be all about but more often isn't. It is a reality vividly present at Disneyland, whose own reality is so often dismissed." - Charles Moore

It doesn't take all that much looking to find them, the people who have never quite gotten over the conversion of Downtown Disney to Disney Springs. Head to the correct corners of the internet and they will be there, ready to tell you that Downtown Disney was special and unique and Disney Springs is... just a mall.

"A huge outdoor mall with too many people"

" Its like a shopping Mall with little Disney experience. You could be in a Mall anywhere."

"Downtown Disney at least felt like you were still in the "Disney Bubble" Disney Springs is just another high dollar outdoor mall like you can find in any major city."

Let's stop for a moment and unpack that idea. It's been an insult in our culture for a long time, ever since the multi-regional mega malls became successful enough to become a threat. Time was, any shopping could get done at these gigantic indoor behemoths, anchored by Sears or JC Penny, temples of commerce, social centers of their communities. Time was... never to return, for the bubble of the mall was a fairly short one and failed to survive the 1990s. Today, the United States is littered with fading and failed malls and, after two decades of attempting to reverse the trend, developers are throwing in the towel. These places are being transformed into apartment complexes, community colleges, and office buildings.

And yet the Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village, aka the Walt Disney World Village, aka the Disney Village Marketplace, aka Downtown Disney, aka Disney Springs, lives on. If it's just a mall, it has long outlived the usefulness of that insult.

Yet in another way malls do live on. There is an entire online community of people devoted to documenting these crumbling relics of the 20th century, and entire music genres devoted to evoking, through some layer of knowing despair, the cheery canned soundtracks which once filled the neon-lit malls of the cultural imagination.

The mall, especially the mall of the 1980s, has graduated in its own lifetime to become a touchstone, a composite image of a time that never existed in reality. The Generation X teens who hung out there and the elder Millennial kids hopped up on cola remember the excitements and pleasures of these places in their prime, and have gone on to turn the mall into the 1980s equivalent of the 1950s diner, the chrome and neon burger palaces commemorated in films like Grease and American Graffiti.

In short, the mall is culturally important in the same way that Disneyland is, and for many of the same reasons. As temples of curated but no less real pleasures, as products of the socially programmed 1950s, and as examples of real estate development which failed in all but a few key locations, the mall is very much a twin of the Disneyland-style theme park.


Quick, name the most successful and influential mall in history!

What did you come up with? The Mall of America? West Edmonton? King of Prussia? 

How about Main Street, U.S.A. at Disneyland?

Opening smack in the middle of other influential retail developments - Wisconsin's Valley Fair opened in March 1955 and Victor Gruen's Southdale Center in October 1956 - Main Street drank deep of the cultural times, saw a trend, and learned its secret name. A curated mix of stores and exhibits tied together with a unifying aesthetic and steeped in the kind of bleary-eyed nostalgia my generation now feels for malls themselves, Main Street has flourished while the rest have declined. It's never lost its major tenants, it has never succumbed to seediness, it continues to draw crowds, it has opened multiple new locations around the world, and it has managed to adapt to changing times without losing its essential qualities for nearly seven decades now.

Moreover, Main Street more than any other single component of Disneyland wiped out fifty years of amusement park tradition at a stroke. Old-style amusement parks had multiple entrances, but Disneyland made you pay to get in, a new and controversial idea at the time. Main Street is such a pleasure to traverse that nobody much seems to mind that the only entrance and exit is through a mall. Indeed the entire concept that theme parks could have multiple entrances is now such a novelty that Disney has successfully monetized the concept by attaching it to other Disney owned revenue centers such as hotels.

It's little wonder that no serious critical look at Disneyland has failed to observe Main Street with a mixture of disgust and awe, the ultimate and best mall, the anchor that made the success of the rest possible. Umberto Eco wrote:

"Disneyland's Main Street seems like the first scene of a fiction whereas it is an extremely shrewd commercial reality. Main Street - like the whole city [Disneyand], for that matter - is presented as at once absolutely realistic and absolutely fantastic, and this is the advantage (in terms of artistic conception) of Disneyland over the other toy cities. The houses of Disneyland are full-sized on the ground floor, and on a two-third scale on the floor above, so they give the impression of being inhabitable (and they are) but also of belonging to a fantastic past that we can grasp with our imagination. The Main Street facades are presented to us as toy houses and invite us to enter them, but their interior is always a disguised supermarket, where you buy obsessively, believing that you are still playing."

As if recognizing the impact, in 1965, the city of Santa Monica a few miles north would permanently cordon off the north-south stretch of downtown shopping on Third Street, turning what was an organically grown strip of shops into a kind of Main Street, a kind of mall. But Disneyland, retail, and city planning go even deeper than that.

It is no coincidence that Victor Gruen was both the inventor of the enclosed shopping mall as well at the author of The Heart of Our Cities, the book Walt Disney read and adopted as his blueprint for his EPCOT city. Gruen advocated for rebuilding existing communities on the shopping center plan, which is pretty much exactly what EPCOT was going to be, with the entire downtown being an enclosed, climate controlled Gruen wonderland with a great big hotel at the center of it. After Walt's death the EPCOT city was killed pretty much immediately, but the hotel did survive. When author Anthony Harden-Guest interviewed Walt Disney World Master Planner Marvin Davis about the EPCOT project, Davis pointed to that central hotel EPCOT and said:

"The proposal first was just to build this as one of the original hotels, then later on we'd be building the balance of [the city].."

In other words that central hotel slowly morphed into the Contemporary Hotel, which is why there still is a monorail running thru it today, exactly as it would have had as part of the EPCOT City. And so it is appropriate that the Contemporary's Grand Canyon Concourse is one of the few places left in the United States to see exactly what Gruen's ideal shopping mall would have been like. It is functional, except with hotel rooms instead of apartments and offices above it (many Gruen shopping malls are intended to have office spaces). It is linked in with mass transit, offers climate controlled shopping and dining, lets in natural daylight, and dominated by public art. Any company except for Disney would have demolished the building by now.


The Gruen-style mall was intended to be an enclosed downtown city dropped into suburbia, but not everyone wanted that, and for a few decades there was a competing style: the shopping village. Originating in Southern California where inclement weather was less of a concern, the village model split apart the traditional Downtown into a series of charming, sometimes lightly thematically unified shops.

This was a popular option in areas where maintaining some sense of historical character was desirable; as a child in New England I knew a lot of these but didn't yet know they are part of an actual retail trend. I covered one of the earliest and most influential of these themed, landscaped malls in my post on the very surprising history of San Pedro's Ports O' Call, but through the 60s and 70s they sprouted up all over, often in areas not yet capable of supporting a fully indoor mall.

If the dream of a functional EPCOT city died with Walt Disney, it didn't entirely go away. Although Disney's claim in 1982 that their EPCOT Center park was the realization of that idea was spurious in the extreme, some of the ground work done for that project did end up in the Vacation Kingdom in 1971, including a mass transit system, hidden underground areas for utility work, a modern hotel with a monorail running through it, and an automated trash disposal system. But if Disney had no intention (really no interest) in actually building that city, they did think they could build something else, something pretty close to another kind of planned city where they had recently been spending a lot of time.

That was Bayhill, Florida, a fairly early example of the now-common golf retirement communities built throughout the Sun Belt. By the late 60s Bayhill had been purchased outright by Arnold Palmer, and the Disney executive team was spending a lot of time in the ranch houses, clubhouse and golf links alongside Lake Tibet. Their property had a lot of lakes, too...

I go into the history of Lake Buena Vista, Disney's 70s timeshare community that never quite got off the ground, here. But suffice to say, they tried again and again for nearly a decade to copy what they saw up the street in Bayhill and never quite managed to get anyone interested until Eisner took over the company in 1984 and all of those ambitions went away. But they did build a "downtown" for their planned community, and they based it pretty nakedly on Ports O' Call Village. Though much more obviously compromised in original effect than either Main Street or the Grand Canyon Concourse, much of the Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village remains intact today.

Yet culture changed as it always must. Gruen's enclosed malls returned in the late 70s, giving birth to the 80s mall today enshrined in myth and legend. Families fled urban centers for the suburbs. Where adults saw peace and security, their children - Generation X - saw stifling conformity. These kids fled the suburbs to the more open artificiality of the youth culture of regional shopping malls. This powerful story has totally pushed the shopping villages, built by and for our parent's parents' leisure, off the map entirely. But go looking in the right places and they're there still, and Disney's example was part of a trend like many others.


Disney Parks retail developments mostly slept out the 80s, the boom years for malls. The nearest example is the Old Port Royale at Caribbean Beach, the resort's key amenity cluster separated, like the Contemporary Resort, from it's check-in area. Since redone in a classier style, the original Centertown area was pure 80s whimsical mall architecture, with faux Caribbean facades lining an entirely unconvincing "street". 

Disney's mall for the 80s was Pleasure Island, a kind of postmodern extension of the Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village done up in the then-popular trend of industrial chic. Starting especially in the late 80s and early 90s, retail began to merge the Gruen-style big box with the quaint shopping village into what we now recognize as "lifestyle centers", anchored by large chain restaurants.

Pleasure Island takes the existing lifestyle center trend and feeds it through the meat grinder of the 80s trend of "adaptive reuse". Adaptive reuse is currently very hot in the United States, but the current trend is for minimal use of exiting stone and wood whereas in the 1980s these crumbling post-industrial buildings were being turned into gonzo neon wonderlands. The influential example here is Pier 39 in San Fransisco, but the trend was everywhere through the era; remember The Old Spaghetti Factory, with its faux streetcars themed to wherever the restaurant happened to get built? Much like that chain restaurant, the industrial chic history of Pleasure Island was entirely imagined, with disused shipping facilities becoming roller arenas and baby back ribs being sold in restaurants themed to warehouses which have exploded. 

But lifestyle centers were just getting started. The gonzo theming of these high-profile big city chic dining experiences eventually trickled down to the middle class, with the rise of the chain themed restaurant in the early 90s that was kicked off by Hard Rock Cafe. Planet Hollywood made the trend mainstream, but it had sprouted like crab grass in any place that was ripe with tourists ready to plunk down their fat Clinton-era dollars on novelty. Steven Spielberg opened a sub shop that looked like the inside of a submarine, The All-Stars Cafe and ESPN attempted to copy Planet Hollywood but with sports, Rainforest Cafes created a boom economy in walk-under aquarium and gorilla animatronics, and even David Copperfield attempted to get in on the action. Some small restaurants even re-christened themselves "Road Kill Cafe" and re-named all of their menu items with gross puns on local wildlife extinguished on the nearby highway. In the white-hot days of POGs and Gateway PCs, you had to have a gimmick or go home.

Perhaps the enduring temple of postmodern design, themed lifestyle centers, and mega-chain novelty restaurants remains Universal CityWalk in Los Angeles. Opening in 1993, even to the viewer jaded by a thousand listless outdoor malls, CityWalk remains startling and enlivening. Anchored by a movie theater and concert venue, it's one of the most exciting public spaces in Los Angeles, a constantly surprising winding journey that ends with the entrance to one of the best theme parks in the country amidst splashing fountains and bustling outdoor life. Disney, of course, needed a clone of this too. And so was born Disney WestSide, with the existing Pleasure Island AMC and Planet Hollywood now joined by a raft of novelty shops and restaurants, with the concert venue becoming a Cirque De Soleil. At this point the Village Marketplace (formerly Shopping Village), Pleasure Island, and the new West Side became re-christened Downtown Disney, introducing twenty years of logistical and traffic nightmares which have only just now been solved. Victor Gruen would not have approved.

Nobody has ever quite replicated the effect of that original CityWalk - including Universal - but the West Side is one of the weakest imitations around, a dull strip of stucco with a constantly rotating cast of uninspiring stores. In Los Angeles, home of some of the finest shopping malls around, the subsequent Downtown Disney built outside Disneyland may not be all that interesting, but it's leaps and bounds above West Side, which is now 22 years old and has somehow never quite found a reason to lure tourists very deep into its concrete canyon.


The other trend which totally changed the American landscape in the 90s was the arrival of the big box. Big box stores were nothing new, of course - as discount, suburban outgrowths of big city department stores, they had been a force in the economy since the 1970s and the ascendency of K-Mart. But the 90s were right smack at the highest ebb of the effects of the white flight to the suburbs that had decimated American downtowns and also, crucially, an era when the huge regional shopping malls were starting to decline.

General changing tastes and concerns over those lawless teenagers who were spending so much time at the mall were causing malls to rethink their strategy and renovate themselves into sterile white environments without any of those planters, fountains, and public art sculptures designed to encourage shoppers to linger - open floor space in malls would become home to endless rows of kiosks selling cheap tat and aggressive merchants that encouraged shoppers to keep walking. This deadly combination would eventually doom the mall and push shoppers out of the mall and into the big boxes that dominate shopping life today.

In 1995, a cluster of shops on the south side of the Disney Village Marketplace once home to the sprawling chalet-style Christmas Shop would be pulled down. Taking its place would be a new store, World of Disney, described in panting hyperbole at the time as the "largest Disney merchandise outlet in the world". As long as a football field! Nearly 6,000 square feet! A jumbotron showing Disney movies! Buy buy buy!

Of course, the entire concept of the "world's largest Disney store" is an absurdity because Walt Disney World itself was already just that, but the ruse worked and World of Disney has remained in demand despite selling pretty much the same stuff found everywhere else at Disney. Additional locations opened in Anaheim and Shanghai, and the Disney Store on Times Square was even briefly rebranded as a World of Disney for about four years.

Everything about World of Disney, from its intentionally confusing layout, division into departments, and endless rows of cashiers and chain-branded concept reveals it to be essentially Disney's Target, an all in one stop for American accustomed to buying everything under one roof. It's an odd and revealing facet of Michael Eisner's leadership that he decided that Disney must have a chain of big boxes too, and it worked - with the parking lots stretching out into infinity.


Directly down the street from the Disney Studio in Burbank is a massive lifestyle center called The Americana at Brand. It sits across from the Glendale Galleria, one of the earliest and most impressively sprawling covered malls in the region. There is nothing in particular to do at The Americana, but it is none-the-less constantly packed, because it's a pleasant public space in a city that's nothing but streets. There's a red line street car that goes around the small complex in a loop, a few chain restaurants and a movie theater. There's also a Bellagio-style fountain show, and at Christmastime, it "snows" inside the courtyard, just like at Disneyland. When I lived in LA, I used to go there about once a week to sit on the lawn watching the fountains go and eat a crepe. The upper levels are all offices and apartments. It is, in fact, almost exactly what Victor Gruen wanted his shopping malls to be, minus the mass transit hub radiating outward.

By 2012, Disney's plans to revitalize Downtown Disney, forced more by circumstance than desire, were hitting road blocks. It's almost as if some Disney executive were caught in traffic next to the Americana and watched the bustle of crowds and thought to themselves, "maybe we should just get somebody who knows what they're doing to design this for us."

Which is exactly what they did, bringing in retail architecture firms by the truckload to redevelop Downtown Disney into Disney Springs. The result is pretty but a little plain, with food trucks and architecture reminiscent of St Augustine and reclaimed wood interiors and exposed Edison bulb pendant lights. It drops a bell jar over the early 2010s, capturing the mood of an era more perfectly than anything Disney has built since Future World at EPCOT Center.

It is very high end, but it is just a mall, which of course Downtown Disney always was to begin with. Disney Springs is as accurately of its era as the Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village's chalet style shops and dark wood and brick toned interiors were of the early 70s. I've made this mistake myself; Lake Buena Vista was the way I cut my teeth into doing primary-source historical research and I thought the Shopping Village was a visionary idea in 1975. It was great, but it was based on the same retail trends everything else that followed was, and I just didn't know any better. Whatever is already at Disney the first time you go there becomes your default understanding of what that place is, and anything that changes is an unwelcome intrusion. The change from Downtown Disney to Disney Spring was ambitious, extensive, and comprehensive, far more elaborate than the rebuilding of California Adventure.

But as I hope I've demonstrated, there wasn't a single mainstream retail trend that Downtown Disney wasn't chasing to begin with, the difference is that while any other retail or hotel operator would have torn down the old stuff and rebuilt it in the new style, Disney just kept adding onto it piecemeal. And instead of thinking of it as just a mall, I'd encourage everyone to think of Disney Springs as one of the few places in the world where you can walk through almost 50 years of retail design history. 80s industrial chic sits cheek to jowl with modern lifestyle center stucco just down the street from a ludicrous 90s big box and a 60's style chalet village. The styles have been constantly refreshed, not preserved intact, but you can still spot it if you know what you're looking for.

Nobody looks out for retail history, not the retailers, not the public. If you look carefully and in less well trafficked corners of the world you can find intact retail from the 80s, but you’ve really got to get lucky. We wouldn’t be nostalgic for the idealized 80s mall if we could go out and find them. These things are ephemeral, vanishing, and disrespected - by the time enough time has passed for anyone to be nostalgic for something as ephemeral as a design trend, most of it is gone. 

It will sooner rather than later come to pass that Disney Springs will be reworked into the newest trend as mandated by the newest managers and all that reclaimed wood and exposed filament light bulbs will become but another memory, partially preserved in amber alongside all of the other trend fossils at Walt Disney World.

And in that sense ironically Disney World is a museum, where a modular concrete slab structure is still called “The Contemporary”, where a rotating furniture gallery from 1964 spins ever onwards, and where all those years between then and now collapse into an instant.

It's just a mall - same as it ever was - but what a mall, with what a history.

If you enjoyed this piece on the intersection of history and themed design you should check out my book, Boundless Realm, all about the intersectionality of Disney's Haunted Mansion and popular culture!