Created by Walt Disney in 1955, Disneyland has been a magical destination for kids and adults alike for the past 63 years. It’s also a huge moneymaker. Disney’s parks and resorts brought in nearly $5.2 billion in revenue in the last quarter alone. Central to Disneyland’s success? Its meticulous design.
The history of that design is the subject of a new eponymous book published by Taschen. Written by Chris Nichols, an architectural historian, preservationist, writer, and Disneyland fanatic, the book touches on everything from Disney’s involvement in the park’s development to the famous designers and engineers who built it. But Walt Disney’s real feat was to create an immersive world that combined the familiar with the fantastic, laid out in an easily understandable way so that visitors always felt in control of the spectacle around them–all while persuading them to part with as much money as possible.
MAKING THE OTHERWORLDLY FAMILIAR
Walt Disney’s ability to build such a magical–and lucrative–world stemmed directly from the talent he had access to in Southern California. “It’s a creation that could only come from Southern California in the ’50s, from this place in this time, when we had so many people working in the entertainment industry,” Nichols says in an interview. “But we also had a huge science boom then, with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and CalTech and all the aerospace industry that was based here at the time. They were making satellites and rockets and all this great stuff that would influence Tomorrowland [the sci-fi, space-themed section of the park].”
Disneyland was different from the other theme parks 0f the era because it was designed to be more like a World’s Fair than a carnival. In fact, the famed ride It’s a Small World was originally built for the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. But rather than showing off different country’s achievements, Disneyland instead focused on some of the most foundational American stories of the last century–fairy tales, fantasy, and science fiction–all told through immersive experiences, decades before virtual reality became a thing. Disney’s genius was in making the otherworldly feel completely familiar.
MASTERING USER-CENTERED DESIGN
Today, with the rise of virtual reality, consumers are accustomed to feeling like they’re the center of an experience, whether it’s a music video or art therapy. But more than 50 years ago, such experiences were rare. Disneyland was a masterclass in the art of the immersive narrative. “You’re not only experiencing someone guiding you through a story, but you’re the main character,” Nichols says of the rides. “In Peter Pan’s Flight, there was no Peter Pan figure at the beginning, because you were Peter Pan. You’re not only in a story, you’re living it in the architecture, in the ride vehicles, in the costumes.” By making visitors central to each attraction, Disney created seductive experiences that visitors felt they couldn’t get anywhere else.
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