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“The Architecture of Reassurance: Designing the Disney Theme Parks”

I’m guessing that it was right around the chorus of a feverish “Oh Susanna” when a rootin’-tootin’ John Daly went wide left with a linen napkin and whipped his 7-year-old son square in the eyeball. It hurt like hell, sure, and I bawled for the next hour or so. But the sting of scratchy cloth on tiny peeper wasn’t half as traumatic as the fact that this harrowing event occurred at the Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue in Walt Disney World’s Frontierland—as far as I was concerned (pre-whipping, anyway), the most wonderful place in the most wonderful place on Earth.

For a few seconds, neither my mother nor my Pecos Bill-wannabe pop could hear my upper-octave wails; the hoop-dee-dooers might have been off-key, but they were darn good at being loud. So, with spirits crushed, I just sat there amid the saloony environs and watched through a flood of tears as mad-grinning tourists with sunburned smiles and overeager entertainers in polyester Western wear waved those checkered napkins high.

For yours truly, shock quickly gave way to awareness: I was a freak, a loser. I wasn’t fit to ride Pirates of the Caribbean for the 10th time. I had broken the golden rule of this magical kingdom, and my life was sufficiently ruined.

You see, even a 7-year-old knows that you don’t cry in a perfect world.

There is no mention (at least not an obvious one) of Michael Eisner in “The Architecture of Reassurance: Designing the Disney Theme Parks,” the gushing tribute to Walter Elias Disney (1901-1966) on view at the National Building Museum. The current chair and CEO of Walt Disney Productions would certainly enjoy being viewed in the same reverent light as the dearly departed visionary—Eisner has even attempted, like the company’s founding father, to be the folksy host of Sunday-night staple The Wonderful World of Disney—but that just isn’t going to happen. To most, Eisner’s sagging visage represents nothing more than the Disneyfication of the universe. In 1989, when he announced plans to open a new Disney park in Paris, Eisner was drilled with eggs by ticked-off Frenchies. And glassy-eyed prostitutes and kill-your-mama dope peddlers have never been so heroically championed as when they were unceremoniously booted outta Times Square to make room for a dino-sized Disney Store in 1994.

By nodding to golden yesterdays instead of jaded todays—and by ignoring Eisner’s fat head altogether—Karal Ann Marling, curator of “The Architecture of Reassurance” and a professor of art history and American studies at the University of Minnesota, placed her faith solely in the hands of the Man Himself (no offense to God). It was a wise move: In doing so, Marling has made the extensive homage—comprising two floors, seven rooms, and some 350 maps, models, and park-related artifacts, all courtesy of Disney Imagineering—essentially critic-proof. Whether you worship Uncle Walt or think of him as a land-devouring despot, you will marvel at the ingenious ways he and pushed-to-the-limit scenic artists such as Harper Goff and John Hench manipulated you and your napkin-waving parents into buying—and believing in—the Disney brand. After all, when we go to a Disney park, we’re not using our imagination—we’re using His.

Designed to resemble the layout of Anaheim, Calif.,’s Disneyland—the world’s first theme park, which opened to the oohing-ahhing masses on July 17, 1955—”The Architecture of Reassurance” is divided into several “lands”: Main Street U.S.A., Fantasyland, Tomorrowland, and Adventureland and Frontierland. In each Technicolor-schemed sector, mood-appropriate music gently gambols from hidden speakers: “When You Wish Upon a Star” at the entrance; jungle rustling and tropical chirps in Adventureland; ominous, Tronesque droning for Tomorrowland. From the very first room, the exhibit is overwhelming, with too much to stare at, too much to see, and too much fun to be had. Which was, of course, the basis of Disney’s manipulative vision: Keep them looking here; keep them looking there; keep them sedated with utopian images that resemble nothing like their soulless urban/suburban wastelands back home—and, most important, keep them coming back for more.

Whether he was developing the first “talking” cartoon (1928’s Steamboat Willie) or unveiling a bullet-train mass-transit system (in 1959, Walt revved up the Disneyland monorail), Disney wasn’t merely detail-oriented—he was detail-upon-detail-upon-detail-obsessed. That he refused to cut corners is apparent in every inch of “The Architecture of Reassurance.” When we first meet him, he’s already been heralded as one of the chief innovators of modern cinema. It’s 1951, and a middle-aged Disney is planning a modestly sized kiddie park to be situated on a vacant side lot of his Burbank, Calif., movie studio. After city leaders turn down his proposal for fear of the attraction being too conventional (commence chuckling), Disney decides to head for the orange groves of Anaheim, where he’ll be allowed to expand his vision without know-nothing officials peeking at his plans. In a presentation book to potential backers, Walt promised a place “Where you leave TODAY…and visit the World of YESTERDAY and TOMORROW.”

Dismayed by the car-dependent suburbs spreading like anthills across the United States—and forever a relentless critic of bustling American cities—Disney, who developed his parks as if he were directing a series of cinematic takes, decided that Disneyland’s opening scene would be a nostalgic tour of his small, safe boyhood home of Marceline, Mo. Disney parks are based on a “hub-and-wheel” layout, which allows guests to wander through different lands at their leisure. But before they hop in line for the Jungle Cruise, the Haunted Mansion, or (my personal fave) Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, Walt made sure that they must first stroll down Main Street U.S.A., where not a single exhaust-spewing car can be found.

With the assistance of dozens of blueprints, paintings, and models—far more artifacts than for any other land—”The Architecture of Reassurance” demonstrates how this innocent-looking Main Street was no less than Disney’s first dazzling architectural mind-bend, one that would prime his guests for the lush, not-of-this-planet fakery to be found over the moat and through Cinderella’s castle. By using the set-designer trick of forced perspective—the thoroughfare’s turn-of-the-century stores feature full-sized ground floors but grow increasingly smaller and scaled-down the taller they get—Disney was able to allow visitors both young and old to feel a certain mastery of their toylike environs. Each store along Main Street is awash in bright cartoon colors and cheeky signage, much of which is on display here: A sparkling silver-and-gold carpenter’s auger hangs outside the Dr. Bitz Dental School; a barbershop sign advertises “Haircuts 25 cents, Shave 10 cents, Listen to Your Troubles 50 cents.”

When Walt Disney World opened on Oct. 1, 1971, per the late owner’s explicit instructions—here represented by a meticulously rendered sketch—the buildings of Main Street were given deeper eaves and increased ornamentation so as to better exploit the unforgiving Florida sun. That Disney not only wanted to control tourists’ minds but also Mother Nature’s elements is hardly shocking: Walt aimed to create a place where we’d want to spend the rest of our daydreams—if not the rest of our lives. If we craved a hoop-dee-doo hoedown in the Wild West one minute and a trip to the moon the next, each experience was just a “wienie” away. (“Wienies”—Disney’s term for the awe-inspiring vertical monuments that anchored each land in his parks—were visual treats to be savored by reward-needy guests.) Disney certainly didn’t want to live in the vacant-eyed suburbs or the cutthroat cities, and he figured neither did we. So he fabricated his own world, where the comforts of home were that much more comfortable—and the possibilities of a life less ordinary could be

realized by simply walking down Main Street. This might have been make-believe—but it was a whole lot better than believing what was outside the gates.

While Disney was planning Main Street, he and his remarkable assemblage of talent were also experimenting with “Disneylandia”—the combination of moving figures and elaborate backdrops that adorn his parks’ rides. His first attempt at what would later be dubbed Audio-Animatronics was the 1949 Dancing Man Machine, one of the exhibition’s wildest finds. After charting the movements of a young song-and-dance man named Buddy Ebsen (that’s right), Disney went to work on an elaborate wood-and-steel opera-house set in which a doll-sized mechanical vaudevillian would kick up a little soft-shoe. Although the marvelously detailed design of the set clearly demonstrates Disney’s insistence on perfection down to the most minor of elements—all the better to seduce you with, my dear—what’s even more eye-opening are the monstrous cranks and levers sprouting beneath the diorama, which were needed to make the tiny marionette move.

Dissatisfied, Disney demanded that his “imagineers” develop a more efficient way to get his miniatures moving. This led to such critters as the inhabitants of the Enchanted Tiki Room, all operated by compressed-air mechanisms triggered into motion by cues on a magnetic tape. Built in 1963 out of brass, fabric, and feathers, the life-size toucan on view here is rather unimpressive by himself: rubber feet, out-of-place pink tie, flimsy gray beret—push the red button and watch his harsh, robotic movement. But by isolating him in the middle of this makeshift Adventureland, Marling & Co. cleverly pull back the curtain on Disney’s tsunami-of-details sleight of hand. After all, put this cute little birdie alongside 30, 40, or 50 of his singing, joking, fine-feathered pals—then dim the lights and turn up the air conditioning—and suddenly that “E” ticket once needed for entrance into the Tiki Room doesn’t seem like such a rip-off.

And if you’re looking for sugar-spun eye candy, there’s a lot more where that bird came from. In Fantasyland, the centerpiece is an exquisitely rendered pink-and-blue hand-carved model of Disneyland Paris’ Sleeping Beauty’s Castle, Le Château de la Belle au Bois Dormant. Photographs and posters in Frontierland tell the story of how Disney demanded that the Haunted Mansion in New Orleans Square not be a crumbling old creaker but a clean, welcoming Southern Gothic plantation house—albeit with plenty of ghouls and goblins inside. In Adventureland, a paper-and-cardboard model of the Indiana Jones Adventure—awash in the garish fluorescent greens and pinks of a cheapo boardwalk attraction—gives way to a black-and-white video from a lipstick camera being pulled through the suddenly spectacular thrill ride. And several elaborate paintings show how Disney’s creative team has struggled, and repeatedly succeeded, in reinventing Tomorrowland over the years.

Walt Disney died on Dec. 15, 1966, 11 years after Disneyland opened and five years before the Orlando enterprise was realized, but his unmistakable influence can still be seen at such recent unveilings as that of Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Walt Disney World. Such was the power, the singular vision, the clearly defined influence of the man. How he would have felt about Celebration, Fla.—the “real” fully functional town (and a suburban one, at that) sprung from the minds of his imagineers—we’ll never know. But there’s little doubt that Disney would have applauded what’s happened—or, for that matter, what hasn’t happened—to his blissful kingdoms.

Don’t do it, kid. Just bite down hard and hold ’em back. Trust me on this one. Just fight the urge and keep on moving.

Junior is about to lose it. Hopping on one foot, then the other, then both, the young boy (let’s say 7, for the sake of tidiness) has a serious case of museum feet, and he’s now mere seconds from sobbing up a storm. His parents are mingling in the final rooms of “The Architecture of Reassurance,” getting up close and introspective with late-’60s design plans for the Contemporary Hotel, the A-framed Walt Disney World resort that features a monorail running right through its lobby.

Junior valiantly hangs in there for a while, but he finally loses interest once the tiki bird stops flapping its beak. Mom and Dad mutter a hopeless string of “soon”s and wander over to a 1993 model of the doomed Disney’s America park planned for Haymarket, Va. Junior has but one option left. His fists clench. His posture straightens. He backs up against the wall. Here come the waterworks…here come the—

And that’s when he spots the Tower of Terror. More specifically, the vividly detailed, full-color storyboards for the thrill ride, on which the less squeamish take a rickety elevator to the top of Disney-MGM Studios’ haunted Hollywood Tower Hotel and then, at the 13th floor (and once the lights go out), free-fall back to the bottom. Junior might not be able to read all the words that go with this delicious nightmare (which, with its neat narrative arc, clean look, and mischievous sense of humor, has Uncle Walt written all over it), but he sure can gawk at the spooky pictures. And gawk he does, until every little detail has been sucked into his tiny noggin. Soon enough, his parents are at the exit. They tell Junior they’re ready to go. But he doesn’t look away from the Tower of Terror. And he certainly doesn’t cry. CP