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  • Writer's pictureKarey Pohn

Cinematic Nature

Disneyland is an essentially theatrical experience, but we are no longer watching from the audience, we are in the experience.  Like a movie lot, Disneyland uses facades, but unlike a movie lot, where nothing is behind the façade, at Disneyland, there are rides, restaurants, and stores behind the facades

We have already seen that Disneyland is like being inside a three-dimensional story, indeed being at Disneyland is like being inside an animated film;  Disneyland is in essence three-dimensional animation.  Disneyland was built by Disney imagineers and not architects.  Disney began with architects, but was frustrated by their inability to understand his vision.  Architect Welton Becket, designer of the Capitol Records Building in Hollywood, was a friend of Disney’s and told Walt that he would need to use his own people to create Disneyland.  This was the best advice Becket could have given, because only the artists of Disney, using the magic of Hollywood, and animation in particular, could have created Disneyland.  Let us see why.


Disneyland’s designers were known as imagineers.  They were designers and movie studio art directors as well as animators rather that strictly architects, although some did have architectural backgrounds.  They were all skilled at creating sets and backgrounds to tell a story and that is what they did at Disneyland.  Imagineers created original concept drawings for the rides and lands and drew storyboards for the rides, just as they had for the animated movies.  Finch (1983) tells us that Disney’s animators and art directors were used to making things visually pleasing and they were also used to satisfying the sometimes wildly impractical whims of Hollywood producers and directors.  They knew how to use perspective and color to enhance the scenes, and understood from their animation work how people responded to visual sensations. The imagineers made use of this knowledge in three dimensions for Disneyland, and they were able to add other senses as well.  With nearly thirty years of creating happy film environments, Disney artists and designers had their craft down to a science and the engineers knew how to make these environments work.

Illustrated Images-- Storyboards at Work

Disneyland was created through the use of storyboards to establish the structure and sequence of the rides, just as storyboards had been in Disney’s films to visually establish the sequence of the story.  Walt Disney pioneered the concept of storyboards, and now they are routinely used throughout Hollywood. Originally, story boards, as the name suggests, were visual illustrations of different important scenes of the story. The animators would know the layout of the story by referring to these highlighted pieces and know where they were, and what they needed to accomplish. 

Two key ideas are present here.  The first one is the importance of the image, which Jung and Hillman would certainly echo, and the second one is the idea of story.  First, let us look briefly at image.  Disney was very adamant about this.  For him, image was utmost, as Ward Kimball explains:

Walt invented the storyboard.  He invented cartoon continuity at the source.  Every sketch was pinned to the storyboard so he could tell just by looking at it where we were and where we were going.  This is the technique that everybody uses now. It was invented because Walt wanted to see the whole plot on a couple of boards.  He wanted to see it visually.  Reading meant nothing to him, words meant nothing to him.  Pictures were his whole bag.  (K. M. Jackson, 1983, p. 146)

Marling (1997), in describing how the Imagineers designed Disneyland, notes “form doesn’t follow function, or even common sense, the pictures are what matters” (p. 54).  And what matters about the pictures is that they convey a clear, unambiguous message:

Disneyland operates through controlled imaging aimed at controlling controlled imaginations.  Its images, however complex the network of representation and illusion involved, are clear cut and self explanatory living up to Disney’s own continuing advice: “Make it read!” meaning making the action distinct and recognizable.  No contradictions, no ambiguities. (Hunt & Frankenburg, 1990, p. 110)

At Disneyland, storyboarding was used in designing the whole park, from the rides, to the different lands, to individual stores.  All of the elements of the park were players, and played a part in the overall concept of Disneyland, and also in their own mini-stories—architecture, landscaping, costumes, everything you see, hear, or feel adds to the overall story.

All of these items were storyboarded, so that they would be coordinated, and at Disneyland, all of the senses are seen as important.  Tactile opportunities abound, because Disneyland is also a very hands on place.  For example a store or attraction might have its own story or theme and everything within it would be in service to conveying that story or theme.  The colors, fixtures, textures, and costumes are all designed according to these themes.  Let us take a brief tangent to see this at play in two different attractions: Space Mountain and Big Thunder Railroad.  Keep your hands and arms inside the vehicle at all times and fasten your seatbelts as we embark on our coaster-to-coaster sojourn.

A Tale of Two Coasters

To get a feel for how the themes of different lands are supported and complemented by the attractions, we will look at two different rollercoasters, "Space Mountain" in Tomorrowland and "Big Thunder Railroad" in Frontierland, and see how the vehicles, the music, landscaping, architecture, and costumes—all contribute to and complement the atmosphere of the attraction and how the attractions fit into their surroundings.  "Space Mountain" is two years older than "Big Thunder;" they made their Disneyland debuts in 1977 and 1979 respectively.  Interestingly, "Big Thunder" cost $17 million when it was built, which is the entire amount that Disneyland cost to build in 1955.

"Space Mountain" is about the future, and is thus fittingly located in Tomorrowland.  The attraction's surfaces are plastic and metal, with sleek clean surfaces.  The atmosphere coming into the attraction sets the stage for the experience within.  To get to "Space Mountain," guests ascend an escalator which takes them effortlessly upwards, perhaps reflecting the possibility of leaving terra firma in the future, and there is a vague feeling of uncertainty.  The attraction is indoors, with a controlled and sterile feeling environment. "Space Mountain" is very clean and sanitary, but not as inviting as some of the other attractions.   Guests are not sure what to expect.  "Space Mountain" is not only cool because of air conditioning, but the colors and feel of the place is cool, as well, implying distance.  While riding this indoor rollercoaster in the dark, guests catch glimpses of stars, galaxies, and planets as they hurtle through space.  The curves seem very smooth, yet vertiginous, simulating “G” forces.  "Space Mountain" does not feel as jarring to me as some of the other rides, but it may be that the sleekness of the surroundings unconsciously transfer, making the ride feel smoother.  The sounds in the background, aside from the wooshing of the space vehicles and screaming—which have an echoing effect, are technological— synthesized, metalicized, plasticy, like the disembodied voices of an airport PA system.  The hosts and hostesses are dressed in sleek, futuristic, androgynous outfits. The handrails are metal and sleek, and the cars that transport guests look like rockets.  "Space Mountain" and the future which it represents are all about technology and speed.

"Big Thunder Railroad," with its rustic feeling, located in Frontierland, is much different.  You initially approach the attraction by going down a ramp and under a wooden bridge. Metaphorically, this approach might represent going down into the past.  "Big Thunder" is outdoors, and the cars you ride in are attached to a steam engine.  "Big Thunder" sounds very rickety and feels more jarring than "Space Mountain."  The hosts and hostesses wear jeans, vests, and kerchiefs; "Big Thunder" has a kind of folksy howdy-do feeling, unlike the sterile feeling of "Space Mountain."  Texture abounds and the texture is rough, mirroring the rough and ready feeling of the frontier.  The handrails are wooden, and there are artifacts everywhere.  The atmosphere suggests a clean, well-kept ghost town, because no people are present.  "Big Thunder" has a rough, dusty, deserty milieu.  The surrounding landscape contains lots of rocks, and there is water as well as plantlife and animatronic fauna, which are absent at "Space Mountain."  "Big Thunder Railroad" takes us careening past a mining town, through a mine shaft (where we are threatened by falling rocks and boulders) and through the skeleton of some fossilized behemoth.

Both Space Mountain and Big Thunder Railroad are rollercoasters that support the lands where they are located.  They play their parts particularly well and convey us, while conveying to us very different experiences. 

Narrative Nature

Just as the camera in movies takes us from one place to another, at Disneyland, the vehicles of the individual attractions act in a similar manner, carrying the audience through the plot instead of just watching it up on the screen.  Disney’s designers are like film directors in this way, deciding what the audience will see and in what order for each attraction. 

At Disneyland itself, when guests are not on a ride, imagineers direct our gaze and movement through the use of “wienies,” or visual magnets that serve to beckon us to come and explore them, drawing us onto the next scene, as it were.  Finch (1983) remarks: “Instead of being carried along by the camera, as in a movie, a park guest is free to choose among many options . . . . in effect, write his own story, although its basic elements have been carefully preplanned by the designers” (p. 393). King (1981a) notes:

The playful, romanticized tone of false-front buildings and props create an atmosphere of total theater “which exceeds the wildest dreams of avant-garde dramatists.”  Guests walk around and “act” against a number of created locales from every continent and historical period setting, each person creating his own “story” as he goes.  This arrangement of sequential settings and symbols in the parks at large and also in the form of “plots” within many of the rides, touches off a free-association process and gives visitors a dramatic sense of being in an epic tale or a number of film sequences. (p. 127)

Disney—being a consummate bricoleur, who by Derrida’s (Klages, 2001, online) definition is not interested in the truth value, but only in the use value of things—took the raw material of history, fantasy and other sources, and blended the raw material together into “packaged history,” blurring the boundaries between them, while making them into units by adding “conventional plots to inherently plotless material,” giving each unit a “discrete beginning, middle and end” (D. M. Johnson, 1981, p. 162).  Disney and his colleagues as filmmakers thought in terms of narrative, and the sequences of events that lead into each other to tell a story.  Bukatman (1991) remarks the topics for the rides are narrative as well, because “narrative provides a comforting paradigm for the physical experience (p. 61). 

This narrative nature is also the reason that the past seems to be more orderly than the present, because we can tell a story about the past, which is not apparent to us as we are experiencing it (Waldrep, 1993, p. 140).  Speaking of stories, lets see how the Disney imagineers tell theirs.

Movement Through Space 

The imagineers create selective perception, so that guests are not able to see things that would disrupt the illusion that the imagineers are trying to create.  When the imagineers do present something different, it is on purpose, and has filmic intent, serving to pull guests towards what is next.  For example, Sleeping Beauty Castle serves to pull guests down Main Street, because the Castle stands out and does not fit in with the other buildings on Main Street.  King (1981a) relates that Hench says the experience is “just like a motion picture unfolding” and architect Philip Johnson says that the  “architecture at the parks is not the design of space but the organization of procession” (p. 127).  Blake, another architect, relates that Disney:

drew on the experience of filmmakers to chart the progression of pedestrians through  a sequence of urban spaces; on the expertise of set designers to create a variety of streetscapes, and on the knowledge of cartoonists to “color-code” the buildings along those streets;  above all, he drew on his own ability to please people, creating an urban environment (of sorts) that endlessly fascinates and endlessly attracts—and this at a time when people were leaving most of our real urban environments in droves. (Finch, 1983, p. 426)

According to Waldrep (1993), the use of theatrical procession—of architecture as time or narrative—is central at the Disney parks.  He says that the monorail, added to the park in in the late 1950s, is the epitome of the movement through space and then Waldrep shows how narrative performs the same function:

As de Certeau notes, “[in] modern Athens, the vehicles of mass transportation are called metaphorai.  To go to work or come home, one takes a ‘metaphor’—a bus or a train.  Stories . . . every day… traverse and organize places; they select and link them together; they make sentences and itineraries out of them.  They are spatial trajectories.”  In the Magic Kingdom, narrative is used metaphorically to transport the visitor out of one world and into another.  Rather than fixing space, the boundaries between lands actually create the possibility of its movement, its ambiguity via narrative.  Realistic detail is needed to protect the illusion begun by the story itself.  In “Jungle Cruise” the automatic elephants that spray water on the guests must look real in order not to disrupt the metaphorical ride of the story literalized in the movement of the boat.  (pp. 145-146)

At Disneyland, attractions play supporting roles, instead of being the stars.  They fit into the overall theme of the different lands and to the overall theme of Disneyland itself; they contribute to the whole instead of vying for attention separately.  The results are as Hill remarks, “less an amusement park than a state of mind” (Findlay, 1993, p. 66).

It's All Show Business Folks

Just as the atrractions and lands support the overall theme of Disneyland, so do the people who work there.  Disneyland refers to its employees as “castmembers” who are the hosts and hostesses of the various rides, referred to as “attractions” and “adventures.”  The publicly accessible parts of the park are referred to as “onstage” while behind the scenes operations are referred to as “backstage.”  In order to fit into the themed settings, uniforms are tailored to the themes and referred to as costumes.  The show business metaphor is taken extremely seriously and pervasively here.  Disneyland is called “the show,” and employees are constantly reminded that they are in show business.  The “outer lobby” is the parking lot, the “inner lobby” is the main entrance and “center stage” is Main Street USA (Findlay, 1993).  Findlay explains and cites several examples from University of Disneyland manuals:

Their ultimate purpose was that of “show people throughout history”: to “create happiness” for customers, for the theme park had brought into being “a new industry with happiness as its principle product.”  To meet production quotas, workers needed to understand the true nature of their job.  Creating happiness was “a highly disciplined type of work.  It is all service to others.” . . . “The guest pays us to make him happy.” . . . University of Disneyland manuals explained that by making others happy the employees make themselves happy: “creating fun is our work; and our work creates fun—for us and for our guests.” (p. 75)

Disneyland is about play and not work.  The guests are on vacation and have come to Disneyland to have fun.  Just as the outside world is kept from view when one is inside the park, daily reminders of the world are also kept out of sight and mind—especially work, school, and chores at home.  That is the reason why castmembers are implored to act as if they are having fun, so as not to spoil our mood, with the reminder that they are actually working. Disneyland is supposed to be playtime for all and so that is why almost all work related activity is kept behind the scenes.

Disneyland originally employed outsiders who did not share this vision, and so Disney found it necessary to hire and train his own staff, who could deal pleasantly with a large group of people “with a ready smile”  (Findlay, 1993, p. 74).  To this end, Disney created “ University of Disneyland, ” now known as “Disneyland University” along with a whole new vocabulary to express the show business theme, complete with handbooks and inspirational literature which “inculcated Disney principles” and he hired people ‘who possessed the “Disneyland look” and accepted the “Disneyland way”’ (p. 74).  Once again, the shadow lurks; with everything in service to the show, the persona, or face we show to the world, the shadow side is suppressed through control and conformity.  Bryman (1995, 2004) discusses these more shadowy aspects in his books, as they are rather important and large parts of the park, and we will just briefly look into importance of animation and the role of control, as we near the end of our excursion.

The Importance of Animation

Animation is the most controlled of art forms, and is about perfecting the world—everything is preplanned.  Finch (1983) relates that with animation, there are no temperamental stars to worry about, or day-to-day directorial inspiration.  The animator creates the character and determines the character's attributes, then draws the character, creating movement and emotions, all on a complimentary background, to match the dialog.  The unpredictable nature of the weather and lighting conditions are not a problem for animators, because they can create whatever background and lighting effects they wish.  Disneyland similarly is an almost completely “controlled environment," and is “engineered to conform to the principles Disney had developed in making his animated films” (p. 411). 

Disneyland is essentially “animation in the round,” there are all kinds of live entertainment: parades, bands, fireworks, musicians, dancers, and happening all over the park.  The fixed elements— the architecture, landscaping and the attractions provide a setting for everything else, a background if you will. 

Actual three-dimensional animated figures were used since the park’s beginning, although they were crude, unreliable and not very convincing.  It was only in 1963, when the Enchanted Tiki-Room was introduced, that audioanimatronics was first used in the park.  Walt recounts:

A new door opened for us.  Our whole forty-some years here have been in the world of making things move.  Inanimate things moved from a drawing board through all kinds of little props and things.  Now we’re making these dimensional human figures move . . . animals move . . . anything move through the use of electronics.  It’s all programmed, predetermined.  It’s another dimension in the animation we have been doing all our lives.  It’s a new door . . . a new toy . . . and we hope we can really do some exciting things in the future. (Bright, 1987, p. 163)

Audioanimatronics were also used at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York, where Disney created four exhibits: "It’s a Small World," "Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln," "The Carousel of Progress," and "The Magic Skyway," all of which all made their way, at least in part, to Disneyland afterwards.  Interestingly, the theme of the Fair was “Peace Through Understanding,” dedicated to “Man's Achievement on a Shrinking Globe in an Expanding Universe” (UCLA, 2005, online)

Audioanimatronics used computers and hydraulic and pneumatic hardware to achieve more lifelike movement, synchronizing movement and sound in three dimensions—just as Disney had done with his two-dimensional animated cartoons. “For Disney, the marriage of technology and entertainment was made in heaven.  It was the dawning of the age of ‘electronic pixie dust’” (Bright, 1987, p. 164). This description, perhaps the ultimate expression of the archetypal spirit of Disneyland, reflectis the Uranus-Neptune planetary archetypeal complex:  “electronic pixie dust” —technology in service to the imagination, illusion, and fantasy.

Tinker Bell flies onto the screen and sprinkles pixie dust with her wand over Sleeping Beauty Castle at the beginning of the Disneyland television show—this same iconic image is also stylized as the logo for Walt Disney Pictures, showing once again, technology—the magic that is animation and the movies, in service to the imagination.  And getting back to technology, and audioanimatronics, in particular, Eco (1986) says that audioanimatronics allowed Disney to:

achieve his own dream and reconstruct a fantasy world more real than reality, breaking down the wall of the second dimension, creating not a movie, which is illusion, but total theater, and not with anthropomorphized animals, but with human beings . . . each robot obeys a program, can synchronize the movements of mouth and eyes with words and sounds of the audio, repeating ad infinitum all day long his established part (a sentence, one or two gestures) and the visitor, caught off guard by the succession of events, obligated to see several things at once, to left and right and straight ahead, has no time to look back and observe that the robot he has just seen is already repeating his eternal scenario. (pp. 45-46)

Audioanimatronics is the Disney version of the eternally returning repetition compulsion, as the rides go round and round while the robots endlessly repeat their parts.   Animation, and especially audioanimatronics have shown the importance of control, the last “C” to which we will now turn.


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