by Ed West
Friday, 1
October 2021
Idea
13:00

Why can’t we all live in Disneyland?

Theme park architecture is beautiful — city planners should take note
by Ed West
Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland, in Anaheim, California. (Photo by AaronP/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images)

One of my favourite places to holiday in is the Efteling amusement park in Holland. Not because I especially like going on rollercoasters — life as a middle-aged man is exciting enough — but because I love staying in the attached residential quarter, the Bosrijk.

Inside this entirely fake modern village the houses are all built in Dutch vernacular, making it feel like you’re in a Vermeer painting. The density is just right, the houses close enough to be neighbourly but distant enough to allow privacy, and there is an abundance of trees. Guests appreciate the scenery as everyone walks because, most importantly, cars are limited to 5mph and forced to park outside the village gates when not in use. The village has a natural border, too, enclosed by trees and, on one side, an entrance resembling old city gates.

It’s a northern European paradise, yet the absurdity really strikes me: why do we have to visit an amusement park to experience the sort of urbanism almost all of would prefer to live in every day, and which is easily buildable?

Today marks 50 years since the Magic Kingdom opened, Disneyworld in Florida, and decades on there are a whole range of theme parks, often imitating the Disney style. Yet if you look at much theme park architecture, it compares very favourably with what gets built in most modern cities. (On top of that list check out Clark’s Trading Post in Northern New Hampshire and Village Square in Ontario).

Why are theme parks better than the stuff designed by top architects in the most expensive parts of major cities? Cult Twitter traditional architecture super-fan “Wrath of Gnon” once explained the reason: amusement parks feature the only modern architecture actually designed to make people feel happy.

When was the last time a new piece of urban architecture was presented not as some proof of the individual’s great genius, but as something that will make people feel better as they walk past? Probably never, because architecture is often about fashion and status.

Wrath of Gnon’s theory is that “most Americans have never experienced a real city, except as maybe a simulation in the form of a Disneyland”, and that theme parks “are virtually the only modern built ‘places’ that always get the human scale and walkability right”. They are cosy, safe and lively, just as cities should be.

He has written that:

The only place left to experience even a modicum of what used to be common urban experiences (towns built for walking and families, children everywhere, no cars, human scaled infrastructure etc.) is now in theme parks (where they take borders and security very seriously).
- Wrath of Gnon

It’s not like this has gone unnoticed, either. Leading 20th century architect Robert Venturi’s wrote that Walt Disney’s vision was “nearer to what people really want than anything architects have ever given them.”

Urban planner James Rouse once told an audience at the Harvard School of Design that “the greatest piece of urban design in the United States today is Disneyland” and said that “in its respect for people, in its functioning for people”, Disneyland had better lessons for planners “than in any other single piece of physical development in the country.”

If you designed a theme park that made people feel isolated or depressed or bleak, no one would visit. So why, then, do we make cities do just that?

Join the discussion


To join the discussion, get the free daily email and read more articles like this, sign up.

It's simple, quick and free.

Sign me up
Subscribe
Notify of
guest
10 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Andrew D
Andrew D
11 months ago

Not exactly Disneyland, but there are many successful examples of nineteenth and early twentieth century model villages and garden cities which display all the qualities that Ed describes – vernacular or traditional architecture, generous landscaping, walkability, cars kept under control. It really isn’t difficult or even particularly expensive and there are some successful examples. However, they’re usually derided by the architectural establishment (think of Poundbury).
This is however a ruralist or suburban ideal. High density city living requires a different approach, but again there are plenty of historical models to follow. The key, as Ed says, is to create places where people feel happy. I don’t think I’ve ever heard an architect or planner use this kind of language.

Last edited 11 months ago by Andrew D
Allan Dawson
Allan Dawson
11 months ago
Reply to  Andrew D

Of course they are expensive and such low density eats land…hmm, crowded towns and cities, open borders with illegal migrants pouring into the UK… I wonder if there is a connection between mass, uncontrolled, immigration and a housing crisis, a road usage crisis, teachers having to waste precious teaching time on children who don’t speak English.

David McDowell
David McDowell
11 months ago
Reply to  Allan Dawson

There’s also a connection between uncontrolled, mass immigration and things we muddle-class like or take for granted. Lower consumer price inflation. Abundant cheap Labour for low status work like cleaning. More abundant Labour for higher status work such as skilled building and medicine.

Last edited 11 months ago by David McDowell
Andrew D
Andrew D
11 months ago

Thanks Laura, wasn’t aware of him – will have a look

Niobe Hunter
Niobe Hunter
11 months ago
Reply to  Andrew D

Ruralise? My small Cotswold village has almost doubled in size in the last five years, all,with Ricky tacky houses crammed together with virtually no gardens

Matt B
Matt B
11 months ago

Interesting argument. But the underlying process experience of Disney is pure 24/7 rolling military. Bagram with a Green Zone facelift. In DL-LA working age adults told us they visited everyday, wide eyed with zealous wonder, and after we exited the aircraft-carrier parking hangar and by accident descended a freeway exit ramp to a dark foreboding place reeking of drugs and lamplit violence you could see why (someone advised us to leave, immediately). Danger Mouse lived there. From DL-LA there’s but a blurred dividing line betwen its garish consumer Potemkin fantasy and life beyond, where concrete rivers wind between flat pack homes up to quaking bling hills ringed by fire. Dreamy.

Last edited 11 months ago by Matt B
Sean Penley
Sean Penley
11 months ago

While I’ll admit there is something to be said for this thesis, one of the reasons it doesn’t work out anymore is that is just isn’t practical for the modern world. A world in which people have to get to work, and may not work at the same job for their entire life and/or not be able to find a house close to their job. Most significantly is this one fact: the movement of people to the suburbs was not forced, it was a natural movement of people going to what they want away from something they didn’t. And despite decades of smart media types who know better than average people what the average person really needs and wants lecturing the rubes on what’s best for them, the concept really hasn’t died away. That isn’t to say the suburb is the be-all, end-all concept of human habitation, just that neither real cities nor Disneyland-style cities have ever yet squared the circle of how to provide practicality, necessity, and subjective aesthetics in a way that appeals to most people in the world for the past…better part of a century. In the context of this article: where do Disneyland and Disney World employees live: in a place similar to the cities they inhabit while on the clock, or in places that more closely resemble where their customers live?

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
11 months ago

Why can’t we all live in Disneyland??
Litter on the floor, graffiti on the walls, rust everywhere. People.

Matt B
Matt B
11 months ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

AI gone rogue in the tunnel of pirates?