Monday, October 3, 2016

The Theme Park Environment: Physical Paths

And back with another short environmental post this week after the big double attraction plan post last week.

The first post of the series at the start of the year discussed the concept of the significant of the urban plan to the experience of the theme park. The second post this summer discussed weenies and visual sequence and how they keep us moving in the park.

This time I am going to briefly mention the pair concept to the visual sequence of the paths, the physical sequence of the paths.

This is more than just the concepts discussed in the previous posts because those detailed both the overall planning layout of the paths and the visual effects of the paths, not the actual layout and experience.

There are two major elements I want to mention. The effect of physical compression and release and pointless paths and nooks, as well as one less used element, parallel paths.

First, the effect of compression and release is overwhelmingly similar to the visual compression and release that I discussed last post, but is about how you feel, not what you see. Admittedly, they are basically the same result. When space compresses around the path you are on, you want to keep moving to the adjacent open and released area. One of the best examples is the entrance to Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom. The exact sequence takes us through the compressed turnstiles, the open plaza in front of floral Mickey, the compressed train tunnels, the open Town Square, the compressed Main Street, and finally the open Hub. This alternating character of space directs us and influences our movement. We are not really meant to stay in the compressed moments of the sequence and we physically do not want to when that nice bright and open space is just ahead.

This tool should be used throughout parks to create individual spaces and promoted movement. I dare to say it can't really be overused as long as it does not becoming an overtly repetative sequence of similar spaces. The distribution of scale and scope, like the vastly different spaces along that entry sequence I mentioned, help break us the intentional design choices and make it less obvious that we are being affected.

This is key to the environment, and something that is basically prevalent in every single theme park, regardless of how intentional it is, because it is just a basic element of architectural and urban design. Streets and traditional architecture do the same. Public plazas and squares share sequence with the narrow roads that lead to them. Foyers and hallways mediate the movement through a house from main room to main room. Its a fundamental experiential design tool.

Next, my concept of pointless paths and nooks references the many side areas and lesser used paths of the parks that are unique. Everyone has their favorite little side path of the parks, a lesser populated area that has its own unique character. The former Court of Angels, the Frontierland Boardwalk, the Rose Garden, the depths of the World Showcase pavilions. These minor elements of the circulation system of the park would be very easy to leave out in favor of running every guest through the main wide pathways. Logistically, that would probably be the obvious approach but it prevents diversity of experience and complexity of environment.

Also, an environment with a single path logically does not make much sense in relation to the reality of the spaces they are emulating. We forge paths and cut corners around the main thoroughfare all the time, so the thematic spaces should do the same. But the more important consequence to these side areas is that they help give the illusion of the increased space and depth to the world we are exploring. Every time we see a path break off we are inclined to believe there is more world beyond and more to explore. If we all walked down the same single path from point a to b, we would have seen it all and known that we saw it all. These side spaces are key to the illusion of the themed space being real.

In addition to those two tools, there are a few others that are somewhat less used. My favorite is the idea of parallel paths, that there can be multiple parallel paths of movement through a space that can all look to and reference each other. The best example is along the Rivers of America in both American parks. In Magic Kingdom's Frontierland, there is the storefront path along the buildings, which is separated from the main pathway through the middle, which is separated from the boardwalk along and over the river. At Disneyland, there is the path along the border of New Orleans Square, separated from the tiered walkways along the river, each separated from each other. In both cases, it works just like the pointless paths premise but creates the illusion of choice and diversity while keeping us moving on the same path. We can see others on the other pathways and understand that as diversity of experience all in the same setting with the same start and end.

So based on those ideas, I am interested in what your favorite little side area of the parks is? What pointless path do you enjoy exploring the most while in the parks? Let me know with a comment below. 

Next week I am going to try to be back with another attraction plan post. Let me know what you want to see next. 


  1. Personally I really enjoy exploring Adventure Island in DLP. I love getting lost in the caves and walk over the bridges although is usually very crowded
    However I also like every part of Paris' Fantasyland, I really apreciate how much green there is.

    I would love to see a plan of Peter Pan's Flight new ride developed as well as the Cinderella dark ride

    1. Great example. Love that area. It definitely has plenty of extra pathways and hidden areas that expand the perception of the space to be explored. Plus it already is huge, so that helps.

      Fantasyland is also really nice. It feels so much more open than the rest of the Fantasylands and that really is because of the matrix of pathways vs the wide cross path of the Magic Kingdom. More to explore, more to see, and the better park.

      I'll note those attractions for the future. Definitely hope to do Peter Pans Flight.

      Thanks for the comment!

  2. My personal favorite has to be the walkway between Tomorrowland and Fantasyland (via castle side entrance) at Disneyland CA. I love seeing the transition between lands and the beautiful park next to the castle.

  3. Glad you mentioned the Frontierland boardwalk. Can remember watching the riverboat from there (if my memory is too be trusted!)

    Keep up the quality content.

  4. Another great post on the function and intent of the layout design! Thanks again! I'm really enjoying these posts.

    1. Thanks so much for appreciating my more theoretical posts. I really enjoy writing them but they take a lot of time and thought, so I haven't done as many as I would like. But I think discussing the technical design of the parks is something worth talking talking about, especially since it aligns with what I learned in architecture school. So maybe another one soon.