Monday, July 31, 2006

Elemental Losses: Earth

When Imagineering legend John Hench, after a pre-opening VIP tour of Disney’s California Adventure in 2001, famously quipped, “I liked it better when it was a parking lot” it would have been easy to dismiss the statement as merely a wry and devilishly wicked smack-down of a theme park that deserved much of the criticism thrown its way.

But look beyond the surface giggles and you’ll find a level of of wisdom that is both disarming and a little profound.

For when the 15,167 space 100 acre parking lot was torn up and replaced with flashy shops, restaurants, movie theaters, hotels and theme park attractions something very special about the Disneyland experience was lost forever.

For early Disney Imagineers it was the ubiquitous parking lot that visually symbolized everything ‘today’ and as such gave guests a little heads up on a sign over the two entrance portals to Disney’s Magical Kingdom:

"Here you leave today and enter the world of yesterday, tomorrow and fantasy."

Walt and his designers knew that by carefully contrasting the parking lot’s wide grey expanse of cement and steel with the color and intimate pageantry of Main Street U.S.A. they’d be giving guests a carefully calculated jolt of sensory uplift the moment they left the entrance tunnel, much like the experience Dorothy had leaving the drab sepia world of Kansas and opening the door to a Technicolor Oz.

Today that classic bronze plaque above the entrance portal has lost much of its prophetic power. Well before arriving at Disneyland guests have already been assaulted and overloaded with so many over-scaled and conflicting thematic show elements that entering Main Street can easily feel like an anti-climax; victim to the visual cacophony right outside the berm.

And so that whoosh of excitement guests once felt as they left the entrance tunnels and entered into the worlds of yesterday, tomorrow and fantasy has been severely degraded by the loss of the original Disneyland parking lot. In his day Walt saw the parking lot as part of the over-all show. In our day Disney management saw the parking lot as a tremendous cash cow.

The Disney Guest, they figured, would never know what they were missing.

John Hench, however, knew too well.


Anonymous said...

You've very much managed to capture in words something I've felt missing in my four visits to Disneyland in the last five years. (Before that I had not visited since the 70's, back when I was a kid in San Bernardino.)

When I first saw DCA and Downtown Disney I genuinely felt the same thing John Hench described -- no wryness or wit intended. I really feel like the old parking lot had more genuine magic in it than all of DCA. I remember the excitement and anticipation of leaving all my Disney toys in our car and walking slowly straight toward the entrance, with the distant DISNEYLAND sign and ticket and entrance gates getting closer and closer. By the time we got there I could hardly contain myself, and then -- just as you describe -- the burst of walking into Main Street.

That perspecive, the long, delicious walk of calculated building anticipation, has been lost.

Digital Jedi said...

It's not nostalgia for a parking lot. It's nostalgia for a design sense.

The post goes to show that even the smallest aspect of Disneyland was originally designed to create the sensation of transition from one world into the other. It also goes to show that modern day Disney ignored that "design sense" in favor of "dollars and cents". There are some that would argue that that area is an even bigger waste of space now, then it was as a parking lot.

It would have been wiser to extend the thematic or create an even greater transitional element. With some deep thought, anything is possible.

Gary Green said...

No! brunob is wrong. There was something very special about that parking lot ONLY because of what it was sitting next to. I remember getting on that tram and waiting... waiting... waiting... seeing the park coming closer. But if you don't grow up with that, do you feel less of an impact visiting the park now? I have not yet visited California Adventure and I really don't plan to. I try to ignore it when I get to the DL parking lot.

Anonymous said...

In total respect of your POV, how does the entire concept of WDW fit into this thinking? This was designed by most of those guys who did Disneyland- why didn't they keep that expansive parking lot right outside of the entrance?

Just looking at the Magic Kingdom alone- by the time that you've reached the turnstiles, you have gone threw a totally immersive experience and, unless you are a resort guest outside of the MK area, have already ridden a monorail or ferry boat.

Anonymous said...

The article about buying bricks to keep Disneyland's classic structure around was the first bad article I've read on this page. This parking lot one is the second.

If you want to argue that DCA is weak, fine. If you want to argue that the current parking situation is less convenient to the old, giant lot, fine.

But to say the old lot was in important part of the Disneyland experience is a stretch.

Merlin Jones said...

Amusingly, one of the accountaneers said in recent years that they would have made more money on the parking lot (than DCA, given the investment).

Anonymous said...

Show or no show, I wish we had a parking deck at WDW. I would visit the park a lot more often if I didn't dread that enormous parking lot and those horrible trams.

In all honesty, though, passing through those portals is an important moment, and the little plaque gives me goosebumps simply because nothing sums up my childhood memories so perfectly. It's a shame that Disneyland guests are losing that experience.

Will Robison said...

At WDW, of course, they still have the anticipation because there is no way to get to any of the parks without having a long walk up or ride up in the case of EPCOT and MK. So even Disney recognizes what worked at Disneyland. Thank you for putting this into words. I knew that there was something deeply wrong with the new entrance plaza at Disneyland, and now I know exactly what it is. I, too, miss the long anticipation to entering the park. Getting out of your car and knowing that you were still five minutes away from that entrance line. With every step, the ancipation builds until it is just delicious and then, voila, you exit that tunnel and there you are! Ahh... the magic!

Unknown said...

My childhood memories of the parking lot consist of frustration. Frustration that I could never get my parents to keep up with me during that sprint to the entrance. “Stop Running!”

But any excitement over a transition from “today” into “yesterday, tomorrow and fantasy” was effectively crushed by waiting in a ticket line.

Anonymous said...

Wow. Are you guys running out of things to gripe about? Because to call this entry a stretch would be a gross exaggeration. Lamenting the loss of a parking lot seems the very definition of nit picking, instead of aptly picking your battles.

I'm twenty five years old and grew up in Southern California. So, in my life I've been able to experience both the pre and post California Adventure Disneyland. I can honestly say that the rush I feel when I cross under that berm is no different now than ever. I sit on the tram and get just as giddy coming at Disneyland from the SIDE as I did coming at it from the FRONT. Which direction, or from what parking configuration, was never the point. I was/am going to DISNEYLAND! They could park me in a cow pasture down the street and I wouldn't care.

I've also never found it amusing when someone, such as the author here, projects their own feelings on an issue about Disneyland and then invokes the "what Walt would have wanted" or "Walt always thought" clause such as quoted here-

"Walt and his designers knew that by carefully contrasting the parking lot’s wide grey expanse of cement and steel with the color and intimate pageantry of Main Street U.S.A. they’d be giving guests a carefully calculated jolt of sensory uplift the moment they left the entrance tunnel, much like the experience Dorothy had leaving the drab sepia world of Kansas and opening the door to a Technicolor Oz."

Personally, and I may be wrong here, I've never heard or read Walt talking about the parking lot as an added preshow or otherwise, and to invoke the name of a dead icon who can neither refute or concure with you is just a bad argument. But again, if I'm wrong and Walt did at one point wax poetic about that stretch of beautiful concrete, I would love to hear it.

In addition, I agree with the poster who said that, if California Adventure had been a monumental success or well received (something along the lines of the Tokyo Disney Sea we wish we'd gotten), all of this parking lot nonsense would be a non issue.

I appreciate what you guys are trying to do here....but please, you only dilute your cause when you start dredging for topics like this one.

Anonymous said...

Thinking of WDW, the monorail system works perfectly, especially if you are staying at one of the "Big Three" Magic kingdom resorts.

While waiting in line at the Monorail station, you can see the castle, but you can't see the train coming, because it wouldn't come fast enough. It seemed to take several hours. And, then...Oh....oh...OH....nuts, its just a big person with a white T-shirt....Oh...YES! There it is! Then the hurried rush to get on the Train, hopefully for a window seat. If you don't get one, just put a bit of whine to your parents, and they'll let you sit there. Then, you sit, eyes stuck to the window, looking out at the castle...wishing it to get here as fast as it can....

geekzapoppin said...

I have to agree with most of the comments here. I'm a huge proponent of planning and quality in the parks. Disney should always be several steps above the experience you can get elsewhere. However, there is still a long wait to get into the parks even without going through the parking lot. There's still that feeling of excitement when you finally get through the ticket line, security, body cavity search, etc. and enter the park.

Great work elsewhere on the blog, but I'm gonna have to disagree with you on this one.

Mr Banks said...

Again, I wonder, do some people actually read these posts before commenting on them?

As per Jesse James, Brunob and others, nobody is waxing poetic about how beautiful or efficient the original parking lot was. All this post is noting is that Disneyland was designed very much with the original parking lot in mind. When the forecourt and shopping complex at the front of Disneyland was created designers seemed to have forgotten how carefully considered the original visual transition into Disneyland was orchestrated.

As one post noted, the wide expanse of Lake Buena Vista in front of Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom achieved fundamentally the exact same design solution and carefully choreographed visual transition. Instead of the wide expanse of cars and open space leading you into the energy and intimacy of Main Street, here we have the wide open landscape of water and sky. Guests again get to anticipate the Magic Kingdom from afar and enjoy that jolt of a colorful new world just under the berm.

Again, nobody suggests the new Disneyland parking structure isn't more efficient or guest friendly. Just that the designers completely discounted the careful attention to visual transitions the earlier designers knew about all too well and how the original parking lot played a very important role in this.

Unfortunately current generations not familiar with how that actually felt won't know what they're missing. And that's sad.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Banks,

I applaud your effort to completely disregard my response to this blog entry and instead, and as always, offer a patronizing "oh they just don't get it" eye roll. It's this kind of response that keeps me coming back to this site like a motorist passing a car accident.

Perhaps, since a more structured and opinioned response didn't garner anything more than a sigh, I'll leave you with this-

"Yes, we get it. Yes, we read it. No, we don't agree."


Mr Banks said...

Hey Jesse,

1. Don't worry. We still love you and your passionate involvement in this blog.

2. I don't doubt for a minute that you thoroughly anticipate your trip to the park today.

3. Didn't mean to make you feel like you were being patronized. That goes for Brunob, too, whose comment makes it clear he's read and completely understood the article at hand. I shouldn't have brought his name up at all.

4. Again, I have no love for the parking lot per se. Just how Disneyland's design took full advantage of the visual contrast.

Anonymous said...

I understand the principle here, but I have to say having just (as in Sunday) got back from Disneyland I have to say walking under those tunnels and seeing Main Street is still breathtaking. I still love it and I still feel transported. I spent a lot of childhood at Disneyland, but I LOVE California Adventure. It's different, but still an extension of Disneyland. Okay, the flow isn't perfect, but I like being able to split my visit between the parks. Reading this blog definitely affected my visit, though. I noticed things and thought about things I wouldn't have otherwise (Tiki Room waiting area, Tomorrowland rocket ride, the bricks between the parks). I'll keep reading, but let's not get carried away. Some things have been done well.

Anonymous said...

You people are kinding right? Is it April Fools Day already?

This site may have just "jumped the shark" with this post.

Anonymous said...

I think it's a great post and I totally agree. I've never liked or felt comfortable in the new mega parking structure. I used to feel like a guest being welcomed, now I feel like a sheep being herded.

Very poor design sense indeed.

Anonymous said...

I live in Chicago. I am in my late 30s and have visited Disneyland about a dozen times in my life -- with my first visit back in 1976. (I've visited WDW many more times and, of course, tend to stay there much longer on each visit.) So, I don't have the "local" perspective that so many on this blog seem to have.

As an out-of-town visitor, then, I cannot say that I have any strong recollections of the old parking lot creating any transition different than the transition between the parking lot and the entrance to a movie theatre, mall, McDonalds or anything else. Granted, a monorail ran through the parking lot -- and riding it and hearing the spiel that said something to the effect that "you're probably looking for your car right now" was always fun (or funny?).

But as far as a "transition" that creates anticipation or magic, I have to say that I just don't think the old parking lot created anything any more special than any other transition in our modern life. Since DCA began construction and opened, I've never parked in the Mickey & Friends Structure, but I've parked in the Timon lot, I've walked from some of the neighboring properties, I've ridden the monorail, I've walked from Disney's Paradise Pier and I've taken buses from the neighboring resorts to that tribute to multi-colored traffic saftey cones that is the bus drop-off area (now there's a subject for this blog -- how about some shade?). I think each of those experiences creates an equal sense of anticipation -- I'm going to visit Disneyland! No more, no less.

Walking under the berm is and always has been the real transition to the park -- it is described by tour guides at WDW's Magic Kingdom as analogous to the entry through the doors of the old grand movie palaces that allows you to leave the rest of the world behind. I couldn't agree more.

Anonymous said...

The key is its the anticipation and magic of the entrance to another world inside of the bearm! Micky and Friends does not capture that feeling. I feel more like a cow in the herd walk this way, take this elevator follow to the trams, get on , get off. Off where ? Disneyland nope , the center of the Esplanade nope, DT disney merchandise mecca and restraunts. It could be softened and made a happy experience with characters welcoming and escorting you to the park(s)or just a little pixie dust sprinkled as a guide but its more like a cattle call.

populuxe said...

If anything proves to me that this blog has no other point of view than to embalm the park, this is it. You are nostalgic about the parking lot?!!! Give me a break!

I would really love, for once, this blog to offer something up other than nostolgia for the trivial and outdated. If we actually had the 1960's park that Re-Imagineering would have us have, NO ONE WOULD GO.

Walt famously said that Disneyland would never be finished as long as there is imagination left in the world. He acknowledged that the park could and absolutely should change. And if he were alive today and still personally designing the park, it would still not be the park it was on opening day.

But what I find even more "trapped in a time warp" is the Eisner era griping about everything. Newsflash - Michael Eisner is gone. Bob is investing in the parks and Lasseter is at the Imagineering helm.

Now is a time to offer up great ideas about what the Disneyland of tommorow can be, not to complain about how we should bring back the most dated and trivial elements of yesteryear.

For example, I find the criticism of DCA boring. Everyone gets it already. Why can't we move on and offer a point of view on what DCA should be, because like it or not, DCA is going to be sitting there for a long time one way or another. Better to make it a park we can all be proud of than a ghost town sitting across the way from The Happiest Place on Earth.

Anonymous said...

I think an important aspect of the parking lot that was touched upon in some of the comments here is that it provided an enourmous expanse of space just outside of Disneyland, very much like the Seven Seas lagoon does in front of WDW's Magic Kingdom. With all the faults of parking lots aside, it did provide that long vista of the park, and that important transition from public to private, expansive to intimate scales.

The current design of the Esplanade, (the location of the Wilderness Lodge, Downtown Disney, Soarin Buildings and DCA "Soundstages") has given the Disneyland entry experience a claustrophobic, urban feeling. It's all beautifully landscaped and nicely designed, but urban nonetheless. It would have been nice if they had given the Esplanade a more rural and park-like quality, set the Wilderness Lodge in a true wilderness instead of backing it up to Downtown Disney. Just some thoughts for the upcoming round of "placemaking" projects.

Mr Banks said...

Bravo, Dean. And that placemaking idea you suggested is just great.

Anonymous said...

I'm a huge Disney fan at the age of 41 and I'm currently writing this from a Disney resort hotel room, but this latest rant, I feel is really stretching for something to rant about. The actual rant you want to make here is that everything the imagineers and other designers do should be done for a reason. For instance there is a huge dino bursting out of egg at Downtown Disney... but what is it for? It's cute, but it's not a character, it's not really connected with anything so why is it there. That's the whole point. If your putting in a parking lot, you're not going to design it to be inefficient and a headache to travel through, you're going to design it to work, if you're putting something in or taking something out at Disney it should mean something and have a tie in to actual product or characters that extend the experience and the brand. We're not lamenting the loss of the parking lot or even worrying about the "effect" of the plain parking lot transitioning into the main gate; what we should be worried about is no one taking care to see that what is there has some connection to Disney merch or extends a brand in someway... especially if they take something dull and replace it with a brand new theme park that has no connection to anything and is wholly unremarkable when it comes to extended Disney experience or the Disney brand. That's the point. What are you designing and spending money on?

A great imagineering feat at Disney world has been the new Expedition Everest ride at Animal Kingdom. A complete immersion into the storyline and a great - if too short - ride. A lot of design and a lot of work went into that... but there again... the fault to point out is that while it's a great feat of design... what's it connected to? There is no "yeti" character or movie to fall back on. An easy summer flick would have been a yeti movie and then you tie in this ride. Even direct to DVD would have worked.

Anonymous said...

Downtown Disney and the other elements added to the Outer Lobby do not relate very well to The Magic Kingdom, and that fact is the essential problem.

Mellie Helen said...

It seems to me that there's something more germane to developing the "wow" anticipation factor than the expansive parking lot itself provided. I can see how the grey sea of asphalt can be the Kansas to DL's Oz, but I too think that might be a bit of a stretch. However, there is a salient point in recognizing transitions from one world (real world) to the fantasy world of DL, just as there are transitions between the lands within DL.

One of the biggest losses, for me, anyway, is the absence of a large sign declaring that, yes, you have indeed arrived; you are now at DISNEYLAND. Having first spied a peek of the peak from the freeway, the excitement begins -- we're almost there! Then seeing that giant DL sign (in its various incarnations) ratcheted the excitement factor up for me: we're here, we're here!!

Sadly, that transition is now gone. Echoing the "mall" sentiment already mentioned, the only signage greeting those turning into the resort are miniscule, almost throwaway messages, as if they should read, "Oh, incidentally, there's a couple of theme parks in here, if you wanna come in." It does feel very much like entering a shopping complex. Then again...that's very much what it's turned into, eh? ;)

The parking lot itself per se, I miss not a whit. It just does not make economic sense to use such an expanse of real estate that way when many more cars can be stacked in a garage. And? I don't missed the sun-baked heat of the cars either.

That being said: there could have been a better consideration given towards the approach to DL itself during the construction of DCA/DD. Entering DL from the side after having traipsed through a Universal CityWalk type environment, the focus of "almost at the Park!" is lost amid the jumble of noise, color, hustle and bustle of Downtown Disney. Approaching from the other side is better because it's much shorter and free of the cacophony of shops; but in both cases, absent is the head-on approach which exuded grandeur.

Without meaning to put words into the author's mouth, I suspect the mourning is less about the lot itself, and more about the loss of approach. Instead of walking down a long aisle, the bride simply sidesteps across the front of the altar to meet her groom; instead of that long walk along the red carpet, the Oscar nominees shuffle in from the wings.

There is something to the long approach from head-on. The anticipation, the ability to see but not-just-quite-yet have. The build-up. Even the ticket booths are part of the build-up, having to accomplish a feat before gaining entrance (although the bag check stations? Not so much a build-up, but an interruption). The climax then becomes the turnstyle and then especially the transition through the berm's tunnel (a la Alice's transition through the rabbit hole) into a magical world.

Solutions to restructuring the current approach design have not yet popped into my head, but I think I'll spend some time considering this one. Thanks for the mental exercise.

Anonymous said...

I personally think DCA ROCKS!!!!

A parking lot is nothin more that a giant slab of concrete... I understand the nostalgia, but hey, get over it, At least a second gate was built on the parking lot, instead of more of the buildings that emerged around Disneyland when it was first built.
What's next?? people starting to say they liked the orange groves better???? they probably could have made a lot of money selling all those oranges in the last 50 years, but we got two themeparks instead... I like the whole 2 gates/DTD idea a lot better and would never fly all the way from the netherlands to Anaheim just to see a parkinglot people have fond memories off...

Anonymous said...

I agree that the nostalgia, the feeling of loss, is not for the parking lot as such, but for the loss of planning and design sense, of the ability to pull people in by manipulating (in a good sense) their emotions and anticipations, as with a film, a play, a novel, or any other kind of good storytelling. I'm sure I wouldn't feel so badly about the loss of the parking lot if, as others have suggested, it had been replaced with something with at least as much genuine magic.

And I want to emphasize that I am not using the word "magic' lightly here in describing what some see as "just a parking lot" -- for despite what some are saying about it being ridiculous to be nostalgic for it, the fact remains for me that, for some reason, I actually REMEMBER that parking lot. Furthermore, those memories are associated with very positive feelings. The designers must have done something very right with it because I sure don't remember any other parking lots from that period in my life, over thirty years ago (e.g. the ones at Knott's Berry Farm, Universal Studios, and so on.)

Anonymous said...

I remember the parking lots from Knott's Berry Farm and they were actually very nice. It was like visiting a county fair - one parked amongst rows of trees which gave the place a rural character. If I remember correctly, they even had some chickens running about. (I might be seriously dating myself here but it was in the late 60's, early 70's.) Unfortunately, a lot of those special touches associated with Knott's have been long gone, even before Cedar Faire decided to turn it into an inane coaster park.

Epcot82 said...

Whether it's lamenting the parking lot itself or what replaced it -- the uninspired DCA (fun though it may be, no one can argue that it's truly special -- John Hench was right. Absolutely.

And with parking prices at $10 a car, they'd probably make more money every day if it were still a parking lot than they do with the theme park so far below target attendance by paying guests!

Anonymous said...

You miss the parking lot? Oh come on, you have to be kidding me.

"While waiting in line at the Monorail station, you can see the castle, but you can't see the train coming, because it wouldn't come fast enough. It seemed to take several hours. And, then...Oh....oh...OH....nuts, its just a big person with a white T-shirt....Oh...YES! There it is!"

That was funny, though.

Thomas said...

I'll confess to nostalgia over the parking lot. I loved approaching the entrance from a distance, getting more and more excited as we got closer. You saw the Main Street station and the entrance from the moment you got out of your car. You got closer and closer (while your geograpy-freak little brother excitedly checked out all the out-of-state license plates), and then the monorail whoosed over. You got close enough to hear the panting steam engine and the station announcement as you jumped up and down as your parents bought the tickets...and then you were inside.

Perfect dramatic crescendo, in other words. Now you approach from the side, with no sense of perspective. All of a sudden you're just "there," with no real build-up at all. A loss.

Greg said...

This is the weakest of your elemental series, but a decent try; an example for Earth seems hard to come up with. If Walt Disney really intended for the parking lot to be part of the experience, then why such an effort at WDW to keep the parking lot remote from the park?

I am certainly nonplussed by the entrance to Disneyland / DCA as compared to the stunning entrance to the Magic Kingdom, but I'm not sure the parking lot was critical to that. If anything, the value of the parking lot was as an empty expanse, which is provided opposite the Magic Kingdom in the more attractive form of the Seven Seas Lagoon.