Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The Theme Park Environment: The Urban Plan

The Theme Park Environment

If you are reading this, then chances are you like Theme Parks, and specifically highly designed parks like those of Disney and Universal. Each of us may have a different reason for our love, but for many of us, it is not just the rides, but the total experience of the park. A theme park like Disneyland is much more than just a passageway from attraction to attraction because it is of itself an attraction. This park experience is built out of a theme and attention to detail that creates a place worth being in, a place that you actually want to be in, and a place with a unique character. That’s why for many, attractions are not necessary to an enjoyable day in the parks, so long as their experience of the park is transformative from everyday life.

This transformation, or envelopment of theme, is dependent on the design, or urban plan, of the environment. This urban plan is the design philosophy that provides the structure to the public spaces we inhabit. For instance, we know that not all theme parks are made equally; Disneyland and California Adventure share some characteristics, but feel entirely different, and this is because of the application of different planning strategies, such as pathway widths and the park layout. This is a good example that I will come back to over and over since it is such a close comparison.

These little design elements sum to create the wholly unique environment that is a theme park, many of which we may not notice or not see as significant. I have identified about a dozen of these elements that I see as most important to the success of a theme park, and will be discussing a subset of them in each post, each time grouped into a theme, such as visual motion, scale and density, and vegetation.

In this first post, I will look at the overarching idea of urban planning and the layout of the theme park typology, which nearly all of the future ideas will fall under.

A New Urban Planning Typlogy

Disneyland is one of the most regarded examples of modern Urban Planning. That’s a big statement for an architecture student. But it is not my statement, but that of James Rouse, who said that Disneyland, when analyzed by “its performance in relationship to its purpose”, is “the outstanding piece of urban design in the United States.” He is not alone with his appreciation of the design of Disneyland. There are many academic essays about the design and significance of the design of original Disneyland, mostly focusing on the charming design of Main Street and the innovation of the overall masterplan strategy. Main Street USA was even included in an architecture book of great streetscapes of the world that was used in one of my classes. In all cases, Disneyland is thought of as a piece of design that stands unique in history.

It built upon a traditional form to redefine a kind of design that is now a worldwide phenomenon. There were parks and analogues to theme parks, such as World’s Fairs, but Disneyland on the whole created a new form of urban design. It is filled with unusual design needs, such as a single entrance, theatrical style facades, private service areas, and large complicated rides on the interior. A theme park became a new urban typology.

Before going much farther, we should look at what an urban plan encompasses in relation to a theme park. Urban planning refers to the design of large scale built environment with the goal of creating public space that is both functional and full of character. A successful planned place, of any scale from park to city, has a unique identity that does not compromise its ability to work for the needs of the user. An urban plan is crucial to manage how space develops over time so as to maintain the identity and use.

This definition does not differ when applied to a theme park, and in fact becomes more significant because function and theme are vital elements of a working park. Imagine a park that works but completely lacks any character. Or the opposite, a park so unique that it prevents it from truly working. I see examples for both cases, such as original DCA, which is the most relevant example for how the theme park urban plan can have faults.

Additionally, the comparison between how a city is to be designed and how Disneyland was designed is more obvious when you think of Disneyland as an urban city with the same challenges. It likewise had to provide a variety of services and goods to its residents. It needed public parks for relaxation and cultural centers for entertainment and learning. It had to safely and reliably move people through a complex environment. It even had similar transportation issues, since so many attractions of original Disneyland were just forms of transportation through this urban city. No matter that the city was the Old West or the deep jungle, the same issues applied.

Therefore, the tools of the theme park urban plan are nearly always the same as that of a city. There is nothing special to it besides creating a practical public space where you want to spend time.

Since the urban plan proscribes the way built public space is arranged and detailed, the physical layout of buildings and pathways is likely the most important element and most identifiable trait of the typology. So that is where we begin in this first discussion.

The Development of a Theme Park Layout

The physical layout of buildings in a theme park is the most defining characteristic of how it is to be experienced, and a theme park has a definitely unique layout. Today, park layouts like the defining hub and spoke or the ring (or the random layout) seem like obvious strategies, but came about through a long process of development by the original Disney legends that started this kind of project from scratch.

Luckily, we have great records of the development process of the original Disneyland, documented in the many concept drawings and paintings we have from the years before the park. These works exhibit the expertise of many designers including but not limited to Marvin Davis, Ken Anderson, Harper Goff, Peter Ellenshaw, John Hench, and Walt Disney. Their work resulted in a series of plan that inform us of some interesting choices about how the park was meant to be.

Original designs for the park lacked the formal structure of the final product and had a rambling natural layout. These plans, many drawn by Harper Goff like the one above, were intended for the Riverside Drive plot across from the studio, so the limited size dictated many decisions. These original concepts today look more like small cities with recreation parks than a theme park because, as far as I can tell from the limited aerials, they did not yet have detailed and diverse themed areas, instead recreating standard planning elements like a fairground or a country village. These theme parks began by synthesizing how real public spaces were designed and built. This was the foundation for what would come, as there are some recognizable elements that carry on.

After Walt’s dreams outgrew the Riverside Drive location, the designers began to expand the scope of their planning, leading to the first attempts at full sized parks with distinct lands. The breakthrough came when art director Marvin Davis created the plan above, the first site plan with a real planning structure: the hub. Previous attempts on the unlimited site continued to be modeled on real cities, so hubs and town squares were commonly included, but not at the center of the park. This was the first to make the town square-like hub into an organizational tool for the park to radiate from, and possibly the first with distinct theme based lands.

This Hub and spoke plan stuck, and Marvin Davis continued its development to create the first drawing that really looks like what we now understand as a Disney park. Its 8 spokes on the central hub included lands we know, but also those that never were like Circus Land and Liliputian Land. It is fascinating just how much of this park came to be, though in a different form. There are over a dozen recognizable attractions shown that made it to opening day. I also have to say that this single drawings is the biggest inspiration for my drawing style, so it will always be one of my favorites. As for the spatial planning of the park, there are a few notable choices that led to modern Disneyland.

First, it is surprising to see 8 whole lands spurring off the hub, each with its own gate, and each of substantial size. This park has perfect symmetry across the north-south axis, which opening and modern Disneyland lacks. Today, Main Street, Fantasyland, Frontierland, and Tomorrowland sit on the cardinal points of the Hub, while Adventureland is tucked into a corner off axis. This has always puzzled me, but this drawing begins to explain it, particularly because this plan shows the other 4 main lands are already in their final locations. This pretty clearly shows me that this formal arrangement of the lands was decided to be final. Adventureland is merely the only of the 45 degree lands to have be built as drawn whereas the others became only pathways into the lands or were never built. This has held true through most other castle parks, where the left side of the park has had two land gates while the right has one. In those cases, the gates are better spaced out and no longer lie on the 8ths, but still follow the same rule. It appears to me that the layout of the modern park is directly resultant from this drawing.

Another interesting thing about the implementation of the hub in this drawing is the limited access between the lands. This is a foreign concept to today’s park, where you can travel from land to land outside the hub, but in this drawing, in future drawings, and in the original built park, this was impossible (though technically Frontierland and Adventureland were joined on the west side). As a thematic strategy, this makes a lot of sense, because it controls transitions by requiring you to go back through the hub. But as an urban planning issue in relation to crowd flow, this decision would likely cause problems. Imagine the bottlenecks at each gate. This was quickly changed at the original Disneyland with the addition of the group of attractions between Fantasyland and Tomorrowland, creating a second ring outside the Hub. All future castle parks were built with this outer ring through the lands. In the comparison diagram above, it is pretty clear how useful this second ring is to increase the functionality of the park.

From that drawing came the iconic John Hench aerial that supposedly was used to sell the Disneyland concept. Visualizing the plan in 3D, it is obvious how much of the final park came from this drawing. Even if not exactly accurate, each land begins to exhibit its unique character in their environmental elements, such as the architecture, the scale and density, the unique variety of vegetation, and the sheer kinetic spirit of the park. These are some of the big environmental elements I'm going to try to cover. This is one of my all-time favorite pieces of concept art.

Finally, the most well-known image is probably Peter Ellenshaws day/night painting of the yet to be built park. The opening day park was mostly accurate to this drawing, minus Tomorrowland and the right side of the park. This plan still shows 8 points on the Hub, though not necessarily 8 lands. This is the most realized example of the true Hub and Spoke park diagram.

This is of course not a comprehensive or fully researched history, but just my observations from a series of drawings about how the idea of a theme park became the modern park layout.

The Modern Park Layout

The Hub and Spoke formal strategy is now the standard of theme parks, and nearly all modern parks in some way have roots here. These include all castle parks, Future World in EPCOT, Animal Kingdom, California Adventure, parts of Hollywood Studios, and dozens of regional and international parks.

The benefits are obvious: a single entrance pathway (that is also a retail corridor), a clear central location for ease of wayfinding (in cooperation with an icon), and a thematic transition space that allows for glimpses into multiple lands. Each of these three benefits are in of themselves useful planning tools to make a better park that I will discuss in future essays.

Also of note is the other dominant theme park layout: the ring or lake park. This is a fairly obvious strategy that places lands in a sequence around a central body of water. These include World Showcase of EPCOT, Islands of Adventure, parts of Universal Orlando and Universal Osaka, Universal Singapore, and likely a few more internationally. These parks have easier navigation, but require more complete transitions since there is no neutral hub.

Last, there is the studio/city style park, which is rare for a reason. Parts of Hollywood Studios and the Universal Parks, especially Hollywood, are like this. These parks grew without a formal urban plan, causing chaotic transitions and complicated navigation. These parks are being fixed where possible to solve these issues.

There is one particular park that I want to mention the urban plan of because it is an unusual but innovative combination that I see potential in. I am talking about Hong Kong Disneyland, which places an expansion ring park around an originally built hub and spoke park. It’s a genius way of controlled expansion, which has been a problem in many other parks. It’s a very cool idea that so far seems to have worked.

Finally, from what we know of Shanghai Disneyland, they are also trying to do some innovation with the layout. The aerials and maps show that this park has pulled the lands back from the hub and placed a new land at the center instead of a traditional hub. This majorly changes the effect of the hub because it is no longer a transition space that looks into each land but its own unique themed space. In effect, Shanghai Disneyland is a strange combined hub and spoke and ring park, with a land at the center instead of a lake. I am extremely fascinated to see how this park works and how different it ends up being.

A Conclusion of Urban Planning

To conclude this essay, I must say urban planning is too big a subject for me to ever really write about completely, because it creates the distinctive essence of a theme park. As I have said, it is a one of a kind typology that had a unique and quick development, yet is always being improved.

In the next essay, I am going to continue to look at how the placement of elements in the plan helps to create something special, specifically the concepts of visual icons (weenies), scale, and density.

A Place for Discussion

Lastly, I had previously said I wanted to make these essays an opportunity for discussion. So this is the first post and I am not all that sure how to do that. So this time I am going to start with some discussion questions, but later posts may have more discussion ideas in the post. And since this post was more history heavy than design, I am going to start simple.

The most obvious concept of debate here is which theme park form do you prefer and why?

But more specifically, thinking about your experiences in varied theme parks, how to you personally see the value of a theme park urban plan?

I’ll post my thoughts in reply comments.

Also, in order to have a good discussion, we need to reach more people! Please share this on twitter or facebook or however you want! Thanks for reading and hope you leave a comment with your thoughts!


The following books and websites were consulted while writing as either primary sources, general inspiration, or image sources:

   Walt Disney Imagineering: A Behind the Dreams Look at Making the Magic Real

   Designing Disney by John Hench

   The E Ticket Magazine: Issue 11

   The Immersive Worlds Handbook by Scott A Lukas


  1. I'll admit, as a theme park fan, this post is quite fascinating. I'm curious to see more. Will next weeks post be another such post or will it be a park plan of some kind?

    1. Thanks, glad its interesting to at least some people. Since this post was partially and introduction, I think future installments will be even better.

      I am going to be alternating discussion posts and design posts, one of each every month. The second Wednesday of every month will be a discussion post like this, the fourth Wednesday a new design post. I am going to keep to that schedule!

  2. I think my favorite layout is the altered hub and spike layout being scene in animal kingdom and Shanghai. It allows for the navigation benefits but lets each land be its own thing. (Sorry I'm super tired and not up to elaborating more. )

    1. That is definitely a interesting layout concept and I'm glad they are continuing to develop it. The interesting thing about its application is that it definitely requires space. Those two examples are some of the largest parks of the current lineup and that really helps allow each land to stand alone but connected. Not sure if it would be possible in a smaller park since the borders would be more dense. But still, a really great option.

      Thanks for the comment!