Pumpkins being grown into a Mickey-shape at Epcot’s “The Land” pavilion. Walt Disney World, Florida, USA Paul Goings / Flickr.com

Theme Parks Are Prototypes For The Future

An interview with urban planner Sam Gennawey by Rea Dilhoffova

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An interview with Sam Gennawey

An interview by Rea Dilhoffova

When people no longer face a shortage of basic goods, society seeks more. Fun and excitement have become an evident part of our lives. The global economy has recorded an increasing interest and investments in leisure related tourism. Inside this trend, a prominent place belongs to a phenomenon of theme parks.

Theme parks were first introduced to the world in 1950s in the U.S.A. Since then, they have evolved, spread out to different parts of the world and even created a completely new type of industry. This interview deals with theme parks in terms of urban planning. It follows the personality of Walt Disney and focuses on his projects´ legacy from a perspective of an urban planner. The relation between theme parks and actual cities that resembles in many formal aspects is questioned on the account of lessons we may learn and apply in the future.

Sam Gennawey is an urban planner currently working as a Senior Associate in Katherine Padilla & Associates planning firm in Los Angeles. He is a member of Los Angeles Region Planning History Group. Sam Gennawey blogs about theme parks on his blog SamLand’s Disney Adventures. He is the author of Walt and the Promise of Progress City and The Disneyland Story: An Unofficial Guide to the Evolution of Walt Disney's Dream.
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I would like to start with something more general. Fun and excitement have become an evident part of our lives. The question is, what is the role of amusement parks and theme parks within leisure economy?

I have learned a valuable lesson from Phil Hettema. Phil has his own company called The Hettema Group and it is one of the most successful theme park design firms right now. In a conversation with Phil we were talking about the advance of technology and the fact that today you can stay at home and see a 3D film in its high quality. That you can have all sorts of different interactive experiences with a Wii or an X-​box that you would generally have at an amusement park. We were trying to figure out what it is about these spaces and we came to the conclusion those are two things. First of all, no matter how sophisticated technology is as it comes to home, the one thing you can not do today and you are probably not going to be able to do in near future is that you can not touch it. And there is something about being able to touch a surface, touch a wall, touch a rock, that is different than any other kind of experience, that experience of touch is still necessary and theme parks do that really well. Then Phil suggested that there is a moment when you are on a theme park ride with somebody else and you are looking at each other’s eyes and recognize you are sharing an experience together that no one else is sharing anywhere else at that moment. That magic that brings people together. That is the glue that holds this idea that we still want to go on rides, maybe the same reason we still go to the movies, we like to be in a theater with a lot of other people. In an amusement park or theme park there is still no other technology that beats this idea of two of us looking at each other going: ‘Hell, I am so scared!’. These things are going to allow theme parks to survive and thrive in the future.

This is basically what my thoughts always were. When virtual reality is on its rise, do we still go to theme parks? So you´re saying that it is this haptic experience and also the interaction with other people that actually make us visit these places. And why do we keep coming back there again?

Yes, it is a combination of both. That is why theme parks as a technology will survive longer. Where you were starting to go to, though, why we keep going back again and again. This really was the question I was trying to get out in ‘Promise of Progress City’. It is this concept of the architecture of reinsurance. The architecture in the regular world has a certain level of messy vitality. Messy vitality is good. It means that it keeps you alive. It keeps you interacted. If you have too much messy vitality, it may turn into fear or trepidation in the environment. Theme parks are based on a completely different foundation and that foundation is the removal of all the visual contradictions. You want to get rid of anything that makes you tense. It turns off your lizard brain and you no longer have to fear your environment and you start to think differently and it is that transformation of being able to let your brain relax and start to communicate in a different way. That is what brings people back again.

Definitely. I had always thought Disney parks were for little kids. But the parks completely amazed me, I was struck by the environment. When I was going to visit Disneyland for its 50th anniversary, in 2005, I prepared myself for a similar experience, I got into the mood that I was going to have fun. Of course, everything is perfectly set in these parks, but also visitors are set for some kind of emotions when they are going there.

That is the lizard brain thing. People are able to relax. To communicate more with other people. You did pick up on one thing very immediately which was that Walt and his guys never designed the theme parks for children. They were designed for adults. The only thing about them that was designed for children was the sensitivity of a child’s point of view. Walt Disney was fascinated by creating places that respected people. Disneyland was designed as an entertainment venue but its impact on urban design became just extraordinarily well-​known. Walt Disney very quickly picked up on the idea that he was creating something that was much more than an amusement park. It was an environment that respected people and he thought: ‘Where else could I apply the lessons?’

 Monorail goes through Epcot Futureland in Walt Disney World, Florida, USA. Amelia Gapin/Flickr.com

Monorail goes through Epcot Futureland in Walt Disney World, Florida, USA. Amelia Gapin/Flickr.com

Walt and his guys never designed the theme parks for children. They were designed for adults.

He wanted to do the same thing with EPCOT and create a place where American industry enterprises could be in the same place and share ideas. He was just going to create the physical space. And Mineral King was going to be a different kind of ski resort. It was going to be the first ski resort that not only respected people but was also going to respect the environment. 

The problem is that general public think of Walt Disney as a founder and a creative mind of Walt Disney Company. But he was a much more interesting figure in terms of urban planning and the ideas he created. This fact is also underestimated by academics.

Yes, he was the prototype – computer geek that we have today. He was interested in animation, because animation was a mechanical art. Disneyland was a technology device. When General Electric were struggling selling color televisions, they turned to Walt and he came up with the Wonderful World of Color. He in a sense relished in being underestimated by academics as an urban planner. And that is one of the reasons I got into writing about Walt Disney, because he has made much bigger impact than a lot of people would care to admit.

Yes, this is also my case. The problem is people do not see these unobvious things about these parks. They may help us with city planning for actual cities. Might they serve as prototypes?

If Walt was going to leave anything, as far as urban planning, it was this idea of respect, built environments for people, think about their needs, their wants. This also goes along with New Urbanists or Christopher Alexander. The idea is that you design urban spaces for the 90%. Because 90% of our needs, no matter what cultural environment, is exactly the same. We just spend 90% of our time arguing about the 10% differences. Walt´s animation ultimately satisfied the 90%. That is why it tends to still look timeless and tends to cross cultures very well. So, if you create places for those 90%, which is what Disneyland and Walt Disney World are, you create very timeless places. Architects pick up on that. For instance, the Grove, the biggest shopping center in Los Angeles, which was designed by former Imagineers, has a lot of parallels to the design of Main Street at Disneyland. But it works, because it respects people.

In Las Vegas, Phil Hettema created an urban boulevard leading to one of the world’s largest ferris wheels that looks like a real street that respects people and it really has added something that was missing in Las Vegas.

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The Grove shopping center in Los Angeles, California, USA. The design was created by former Imagineers at Disney and applies design methods used in theme parks. Cristina/Flickr.com

This is the thing about Walt Disney that really caught my eye, he proposed an idea that in his EPCOT (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow) there were going to be permanent residents and also the visitors observing the city. Of course, the question is, what was it going to look like? And why was this interaction important for Walt Disney?

Well, Walt’s idea for EPCOT was to create a prototype city to demonstrate the value of american industry. If you were an American company and you were going to build a microwave oven, you would build it and you would secretly test it in labs before you would release it. What Walt wanted to do was to say: ‘Why do you not build 3000 of them and put them out in our community and we will test them for you and we will tell you what works and what does not work. We will use empirical data, we will use real experience to tell you how to build a product’. Disney learned through experience. He did it with the theme park rides and he thought that American companies could do the same thing. And there were going to be millions of visitors looking at these technologies as well.

Walt’s animation ultimately satisfied the 90%. That is why it tends to still look timeless and tends to cross cultures very well

People would not have lived permanently in EPCOT. People would live on property for 9 – 12 months. The point of the city was to be able to create technologies. He just figured out that these kind of places help accelerate the development of technology. In the end, his vision of Epcot is nothing really weird. The central core was a 30-​storey convention hotel. The distance from the central core to the outside edge of the covered shopping mall was the distance from Sleeping Beauty Castle to the front gate at Disneyland. So, it is a very short distance to walk. On the outside ring of EPCOT he was going to stick all these apartments and offices. Inside, there was going to be the middle of transportation. He was going to create a shopping center that you had to pass through.

He was going to make money out of variety of ways. Companies testing products, companies developing products, creation of incubator businesses, selling technology, advertising to the world, making money with a theme park, making money with a resort, then having the world’s most successful shopping center. Buzz Price was right when he said that Walt’s EPCOT would have been more famous than Walt Disney World.

Absolutely, I agree on that. It is a shame it did not get built. 

Yes. In Florida, there are some significant infrastructure issues. Walt’s idea was to create a fairly compact development on the property that was connected by trains, when Michael Eisner came on board, they went to a very suburban model using the buses. Now they have a huge transportation system that is dragging everything down.

Yes. Infrastructure seems like a big deal for Orlando. You have mentioned that the Epcot, the theme park that the Disney Company built after Walt’s death is quite different from the EPCOT that Walt had in mind. But are there any similarities?

The Epcot that is there today is just a permanent world’s fair, not what Walt was aiming for. On an organizational level, Futureworld is designed just like Disneyland. Instead of walking through the train tunnels like you do at Disneyland, you walk underneath Spaceship Earth. That is the compression point that gets people to share the same experience. Then the lagoon is going around a waterway, so it is a different kind of view. It is two theme parks that were smashed together one day at a meeting to try to solve a problem. Walt was trying to use the entertainment to demonstrate technologies in such a way where people can accept those technologies. The land pavilion is really the only one that is left like the original one? You go through and you see this sort of advanced farming. And they are actually testing it right in front of you.

But the original idea was to use his themes, the ability to use technology, to demonstrate information in an entertaining and memorable way and that has changed.

Some of Walt’s ideas for EPCOT the city may not seem sustainable. The project was created 50 years ago. But if it got built, how would it survive until now?

No, I would disagree with that. If you really look at the EPCOT center, it follows all the patterns of a proper transit oriented development, designed density and diversity. A fairly compact development. He was going to create a system where the destination nodes were connected by high-​capacity electronic rail, he was going to have lots of roof space so you could certainly put photovoltaics. Waste was going to be reused as a powersource. His version of Disney World would have been extremely sustainable, because you would park your car once and never get into it again. It would not have a fleet of buses, only people movers, monorails and electric vehicles internally. He was going to retain much more open space in his plan. The whole purpose was to show the evolution of technology. EPCOT was going to be built so you could install new technologies. I think that his vision of EPCOT and his vision of Disney World would have been far more sustainable than what they have today. What they have today is a large suburban community spread over the size of the San Francisco peninsula.

Epcot model along the People Mover route, Walt Disney World, Florida, USA Loren Javier / Flickr.com

Epcot model along the People Mover route, Walt Disney World, Florida, USA Loren Javier /​Flickr​.com

In some terms, for example, looking from above the built version of Disney World looks like a city. It has some kind of center and then the urban sprawl is around it. It may seem like a city. But if one enters this agglomeration something is wrong.

Walt’s EPCOT was never going to have sprawl. I assume that sprawl implies development that leaves the center but it is yet not connected with the center. Walt´s suburbs were always going to be connected with the center. As a resident, you probably would not even think of owning a car unless you wanted to leave the property. So, it would appeal to those who want to live in liveable environments. That is the other thing to it, he could have easily retrofit in many of the technologies as the technologies became available.

Even though EPCOT’s project is 50 years old, similar concepts are still being proposed and even realized. A new city, very similar to Disney’s EPCOT in some terms, is Masdar in Abu Dhabi. The system of Masdar’s underground car level is something that can be seen in Walt’s EPCOT.

Yes. But I do not know how the physical spaces or the public spaces are. For what I saw, the technology was very similar. The biggest difference between some of these big dreamers and Disney is that level of respect. In some way it succeeds, in many ways it does not succeed because it lacks the fine level of detail.

It is possible to see the connections with contemporary urban planning. It might seem as an important fact that Walt’s EPCOT was created in modernist times, but now we live in a postmodern era.

It is something that I have always asked myself. I also agree that Walt’s EPCOT was the pinnacle of modernist thinking. That is why in a postmodernist world today it boggles our mind. We really have trouble wrapping our brain around it so our postmodernist brain will have a tendency to tell us it would not work. But if we applied that same scepticism we suddenly realize that Walt was also postmodernist, because he was taking the best of everything and he tried to combine those in one place and in such way where it appears to be new. And this is what postmodernism is. Taking the best what we have experienced, recombining, maybe changing the scale at times, but it appears to be something new. Yet, it is just familiar enough. And it does not seem to be off-​putting like modernism.

Masdar city in Abu Dhabi, UAE. Section rendering. The city is designed as a sustainable mixed-use development, friendly to pedestrians and cyclists. The project completion is scheduled between 2020 and 2025 / illustration: Foster + Partners

Masdar city in Abu Dhabi, UAE. Section rendering. The city is designed as a sustainable mixed-​use development, friendly to pedestrians and cyclists. The project completion is scheduled between 2020 and 2025 /​illustration: Foster + Partners

Sometimes there are contemporary projects that are very similar to modernist thinking or to Walt’s EPCOT. The Apple campus in California comes to mind. It looks like something taken from Disney’s ideas. I can see some similarities, but most of these working campuses or corporate campuses are closed to the public. Disney’s vision is to encourage visitors to see the progress, the new technology.

A lot of people think of Walt as a dictator. But he would not necessarily criticize you unless you only had one idea. If you just came with one solution, he would get all over you. Because he ultimately wanted to be able to make a choice. And he wanted you to think through all alternatives. You want to create places where talented people could accidentally walk into each other’s pathways, because the best idea comes from interaction.

I also think Walt was a brilliant choreographer. He was making these stories for people and creating every single aspect of the story in the environments he was designing. This method is something that is underestimated in many urban planning designs.

Well, I agree. I believe that Walt Disney is the most influential urban planner of the last 50 years. What he tried to do has had more of an impact whether we want to admit it or not. He really has that, if we take away the best lessons which is quality, variety, surprise, and building places that respect people, we are going to do very well. And if we are trying to create places that are all themed and look really pretty we are going to find out we are creating places that are empty and heartless. So where we find the right balance is the big trick.

When it is not balanced, we end up with the bad examples. Singapore being called Disneyland with death penalty. But I just wonder, how these notions of theme parks or Walt’s ideas can help cities for better future?

That is the core between messy vitality and the lack of visual contradictions. For a real city to survive there has to be some messy vitality. You can not have everything lined up like within a theme park. That just does not work. A theme park does not have to react to real world circumstances to a certain extent. You can not squeeze out all the visual contradictions in the city. Because if you do that, what happens is that there is no respect for what was there before.

A theme park does not have to react to real world circumstances to a certain extent

Two lines from Christopher Alexander. The first one is: pay attention to the center that already exists and then create new centers that embellish, then enhance those centers. So you have to start with something and in a theme park you can start with a story or intellectual property and build up from there. But for real place it has to start with what is generally in that real place. Whether it is a river or a mountain, a view… And then pay attention to those. It has to respect what was there before. So I dare say, if you try to build a real world environment like you do a theme park you will fail.

However, there are lots of lessons to be learned from theme parks as far as legible or respectful environments or safety. Those are the lessons that we should carry over. Those can be applied and can be used either with existing community or if you are building one from whole cloth. I wrote the first book especially because I wanted designers to appreciate the fact cities and theme parks are two different environments that operate on two different fundamental operating systems. It is a Mac versus a PC. There are some bits that cross over. But the reality is they are still fundamentally two different operating systems and you use the wrong operating system and the wrong environment you are generally going to fail.