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  • Writer's pictureKarey Pohn

Main Street USA

Main Street USA is “one of the most successfully designed streetscapes in human history” and has exerted enormous impact (Francaviglia, 1981, p. 148).  Main Street USA is a “classic landscape” and has become a revered environmental icon and Francaviglia notes that Main Street USA

ranks with the best of world squares and plazas in presenting an adaptive design genius; this may be difficult to accept from the creator of cultural icons like Mickey Mouse—nonetheless it is in itself one of the shrewdest and most successful designs in history” (p. 148)

Main Street has no competition.  Main Street's harmonious, complimentary color schemes and thematic design have spread beyond Disneyland and influenced everything from strip malls, restaurants and hotels, to urban restoration. [The "Art of the Show" excursion located in Fantasyland says much more about the importance of complementariness at Disneyland].

Main Street as Strategic Opening Shot

Main Street is “scene one, ” as Walt called it.  Main Street orients us, and sets the stage for the rest of the Disneyland experience. All guests come through this “common point of entry,” which facilitates the sense of shared experience (Marling, 1997, p. 61).  Walt felt that this was important, not only to minimize the feeling of disorientation, but “he wanted everyone to be channeled in the same way to have their visit to Disneyland structured as part of the total experience” (Thomas, 1976, p. 251).  Part of this structuring included leaving the outside world behind, which was part of the Main Street experience as Marling (1997) explains:

But during scene one—the ritual procession through the ticket gate, under the railroad station, and down Main Street—the layout of Disneyland allowed for no deviations from the master narrative.  Everybody made the same trip from the station into town, the same long walk that the newcomer from somewhere else had to make back in 1900.  The act of entry was a rite of passage telling the stranger to shake off the customs of that other place—the formless sprawl of Los Angeles out beyond the parking lot, the town two or three stops down the railroad tracks.  Here, on this spot, the day started afresh, with a new set of rules. (p. 86). 

Main Street is like a movie set, its facades are a prominent design feature.  Main Street was created, like Disney’s films through the collaborative efforts of Disney and his art directors turned imagineeers for Disneyland.  “Like a film it is a mixture of memories, facts, old stories and fleeting impressions" (Marling, 1997, p. 62).  Disney was a brilliant bricoleur, always tinkering with things and never afraid to combine things together in new and different ways.  He took ideas from everywhere, and “inside the berm, the things he liked reshuffled themselves into a series of coherent streetscapes in the blessed absence of things he didn’t” (Marling, 1997, p. 170).  [In the "Amusing Ancestry" excursion in Frontierland you can explore some of influential ideas and places that helped shape Disneyland ]

The rest of the park will similarly mix things together, but always harmoniously.  And this all begins at Main Street USA, where harmony, good feelings, and nostalgia are the main attraction—setting the feeling-tone for the entire Disneyland experience. [Although nostalgia and harmony pervade the park, you can explore more about nostalgia on the "Looking-Back Looking-Forward" excursion located in Tomorrowland and alsoSee the important role that harmony plays in the "Art of the Show" excursion in located in Fantasyland.]  Finch (1983) describes Main Streets at both Disneyland and Walt Disney World as:

superlatively good musical-comedy stage sets designed by some of the best set designers of their time.  Like other stage sets, they are covered with a kind of Pop sauce made of plastics, glass fiber, paint, and anything else that happened to be handy. (Finch, 1983, p. 433)

The smaller scale of Disneyland’s Main Street USA, Francaviglia (1981) notes is “a romanticized assemblage of architecture, carefully controlled in matters of style, period, size, scale and color” (p. 143), which gives it an intensity and a tightness “almost urban; yet familiar,” and has an “intimate small town feel” (p. 143).  Main Street USA evokes positive feelings, and “the scale and proportions make for nearly perfect visual and architectural homogeneity” (p. 147). Main Street’s scale is slightly less than life-size, which enhances the sense of friendliness and intimacy.  It establishes the right mood for the rest of the park and puts visitors in a receptive and nostalgic state of mind: 

The sensation is one of experiencing a very familiar milieu—something akin to a memory yet hauntingly like a movie or film set . . . we recognize the place by its ambience and the feeling it generates . . . we’ve all been there before, even if we never lived in—or have been to—a small town. (Francaviglia, 1981, p. 147)

Main Street USA brings us back to an idealized place and time in our national mindset, before all the traumas of the Twentieth Century, romanticizing the Victorian turn-of-the-century period.  We enter by passing under the grounds of the Disneyland Railroad Station. “Safely within the realm of Main Street USA, the park visitor is forced to relocate in time as well as space,” to the halcyon days of the turn of the century, pre-World Wars, depression and nuclear threat (Francaviglia, 1981, p. 143).  Main Street USA as portrayed never really existed, but that doesn’t matter. “Walt wanted Main Street to be five-eight’s scale, creating an air of nostalgic fantasy.”  This was accomplished “by making the ground floor 90%, second floor 80% and third floor 60% in scale.  The result was a charming illusion” (Thomas, 1976, p. 252). [See how the Disney Imagineers create the magic and fantasy in the "Art of the Show" excursion located in Fantasyland]Main Street also gives us something that we crave, a feeling of familiarity and care in an uncaring world.  King (1981a) explains: 

The historical settings of the park, particularly Main Street, are examples of what cultural geographers call a “field of care”; a place, like the neighborhood drugstore, or corner bar in a community, loaded with associations of familiarity and affection for the people who live there. But the Disney version of the turn of the century main street… is an idealized, caricatured setting—one which doesn’t exist outside the Disney parks (although the Disney parks themselves are “fields of care”); not an imitation of a main street anywhere in the US but a “kind of universally true Main Street—it's better than the real main street of the turn of the century could ever be.” (pp. 129-130)  ∆RC[dl7]

Francaviglia (1981) writes that Main Street USA with its familiar feel, is an entryway into other less familiar realms. Just as Walt’s small town beginnings “apparently served as a comfortable springboard into the future,” by “stressing the golden past . . . Disney ironically idealized not only his childhood but the future.”  So, Main Street USA “is an allegorical jumping off place as well; it is what America was, and provides the bedrock of security for what is to be” (p.156).

Main Street USA as Mediator

Bukatman (1991) as previously mentioned likens Main Street USA’s linking of the different sides of the park to the corpus callosum, which links the different hemispheres of the brain.  Similarly Wilson (1993) notes that Main Street acts as a spatial mediator around which the rest of the park is organized— mediating or reconciling America with the other lands.  Main Street is “capable of reconciling Amazonia with the terrain of the moon; the Wild West with medieval fantasy; and an imaginary pre-bourgeois agrarian society with the L.A. freeway” (p. 157).  Marin (1984) argues that by using USA:

through America’s self contained potential the reconciliation of opposites is performed, but within representation, of course.  The past and future, time and space, the playfulness and serious determination to be found on the market, the real and the imaginary—are all brought together.  Utopia is perfectly present, but remember, only as a representation.  Its harmony exists only on a stage.  (p. 248)

Marin (1984), seeing Disneyland as a text, feels that Main Street USA’s function is “phatic,” that is, it acts as a channel of transmission of the visitor’s story and facilitates communication, but does not communicate anything itself.  Main Street is “the way of access to the center, to begin the visitors’ tour, to narrate their story, to perform their speech” (p. 246).  The center that Main Street USA leads to is the hub, where Sleeping Beauty Castle is located, so let us go there next. ∆RC[dl8] [More about mediation can be found in the "Child of the Times" excursion located on Main Street USA—which harkens back to Walt’s Midwestern childhood roots.]


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