Part two of 'Walt and the Promise of Progress City' - a Theme Park Insider interview with Sam Gennawey

November 21, 2011, 10:04 AM · We're continuing our conversation with Sam Gennawey, author of "Walt and the Promise of Progress City" [$17.77 from Amazon and $9.99 for Kindle]. Disney fans might know Sam from his Samland columns on MiceChat, but he's also an urban planner by trade and training, allowing him a unique insight on Walt's dream of a city of tomorrow.

Walt and the Promise of Progress City (Here's part one of the interview with Sam Gennawey, in case you missed it.)

Robert: Thinking about Progress City - this idea of a theme park-driven resort, where you park your car on the periphery and you take transportation into a central, walkable area - the thing that popped into my head was "you know, this doesn't sound at all like what Disney World became, but it sure sounds like what Disneyland is now." Walt went to Florida to create this thing, but ironically, it ended up coming closer to evolving in Anaheim.

Sam: That's interesting. Yeah, I think you're right. It's weird to say, because I have all the respect for the people who got Disney World built once Walt had passed away. At least the initial run was right: Theme park in the north. Epcot in the middle. Connect them with a monorail. And then they stopped. And when they stopped, that's actually causing Disney a lot of problems today, because what they've got right now is a huge resort that economically is not sustainable. You cannot have enough buses driving around, moving people the way that they have it, with 63,000 people who work there, too, and ever expect to make it work [efficiently].

And then to really make it worse: the whole Golden Oak ranch that they're building there is gotta be the biggest slap in the face - to try to take Walt's mythology and put it on a super-rich subdivision that is so car-oriented, it's just horrible.

Disneyland celebrates the fact that it truly is an urban theme park now. Sure, it has a berm and it does protect you, especially now with the Cars Land "wall" going up. You're in the middle of an urban area, but it doesn't say that you're not in this urban mix, [just that] we're just going to take you on the other side of the door for a little while. I love it. You park once at Disneyland. You never have to get into your car for days.

Robert: It's the same way with Universal Orlando, too. In fact, we did a blog post a while back comparing the two.

Sam: I agree. I would say that Universal Orlando is closer to what Walt was trying to accomplish with Progress City than Disney World. Because [Walt Disney World] is so spread out, they haven't made the infrastructure investments. That's the Achilles tendon that ultimately is going to end up hurting Walt Disney World. They look at the monorail and say it's really, really expensive in the short term. But if they were to have made the monorail be the connector to all the resorts, that would have cost them a lot of money [at first], but they would be saving the money right now. You've gotta think it costs them a whole lot of money to run that many buses - and they're not natural gas buses, they use old-fashioned diesel. All the drivers. The liability. The amount of time. The amount of infrastructure to manage all those buses going around. And it takes you out of the vacation experience.

I love going on the buses in Florida, because it teaches me what people who don't use public transportation think of buses. They don't know how to use them. They all wait for the people to get out of the front of the bus, instead of going out the back. As soon as they enter, they all sit down right at the front instead of moving toward the back. You just want to start slapping people around, and tell them "No, this is how you use public transportation!"

Robert: I think the thing with Disneyland is that it shows what you can accomplish with influence, rather than control. Control dies with you - Walt's control died with him, but his influence can persist into the future. It's hard for people who go to Disneyland now to understand why Walt was so upset with Anaheim in the 1950s and 60s, because Harbor Boulevard has been cleaned up so much over the years. But the Disney company eventually found a way to use its influence to make that happen, even if it didn't have the control it has in Florida. I think it shows that you can get things done with influence even if you don't have strict legal control.

Sam: And look at everything else that they've built now. Anaheim has become a compact resort. Paris is a compact resort. Hong Kong is a compact resort. Tokyo is a compact resort. So in every other case, they did learn the lesson. They had the blessing of size [with Walt Disney World], but they didn't really sit and think about how to utilize it.

One of my favorite parts of the book was the speculative walk through EPCOT. I wanted to take the reader and walk them through what it would have been like to live in EPCOT, to work in EPCOT, to go and play in EPCOT, and what that experience would have been. By the time to read that chapter, you recognize that there was nothing that was terribly weird.

Robert: It sounded completely natural. It wasn't some utopian thing.

Sam: I went at the Blue Sky Cellar [the other day], and I'm thinking, Walt would be really insulted by this. Walt actually uses the words "Blue Sky" as a negative, and I'm wondering where that transition came that that could be a positive.

Robert: EPCOT didn't get built, but Celebration did. You note in the book that while Celebration has this "New Urbanism" reputation, it really isn't New Urbanism. I think there's a lot of confusion among the public now about what New Urbanism really means because that label got attached to Celebration. So what is a New Urbanism community? And what was the ideal that Walt was going for with Progress City?

Sam: The hardest thing for us to understand today about Walt's vision for EPCOT is that we live in a post-modern world and this was designed at a time when it was a modern world. There's a whole psychology that we can't get back into. Celebration is very much a post-modern structure and this [EPCOT] is not. This was designed to be pure function. I think the line Victor Gruen had in the beginning of "The Heart of the City" was that he was on a cruise ship and he recognized that a cruise ship was the most efficient city possible - all in one spot, and that that's what cities should be.

This is definitely not a New Urbanist development in any way, shape or form. This is a purely modernist thought. This is something that we, in this post-modern age, could not understand how to build if we wanted to. Celebration was a case where the Bass brothers (who were big Disney stockholders at the time) were pushing [then-Disney CEO Michael] Eisner to make some money off the property. They tried to get New Urbanists to come in, and there was a big battle between Andres Duany and the guys who ultimately designed the thing, and in the end Duany was right.

You [have] this wonderful little town - the central core, you have to admit, is beautiful - but the offices are way over there, and the school is way over there and the hospital is way over there, and that's where it all falls apart. If it were truly a New Urbanist community, the offices would have been in the downtown to create the critical mass of users during the day that would have kept the store alive.

I know that for the longest time, the Disney people were saying that Celebration was not supposed to be EPCOT, but at the last moment, Eisner came in and said "We're fulfilling Walt's dream." Walt would have kicked him in the shins. [Celebration] wasn't built off empirical data. It was designed to look really good in the drawings and it was designed to look really good in a model, but it wasn't designed to replicate the human scale that people desire, which is something that Duany does do, that is something that Walt wanted to do and has demonstrated that he has done. It's something that Christopher Alexander is all about.

Robert: As an animator, Walt liked to start with a blank sheet of paper. But from an urban planning perspective, you don't get to start with a blank sheet of land anymore. Transportation costs make it prohibitive to move out to the hinterlands where there's no development for fresh, blank-sheet exurbia. Most planning now is dealing with some existing development. Maybe you erase it all, to make the space blank, but that comes with its own set of problems. What can we learn from what Walt was trying to do and apply it to existing developments and theme park resorts?

Sam: That's the difference between the modernist thought and the post-modernist thought. The modernist thought is that whatever was there before, we just get rid of the past and we just start all over. Post-modern thought is that there is a respect or understanding or appreciation of the past and that the future should be rooted in the past - at least, when post-modernism is done well.

There are a lot of really good, small-scale things that happen in the Disney parks, design-wise, that can be retrofitted. I go really in-depth with the Wizard of Bras porch. I love that space. Every time I take anyone on there, I can't get them off the porch - they just like sitting there and watching people go by.

Wizard of Bras porch at Disneyland
The "Wizard of Bras" porch on Main Street at Disneyland, named for the lingerie shop that originally occupied the space. (It was being repainted on my most recent visit.) Sam details the design considerations of this porch in one chapter of his book.

It's the small, little scale of stuff. In that sense, that's where Walt's background as an animator really comes in handy. He knows that he has complete control of absolutely everything on the screen. And if something is missing, it is missing either because you were ignorant and didn't put it in or you purposely didn't put it in. You deal in the small details.

If you are trying to rebuild a walkable community from a car-centric community, it's the small, little things. You want to make sure that there are no gap-teethed storefronts - that you're not walking by blank spaces, because that makes the walk feel longer and makes the walk less safe. You want to have facades that are broken down [like on Main Street], so you get that whole rhythm and pattern and because it makes you psychologically be able to walk a lot farther and not be tired. There are the idea of the weenies, or the icons, that give people destinations to go to.

When people come into a space, you have to give them the ability to pause and gather and be able to observe their surroundings to figure out where they need to go next. You can do that in real cities, as well.

In a theme park, there's onstage and there's backstage. In New Urbanism, there's public realm and functional realm. They are very similar. Now, if I tell this to a New Urbanist, he's going to argue and argue and argue with me, but by the end of the day, it's the same thing. One of the things that Walt did is say I want to tightly control the public realm, reduce the visual contradiction so that people can feel secure in their surroundings - those are lessons that we can learn. Old Pasadena is a great example. Visual contradictions have been ironed out because there is uniform signage and all that kind of stuff. And that's a very successful retail area. They've done that with Harbor Boulevard, too.

There's a lot of things you can learn from a theme park. The key is not to get them confused and to realize that the real world is not a theme park. If you get rid of all the visual contradictions in the real world, what you come up with is... Irvive. You come up with places that are beautiful, but they are lifeless and soulless.

In fact, you just mentioned one: Celebration. You go to Celebration - Celebration is really pretty. It seems to be well laid-out. It seems to be well organized. It seems to have no real life. It seems like a stage set. Even the theme parks tend have a bit more feel of life to them than Celebration. That's when worlds collide, between theme parks and the real world, you learn a lot of the wrong lessons as well.

Robert: Some planners forget that theme parks have tens of thousands of people in them, and the people the visual disruption. If you could get 10,000 people to come to downtown Celebration, it would look a lot livelier.

Sam: That's why if you had put the offices down there, and if you have the hospital down there and you have travel destinations [there]. Buzz Price was very big about this with EPCOT - the thing itself wouldn't have brought people in. It had to have an attraction of its own.

I'll give you a real-world example of how these worlds collide: The Grove in Los Angeles - the most successful shopping mall in the last 10 years in Los Angeles. No one can tell me that isn't a pretty, well-designed shopping mall. It has become the neighborhood place. Well, you know why it works? It's not the stuff the [developer Rick] Caruso built. What Caruso and his guys built was wonderful. But it would have failed if it weren't for having the real, authentic Farmers' Market in the corner. The Farmers' Market also was an invented place - it was the mid-1930s when someone came up with this thing. But it's porous. It bleeds out to the street and it allows people to have a lot of different ways to access.

The Grove, on the other hand, had a 750-foot blank wall on one side. And I think even Rick Caruso has admitted that wasn't really the right thing to do. And he tried to make up for it with Americana at Brand, which it gets closer. And Hassan Haghani, the development director, says it wasn't exactly where they wanted to go, but it was much closer and better than The Grove in that regard, because it is porous.

Those are lessons that can be learned - this idea of being porous, of getting the scale right, making the buildings and everything pedestrian-friendly. One of the [other] lessons from Walt Disney and Disneyland that got applied to The Grove was the quality of materials on the ground floor - that if it is a surface that you are walking by and that you can touch, put the extra money into it. That's a really old concept. It's the old Chicago School of architecture concept. If you look at Chicago architecture buildings from the turn of the last century, the ground floors are sumptuous. The offices were just crap upstairs, but ground floor of the buildings and the edges and the top were really beautifully done.

Robert: I think that's the big distinction between going to a Disney theme park and going to someplace like Knott's or Six Flags. A lot of parks have tried to do the same old-timey, turn of the 20th century street, but at Disneyland, it's that high quality of materials that makes the theme convincing.

Sam: And Knott's the ultimate example - Ghost Town is just neat. It just feels like it has been there forever, and it has been there for along time. The rest of the park just falls apart. You look at Universal Studios in Florida, and you look at Islands of Adventure - Islands of Adventure gets close, it's about 90 percent there. It tends to fall short a little bit, until you get to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is the one area where they out-Disney Disney. They made sure the the quality of the materials everywhere - every wall that you touch, every window that you touch feels just right. It feels like it should be there. There is just one part of that whole facility that falls apart for me. When you're in the line for the Forbidden Journey and you're in the little garden area that's there, and you've got the building on one side and you've got the white show building - it's a big modern building that's right there and it's just a big wall. That's where they failed. But everything else about it works, and that's one reason why people love it. They really believe in it. And I hope that's the future trend.

Sam Gennawey's "Walt and the Promise of Progress City" is available for $17.77 from Amazon and for $9.99 for Kindle.

Coming next Monday: An interview with "The Hidden Mickey Guy," Steve Barrett, who talks about his newest edition of "Disneyland's Hidden Mickeys: A Field Guide to Disneyland Resort's Best Kept Secrets."

Replies (7)

November 21, 2011 at 10:23 AM · Holy cow, for year's I've been advocating for Monorail expansions. They intended to expand them, they even laid foundations to the Studios and built in space for a station at the Swan and Dolphin, but Eisner didn't want to spend money on things that didn't make profit. But it is so true, if we could get rid of those buses-there are a million reasons to hate them- and use monorials, perhaps even people movers, to move around the crownds safely and on cheap electricity versus crowding the Disney roads with buses, the whole experience would be so much better.

I know that more and more people are complaining about the buses, and they have every right to.

November 21, 2011 at 11:31 AM · What a shame. I had always wondered why Studios and other places didn't have a monorail system, and now I know. Ah, well.
November 21, 2011 at 11:34 AM · I had never thought about how visually, the facades do help in deceiving you while walking. I wonder if that is one more reason why Animal Kingdom seems like such a difficult park to walk through. I love that it is mostly trees and landscape, but there aren't enough facades to help you feel like you are reaching your destination quickly.
November 21, 2011 at 10:52 PM · Monorails are essentially a light rail systems. Proven light rail systems exist that cost less and have higher capacity than operating the monorail system. Monorails tell a story to the passenger and so can rail. Walt loved his rail.

Even though extensively spread out, there are still core areas in the resort that are relatively compact; MK/Resorts, DHS/Epcot/Resorts, Downtown Disney/Resorts, and hotel row near Crossroads. Run park to park express routes adjacent to these routes.

Rail routes are straightforward to design serving these core areas. A circular route can service the outlying areas. Need to add value and make money from this? Add some profitable destinations themed with each resort and the resort tour becomes its own attraction.

With the rail traffic as a feeder, consider finally building Progress city. It becomes the light rail hub and a separately themed guest and business destination. There is even a prime place to put it - west of the junction of Epcot and World drives. Good rail access to all 4 parks. Good road access with Epcot Drive, World Drive, and Western Way.


November 22, 2011 at 7:26 PM · Superb insights. Deserving of a book-length treatment in itself. Gennawey understands the essence of urban _development_ rather than simply building, an understanding lost within Disney management when Walt passed on. A former Imagineer confided to me that the evisceration of the Disney World concept probably resulted in more Imagineers jumping ship than any other single event.

A new development of similar shape and import is happening on the other side of the world, in China: themed industrial parks and cities. A story worth looking into. Walt's spirit lives on in the world's most dynamic economy, no longer ours.

Bob Jacobson
PhD, Urban Planning, UCLA

November 22, 2011 at 7:36 PM · Please note I registered since posting my earlier comment. I'd be glad to be associated with my posting so that people can reach me.


November 25, 2011 at 10:15 PM · Thank you for the comments. I hope everyone gets a chance to check out the book. I will also be speaking at the Walt Disney Family Museum on the topic of Mineral King in January.


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