Disneyland is my home away from home. In high school, when I wasn’t at school, soccer practice, or in my bed - I was at Disneyland!
Around the office there are mixed views on the corporate behemoth that is the Disney company, and I, too, question many of their profit-prioritizing choices (Star Wars, Star Wars, Star Wars). Despite my questioning, my love-bordering-on-obsession for Disney and Disneyland always prevails. In college, I started thinking deeply about what I love about this world-famous amusement park and why I spent most of my Barista earnings on that place. Why am I so obsessed? Why do I always buy candy there that I could easily purchase at my neighborhood grocery store for half the price? What magic does this park have that keeps me coming back? And it’s not just me! 16.2 million people visit this place each year and a whole bunch of them keep coming back, too.
The obvious answer to the magic: Disney’s brand recognition and all that fantastic nostalgia that comes with it. Most people I have met in my life have heard of Mickey Mouse and watched a Disney movie or two (I bring up my Disney obsession with strangers a little too much, I know). The rides are nice and amusing, but there are plenty of other theme parks in Southern California that have rides. There’s something even more than nostalgia that is able to make 16.2 million visitors a year feel as attached with Disneyland as I do. It wasn't until I started down my path as an urban planner that the connection became obvious. Disney mastered a concept long before it became a popular trend for re-creating public spaces in the modern urban planning era. So what is it? Simply this: placemaking ... through urban design.
In July 1955, Disneyland opened and featured five areas: Main Street USA, Fantasyland, Adventureland, Frontierland, and Tomorrowland. Main Street, USA is the entry to the Magic Kingdom and is where the design secrets all begin. It provides guests with a familiarity of the downtown areas of America’s small towns and was inspired by Walt Disney’s hometown of Marceline, Missouri. As visitors enter the park, the buildings’ bricks become smaller and smaller as the buildings get taller. Main Street is arranged in a subtle “^” shape as visitors walk towards the Sleeping Beauty Castle, so visitors feel intense awe when they approach Disneyland’s most recognizable landmark. As visitors walk down Main Street, there are even small vents alongside the candy shop and ice cream store that release vanilla scents to encourage visitors to visit the sweet shops.
This vent is patented and known as the Smellitzer! The Smellitzer is not exclusive to Main Street and can be found throughout the park. Pirates of the Caribbean smells of sea salt and wood; the park entrance smells of fresh buttered popcorn, and the Haunted Mansion smells of dust. These thoughtful designs provide a distinct identity to Disneyland that induces memories and nostalgia and encourages visitor shopping habits.
The park’s remarkable landscaping is imagined and maintained by the Disneyland Resort Horticulture team. Over 100 cast members work to maintain and update the remarkable landscaping each season. To see how it’s done, check out this video of this year’s Spring landscape update:
Not only does the landscaping represent the different seasons (which otherwise are often not recognized in sunny year-round Anaheim), it provides additional context and placemaking for each Land. Tomorrowland was designed to represent the futuristic year of 1986. A year in which Walt and his imagineers believed that cities in the future would have limited space and the landscape that would persist would be functional. This functional landscaping concept is known as “Agrifuture.” All the landscaping in Tomorrowland is edible! As you enter Tomorrowland you will see herbs, citrus trees, and even grapes. In high school, my friends and I would gather what we could and taste the “pygmy citrus.”
I do not recommend eating Disneyland fruit as the implemented Agrifuture concept is solely a concept and not actually meant for consumption (those grapes were sour and not so tasty, but they were pretty!). As you take the classic Disneyland railroad from Toontown station to Tomorrowland station you will see Disney’s concept on a billboard, further cementing the futuristic land of 1986. Disneyland’s landscape further emphasizes a distinct sense of place which adds to the magic of the “Happiest Place on Earth.”
Taking pictures with characters and having an adrenaline rush on the various Disneyland Mountains is great, but what is even greater is the sense of place and wonder that is created by Disney’s detailed planning efforts. My appreciation for urban design came from my Environmental Psychology class during my second year as an undergraduate at UC Irvine, where I learned that the physical environment shapes so much about how we perceive the world - not just in places that are strategically consumer oriented.
My favorite (non-Disney) example is that of street trees. Glorious, beautiful, innocent street trees. Street trees are just trees that are located along local roads or in the medians. These trees also have secret powers. Not only do the trees provide shade to pedestrians or parked cars, prevent water pollution, and reduce the urban heat island effect, they also alleviate stress and make your commute more pleasant. Planning and design is all around us, and after I learned about urban planning I have seen my favorite places in a new way. There are small details about every place that makes each space special.
Placemaking at Disneyland allows even the most apathetic Disney goer to have a poignant association and familiarity with my happy place. The way that each flower or building is carefully placed and picked by the Planning and Urban Design team at Disneyland inspired me to pursue a field where I can create a sense of belonging and comfort for community members. As a planner, I will have the opportunity to shape how communities are constructed, maintained, and changed. I will be able to listen to community members and assist in the creation of places that may become their refuge from reality. If I can be a part of creating a place that one person feels connected to, I will feel as though I accomplished my career goal. Disneyland taught me that planning can bring a sense of belonging, and now I aspire to plan for inclusion.
To me, Kapstone’s motto of “Planning as a Lifestyle” is as simple as appreciating what is around you and paying attention to the small details that make places great (or not-so-great). I became a city planner in order to have an impact on people’s lives. Whether it be helping a residential developer meet the City’s code or ensuring that a parking lot is designed in an efficient and well-landscaped manner, each planning project is an opportunity to change a person’s perception and relationship to a place. I am inspired by the strategic and thoughtful design features of Disneyland, and I aim to be a planner that uses creativity to shape how people understand and relate to their communities. If you are ever in need of inspiration, look around your community and think about all the thought and consideration that inspired the design of your neighborhood.