Disney Consumerism and Playful Architecture

Inside theme parks people are in a created and planned imaginary world, where amusement is the aim and the entire space is organized to give the sensation of freedom. Theme parks are the concrete realization of our fantasy of escapism through amusement, like Guy Debord describes in La Société du Spectacle. The parks imagined by Walt Disney are to provide spectacle and amusement to the masses, as the funfair did before. It is how it has evolved, becoming a built space wherens before it was nomadic and ephemeral. The first built (in opposition to ephemeral) parks with attractions were only about entertainment. Disneyland is the second theme park created, located in Anaheim, California. The theme was designed around Walt Disney’s cartoons. He wanted to turn from the two dimensions of the film to the three dimensions of the built environment. The director imposed rules from the beginning that radically changed the universe of amusement parks and funfairs: Disneyland was a world designed for children, with a goal of reassurance, giving them a place where they could meet their heroes. What are the consequences of these changes?
Theme parks have been a subject that many contemporary thinkers have explored, from Maxim Gorky to Jean Baudrillard. Sociologists, journalists and architects have also been interested in this subject. Rem Koolhaas’s Delirious New York explored the connection between theme parks and real cities, studying Coney Island and its direct impact on Manhattan. The amusement park is a terrain for experimentation, where architects, designers and engineers can search and build all kinds of architecture because it is a world apart, with its own rules, and not considered as serious as the “real world”. In the theme park you have a décor that makes you feel you are outside of the “real” world. Theme parks and amusement parks are different in this way. But is it more than just a décor in plaster and papier-mâché? Isn’t it the whole conception of the theme park that is about troubling your perception? In the era of the virtual, the question of “real” and “hyperreality” that Baudrillard identified twenty years ago is still valid. From a simple décor to a town, Walt Disney wanted to export his ideas about urban planning and the way people should live. He died before EPCOT could be realized, but the Disney Company followed his intentions and developed Celebration a planned community, in Florida next to Walt Disney World Resort and Val d’Europe near Disneyland Paris in France. Like the theme parks, the company entirely created and runs these cities.
In this article we will study how theme parks like Disneyland influence people’s consumption and initiate children early to consumerism through a playful architecture and how it rubs off on cities.


Theme parks are a recent invention, the first one opened in 1946, nine years before Disneyland, while the first amusement parks were built in the 1840’s. For many sociologists such as Scott Lukas, the World Columbian Exposition of 1893 is the starting point of this kind of leisure parks, because it was the first world’s fair with an area for entertainment (away from the exhibition halls), with the first big wheel constructed by Ferris. Sol Bloom who developed the area, cared about the design and the organization of the place, creating for example a street from Cairo, a reconstitution of a “little Egypt”. It’s not surprising that the fair influenced Walt Disney for his later parks; his father participated in the fair, constructing some of the buildings. He visited another exposition: the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco in 1939 and it also influenced him. He encountered three-dimensional miniature scenes, reconstitution of the bridge for example. For Scott Lukas the relationship between theme parks and the world fair is strong: The aim is to show technics to the public, make them dream, and even more importantly: the experience of both is “not being individual but being a part of a social drama and social consumption”. Social drama is in the tradition of the spectacle: people are coming to see a part of a spectacle together. Indeed visitors do not go alone to the park, but often with their family (2/3), or with friends (1/3). And they are part of the same show, becoming actors: theme parks create a new kind of relationship, a three dimensional experience. The social life is different inside of the theme park, a kind of mise en abyme created by a décor. Sharing the experience is important for the visitor, and nowadays even more so. Through fan clubs, or through social networks, even creating forums and websites, the visitor shares the experience with others. In the park it starts with the automatic camera put on the rides, just halfway down for example, that takes picture of the visitor while he is enjoying the ride. He can buy it afterwards, and take it home. But the social experience is not only in the attraction, but also in the queue, and everything is made to make you feel good.

According to legend, Walt Disney looked for a safe and clean place for his daughter, but couldn’t find any to his taste, and thought about building a place where children could walk and play safely. For him, as explained in Karal Ann Marling’s book, the place should reassure parents and kids. Even if it’s an outdoor space and seems to be a public space, with squares for example, it’s still a private place, with rules. No drugs, no alcohol, no pets, adults can’t be disguised and some clothes are prohibited such as those “which exposes inappropriate portions of the body such as string bikini tops, G-strings (...)”. The company wants to attract families, according to the audience of their cartoons. The model established is the contrary of Coney Island with the Lilliputian’s disturbing attraction or the funfair and the joy of alcohol: the park is full of attractions based on sensations, the universes are the cartoons’ ones, and there is no place for improvisation. The rhythm is meticulously calculated, and machines are running the temporal and physical space. Disneyland exposed a true ideology, founded on Walt Disney’s conservatism.
The theme park can be considered a public space for its function, it tends to be open and attract a large public, but we have to keep in mind that economy and the park are linked from the entrance of the park: You have to pay to enter. As we saw, Disney’s “passport ticket” was created in 1982. Before you had to pay per attraction, in addition to the entrance, unlike in the funfair where the entrance used to be free. It is also the idea of “no limit” and “free refill”: you can ride attractions as many times as you want. Disneyland is space for unlimited consumption. And consumption of the experience through architecture and machine is fairly new. In 2006, Miodrag Mitrasinovic, wrote Total Landscape, Theme Parks, Public Space, about this idea of the new meeting places that are private. He raised the idea that the theme park is a “privately-owned publicly accessible space in a themed mode”: the “PROPASt”. This notion comes out with his idea about “total landscape” and his research about the way we are turning all our public spaces into private spaces, or at least the incorporation of a private component. But if Disneyland is not an ordinary private place, it is also by the fact that his relation with the state is not ordinary: the theme park has the status of a private corporation receiving public governance rights, which means that the park has it’s own taxes, and “control the land”. It came out after the company asked the Florida State legislature to allow the company to govern its own land. The official name of Walt Disney World Resort in Florida is the “Reedy creek improvement district”, the immediate jurisdiction for the land and is 100 km2. We can say that Disneyland is almost a sovereign city-state. Walt Disney was thinking about his town project while asking the state for this special legislature, EPCOT (Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow). But he also said that by owning the land they could “control the area, so that it does not become the jungle of signs, lights and fly-by-night operations that have ‘fed’ on Disneyland’s audience”. In fact the idea of protecting Disneyland, by controlling its environment is linked to the idea of the theme park as a “world apart” and “dreamland”. Walt Disney wanted to have a clean and safe place, and for this he created the place separated from the city (the contrary of the Tivoli Garden in Copenhagen), that he considered dangerous and ruined by the modernism movement. “Amusementscapes” places evolved, during the pre-modern period it was located in the city, then it moved to the seaside, to finally be implanted in the suburb like every Disney park.

Walt Disney wanted to control everything, and to create a whole environment. The public had to take the car to go to Disneyland near Los Angeles (now the access is better, including buses and trains). As we saw, the first amusement parks were open spaces like the free entrance of the funfair, to the semi-open spaces like Coney Island to Disney’s enclosed spaces. The idea of an isolated space joins the utopian idea of the island: a place separated from the continent. In Disney World you find this idea with Peter Pan’s cartoon and attraction: Neverland is an island where children live without parental authority. And in the park itself: the sea is materialized by the land before the parking that can be seen as an allegory of a quayside: a huge space, were the visitor leaves his car and its last connection with the “real” world. He changes his way of moving and perception of the space by slowing down his rhythm. He leaves the giant scale of the city, and enters into a world at human scale. Then he is doing a travel through an imaginary and totally artificial geography and era: crossing an artificial space-time. From his childhood in Adventureland area to futuristic town in Tomorrowland area, the visitor has become part of a spectacle. Disneyland is escapism, but keeps references the visitor can stick on.

The main street shapes all the entrances Disneyland parks. It is the central place the park: you need to cross it to enter in the park or go out of it. It is the cultural strip where you can buy all kinds of souvenirs, even if you have other shops scattered in the park. It is the only “real” street of Disney parks, with buildings next to each other. The Victorian period and Marceline’s town where Walt Disney grew up inspire it. It is meant to evoke typical American Main Streets where commerce and social life used to take place. Again he is drawing on his own experience and tastes to design the park, creating nostalgia through quaintness: Main Street is not the reproduction of a “real” street but of the memory of it. The street is divided in three parts: town Square, a square in the entrance of the park, Main Street and Central plaza, the main square in front of the castle. The Main Street is reserved for parades. It became the symbol of Disney. The buildings in themselves are made out of plasterboard, and create a toy-town effect. The first floors are smaller than real ones and the second and third stories are even smaller (2/3 scale): it creates an optical illusion. You feel taller than you really are. Each park has it own Main Street, designed by the Imagineers (as Walt Disney called his “architects”, contraction of imagination + engineers). But some differences are relevant: in Japan they tried to turn it into a little Ginza, but their business partners wanted a Main Street USA. They roofed it with glass because of the bad weather: it is important that people can stay as long as they want in front of the display. In France they used archways, inspired by Parisian covered passages. By this architectural system, Imagineers turned the Main Street into a real mall.

On the next pages, we can see Disneyland Anaheim park. The first picture is taken from a plane, and the second one is a map made by the Imagineers. The map makes explicit the different universes by using a color per area. But the representation of the space is distorted: The view is reminiscent of the Middle Age representation of space, by being half axonometric, half plan. It tends to be easy to read, even for people who are not used to orientate themselves in a space. The park is represented as an island and the parking doesn’t exist. The different paths are not clear in the map, giving the sensation that the designers of it made it looks like a labyrinth. It raises the question of fluidity: how can you manage 40,000 visitors per day in 60 ha? In the point of view of urban planning, visitors can follow different paths, and the whole park is full of details and centers of attraction, such as stores, little parks and restaurants. For the queue time, the Imagineers designed a specific universe for each attraction. Visitors enter in the universe at the beginning, and the queue becomes a part of the plot. For Buzz Lightyear’s attraction for example, a plot is developed, to settle the story, and then the attraction, which is about shooting targets from small spaceships, is even more interesting. The visitor becomes an actor.
Disneyland uses the same five universes as we saw before (Frontierland, Adventureland, Tomorrowland, Fantasyland and Main Street), and in fact it is a reflection of globalization at a small scale. Each part of the park is connected: by the rail, path or underground tube. Disneyland is made for pedestrians: you have to leave your car outside to enter in, and Walt Disney was against modern architecture: he wanted to promote a perfect world at a smaller scale. He was against urban planning, and used his own analysis of the city to rethink the space, like a sociologist. In Disneyland an underground travel system serves the employees to travel from one part to another without being seen. It turns Disneyland into a huge theater stage. The tunnel is used like wings, and creates more illusion for the visitor: they don’t see the characters eating or going to the restrooms. But it also created mystery: lot of Disney fans love to explore these tunnels. It became part of the plot-myth, even if it was planned to be a functional solution.


Before it was a theme park, Disney was primarily a company that produced movies and cartoons. The stories were not invented by Walt Disney, but taken from famous old tales, such as those written by the brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen or Victor Hugo. There is no happy ending in the original tales, but Walt Disney rewrote them to stick to his own idea of what kids should learn. One could say ideology is omnipresent in tales with the moral of the story, and Walt uses his movies to share his own values, using moral lessons based on a conservative point of view. He said that “the screen version must perceive and emphasize the basic moral intent and the values upon which every great persistent fairly tale is founded.”. Until the end of the XIXth century, children are seen as “labor power”. Nowadays there is an “individualization of the child” and he is considered as a person, with a status and rights. Disneyland parks are the perfect reflection of this evolution, even if parents have to go with them, they tend to have their own moment in the park. Parents gave them a good time; they care about them and wants to spoil them, even if it sometimes leads to “little emperors” (Enfant-Roi). Today parents tend to “lock” their children into childhood. The park and the cartoons are deeply linked, because the park is supposed to be the building universes of the cartoons.
Even if Disneyland seems to be a paradise for kids -everything is designed for them, from the scale of the building (5/8) to the colorful design of the attractions and the rule that adults can’t be in disguise shows that it’s not their kingdom- and that the goal is to amuse children, Disney is a company, and so it’s a business. Consumerism is oriented toward children, the easiest consumer to persuade. Once children are initiated into consumerism, they can persuade their parents to buy products.

Ever since it was founded in 1923, the Disney brand has been in constant evolution. Disneyland was created to promote the Disney universe. In his book, Lukas defines theme parks according to different subjects (Oasis, Land, Machine, Show, Brand and Text), and one of the themes is the brand: for him Disneyland is actually a “brand identity”. What is a brand identity? It is the visible elements of the brand. In the park, the brand is present everywhere: from the shops at the entry to the characters and the food. Disney has its own design, which evolved with the time; its own logotype that represents the Sleeping Beauty Castle, and Mickey Mouse as a symbol. Each attraction has its own logo, but using the Sleeping Beauty as a logo of the company: using architecture that is between “real” (as a three dimensional décor) and “imagination” (in the movie) as a logo reminds that Disneyland is a built dream. The sleeping beauty castle is also part of a myth, Walt Disney planned on the top level of the building in Florida to have his own apartment for his family when they visited the park. The flat was not finished before he died, but the company decided in 2005 to continue the project, and in 2007 the suite was open, for VIP guest only. The brand is trying to attract celebrities and promote the park as a luxurious place, but it is not a new idea. When Walt Disney visited New York’s world fair he saw the VIP lounge club and exported the concept calling it the club 33. It is a secret club, the only place in the park where you can drink alcohol. The legend says that the name comes from the 33 original sponsors. It is located in the restaurant Red Wagon Inn. To be part of it, you have to pay $10,000 a year.
The brand identity is a reflection of how Walt Disney wanted the consumer to perceive his world. The “brand image” is how the customer pictures the brand in his mind. Disney uses a lot symbolism and logo, and on the Internet you can find a lot of websites trying to link Disneyland and Illuminati, or other secret societies. The creators of theses sites are convinced that the park and brand are not as simple as they look, and not that innocent. Going deeper than just the relationship between capitalism and the brand, they really think about a secret plot. By creating a brand specific to the park, Disney makes it a product of consumption. The effect of the brand on children is made on purpose and Walt Disney said, “I think of a child’s mind as a blank book. During the first years of his life, much will be written on the pages. The quality of that writing will affect his life profoundly.
Combining brand and architecture begins at the world’s fair, as Walter Benjamin explained, and Walt Disney went further on with this idea, by materializing the brand with a built space. It is even more powerful than a product, because it shares an experience, in a world where we have an abundance of objects and emotions. In the theme park, architecture serves both brand and plot. It creates a narrative space, where façadism and kitsch replaced functionalism. Lipovetsky talks about an “aestheticization of the world”: consumption is not only about a product, but also about the experience of it and the aesthetics of it. In Disneyland, it is exactly what happens.


Disneyland is also a park where children learn, for example in the futuristic area they can learn about new technologies, or they can even join a Disney Youth Education Program. They trust what they see. They often mix “fiction” and “reality”. In Disneyland it can be dangerous, because the barrier between both is thin. Each universe has its own characteristics and is from a movie or a period: it represents the world in a summarized way. Fantasyland is only about Disney fairy tales and the attractions are for the youngest public. You can enter in the Wonderland of Alice or the Castle of the Sleeping Beauty. The most controversial is maybe Adventureland, because of its “celebration” of colonialism. The main attractions are Indiana Jones, Pirates of the Caribbean and Aladdin. This last one is inspired by the cartoon of the same name, and also mixes historic periods and cultures. When you think about it and try to locate it, you could say it settles in the Middle East or India, while in the original story it takes place in China. They invented a city, “Agrabah”, changing the name of “Agra”, Taj Mahal’s town, princess Jasmine who lives in is dressed up with an Indian style, while the terrible Jaffar and his army are dressed up more like middle-eastern people, same influence as the buildings of the city and the market. A confusion is made, and we can ask if it’s because a lack of culture or a conscientious act of creating a global idea on a part of the world. Children are not aware of geography and other cultures, and they absorb them: it leads to create stereotypes. Aladdin is not the only example; the Cinderella’s castle in Disneyland Magic Kingdom is inspired by Bavaria’s castle, and gives to kids an idea of what is a Castle. Disney creates its own story (defined by Fjellman as “Distory”) and it is in a way “historicide”.

The leisure time of the “working class” is twice as much than hundred years ago, due to the changes of the hours of labor: leisure is a response to capitalism, because people work less, they had free time, labor unions were created, annual leave established. Entrainment is now a part of our life, and Disneyland is the incarnation of the middle class escapism. People are attracted by the spectacle, but also by the “illusion of danger”. In fact in the park the attraction represent a simulacrum of danger, where you have the sensation of falling down, but you know that it is safe, because of the security clauses. The attraction’s architecture is created to give you new sensations, exploring the fear of the void, speed, dark. Sometimes you don’t see anything during a while, or you have play on artificial lights like in Space Mountains, where suddenly a meteorite appears. But even if the danger is a simulacrum, the fear is not.
When Jean Baudrillard says “Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real when in fact all of Los Angeles and the America surrounding it are no longer real, but of the order of the hyper-real and of simulation” he raises the question of simulacra and simulation about the park itself. In fact Disneyland is a “fake” three-dimensional world, where the visitor tries to reassure himself he lives in a certain reality. It masks an absence of reality. In Disneyland, visitors are looking for imagination, while they are in fact miming life. In other theme parks like Kidzania it is even more obvious. (In this theme park, children are “playing” adults jobs and earning money).
When Baudrillard wrote “Simulacra and Simulation” in 1981 and “America” in 1986, the concept of this theme park wasn’t exported yet, but we can extend this definition to all Disneyland. It is interesting to see that the “need” of simulacra is common and was globalized also: It is not only a décor that is exported but also a whole way of living and perceiving life. Disneyland is an architecture of reassurance, because you have the sensation the place if safe, but also because of the fact that when you are going out of the park, back your day-to-day life, you have another experience. Disneyland is not only about the experience of the park itself, but also of the differences you have between an artificial place and the real city.
Disneyland became a icon, a mascot, the “major middle-class pilgrimage center in the United States”. During the September 11 attack, Disneyland closed during a few hours, because of a possible attack considering that the park is an emblem of the country, like the Twin Tower. When in the early eighties the company thought about creating other Disney parks in the world, they wanted to adapt it to the country. In Japan the first idea was to transform the Main Street into a “Geisha land”, but the sponsor rejected the idea, they bought the concept of the American Disneyland. Still they had to adapt it because of the different weather of Tokyo, and put a glass roof on it, converting it to a “World Bazaar”. Main Street’s parades changes depending on the year and seasons, but are played in all the Disneylands: it is the idea of different parks’ visitors in several countries having the same experience at the same time. The parade gather together all the characters of Disney, incarnates by disguised adults. They are part of the universe, and even if they are not living in the park as in the Lilliputian world, they often live next to it and have advantages. Disney published in 1966 Disneyland and You for their employees, where you can read that inside this “world” they were called by their character names, even by their employer.
Walt Disney can be considered as an urban planner. At the park’s scale he constructed a three- dimensional imaginary world, feed by his dreams and convictions. It is planned in every detail, everything is regulated, and there is no place for any change. Following the example of the castle, which finally is in papier-mâché and not in bricks, the employees have to adopt a “papier-mâché” posture, which becomes “real” in this imaginary word. Disneyland is not only an amusement park, but it is the embodiment of a brand. It influences people’s consumption through a new way of consumerism: entering the park is like entering a huge mall, with shops everywhere and strategies to make you buy more. Disneyland’s ideology is deeper than simple consumerism, but it is the myth of American small towns, people give a sentimental value to it. It reminds them of a part of their childhood, a collective memory about the past. Disney provides the perfect place to construct memories.
Disneyland is Walt Disney’s dream of what a city should be, which he would have explored deeply if we will be still alive and not placed into cryopreservation. But still, his ideas about urban planning –developed in the project EPCOT- rub off on the cities, through New Urbanism and cities like Celebration and later on Val d’Europe. From a park scale to a town scale, from a daily scale to a lifetime scale, the ideology embraces your life.


1 Karal Ann Marling, Designing Disney’s Theme Parks (Flammarion, 1997)
2 Rem Koolhaas, Delirious New York : a retroactive manifesto for Manhattan (The Monacelli Press, 1997)
3 Sol Bloom, The autobiography of Sol Bloom (Putnam’s sons, 1948) p 136
4 Scott Lukas, “Theme park as a brand” in Theme Parks (Reaktion books Ltd, 2008)
5 Jean-Michel Normand, « Disneyland Paris : un monde à part », M le magazine du Monde, March 2012
6 Karal Ann Marling, Designing Disney’s Theme Parks: The Architecture of Reassurance (Flammarion, 1996)
7 Website of Walt Disney World: http://www.wdwinfo.com/tips_for_touring/dress-code.htm
8 Fan page made with all the old tickets entrance of Disneyland Parks by “Jane”: https://www.jansworld.net/DL_Tickets.html
9 Richard Floglesong, “Married to the Mouse: Walt Disney World and Orlando” (Yale University Press, New Edition, 2003)
10 Summary of Project Future Seminar 1-5 (June 15, 1965) (on file with the Special Collections and University Archives, University of Central Florida)
11 TV show Special Assigment, « Disney Hidden World », February the 8th 2013.
12 From the exhibition « Dreams Come True » in New Orleans Museum of Arts (NOMA) in New Orleans, in November of 2009.
13  Hugh Cunningam, Children and childhood in Western Societies since 1500 (Pearson Education, 2005)
14   Except special days as Mickey’s Halloween Party)
15  Travis Reed, “Disney is dreaming big”, January the 27th, 2007, The Ledger.
16  As this website called “Disneyland Illuminati Imagery” http://wasteplease.wordpress.com/
17 Henry A. Giroux, The Mouse that roared: Disney and the end of innocence (Lanham, MD, 1999) p 17
18  Gilles Lipovetksy, L’esthétisation du monde: Vivre à l’âge du capitalisme artiste (Gallimard, 2013) p 15
19 “Real Buildings that Inspired Disney’s California Adventure” Werner Weiss, last modified March 22, 2011, http://www .yesterland.com/replicas-dca2.html
20  Jean Baudrillard, “Simulacra and Simulation” in Selected writing (Standfort University Press, Second Edition, 2002) p 175
21 Stephen Fjellman, Vinyl Leaves (Westview Press, 1992) p 10



Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. Translated by Sheila Faria Glaser (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995)
Baudrillard, Jean. La Société de consummation (Paris: Gallimard, 1996)
Brannen, Mary Yoko. “Bwana Mickey: Constructing cultural consumption at Tokyo Disneyland” in Re-
Made in Japan: Everyday Life and Consumer Taste in a changing society (Yale: Yale University Press, 1992) Bloom, Sol. The autobiography of Sol Bloom (New York: Putnam’s sons, 1948)
Debord, Guy. La Société du Spectacle (Paris: Gallimard, 1996)
Dick, Philip. War Game (New York: Galaxy Science Fiction Magazine, 1959)
Eyssartel, Anne Marie and Bernard Rochette. Des mondes inventés (Paris: Editions de la Villette, 1992) Fjellman, Stephen M. Vinyl Leaves: Walt Disney World and America (Institutional structures of feeling)
(Boulder: Westview Press, 1992)
Floglesong, Richard. Married to the Mouse: Walt Disney World and Orlando (Yale: Yale University Press, New Edition, 2003)
Giroux, A Henry and Grace Pollock. The mouse that roared: Disney and the end of innocence (Westview Press, 1992)
Karal Ann Marling. The Architecture of Reassurance (Montreal: Canadian Centre of Architecture, 1997) Koolhaas, Rem. “Coney Island” in Delirious New York: a retroactive manifesto for Manhattan (The Monacelli
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Lukas, Scott A. “Theme Park as Brand” in Theme Park (Reaktion Books Ltd, 2008)
Lipovetsky, Gilles. L’ère du vide: Essais sur l’invidualisme contemporain (Paris: Gallimard, 1989)
Ottinger, Didier and Quentin Bajac. Dreamlands: des parcs d’attractions aux cités du futur (Catalogue du M, 2010)


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