The Suburbanization of Walt Disney World

"It was really nice. I loved being able to walk around to everything and not have to worry about traffic or parking. We could just leave the hotel and catch a bus and ride it right to the parks, and then if we wanted to go somewhere else we could take the monorail. Everything was just really easy to get to."

That is an (imperfectly reproduced) comment from my mom during a conversation we had about y family's recent trip to Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. I've been home for the holidays, and it was the first chance I'd had to really hear about their trip. It's certainly not the first time they've been to WDW -- in fact, it was their fourth (I was along for the first two trips, for the record). But this time -- and I have a feeling that blogging over this past year had something to do with this -- I found renewed interest in hearing about the same parks I'd visited and heard described so many times before.

What struck me, as you may have already guessed, was how very...urban WDW sounded in her description. For those who aren't familiar with the resort, the Disney corporation's largest theme park is located on a sprawling megalot southwest of Orlando. Four theme parks, three water parks, a huge shopping center, golf courses, a sports complex, and an obscene number of hotels are sprinkled around this huge land reserve, with everything of interest to tourists being conveniently connected to public transit. Well, "public" for paying resort guests.

WDW is often considered a poster child for the kind of dull, controlled, paternalistic environments that urbanists rail against. The word "Disneyfication" refers to a renovation which scrubs up and de-authenticates an existing place. Disney is soulless, and its theme parks are the most blatant manifestation of this. There is a megalomaniacal insistence -- nearly palpable when you're visiting the parks -- that your every move is being anticipated and manipulated.

Still, there are some interesting parallels between these theme parks and the urban environment. The walkability and transit connectivity certainly mimic the benefits of urban areas. There is also a diversity of experience that is often lacking in suburban places. As mentioned above, Disney is extremely careful to make sure that you only see and hear what they want you to see and hear in their parks, but that is not to say that there aren't variables in what you decide to do and see. In a way, this is true of all cities. Cities offer a wider range of experiences than a theme park, but there is always a limit on what you can see and do, whether they are legal, physical or otherwise. You can't climb a mountain in Chicago; the city is as flat as paper.

It was interesting, then, to hear that Disney had implemented yet another constraint on guests' experiential variety and the experience of some very loyal guests -- the 'rents, again -- had been less satisfied with their overall experience. While they still had a great time, the resort's new pre-paid meal plan system was apparently taking some of the excitement out of this already super-controlled environment. Mom again:

"With the meal plan, you have to reserve your spot in a lot of restaurants, especially for dinner. We saw a lot of people getting turned away from restaurants because they were booked up months in advance. It used to be fun, when we'd go, to be able to just walk around and enjoy the park and, if we found a place that looked interesting, just eat there. Now, you have to book your meals 180 days in advance, which isn't as exciting."

In an effort to make things easier for guests, Disney has actually made their parks a little less pleasant. Especially with a theme park, controlling a guest's experience of a place -- through as many of the five senses as possible -- is important to creating a memorable themed experience. But if there is too much effort on the part of the party controlling that experience, it can actually be detrimental to the guest's overall impression. It's a delicate balance that urban designers and planners could likely learn from. For certainly, the same thing must apply to cities. So how much of a city should be controlled (through zoning, height restrictions, traffic controls, and other legislation) and how much should be left up to residents to shape? Cities are a much more participatory place than theme parks; this only makes this question of balance more important.


Ben said...

Some very good points there. As I loved pointing out in architecture reviews, disney land is a paradise of interconnected transportation... at one point you had use of a tram, monorail, kayak, train, streetcar and gondola, not to mention the closed circuits provided by many of the rides themselves. I find it unendingly ironic that two of the main points of American nostalgia-- college campuses and theme parks-- are themselves a kind of pay-per-view cartoon of socialist utopia.

Anonymous said...

Along a different but parallel discussion of Disney and urbanization, National Geographic magazine recently published an article about the effect of Disney World on the city of Orlando. The March 2007 article talks about the skyrocketing growth of the greater Orlando area from the 1970s to today. In fact they show a map which best shows this growth (see the left-hand sidebar under "Map"). The article is an interesting read.

Zig B Free said...

I think the Disney theme park and the term "Disneyfication" are two different things like you pointed out.

The Disney theme park, while plastic and faked, is walkable, has transit, has open space, stores on the street and a lot of other good urban design principles.

THe Disneyfication effect is taking that souless cookie cutter look and applying it to places that lack transit, walkability, etc... It's funny Celebration, Florida which borrowed it's town planning theme from places like Disney has now turned into a real place now that people who live have changed the architecture, the design to various different designs and colors and sizes.