Downtown Disney: Disney’s experiment in urban living

downtown disney

THE PEOPLE OF DISNEY have finally come to the end of a decades-long debate over the expansion of Walt’s first theme park.  After seeing deals falter and fail in various neighboring cities, Disney returned to its home turf and spent much of the nineties developing a parcel of Anaheim land into their latest park, California Adventure, an ersatz Golden State that promises citrus groves, hiking, and “the Bay Area” conveniently gathered in one theme park, and just a hop away from the Matterhorn. Perhaps the most exotic feature of this new park, however, is the one distinctly un-Californian adventure it offers: a pedestrian downtown.

downtown disney

Downtown Disney — an expansive, admission-free shopping, dining, and entertainment promenade adjacent to the new theme park — has been the subject of fawning media attention from both local and national press.  The official mythology has it that Michael Berry, senior vice president of the attraction, and Imagineering exec Timur Galen looked towards the world’s most beloved public places for cues while designing this “model” downtown.  They visited the Champs-Élysées, Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens, Plaza Mayor in Madrid, a multitude of Italian piazzas, and New York’s Madison Avenue.  To Berry’s mind, these are all spaces that encourage a rich public life, full of unexpected meetings and minglings, by virtue of their design alone; for Disney, Berry’s assumption means that with a few design secrets from ancient cities, they can quickly will into being their own fully functional downtown.

This isn’t Disney’s first attempt to branch out from theme parks into meaningful community spaces. Celebration, Florida, a residential community near Orlando built and owned by the Disney Corporation, was modeled, according to Disney literature, on early-American cities like Savannah, Charleston, and Nantucket. It was even more directly inspired by Seaside, Florida, the flagship New Urbanist community built in the 1980s to mimic the pedestrian-friendly layout of a traditional small town. But while the founders of New Urbanism were mostly concerned with traffic reduction and zoning laws, the Disney version is at least as preoccupied with other kinds of rules, like how often residents mow their lawns and what color they paint their homes. Critics are quick to point out that this level of surveillance has more in common with suburban subdivisions than the authentic traditional towns Celebration supposedly emulates.

downtown disney

Downtown Disney is prey to the same criticism.  The scale is all wrong here — the buildings are monolithic, neon-drenched entertainment complexes, streets are over-wide in anticipation of hordes of visitors.  Everything is starkly, brightly new.  A recent Los Angeles Times article raves about how Disney went all over America to search out specialty stores like Basin, a Minneapolis bath and spa store, and San Francisco’s venerable Compass Books, but the balance of stores and restaurants is still operated by chains.  Even the nightclubs there to bring an urban edge are well-known chains like ESPN Zone, Rainforest Café, and House of Blues. These are the same chains that pock our actual cities, but when they’re gathered together in a few hundred thousand scrupulously clean square feet, the feeling is that of a particularly well-designed mall.

The Disney dream of sanitized, micromanaged fantasylands is, of course, fundamentally at odds with the randomness of urban areas, and it’s not surprising that Disney’s Downtown is not a very convincing approximation of a city plaza. And perhaps the distinction is illusory anyway, as the corporation buys up property in real city neighborhoods and Disneyfies them into family entertainment areas. Certainly, Disney doesn’t seem to have had any trouble convincing the public that their Downtown is at least as good as the actual thing.  On a recent weekday afternoon, patrons crowded the magazine stand outside of Compass Books (“Disney doesn’t really tell us what to stock, except that we’re not allowed to sell High Times or Playboy,” explained a Compass employee) and a couple of carts selling novelty items did brisk business.  A little boy in a red Mickey Mouse sweatshirt stared up at the monorail track that bisects the sky above the street and asked his mother what it was.  “It’s public transportation, honey,” said the Orange County resident.  “That’s how people get places in cities.”

Jade Chang is a writer living in Los Angeles.

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3 Thoughts to “Downtown Disney: Disney’s experiment in urban living”

  1. Vincent Nguyen

    I love everything about the aesthetics of your website, Lauren. A lot of my friends and family absolutely adore Disney. It’s understandable because most of them live 20 minutes away after all!

    It’s sort of a shame that I was denied by the Disney College Internship Program, but I still love them! I’m pretty sure it’s because I didn’t convey the whole “I Love Disney!” persona that they look for in applicants.

    1. I do have a friend who was accepted there. She enjoyed it, but didn’t think it was all it was/is hyped up to be. So maybe you didn’t miss out on much.

  2. Anon

    I have heard that Disney ceded control of Celebration to the residents but also that it’s rules retain veto power over any new HOA decisions. Did you hear about any of this? It’s not very easy to get information about it. But I’m not a journalist so perhaps I’m just not looking in the right places.

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