Friday, April 22, 2016

Journeys to magic kingdoms


This is the idealized view of Disneyland from the opening credits of the 1954 Disneyland TV Show, essentially it is the view that introduced Disneyland to the world.  It is a glamorized view of what it was like to approach Disneyland before the construction of Disney California Adventure, a view from the parking lot if you will.  While this view no longer exists in California and never really did it(You cannot see the Castle looming over Main Street Station at Disneyland) it does basically in fact exist in Florida...and it is spectacular.
I have been guilty of overdosing on Disney Fan Blogs and podcasts lately. Some of them have exhaustively researched articles and near academic writing. This has left me wanting to do a series of posts on the Disney Parks but these will be more of a personal exploration, a memoir of my Disney experiences informed by my background in Architecture. I feel a tremendous sense of "loyalty" to the original Disneyland, and yet I really loved Walt Disney World. As I started to think about it what I found so enchanting about Walt Disney World were the things that built upon and improved on Disneyland, and  the elements at The Magic Kingdom that remind me of things you no longer find in California. Comparisons between Walt Disney World and Disneyland fascinate me. The Disneyland Resort is the anchor of the resort district in the city of Anaheim; Disney World is essentially its own city, complete with its own infrastructure...highways, water systems, even transit. The expansions of the California property in the last 16 years have still not balanced the scales, Disney World is truly enormous. It was often said that it was "Twice the size of Manhattan".  There is the famous "Disney Bubble"; the total separation from the outside world. Disneyland arguably has more charm, intimacy and historical is the first park and Walt walked the finished product.

Walt Disney World has its own infrastructure just like a "real" city- roads & highways, water, sewer & power, etc.  This is a water system fixture I took a picture of because it was so cool with the name and original World logo cast into it.
Walt Disney wanted to build a place for families to enjoy together because when his children were young he found himself bored on park benches while they rode kiddie rides. That's one of the reasons, he was also the son of a contractor so he was probably a frustrated architect, he was definitely a model railroad enthusiast, had his own backyard ride on railroad and well probably wanted to move up to the next scale! In many ways Disneyland is a giant model railroad set.  He found some orange groves outside Los Angeles built his park and then watched as his success caused a land boom that locked him into his original purchase.

Arrival by car and seeing the park in the distance was a big deal, it was so memorable an experience that it was recreated in this scene from a vintage It's a Small World children's book.  I have fond memories of arriving at Disneyland by school bus- every year my Junior High School attended an evening private party at the park. I have no pictures of the view from the parking lot, I was too busy being a dumb kid to think "Hey someday they will build a second gate here so I should take pictures for a blog post I will write in twenty years".  So instead I took a picture of my TV while watching a DVD for the first picture and my son scanned this picture from the original book.

In California the original (1955-1998) arrival sequence was typically by exiting the 5 freeway at Harbor Blvd., even today that first glimpse of the Matterhorn is terribly exciting. Many times we approached from the east- via the 57 freeway exiting at Angel Stadium "Look! The Big "A"" and then proceeded to take Katella Avenue west until turning at Harbor. The big Disneyland Sign was another landmark that built up that feeling of anticipation. After suffering through the parking toll plaza you made your way to the gigantic surface parking lot. The parking lot now being the location of California Adventure Park which opened in 2001. It turns out  there is some nostalgia online for this lost parking lot.  I suppose I am slightly guilty of that...only I didn't realize it until getting to Disney World where they still have these gigantic surface parking lots. They brought back Disneyland memories.
Disneyland as seen from the original parking lot.  Thanks to for use of photo. As an aside I'm always so astonished at how bad the smog is in most vintage photos of Disneyland it is definitely something that has improved a great deal in Southern California.
Depending on where you parked there was a series of events in the landscape that marked your progress towards finally "arriving" at Disneyland. I recall that thrill when you got out of the car and finally saw north to the overall view of the Disneyland Railroad berm, the train station and Space Mountain. You then proceeded to pass under the outer monorail track and then the inner monorail track and then you'd reach the ticket booths and sneak that first view of the Mickey floral beyond the turnstiles. This sequence had a charm to it, in spatial terms it was a large open lot a "sea of asphalt" if you will, crossed by elevated monorail tracks with the park on "a shore" in the distance and to the west you made out the original Disneyland Hotel, looking south, and east you could make out the competitor hotels that had surrounded the park. I maintain that it wasn't the parking lot that made this was the experience of distant vistas, of transition as you passed under the monorail and the act of getting closer to the gate. In Florida this sequence was augmented considerably by the designed environment itself.
Walt himself from the "One Man's Dream" exhibit at Walt Disney World.  That big diagonal is I-4, the entrance was from the bottom of the property and the original Theme Park "The Magic Kingdom" is located way at the top left corner.
Walt Disney wanted to build a city, a real city of tomorrow, one where he could test the experimental planning concepts in vogue at mid century; to try to tackle the urban problems of the 1960's so the world might be a better place for his grandchildren. He set about to find a large amount of land, much more then he had in California and land he could buy cheaply. Walt Disney Productions wasn't in the development business per se, but Disneyland had been a phenomenal success and so he believed he could tackle the project. He understood that he would need a draw that would be the financial engine of the project and recognized the untapped east coast market for his kind of theme park. Accordingly The Magic Kingdom is placed in the farthest corner of the property so that folks would have to travel through his Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow(or EPCOT) in order to get to it. Sadly Walt Disney died before he could spearhead the project, although he left behind a fairly detailed site plan/land use concept. They knew the new park was going to be bigger, an application of the lessons learned from over 10 years of operating Disneyland. The funny thing is Walt didn't care for sequels and was not nearly as interested in the new theme park as he was in his city. Walt Disney World would evolve away from a City of the Future into exclusively a resort...but if you look hard enough you can find remnants of that original vision.

We're here, we're finally here, I'm so excited I'll excuse the 1990's post modern excess.  The heart is in the right place- who doesn't smile at the sight of Mickey & Minnie! Even the freeways are nicer at Walt Disney World.
To get to The Magic Kingdom you exit I-4 onto World Drive, it may sound silly but I love World Drive...its practically a freeway.  You pass beneath the giant post modern "Welcome to Walt Disney World" arches...they are dated and scream 1990's but oh well it's still fun. Now you are "on Property" as they say, I swear it's the nicest freeway I've been on.  It's neatly landscaped, the only billboards are themed Disney attraction dioramas, monorails whiz by's very futuristic and you leave Orlando behind you with "The Monorail Song"(not The Simpson's version but the classic track from the 50's) playing in your head. I highly recommend streaming it off your phone as you travel towards The Magic Kingdom; it intensifies the experience!

Quality three dimensional billboards and a monorail track!  We're getting closer!

It's a pleasant drive and it's longer than you think it will be, but finally you get to the Magic Kingdom Toll Plaza.  Pass through and then you still have to drive a ways!

Take my money! Let me in, oh wait just scan my magic band.
There is even a Disney World Gas Station "Car Care Center" in Disneyspeak along the route until finally you arrive at.....the enormous surface parking lot. It sort of looks like the old Disneyland parking lot but without the convention center and ring of hotels looking down at you, here there is trees and that remarkable horizontal sweep of the Florida sky, it's a different light than California(not better not worse just different) and you still can't see the park. Depending where you park you either walk or Tram it to the very institutional sounding Ticket & Transportation Center or "TTC".

Anticipation builds as you repeatedly pass beneath multiple arches, a procession towards the park little by little leaving the real world behind. 
The TTC is designed in (to me anyway) this groovy late 60's Tomorrowland style that someone decided was not "magical enough" so they draped green, red, yellow and purple ribbon all over it. Personally I think it detracts, I hope they restore it someday as a relic of the original EPCOT has great bones. Here the monorails take you to the Magic Kingdom, most of the luxury resorts, or to "Epcot Park"(more on that in another post).

Mid-Century Swank meets 1980's festival marketplace at the Ticket & Transportation Center.  The Palm trees go through holes in the roof!

Now you can get to The Magic Kingdom by bus from your hotel or the Monorail from here but I think the best way to get the full effect is by ferryboat.
We have finally arrived at the TTC and have decided to take the ferry across Seven Seas Lagoon. The view is wonderful- to your left is the Tiki splendor of the Polynesian Village Resort, the lagoon has an island, beyond you see the Victorian elegance of the Grand Floridian Resort. Perhaps you spot a monorail entering the futuristic Contemporary Resort. But what entices you the most is that first glimpse of Cinderella Castle in the distance, standing gracefully seemingly at the edge of the clearly towers over everything else in sight.

Every lake I drive by now leaves me unimpressed because it doesn't have a 200' castle at the other side.

 As the ferry makes its way closer to the shore you start to make out the details...the Train Station, Space Mountain.
You can see these reflections in the water, the lagoon feels like an ocean as you travel further and further away from the real world, it is such an all encompassing experience and you haven't even entered the park yet! All around you is motion, the water, the boats, monorails and the Walt Disney World Rail Road.

The monorail, the Train Station & Railroad...the Castle looming over it all. I'm speechless at this point.
This whole experience can take like 45 minutes from star to finish but who are now at the shore of the most "Magical Place on Earth". Conceptually this is a similar experience to the original arrival procession to Disneyland. The distant view entices you from an open area surrounded by hotels and monorails but instead of a magic kingdom on the shores of a sea of asphalt you get a magic kingdom on the shores of an actual sea!

The view at night, my fuzzy picture does not do it justice but it is in fact that idealized view from the original Disneyland TV show.