What Makes a Theme Park Look Right?

August 13, 2020, 3:36 PM · In the second episode of his video mini-series, Walt Disney Imagineer Joe Rohde talks about ageing and patina, revealing a couple of the tricks that themed entertainment designers use to make attractions look convincing to fans.

What many fans describe as "magic" in trying to explain the difference between Disney and other theme parks often comes down to finishes. The quality of material that parks use to construct the surfaces in a theme park literally sets the stage for its attractions.

Rohde explains how he and other designers think about surfaces in order to tell a location's story through visual cues.

The next time you visit a park, divert your attention to things such as the walls of souvenir shops and restaurants. Do you see relatively cheap sheets of wood, slapped with some paint? Or do you see more substantial building material and treatments? Is everything coherent — appearing to be of the same time and place — or is the design a mishmash, reflecting an inconsistent capital budget for building and repair?

Put your hand on a surface. Does it feel substantial, or flimsy? (Then wash your hands immediately, of course.) Is the condition of a surface the result of a lack of maintenance or an intentional design choice?

What comes across as "dirty" to some fans often isn't a lack of cleaning — it's the use of cheap building materials that don't hold up under the strain of millions of visitors. A low-budget park that's swept continuously, hosed down nightly and repainted each month might feel less clean to many visitors than the Harambe Market at Walt Disney World's Disney's Animal Kingdom, which is built and maintained to Disney's finish standards even though it is designed to look run-down.

Surfaces are something in a theme park that everyone notices but that few visitors consciously understand. Surfaces have amazing power to change the way that we feel about a theme park. If you want a deeper understanding of the parks you visit, take a closer look at its surfaces. And prepare for that by listening to Joe Rohde.

Previously from Joe Rohde: A Window into the Detail of Disney's Animal Kingdom

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