The Explorium

The Oncoming Storm: Losing Norway, Culture, and EPCOT’s Vision

On October 5th 2014, EPCOT’s Maelstrom will close and Disney will begin to revamp the Norwegian pavilion to include the characters, music, and narrative from Frozen, last year’s hit animated film. 

I’ll put this simply, because it’s too soon to think of anything else to say: I’m angry. And I’m sad. 

World Showcase’s original intent was supposed to be so much more than another repository for Disney’s brands and intellectual property. World Showcase and all of EPCOT was created out of Disney’s once unerring ability to be a company that showcased things, and showcased things that mattered. World Showcase was a permanent (if slightly stale) World’s Fair that existed to be an exhibition of the diversity of man, uniting and captivating visitors with the beauty and drama of the human difference. World Showcase was bravely dedicated to cultures that have defined what our world civilization had done throughout time. Does this description sounds grandiose and overzealous? Good. It should. For a very long time, EPCOT Center inspired these thoughts and these feelings with the content that it had on display. Norway and Maelstrom fit this theme like a glove.

While madcap and quirky and often downright puzzling, Maelstrom at least showed off the sinew of Norwegian myths and legends and culture. Brave vikings, mystical trolls, the barren wilderness of the arctic… The idea of Norway was encapsulated in a short ride. It was a romp. It was a short experience in the “genre” of Norwegian culture. 

And now? It’ll be replaced by singing princesses that are “inspired” by the Scandinavian culture. This is a problem. Disney can not showcase culture vis-a-vis something made in their own image. Disney’s Frozen is more a reflection of Disney Animation than it is a reflection of culture. Aesthetic and narrative cues might come from Norway, but they were used to create a place called Arendale… a place that is fictional. A place based in pop culture fantasy. To show off Norway as it really is, Disney needed to extrapolate upon the underlying archetypes that existed within our collective unconscious about the place. Maelstrom already did that. Frozen will not. Frozen is a narrow narrative that uses Norwegian aesthetics and adapts one Norwegian story into a fairly enjoyable film.

Frankly, I like Frozen. I saw it in theaters, twice. But this enjoyment of it doesn’t broker any acceptable vision of EPCOT  that includes shoehorning a modern film into a space that was meant to speak to the greater aspects of culture and mythology that define an entire country. 

EPCOT, which has undergone a tumultuous trajectory over the past decade or so, is now faced with yet another thematic rift. Norway and Maelstrom now join The Seas with Nemo and Friends and Journey into your Imagination and Innoventions and other attractions that do not support a coherent and cogent vision of what EPCOT once was and should be. Some gems in the park will still exist, of course, but this is a large step in misaligning EPCOT’s focus and making the park less unique. Things like the alleyways of Morocco and Impressions of France and Living with the Land can only do so much on their own to support what EPCOT was and is supposed to be. 

EPCOT faces an oncoming storm in removing Maelstrom. I hope it can weather it. I am an optimistic person, but a loss as large as this hurts. And it even hurts to admit that. With the removal of Maelstrom and the inclusion of Norway, there is no stopping what Disney can decide to do with other original and cultural attractions. Disney is now crossing a line into synergizing what was meant to be above and beyond what could be found in a magic kingdom park, or any other Disney park.

It’s a wicked storm, indeed. It’s a maelstrom. 


Son et Lumière: A Rare Look at EPCOT Center’s First Night Spectacular 

These rare 1982 press shots gives us a rare insight to one of EPCOT Center’s shortest lived and obscurest shows: Carnival de Lumière. 

The precursor to the now famous line of IllumiNations shows, Carnival was rather basic, in the fact that it only preformed on the entrance part of World Showcase Promenade. Instead of the quadrant of barges that form a loop in the center of World Showcase Lagoon, as in IllumiNations, Carnival had a fan of three barges that stretched from Mexico to Canada, much in the same way Disneyland’s World of Color is preformed today. The barges were solely for the purposes of projecting imagery onto large screens of misted water, a precursor to Laserphonic Fantasy employing actual lasers to paint bright shapes and images on larger curtains of water. Above, note the fountains positioned higher up, and being shot “down” into the lagoon, so as to be screens for the projections. 

Pyrotechnics, meanwhile, were launched from smaller barges in between the fountain barges, and provided for a seamless line of spectacle across the northern shores of World Showcase Lagoon. The pyro effects weren’t as large as today’s presentations, but an assortment of comets, bursts, and streamers were used to accent the musical score. 

Although there are no known recordings of the score, we can surmise that it was much like Laserphonic Fantasy’s: the original IllumiNations score, but under the guise of a heavy synthesizer. 

However, despite all these negative qualifiers, this was the first! The first EPCOT Center night show that used the classical music of the nations of World Showcase, and the technical wizardry of Future World. A perfect synthesis for the grand and inspiring showcase that EPCOT Center is. 

We’ll miss you, Genie. 
Robin Williams

We’ll miss you, Genie. 

Robin Williams


45 Years of Ghoulish Delight and Happy Haunts 

Today marks 45 years of operation for one of Disney’s most storied and accomplished thematic attractions. Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion premiered on this date after nearly a decade of design and planning to ensure that the attraction would not only meet the demands of the growing theme park, but to also solidify the artistic experience that WED’s ‘haunted house’ wanted to boast. 

1969 could perhaps be considered when WED began to hit their stride and when their technical acumen began to pay off in droves. The Haunted Mansion encapsulates this moment in time. Bolstered from success in 1963 with Walt Disney’s  Enchanted Tiki Room and the 1964 World’s Fair, WED’s preceding attractions reflect their confidence and ingenuity. These attractions were also the last to be personally overseen by Walt Disney who passed away in 1967. Audio Animatronic figures quickly became the standard showpiece of attractions and high capacity people moving systems ensured that many Disneyland guests would get to partake in these new adventures. The first attraction to accomplish this was Pirates of the Caribbean. The Haunted Mansion followed, but in formula only, perhaps making the duo a sort of ‘call and response’ for WED’s attractions in the late 1960s. Where Pirates is joyfully meandering and appropriately takes place on the water, Mansion is bound to the confines of a labyrinth of a structure and follows a pattern of illusions and effects. Although not confined to a strict narrative, the Mansion does have its experiences follow a semblance of rising and falling action to better intrigue and interest guests. 

These technical aspects giving way to the demands of experience and illusion are markers of the artists and engineers who took part in the design and creation of the attraction. The Haunted Mansion had its humble beginnings in Rolly Crump’s Museum of the Weird, a walkthrough attraction of historical and mystical oddities that would have found a home in the alleys of New Orleans Square. In time, this grew into a greater haunted house concept with Ken Anderson at the helm. And finally, the Haunted Mansion evolved into Claude Coats’ eerie and effect heavy first act, and Marc Davis’ jubilant finale. 

This melange of styles and methods is perhaps what makes the Haunted Mansion so beloved after 45 years. It is archetypically chilling and spooky, but not overtly so- just enough to make you a little on edge and to elicit and nervous laugh. And its finale of happy haunts and of music and of a party offers a subtle message of morality: In the end, we’re all dead, but we’re all happy.

45 years on, WED’s haunted house remains one of Disney’s pinnacles of themed entertainment and a staple at the magic kingdoms around the world. 


Walt Disney reads a book to a baby, the baby gets bored and attempts to escape. 
Credit to Matt Gottula (@DLthings) for this one! 


Walt Disney reads a book to a baby, the baby gets bored and attempts to escape. 



Credit to Matt Gottula (@DLthings) for this one! 

Happy 59th anniversary to the happiest place on Earth. 


Up the Waterfall: Thematic Impressions of Disneyland

Julie Rheim: “Well, that is absolutely fantastic! But how do you top it!?”

Walt Disney: “Well, we set the place on fire! We have the audience trapped down there in this flaming city!”

Julie: “But how can they get out, now?”

Walt: “Well, now, you got into this mess by going DOWN a waterfall… How would you suppose we get them out of there?”

Julie: “By going UP the waterfall?”

Walt: “That’s right! By going UP the waterfall…. Anything’s possible at Disneyland!”

—- Walt Disney and Ms. Disneyland Tencennial, Julie Rheim, discussing Disneyland’s forthcoming Pirates of the Caribbean attraction, 1965.


For almost all of my life, I’ve been a fan of Disney. Mickey Mouse presided over my first birthday. Childhood birthday gifts and holiday tidings usually brought a Disney film on VHS. And since the ripe old age of two, my family and I have spent time in the Vacation Kingdom of the World, happily just 230 miles up Florida’s turnpike and the perfect distance away to still be a satisfying and enchanting weekend escape that maintained the mystery of a far away destination, but close enough to capture my attention and establish a sense of familiarity that makes a return to WDW so comforting. That is the real crux of my involvement in Disney. Disney World was the physical manifestation of the incredible feeling and mood and happiness that Disney, as a whole, brought. EPCOT Center dominated the formative years of my interest and is still the cornerstone of my ongoing proclivity for themed design and Disney history. EPCOT provided a linkage to how the real world worked. Its optimistic drive and broad creative aims inspired an understanding in not only the exhibitive aims of the park but in how Disney used technology and art to convey a message and create an environment. Enjoyment and appreciation of EPCOT, funnily enough, broadened interest in the rest of the Disney world and the Magic Kingdom.

In an attempt in getting me excited (was that even really needed?!) for one of our earliest trips to WDW, my parents bought me a ‘Disneyland Fun’ VHS so as to familiarize me with what we would soon be visiting. Although for a park a continent away, the familiar visuals and localities on screen did their job and ‘Disneyland Fun’ became my mental image of the Florida property, despite glaring differences. That’s not our castle. Our Haunted Mansion looks scarier. We don’t have Star Tours in Tomorrowland, that’s over in MGM! And where is EPCOT!?

And so, I was aware of “an other”. There was an other Magic Kingdom out there. One that was seemingly older, had more in it, and yes, lacked an EPCOT. Despite that “flaw”, I was interested.  And as I got older and learned more about Disney World, so came knowledge of Disneyland. Here was Walt Disney’s original park…. While Disney World captured my immediate attention for research and, ultimately, this entire blog, Disneyland was always revered, in my mind, as the gold standard for history and the park that set down the precedence for what thematic entities followed. Of course, with that, came a desire to visit.

Florida, sadly, is very far away from California. My family and I have always been very lucky when it comes to traveling and we have seen much of the east coast.  While always an event to plan around, a vacation up to New York City or Washington DC was always more economical and feasible than an odyssey out west. Being from a family of teachers, and a student of history myself, who can complain when your destinations take you the very epicenter of what you study? And with Disney World just within reach for an easy getaway, Disneyland was really a world away. Happily, however, my chance to aim for Disneyland came earlier this year…. And as evidenced by this writing, I made it after almost twenty years of waiting and wondering.  What follows, and what this entire post is meant to be, is a reflection of Disneyland, as seen through the eyes of someone who grew up entrenched by Disney World, or, frankly, any other Disney park. This is not history; this is going to be an opinionated thematic analysis of Walt Disney’s original Magic Kingdom as seen by someone for the first time. 

Walking In:

If you talk to anyone who has visited Disneyland and you haven’t, and you ask them to describe the park, they’ll most likely tell you that Disneyland is quaint. Although I am sure that this is meant in a positive light, deconstructing the term “quaint” can paint a negative or slighted picture of Disneyland.  Common definitions tell us that quaint may refer to qualities that are “attractively unusual or old-fashioned”.  If we were to view this definition in a positive connotation I suppose, that, yes, Disneyland is quaint. However, I feel that this definition severely limits the breadth and expanse of Disneyland as a whole. Disneyland is much more than quaint. Disneyland exceeds that expectation from the moment you walk in.

Walking into Disneyland might give you that impression of “quaintness”, however, at least for the first time. Disneyland’s Main Street and Train Station are not the imposing versions found on the east coast. They are smaller (Built at 5/8ths scale, to be exact!) and snuggly welcome guests. There is a sense of smallness to Main Street and the hub, but that doesn’t alter the visceral impact of the mood and tones conveyed by the architecture. Disneyland’s Main Street creates a similar feeling to all Main Streets, I suppose, but this one has the subtext of originality to it. This is Walt’s. There are benches and fixtures and facades that were personally overseen by him and his design team and have stood there since 1955.  Beyond that, the stylistic choices made on the facades are reserved and much more aligned with a more modest Main Street than one would expect after having only known the Walt Disney World version. Disneyland’s Main Street is a street out of a smaller town, though no less patriotic or lushly detailed as the larger, more urbanized environment found on the east coast. This Main Street is aglow with gas lamps, has a functioning opera house with a patriotic and historical attraction, and, interestingly enough, an array of cannon in the Town Square. Both sides of Center Street still exist in the west, though a lovely restaurant dominates one side. And instead of being totally connected to Disneyland’s central hub, the north end of Main Street is bookended by two large Victorian architectural chateaus, one a bakery, one one of Disneyland’s best eateries. These are all the small details and differences that place this Main Street in a different mood and frame of mind than others, and dispel any sense of “negative quaintness”, in my mind. 

Disneyland’s hub is another shockingly different area when compared to the Magic Kingdom template. The 1955 version lacks water, lacks the open swaths of walkways and space that defines the WDW version and creates a thematic pallet cleanser for the area. Here, instead, exists a small and verdant area that seems a short respite from the thematic overloads awaiting behind arches, behind bridges, behind a mountain, and behind a spinning, kinetic, overwhelming sculpture.  Disneyland’s hub could be closely associated with a city park, fitting for its close connection and shared thematic aesthetic with Main Street. Despite this, Disneyland’s hub often has the aesthetic motifs and qualities of bordering lands situated just on top of its terminus, so that the hub is almost a composite thematic example of all of Disneyland, all at once. While this sounds frenetic and clashing on paper, in person it can be a very unique and a beautiful vista. All parts of Disneyland, all at once, and all different, exist in some sort of beautiful, chaotic aesthetic stasis. Both the physical and emotional heart of Disneyland can be found in the hub.

And then, of course, there’s Sleeping Beauty Castle. Our icon and symbol of not only Disneyland, but also the keystone to this entire facet of Walt Disney Productions. Although small in stature, and comparatively  “less” adorned than her eastern and Parisian sisters, this castle, again, is steeped in the overriding sense of history that Disneyland has. This is smaller and shorter and more functional because it was built first. It was built on a tight budget. Does that show, almost 60 years later? Not in the sense of upkeep, but vastly in the sense of how the castle is regarded. This is already the very center of what it means to be in DISNEYLAND, but there is more to that when actively considering where exactly you are and what you are seeing. Again, this is an evaluation from a perspective of someone deeply reverent of Disney’s history and past. Guests who are looking only for large and impressive scope might not find such results.

 This then, is an aesthetic “walk up” Main Street that every first time guest gets to experience and drink in as they settle into their time at Disneyland. For me, it was a strange and beautiful process as every preconceived notion of themed design was challenged and reformulated with every step I took. This is not the Magic Kingdom of Florida. The moods and themes might be the same, but the execution is vastly different leading to a different visceral reaction. Regardless, Disneyland’s “face” and first impression is a rich one, interwoven with a “quaint” aesthetic parameter and heightened by the historical context the park purports and flourishes under.

Scale: Approach and Effects Around the Guest

The scale of Disneyland is something that I thought I was prepared for. Again, everyone will warn you of the “quaintness” and smallness of the park, but I feel that this is still a nebulous term and ill fitting to the charm and actual makeup of Disneyland. While Disney World will offer you long and sweeping vistas of buildings that provide for the interplay of thematic elements on a large scale, Disneyland’s facades alter your view differently. Rarely do they tower over you or overwhelm in terms of stature. Instead of commanding attention from afar, Disneyland’s facades and buildings materialize, beckon you closer, and finally, when close, emerge and have an emotional effect on you. Thus far, my favorite way to compare these two approaches is juxtaposing the Disneyland Haunted Mansion with the Walt Disney World version:

Disneyland places you in New Orleans Square, a land rife with detail and real world texture. New Orleans Square is busy with activity and music and the energy of an active port city and the thriving urban elite in the French Quarter. A mansion house looms in the distance.  You approach it and find yourself imperiled by the lore of a ghost story, building off the rich tradition of voodoo and magic found in the Crescent City. Walt Disney World, meanwhile, places you in Liberty Square, home of the American Revolution and birth of the republic. We leave an intimate and bustling town square and head towards a river, turning to see a looming and jagged Hudson mansion cutting an impressive figure on a hill. This, in cinematic terms, is a “long shot” and almost offers a panoramic view of the area before we settle on our subject: a haunted house. Then, as we draw closer, we hear wolves howl, the wind, and the cheery refrains of fife and drum give way to an eerie silence. Walt Disney World’s mansion (and most facades and larger attractions) captures your attention from far away and takes you on an emotional journey from the second you spot them. There is a long, drawn out progression to the process of crafting an experience that can overlap far beyond the attraction in Florida. California does this several times, but uses a different, and perhaps more subtle measure of thematic to affect visitors.

Disneyland, conversely, places you in a rich, livable environment, makes it as real and as lush and as beautiful as possible… and then once you get close enough to the building, whips the carpet from out under your feet and magic happens. Disneyland uses intimate scale to allow almost a seamless effect for establishing a narrative or experience driven attraction. Disneyland’s scale is ubiquitous, it surrounds you, things draw your attention just by nature of kinetics or details or signage. The excitement of experience merely exists beyond the façade, or only when you’ve settled into a locality and something is good and ready to happen.

This “good and ready to happen" approach method is also employed at the Enchanted Tiki Room. Instead of having a formal preshow as in The Magic Kingdom’s Sunshine Tree Pavilion, queuing and waiting for the show takes place in a informal garden setting right next to the theater. And, as the time draws near for a performance, the setting comes alive with music and monologues from the tiki statues. Disneyland establishes her thematic content in a short moment, by showcasing the breadth of thematics at hand… and then takes you beyond that with the flair and enchantment of the show. Disneyland requires you to be patient and to stay in one place to observe, instead of pulling you towards a impressive façade. Further examples of this can be found in the Snow White queue, where one has to wait to see the Evil Queen lurk behind a window. One has to wait to hear the soundscapes of the Matterhorn despite its massive size. One has to stand still, immerse themselves in the melodies of the tropics before Pele, Hina, and Tangaroa bellow forth their island mythos.


While related to the scale and thematic approach of Disneyland, I feel that discussion of Disneyland’s partitioned and separate thematic areas warrants discussion as their methodology and existence is fundamentally different from my perception of other ‘magic kingdom’ style parks. Where other theme parks strive for the illusion of broad space and room to breathe and revel in a chance to soak in the atmosphere, Disneyland offers this chance…. in very enclosed and filled up spaces. While I wouldn’t go as far as calling it claustrophobic, as that has a negative connotation, Disneyland is tightly knit and overwhelmingly so. Again, this is not a negative. Instead of placing all attractions along a thoroughfare, Disneyland utilizes courtyards and passageways to enclose lands and attractions off from one another. For the purposes of this article, let us term these as the “Street Method” and the “Courtyard Method”.  The Magic Kingdom excels at the latter, Disneyland, the former. Let’s look at Adventureland in both locals. Adventureland East is winding and extends for almost the entire southwestern length of the Magic Kingdom, but, for all intents and purposes is a street, with most physical structures on one side of the path. Adventureland West is mostly situated with attractions on its south side, but accomplishes its physical space in a much shorter breath than one would think possible. For all intents and purposes, Adventureland’s “common area” is a large courtyard that stretches from the Tiki Room to the Swiss Treehouse. It’s about 500 feet from Adventureland’s entrance to where it begins to merge with both Frontierland and New Orleans Square (more on this intricate thematic moment, shortly) and in that very short space, the entire thematic breadth of Adventureland is contained. Adventureland! One of the most diverse ideas in the Disney cannon, all tied together by a walkway of about 500 feet! For a mind used to the thought of Disney World’s long and curving street with offshoots and alleyways that take us to attractions, having them all, quite literally, at your feet is a boggling and interesting experience. And it goes similarly for the rest of Disneyland’s lands:

Frontierland, while having a shorter attraction roster, is still contained in a courtyard near the eastern banks of the Rivers of America.  Only Big Thunder Mountain exists outside of the immediate area,  situating itself almost parallel to Fantasyland and north of Frontierland. 

New Orleans Square isn’t a traditional “courtyard” so to speak, as it occupies the southern banks of the Rivers of America and is almost a “waterfront” district of winding streets, alleys and hidden courtyards. Given the city that it the area is set to emulate, this stylistic choice is appreciated.  New Orleans Square is only open to the water, providing for the upbeat and frenetic mood of The Big Easy, while most of its aesthetic and thematic content is hidden away in the winding streets of the square. Filigreed balconies, ornamental fixtures, and mysterious shops all are contained by a snug series of buildings that hug the water’s edge. All of this begins with the Pirates of the Caribbean facility and terminates with the Haunted Mansion, with only a short green buffer zone separating the “city” portion of New Orleans Square from the uptown mansion home and train station.

Fantasyland is perhaps the next best example of the Courtyard Method after Adventureland. Instead of having to leave the physical presence of the castle to get to the land’s attractions, as in Disney World, Disneyland’s Fantasyland begins the moment you step through (or into!) Sleeping Beauty Castle. Four of her most iconic dark rides are located directly behind the castle breezeway in addition to the other carnival atmosphere rides that Fantasyland has always employed. Snow White, Mr. Toad, Peter Pan, and Pinocchio are all housed along the edges of a courtyard formed by the ancillary structures off to the right and left of Sleeping Beauty Castle’s main building. This, coupled with the intricate and detailed charm of a Bavarian village make Fantasyland into a self contained vision of storybook aesthetics and trappings. The rest of Fantasyland expands out from the right of the courtyard and is bookended by it’s a small world and the Matterhorn. Between the two, Alice in Wonderland holds court with the visual kinetics of her tea party and the roving train of caterpillars wending their way in and out of the show building. It should also be mentioned that it’s a small world is placed beyond the immediate sightline of Alice in Wonderland’s attractions so that Mary Blair’s and Rolly Crump’s artistic and magnificent façade isn’t a thematic clash of styles between the abstract 60’s design and the rest of Fantasyland’s European motif. And, providing for the “back wall” of Fantasyland is Storybookland, whose canals and train tracks through rolling hills and trees make Fantasyland feel endless and secluded, hidden away in some ancient medieval forest.


With all of this said about the physical methodology of containing thematic attractions, by nature of a magic kingdom park, almost equal value must be attributed to how Disneyland gets you from one place to another. Disney World is a master at this. Brief and subtle stylistic changes of architecture take affect as you walk through a land, and by the time you find yourself in the next one, your surroundings have been transformed to match the thematic intent. The Magic Kingdom changes for you as you move through it. Disneyland does this, too, but in a way that is compromised well for the size of the place. Disneyland’s transitions are not abrupt or jarring, but they do happen in an unconventional manner, when compared to how I feel that Disney World tackles the same challenges. Rather than a gradual shift of aesthetic styles, I feel that Disneyland melts several areas at their borders so as to ease the change of setting and mood. Two examples of this are among my more happy and interesting memories of Disneyland: The Matterhorn and Tomorrowland and the River Belle Terrace in…Adventureland? Or Frontierland? Or is it in New Orleans Square? 

First, the Matterhorn: The Matterhorn is the largest fixture in Disneyland. And it feels larger than it actually is because of the smaller scale of the entire park, itself. And this is a wonderful thing, especially to a person used to the grand and sweeping ideas of architecture conveyed in Walt Disney World.  The Matterhorn could easily be considered the ubiquitous “weenie” of Disneyland that looms over everything in the park, much in the same way that Cinderella Castle is almost ALWAYS apparent, back in Florida, cheerily reminding you that you’re HERE. This is Disney’s. This is fantasy and history and art, all wrapped up in one crazy place that you adore. The Matterhorn provides for the same warm feeling of symbolism, despite being a thematic disjunction when spotted looming over the Enchanted Tiki Room or the Rivers of America.  So, how, then, does one transition from a land of fantasy and pure magic to the sci fi inspired land that is Tomorrowland with a massive snow capped mountain in the way? The answer, honestly, took me several walks through the park to grasp: Use the Matterhorn as a massive curtain. There’s no getting around it. The Matterhorn is practically a natural feature of Disneyland, only 4 years separate it from being as old as the park itself. The Matterhorn isn’t something to be shunted away with aesthetics; the Matterhorn is a aesthetic component and feature of Disneyland that is its own being.  Therefore, the areas around the Matterhorn melt into it so as to exist in an appreciable way that does not clash with the rest of the aesthetics around it.

On the Fantasyland side, alpines and Swiss inspired foliage and buildings give the Matterhorn the appearance of being a fixture of the Fantasyland village we’ve just walked through, if on its very outskirts and on the edge of civilization. But, if you come from Tomorrowland, you’ve just walked through a land of palm trees and Googie aesthetic trappings (sadly offset with some Steampunk aesthetic elements from a decade old thematic overlay…) how does the majestic beauty of a European mountain fit into that aesthetic profile? Carefully and subtly.  Thankfully placed next to the Submarine Voyages lagoon, the rock work of both submarines and the alps can be altered from side to side to mirror each other. While unconventional to have a tropical lagoon merge almost seamlessly with a towering alpine visage of rockwork, it happens and happens smoothly. Walkways move guests away from the main part of Tomorrowland and prepare a vista of only the Matterhorn’s rockwork and waterfalls. To the side of this walkway the barrier of rocks from the Submarine Voyage enforce the craggy aesthetic of both entities. And the deep blues of the lagoon match up with the waterfalls of the mountain quite well. Thus, there is a melting pot of aesthetics perpetrated by Fantasyland and Tomorrowland, using the Matterhorn to reflect and separate both lands simultaneously. Truly witnessing it is a moment of themed design that probably only Disneyland achieves… it’s a wonder to think about (and attempt to describe!) even now.

Yet another sublime “melting pot” moment comes out of Disneyland’s west side where Adventureland, Frontierland, and New Orleans Square all intersect. While all of these lands are closely knit in both space and even in thematic approach, they all meet up at one small building and the transition to all three lands is covered with the ingenious use of architectural trappings. The River Belle Terrace is one building with aesthetic markings of all three lands on it and looks completely natural doing this. This is accomplished by the shared motif of being related to the pioneering spirit of aquatic culture. Stand a certain way in Adventureland, and you can and will see the Rivers of America in the distance. Frontierland sits directly to the east of the shore, and as mentioned before,  New Orleans Square dominates the south side of the embankment. So, when placing The River Belle Terrace squarely on the southeast corner of the Rivers of America, this building now reflects all of the aesthetics of the area. Thankfully, this is easy to accomplish through the commonality of how each land is aligned with another.

When Disneyland began planning for adding “Old New Orleans Square” in the mid 1960s,  the first new land in Disneyland was considered to be an offshoot of Frontierland. Both rooted in the romance of the west and the appeal of America’s expansionist ethos of the 19th century, Disney’s 20th century representation of both localities would be steeped in the nostalgia of not only Manifest Destiny, but the allure of a trading port city that had so captured the imaginations of a continent with its rich legacy of mysticism and piracy. New Orleans’ realm of fantasy was a reflection of the romance and adventure surrounding the epic tales of the west and cowboys and natives of Frontierland. This places the River Belle Terrace at a wonderful conjunction between the two. One side of the façade reflects the clapboard and rough hewn makeup of Frontierland, the other the dignified and detailed charisma of New Orleans. So, what of the Adventureland side of the structure, lurking just beside the tree house towering over the entrance of The Temple of the Forbidden Eye? Thankfully, the spirit of Adventureland accounts for both the wilds of the bayou in New Orleans and the expanse of wilderness in Frontierland: imperialism and colonialism. Much in the same way that Jungle Cruise is a viewpoint of the indigenous land through the eyepieces of incoming explorers and adventurers, the River Belle Terrace uses that ethos and contains it in a façade. Thus, The Belle is a Victorian gem of the early 1900s, with all the rugged dignity that comes with it. Disneyland takes the ideas of New Orleans, the spirit of Frontierland, and the aesthetic of a European’s idea of Adventureland and marries them on a building that condenses and melts aesthetics and themes into one sublime transitional moment.


While it would be beyond my powers of description to discuss every ride in Disneyland, I would like to point out those that truly offered me something special and have stuck with me since my visit. Usually, these are versions different from those in Walt Disney World or those that are totally unique to Disneyland:

Pirates of the Caribbean is an odyssey through the Spanish Main and a magnificent pinnacle of themed design. The original dwells in suspense, atmosphere, and an intricate progression. Although hugely based in experience and watching events unfold around you, Disneyland Pirates is guided by a narrative of time travel. This allows for liberties to be taken in the flow of the attraction and the scenes we are made privy to. Traveling through the eerie stillness of the Blue Bayou, to the caverns of luminescent blue waters, to the catacombs of macabre tableaux is one of the most surreal, compelling, and satisfying thematic experiences I had in Disneyland. While I am very much attached to Caribbean Plaza and the second iteration of the ride in Walt Disney World and its unique happenstance of a history, Pirates in New Orleans Square is, without a doubt, Disneyland’s archetypical attraction and triumph. 

The Haunted Mansion, meanwhile, is a different story… While the WDW version of the Haunted Mansion is what the original Pirates of the Caribbean is to Disneyland, the Disneyland mansion isn’t nearly as long or as well maintained as her younger sister. The positives are still numerous about the mansion house situated just west of the rest of New Orleans Square. Here, the face of the mansion isn’t imposing, but quiet and graceful, only subtlety hinting at the haunting within. While the ride itself is shorter, the experience of walking into the mansion is heightened by a longer and more convincing Stretching Room and load area that utilizes several Yale Gracey effects that you can stand next to and soak in, as opposed to being whisked past them on the ride, as in The Magic Kingdom.

The Enchanted Tiki Room on the west coast is all the more intimate here in the original, smaller facility. And with close to the original length of the show playing, the Enchanted Fountain is still on hand to dazzle guests. As I mentioned before, the Tiki Garden preshow allows for a more informal way of presenting both Tiki Room’s thematic content and locality giving way to a more organic way of “falling into” the show. Disney World opts for a formal thematic introduction. 

Splash Mountain is rougher, darker (in both tone and light levels!) , and shorter… But bolstered by the sheer artistry of the original Marc Davis designed audio animatronics the attraction cannibalized from America Sings when it was built. 

Indiana Jones Adventure is a rough, fast, delight of a romp though some of the most detailed and deep environments crafted by Imagineering. While you’re assaulted by a barrage of thrilling effects, you’re also navigating sets that are twenty years old and really appear to be ancient and covered in the grime and dust and dirt of the ages. And the queue itself is a example of place making and illustrating the illusion if implied space that really isn’t there.

Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride is a madcap joy to behold, though very different from the much more frenetic version that played on in the WDW Fantasyland of my childhood.

Alice in Wonderland, a decidedly dark ride of WED’s original style is a trippy and enjoyable trip through wending sets and low-tech artistry. The ride feels like what I imagined it felt like years ago, if just for how the aesthetics remind you of the film’s art direction, mostly done by Mary Blair.

Roger Rabbit’s Cartoon Spin, meanwhile, is decidedly a dark ride of WDI’s style in the late 80s and early 90s, but still a lavish and raucous good time, as you zip and spin through the streets and alleys of Toontown.

Sleeping Beauty Castle Walkthrough is a hidden delight and an attraction of a bygone era. It’s a simple walkthrough of scenes from the film, but the scale and the immersive experience of going into the castle make this attraction a treasure of Disneyland. As opposed to being taken past scenes and visuals by a ride, you, as the guest get to linger and walk through the displays and really take in the sets. It is probably Disney’s most physically simple attraction… that offers such a complex environment and reaction. 

The Storybookland attractions are endearing scenic trips that are simple and pure relaxation to enjoy. Casey Jr. meanders and takes you over the hills and through the trees of Fantasyland, providing for a great view of the kingdom in all its splendor, while the canal boats offer an up close look at miniature tableaux from many of Disney’s classic movies.

Space Mountain is not the hulking version found on east coast, but makes up for a smaller façade and less atmospheric queue  with the sheer force of spectacle that the ride experience is. Smooth, sleek, and utterly thrilling, Disneyland’s Space Mountain experience is accompanied by a rousing musical score and dazzling special effects.

The Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage has predictable content as it mirrors the events of the film it is inspired by, but this is quickly ignored if just for the visceral experience of diving beneath the waves in a submarine. Given that the Magic Kingdom closed her version of this ride in 1994, being back in a submarine in a theme park, for me, was a greatly nostalgic experience.

Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, a relic from the New York World’s Fair, plays on at the Main Street Opera House with a great amount of reverence toward its place in history and patriotism. Although altered since 1964, the spirit of both the 16th president and the original New York World’s Fair live on here and to great effect. As a historian, one can’t help but realize that this isn’t the nitty gritty history of the Civil War, but an overview of the social niche that Lincoln inhabits, both in national legend and in actual history. Great Moment with Mr. Lincoln is exactly that and is a cogent performance surrounding the idea of Lincoln.

Entertainment- Magical Fireworks Spectacular, while awfully predictable in content makes up for this by the sheer force of the spectacle it provides. Seeing Tinker Bell and Dumbo swoop and glide and hover over Sleeping Beauty Castle is an iconic moment and is simply fun to see. Soundsational is an artistically pleasing parade and runs twice a day in Disneyland. I don’t think I’ll ever get the first few stanzas of lyrics out of my head. I am not complaining about that. Fantasmic, meanwhile, is a massive pageant on the Rivers of America and could not be any more dissimilar to the version that plays over at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. This version is organic, surprising, and uses the practical surroundings of Disneyland to spectacular effect.

Fantasy in the Sky Fireworks Finale

Now’s the time to say goodbye, to all of our out-read and bleary eyed company… At least for now, and at the end of this, frankly, exhaustive, survey of Disneyland all of her thematics. I didn’t intend on this piece affecting such a length, but, I suppose that Disneyland and actually writing about Disneyland had a profound effect on me. I think that was inevitable, after all. But, to conclude, I would like to offer some thoughts on why that happens. And this happens not only to me, but to other visitors of the Happiest Place on Earth. I think the answer is simple: Disneyland offers charm. Charm that is inherent of the idealized representations of stories and experiences and, frankly, culture, from some of the most cherished archetypes in our society for the last half century. This charm is also intrinsic of ANY magic kingdom park found through out the world, but Disneyland does something different. Disneyland’s scale, her milieu of visual styles, her texture and simplicity in presenting her thematics all combine to make Disneyland a unique example of Disney’s approach to the themed environment. And this is probably because she is first. She is the prototype and the example that has led the pursuit of artful themed attractions to the heights that it has achieved around the world and in the hearts and minds of all who have gone and returned to any well designed theme park.  At the beginning of this essay I offered the thought that Disneyland is not quaint. I stand by that, but I will offer this addendum: Disneyland might only be considered quaint for the pureness and simplicity of spirit that the place holds dear and upholds. The idea of the park is a profoundly simple one…. But Disneyland’s true magic is her charm, charm that is thrilling, complex, and above all, artful.

Happy 59th Anniversary, Disneyland! 

59 years ago, today, the entertainment world was deftly changed with the debut of Disneyland. The first popular theme park to feature thematic environments and that strived to meet guest expectations in service and quality, Disneyland quickly became a cultural standpoint, not only in America, but around the world. Walt Disney’s great dream of making thematic and fantastic environments real has now endured for almost 6 decades and continues to impress, excite, and inspire all who come to that happy place. 

Happy 59, Disneyland!!