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Monday, April 18, 2016

Disney Architecture

Sixteen years after Disney's first fairytale castle, another one rises,
this time from Florida orange groves.
Walt Disney was known for many creative enterprises, from Mickey Mouse in 1928, to being the progenitor of a vast, international entertainment conglomerate. But until the opening of his Disneyland in 1955, architecture had not been one of them. Yet, smack in the middle of it all was a Gothic Renaissance castle representing the hereditary homestead of Disney's feature-length film, Sleeping Beauty. Based to a surprising degree on Mad King Ludwig's Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany, Disney's "Imagineering" architects had really outdone themselves. Critics considered it more proportionally beautiful than even its Black Forest inspiration, not withstanding the fact that it had been built in little more than a year, and was mostly good old reinforced concrete. Since those halcyon days of the "feel good" fifties, the Disney name has been linked to dozens of outstanding architectural achievements. In short, there's far more to Disney architecture than make believe castles brought to life. Although many such works are little more than amusement park facades, as the number of these parks has grown, the number of world-class architectural masterpieces, has accompanied them.

A modest, first attempt at castle construction.

Disney's second castle, that of Cinderella at Walt Disney World, was taller and even more visually spectacular than the first. As with the first, Disney architects utilized a sort of fool-the-eye trick called "forced perspective" in which the upper levels are reduced in scale to make them appear taller. Cinderella's version though was, in fact, more than twice as tell as Sleeping Beauty's (77 feet in height) as compared to Cinderella's 183 feet in height. By the way, it's designed to withstand 110 mph hurricane force winds.

A girl's home is her castle.
While they were at it, the Disney architectural design team created another piece of strikingly majestic architecture for Walt Disney World. It was about as far remove in time and style from their traditional forte as could be imagined. They designed a manmade mountain to house a rollercoaster type ride known as Space Mountain (below). When we first visited Disney's Orlando park in 1973, the futuristic housing was complete but the ride had not yet opened. We returned some twenty years later to enjoy the thrill of pretending to leave this planet for Disney worlds unknown. It was worth the wait.

Not the tallest, longest, fastest, or scariest roller coaster on earth, but probably the most thrilling. Much of the ride is totally blacked out as only an "indoor" coaster could be. In Florida's damp climate, such a sheltered attraction only makes sense.
With the opening of Disneyland in Anaheim, California, Disney went into the hotel business. The Disney organization for years begrudged the fact that other hotels were profiting from their entertainment enterprise simply because they had failed to acquire enough land to build hotel accommodations to match their success at drawing huge crowds seeking bed and board. The Disneyland Hotel (below) was a valiant, if meager, effort. However, the company learned their lesson.

The sprawling Disneyland Hotel complex today, though it doesn't sprawl
 as much as they'd like. The original hotel is on the left.
When Disney began secretly buying up huge chunks of Florida real estate during the late 1960s under the name of "Retlaw Enterprises" (Walter backwards), much of the land was designated for overnight guests such as Disney's Contemporary Resort Hotel. For its time, the massive open lobby, served by the park monorail, was radical, with its two, inwardly angled banks of balconied rooms, each manufactured off-site, then lifted by crane and "slid" into position. I keep wanting to spend at least one night in this iconic hostelry but the room rates ($367 to $614) would probably keep me awake all night.

I've never stayed at the Contemporary, but the California Grill, atop the hotel, has a
magnificent view of Disney's World and is well worth the money...lots of money.
For those park guests on a tighter budget, former Disney CEO Michael Eisner teamed his company with the Postmodern architect, Michael Graves. Graves not only designed the Disney headquarters in Burbank, California (below-left), but two moderately priced Disney World hotels as well, the Dolphin and the Swan (below). Somewhat quirky in appearance, Graves' hotels look nothing at all like any Disney accommodations built before or since ($279 per night)--convenient, but still somewhat pricey. Graves also designed the main hotel for Euro Disney in France (below-right), located just outside Paris.

Michael Graves takes some getting used to.
Later on this spring, my wife and I will be visiting Walt Disney World for a few days. No, we're not going to pay a call on Cinderella (or her castle) and we're not staying on Disney property. My favorite attraction of all the many separately themed parks is the futuristic EPCOT complex with its adjacent "world's fair," which encircles a massive lake out back. As many who read my words daily might know, I'm something of a "future nut." EPCOT is like heaven on earth for people like me, especially those who also like traveling to foreign lands. At EPCOT you can literally walk from one country to another, sampling the art, architecture, food, and souvenirs of each culture. Then, come evening, you can collapse onto a park bench and try to stay awake for the spectacular fireworks/laser light show over the lagoon. Oh yes, the giant geodesic golf ball (below)is pretty impressive too.

The symbol of an optimistic future, so uncommon in today's world.
One of the difficulties Disney has encountered over the years as purveyors, predictors, and prognosticators of the future is simply trying to stay ahead of the future. In 1957, Disney, in partnership with Monsanto, opened what they touted as the House of the Future (below), a radical, cantilevered design featuring four fiberglass and plastic wings. It was a big hit. What visitors saw inside the pod-shaped dwelling were cordless phones, wall-sized TV's, electronic razors for men, plastic chairs, electronic toothbrushes and hands-free phones. The house closed a decade later a victim of its own prediction accuracy. Technology had caught up with it and, indeed, surpassed it in many areas. Soon Disney will try again. Their new 5,000 sq. foot dwelling will open in May of this year. It will feature adjustable lights and thermostat, smart closets and mirrors that pick out wardrobe for you to wear, countertops that give menu suggestions and recipes, touch screen technology built into furniture, appliances and countertops, fluid artwork that adjusts to personal preferences, futuristic cell phones, touch-pad computer screens and all manner of promising technology. The way things are going, this one might last five years.

The future from the past.
Perhaps the most spectacular piece of Disney architecture is not in any amusement park. It's located in downtown Los Angeles (which, on second thought, may be something of an amusement park after all). I'm talking about Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall (below), home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. If you're familiar with Gehry's other works, the Disney auditorium will strike you as one of his best efforts. If not, it'll just strike you. Of course the people at Disney had little to do in shaping Gehry's vision, other than supporting it financially. And despite Disney's attempts to make the future a part of today, Gehry's glistening metal bands make the whole lot of them seem like rank amateurs.

When you bury most of your structure (seven levels below ground),
what shows above ground can be about any shape you like.
Disney architecture can now be seen and enjoyed around the world as Disney imagineers have adapted to the entertainment tastes of other cultures--Europe to the Far East. Besides Euro-Disney outside Paris, the company has three Asian parks (Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Shanghai) with another scheduled for opening later this year (2016) near Beijing. For the most part, these venues are simply adaptation of what works in the U.S. The castles are similar, if not identical, the rides, such as Space Mountain, are, in fact, identical. The food is somewhat cultural, but the entertainment is pure Disney, if you can imagine Mickey Mouse speaking Mandarin. The hotels (below) are probably the most distinctive. The architecture is western in flavor, often quite traditionally European, but not without Disney efficiency and decorative flourishes.

Disney Tokyo sometimes boasts a feature few other Disney parks can show--snow.
Disney Shanghai soars taller than any fairytale castle--a castle of the future, perhaps?


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