What Disneyland's "awkward transitions" teach us about signaling changes with physical cues

On Passport to Dreams Old and New, FoxxFur continues her unbroken record for highlighting insightful, deep design truths by examining the minutae of the design and evolution of the Disney theme parks. In the current post, "The Awkward Transitions of Disneyland!", she looks at the way that the designers of Disneyland managed their space-constraints when butting up one themed area against another (comparing this with the much more spacious, and relaxed, transitions in Walt Disney World). By reconstructing the history of these transitions, she's able to reconstruct the history of the theory and practice of using physical cues to signal mood-transitions in built environments.

I seriously can't wait for FoxxFur to write a book about this stuff some day.

Disneyland built things where it could, and so very often buildings are dropped down perfunctorily, only very rarely placed to achieve any specific pictorial effect. Depending on where you are, there can be three levels of themed design occurring around you on different registers. This makes Disneyland visually dense while retaining a somewhat prosaic thematic effect. This is what people mean when they say Disneyland is charming: it's a massive pile of ideas slammed down, one atop the other, with very little room to spare. This means that it's very common to find areas where one kind of texture or surface treatment just ends because it collides with another. This is what I mean when I say Disneyland is naive....

...What you're seeing here more closely resembles a movie set than a theme park - which makes perfect sense since this is the first theme park and it was built by Hollywood craftsmen. Harper Goff designed sets for Warner's Midsummer Night's Dream and Casablanca. Marvin Davis worked for 20th Century Fox. The key concept in film production design is the ability of the camera to exclude certain objects from view; Disneyland's early scenery resembles a movie lot more than a modern theme park. It would be several years before WED Enterprises learned how to design for the human eye instead of the camera eye.

The Awkward Transitions of Disneyland!


  1. Cory, thank you for this fascinating post/link.

    I suspect that the “story” of a tour through Disneyland was, roughly, originally intended to be a clockwise tour from the ancient — in Adventureland — through time, toward the future of Tomorrowland.  

    Which is one of the reasons that trying to change the “future” into the Jules Verne era worked so poorly.  

    And why the Adventureland tour remains so successful, because it is a multi-layered introduction to time travel, as it is more a nostalgic-look-at-the-ancient than actually being engulfed within the mists of time (I suppose to keep it within the “America Rules!” sense of the entire park).  

    And these transitions, which are discussed so ably in that post, are part of that (literally) wonderful trip through time.

  2. If I recall, the trip into Disneyland’s Toontown takes you into a depression under a ‘palette-clearing’ overpass, and when you arise from it on the other side, you are given a nice ‘reveal’ of the new Toontown area.

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