by Ed West
Friday, 1
October 2021

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

  • 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.

  • 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.

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