top of page
  • Writer's pictureKarey Pohn

Disney’s Complementarity Principle

Niels Bohr is not the only one who realized the importance of complementarity, Disney did, too, although the other way around.  Whereas Bohr believed that the observer had an effect on the observed, Disney believed that the observed, in this case Disneyland, has an effect on the observer. Disney realized from his animation career the supreme importance of things complementing each other.  Complement means “something that completes, makes whole or brings perfection,” complementary means “forming or serving as a complement to or completing,” and complementarity means “the state of being complementary” (AHD, 2000c, p. 377). 

Complementariness, as I have labeled it, encompasses many things.  Complementariness in Disney’s parlance makes the stories “read,” by reducing chaos, competition, clutter and confusion, as well as contradiction. And as can be seen, it seems that Disney’s complementarity principle seeks to eliminate some “C’s” and include others. Complementary and coordinated colors and materials are chosen, to harmonize instead of clashing.  This helps to make things clear, and there is cooperation, instead of competition between different elements. Complementariness enhances continuity, and creates a non-threatening atmosphere.  This complementariness results in feelings of relief, relaxation, reassurance, harmony, and belonging.  But how does Disney do it? 

Disney’s experience as filmmaker lead to an extraordinary sense of continuity. He saw the need for Disneyland to flow, as did a movie, from scene to scene.  The translations should be gentle, he realized, with architecture and colors complementing each other in the area of change, thus the visitor would be led from one attraction to the next without the jolt of adjustment, and he would remember everything he saw.”  (Thomas, 1976, p. 252)

In animation smooth transitions and harmonious backgrounds are important and this stylistic approach was incorporated in Disneyland, too.  When as one is transitioning between lands, the textures of the surfaces change, and the structures of the buildings change, blending into one another.  As you go from one land to another, you can actually feel it through your feet, and see it through the different ambiance created by different styles of architecture, texture and colors. 

We can perhaps think of this complementarity of colors and styles as a chromatographic “communitas” experience.  Communitas is Victor Turner’s notion of the oneness and unity that is felt by pilgrims and others involved in rites of passage during liminal times.  [The "Antistructure" excursion, located in Adventureland/New Orleans Square, discusses communitas, too.]  By relating things in a noncompetitive way, Hench, a long-time imagineer, relates ideas intrinsic to Disneyland’s design:

Visual elements would all be designed to complement one another (nonthreatening) rather than compete (threatening) as they often do in the outside world.  “Most urban environments,” Hench says, “are basically chaotic places, as architectural and graphics information scream at the citizen for attention.  This competition results in disharmonies and contradictions that serve to cancel each other out.  A journey down almost any urban street will quickly place the visitor into visual overload as all of the competing messages merge into a kind of information gridlock.”  In marked contrast, Hench refers to Walt’s concept for Disneyland as an extension of Walt’s sense of theater.  That is to say, the visual elements are laid out as an orderly progression of ideas similar to scenes in a motion picture . . . . At Disneyland, Walt’s sense of order would prevail. (Bright, 1987, pp. 48-49)

When ideas and images compete, for example as at a World’s Fair, Hench explains that it makes for a “curious kind of mental disorder” because when you go from one place to another, if there is no coordination between them, “you have to pick up ideas and then drop them completely as you go on to another exhibit—it's like overrecording on a tape, I guess.  Eventually you get very confused” whereas at Disneyland, because they attempt to relate ideas to each other, “you don’t have to drop one before you pick up another—they carry through.  This again comes from the motion picture background.  The division into related themes gives a sense of continuity” (Finch, 1983, p. 414).  The overall effect is a more pleasant experience. By stressing coordination over competition, Disney’s message is more clear: 

This is what film is all about, connecting ideas so that they relate to each other.  A motion picture is an act of communication.  It consists of ideas—sometimes very complex ones—that you want other people to understand, and you want them to understand them the way you intended them to, without wandering off on their own.  So you want to keep the structure clean and simple . . . . In a cartoon we could gradually eliminate the things that contradicted what we were trying to say.  With the background we had, this was a very easy thing to apply to the third dimension. (Finch, 1983, p. 411)

Hench refers to this as “the language of vision” which appeals to us archetypally.  He does not use the word archetype, but say that "the language of vision" has psychological underpinnings.  Hench attributes Mickey’s success to this archetypal appealingness, and feels that Mickey's apeal was due to the fact that Mickey was “lollipop art,” so named because he was made of circles (non-threatening), instead of from angles and sharp points (threatening) like Felix the Cat.  Hench relates:

"Part of it I suppose was Walt’s exploitation of very old survival patterns.  He had an instinct for this.  I think that if anyone really wanted to take the time to examine it, he would see that these survival patterns are the basis of our aesthetics, our sense of pleasure.  We’ve carried these things around for 20,000,000 years, in our DNA chains or whatever it is.  We are the successful survivors, so we must still carry these mechanisms with us.  The things that please us are obviously the ones that boost our survival potential—and the ones that we don’t like are those that threaten us.” . . . . Walt was a highly intuitive person and he sensed these things, and, as a result of this, the Studio has probably developed more awareness than any other design group in this field.  “a lot of designers allow contradictions into their work because they’re careless or because they don’t really understand what they’re doing.  These contradictions will cancel what they’re trying to say." (Finch, 1983, p. 411)

These ideas echo current biological research.  Cell biologist and best selling author Bruce Lipton (2005), author of Biology of Belief, tells us that physiologically we are either in a growth or protection mode.  If the environment is felt to be safe, then growth is possible. When the environment feels threatening, we go into a protection mode physiologically and growth takes a back seat to the fight or flight mechanisms in the body.

Donaldson (1993), Winnicott (1999), E. Erikson (1965), and Mendizza and Chilton Pearce (2003) all recognize the importance of safety to play and the fact that play is not possible without it.  Swimme (1995, cassette) and Lipton (2005) remind us that evolution is dependent on cooperation.  Our bodies are composed of billions of cells that get along, and coordinate their functions: “Every individual human is in truth, a cooperative community of approximately 50 trillion single-celled citizens.  Almost all of the cells that make up your body are amoeba-like, individual organisms that have evolved a cooperative strategy for their mutual survival” (Lipton, p. 27).  Nature is full of symbiotic relationships.  During the course of evolution, different cells and organisms banded together to ensure their survival.  We would not be here today without cooperation, although competition gets all of the notoriety, ever since Darwin came on the scene. But competition is only part of the story, as it turns out, not the whole story.  Disneyland’s complementary atmosphere makes Disneyland a safe place to play, by creating a spirit of cooperation, care, and belonging. Now, we will take a quick tangent into Csikszentmihali’s (1990) concept of flow.

Grow With the Flow

Primary learning, which according to Mendizza and Chilton Pearce (2003) accounts for as much as 95% of all learning, is learning that occurs naturally and spontaneously through encountering, embracing, and playing with our environment (p. 57).  In primary learning, Mendizza and Chilton Pearce relate, “we are completely in the experience.  There is no me standing aside, witnessing, judging, praising or criticizing.” This is a timeless state without conflict, and all of our attention and energy is inclined toward the experience.  “The relationship is play.  Play is learning.  We are in the Zone!” (p. 57).  First we will look at flow and then see how it relates to play.

Flow experiences, are optimal experiences, and were so-named by Csikszentmihali (1990), because that is one of the major descriptors people used when describing them.  He defines flow experiences as:

situations in which attention can be freely invested to achieve a person’s goals, because there is no disorder to straighten out, no threat for the self to defend against . . . . It is the opposite of psychic entropy—in fact, it is sometimes called negentropy—and those who attain it develop a stronger, more confident self, because more of their psychic energy has been invested successfully in goals they themselves had chosen to pursue.  (p. 40)

In flow experiences, we experience things that are occurring solely as information, without necessarily attaching any value, and “the self” is then able to interpret the information, “in the context of its own interests, and determines whether it is harmful or not” (p. 38).  New pieces of information are evaluated on how they affect the self, and will either create disorder in consciousness, “by getting us worked up to face the threat, or by reinforcing our goals thereby freeing up psychic energy”  (p. 39). Csikszentmihali (1990) relates that following a flow experience, the organization of the self is more complex than before the experience.   By becoming increasingly complex, the self might be said to grow:

Complexity is the result of two broad psychological processes: differentiation and integration. Differentiation implies a movement toward uniqueness, toward separating oneself from others. Integration refers to its opposite: a union with other people, with ideas and entities beyond the self.  A complex self is one that succeeds in combining the opposite tendencies . . . . Flow helps to integrate the self because in that state of deep concentration consciousness is unusually well ordered.  Thoughts, intentions, feelings and all senses are focused on the same goal.  Experience is in harmony. (p. 41)

Activities conducive to flow, such as art, pageantry, play, ritual and sports, facilitate concentration and involvement by keeping the activity apart from ordinary day to day reality.  These activities help both participants and spectators achieve highly enjoyable and highly ordered states of consciousness and have in common providing a

sense of discovery, a creative feeling of transporting the person into a new reality.  It pushed the person to higher levels of performance and led to previously undreamed of states of consciousness.  In short, it transformed the self by making it more complex. (Csikszentmihali, 1990, pp. 73-74)

Winnicott (1999), in discussing transitional objects and symbols, also pointed to this dynamic of differentiation and integration, using the terms separation and union.  And just as in play, you cannot be in flow when you are feeling threatened.  Let us look a bit deeper into this idea of safety.

Safe Enough to Play

The feeling of being safe enough to play occurs when we are in the zone, or the state of flow.  Being able to meet the moment completely, with all of our energy instead of holding some of it back to protect or defend ourselves is to be safe enough to play.  In a safe state, there is constant renewal and expansion of potential, whereas when a perceived threat is present, growth is replaced by protection and the need to defend. Lipton (2005) essentially argues:  “When you’re frightened, you’re dumber," and living in a constant state of sustained adrenaline is like being in the "get set" mode in a race, where the "go" command never comes, which is extremely fatiguing (p. 151). This hyperalert state can have serious physiological consequences, as Mendizza and Chilton Pearce (2003) report “if children are not provided a safe space, if they are threatened, damaged or traumatized, they close into a tight defense against the world they cannot trust.  This impairs neural development and results in completely different structures of knowledge”  (p. 132).  Children literally shut down when this happens:

If there is no safe place to play, children cannot trust the world that they are trying embrace.  Children will look at their world as the enemy and build defenses against it.  This will reduce their sensory intake from that world dramatically. Anxiety-ridden children—those suffering psychological abandonment—have a sensory intake of 25 to 30 percent less than children who are given emotional nurturing. (p. 49)

Lipton (2005) reminds us that perceptions about the environment are stronger predictors than actual reality, with the body organizing for either growth or protection based on the interpretation of environmental cues.  Imaginary dangers can therefore be even more powerful than real ones.  If we feel safe, we will be in a growth mode, whereas if we do not feel safe we will be in a protection mode.

The Architecture of Reassurance

Part of this idea of complementarity, or complementariness according to Hench is taking the guests “step by step through a sequence of related experiences.  We never jar him, we just lead him along, making the trip as interesting as we know how” (Finch, 1983, p. 411).  By coordinating and harmonizing all of the different elements in the environment, people are more at ease and reassured:

By providing a familiar and predictable environment while minimizing the number of distractions or interruptions Disneyland designers intended to reassure customers.  In this regard they followed Disney movies very closely.  Walt Disney took great pride in his films to emphasize the clear triumph of good over evil.  He desired neither ambiguity nor contradiction in his motion pictures, and he resented those arty and academic types who insisted on seeing the darker side of the stories he told.  The Anaheim theme park similarly tried to present an undilutedly rosy view of the world; contradiction or confusion were qualities the planners of Disneyland associated with the defective, poorly planned, conventional amusement park.  They believed that Disneyland offered an enriched version of the real world, but not an escapist or unreal version.  To achieve “Disney realism” they explained, “we program out all the negative, unwanted elements and program in the positive elements.”  The result, they insisted was not a distorted reality but a recaptured one: “we’ve taken and purified the statement so it says what it was intended to”  asserted John Hench.  Disneyland was “much more real” than life in general, it was argued further, because it evoked the truer human nature of the past, before mid-Twentieth Century urban malaise had set in. (Findlay, 1993, pp. 69-70)

Disneyland’s rose-colored vision is a hallmark of its tradition, because this vision allows people to be more expansive and to open up.  Hench says: “I think people in Disneyland react and expand very easily. Unlike in society’s modern cities, they can drop their defenses in Disneyland and look other people in the eye.  Actually, what we’re selling throughout the park is reassurance” (Bright, 1987, p. 237).

Disneyland’s design, as we have seen is strongly Neptunian.  Disneyland was meant to be a different kind of world designed by Disney to be a true place of play. Perhaps play has created a place for itself at Disneyland, by creating a field of care, cooperation, safety and belonging—an environment that allows us to reconnect with the child within us.  Marling (1997) describes Disney’s motivation in creating Disneyland this way:

And as an entertainer, a creator of comic characters, a teller of fairy-tale fables meant to resolve the conflicts encountered in the world of toil and trouble, he did not believe for a moment that art—his art, the picture-postcard kind—was obliged to be disturbing, challenging, unsettling.  He believed instead that it ought to provide comfort and refuge from that world of woes that he knew at first hand.  His park was built behind a berm to protect it from the evils that daily beset humankind on all sides.  It aimed to soothe and reassure.  It aimed to give pleasure, joy.  A flash of sunny happiness . . . the architecture of reassurance. (p. 83)

When Snow White (1937), Disney’s first full length animated film, was attacked by some as a “pathetic escape from reality for people whose morale had been shattered by the great Depression,” the following comments were offered in Snow White’s defense, which apply equally to Disneyland:

Artistic endeavor by definition was transcendent, seeking ‘escape form the stern  facts of concrete reality . . . . to a larger reality.’  Others insisted that ‘a temporary opportunity to escape from unpleasant reality” constituted a normal, healthy response that allowed people to rest, gather their emotional resources, and attack their problems with new vigor. (Watts, 1997, p. 161)

The planetary archetype Neptune is also about art, illusion, dissolution of boundaries, fantasy, escape, as well as addiction, delusion, confusion and self-deception.  Neptune dissolves boundaries and seeks to reach a transcendent place—a larger transcendent reality. Disneyland is outdoor art and offers a respite.  Disneyland is a liminal protected space of carnivalesque communitas, where perhaps we can experience this larger reality that Donaldson's (1993) original play points to, the play beyond categories, and thus use culture to go beyond culture.  Keeping the harmonizing principle of complementarity in mind, and Disney’s rose-colored vision, we will move on to our next “C,” color, which is a major way that Disney’s complementarity principle expresses itself.


bottom of page