Disney: The Architecture of Staged Realities

By Saskia van Stein

‘Project Life Cycle’ provides a brief look into the complex work behind the scenes of a Walt Disney Company production. It is a meticulous formalisation that maps the industrial-organisational apparatus of the life cycle of a Disney project. The creative process is abstracted into a sequence of decisions, a neatly controlled set of steps leads to a scripted path of checks and balances all aimed towards the project outcome, the creation of a perfected, carefree universe.

It all starts with ‘Blue Sky’ – an idiom now incorporated into corporate jargon –, where the sky is the limit. The process of concept development is fuelled by research, new technologies, support as needed to meet the deliverables and throughout the process, an openness for alternative ideas is being evaluated. Halfway through the process reality kicks in when ‘Capital Authorization’ is required.

The blueprint was drawn in 1988, the same year Cinderella came out on Home Video, as Mickey Mouse’s 60th birthday, the 5th anniversary of Disneyland Tokyo, and the creation of Walt Disney Computer Software as the video game division of the Walt Disney Company. The critical and commercial box office success of Who Framed Roger Rabbit – made in collaboration with Steven Spielberg – was the cherry on top of what was already a very productive year.

The year 1988 is considered the beginning of the Disney Renaissance after Walt and his brother Roy’s passing, in 1966 and 1971 respectively, leaving the company without its creative engines and on the verge of bankruptcy. The era in which technological devices became consumer commodities with VHS opening new markets and enabling the dissemination and distribution of Disney movies to larger audiences. Walt Disney had embraced the rise of mass media in the early 1950s as a return on investment for the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) who helped purchase 244 hectares of land around Anaheim, California to build The Happiest Place on Earth. He featured in a weekly television program on ABC, telling stories of alternative realities, technological advancement, and sharing the process of building the park. Walt cast his spell of desire onto the future audience for the theme park. This gave Disneyland a pull factor to come and explore, while also providing a sense of familiarity upon arrival as the audience had seen it all before on TV.

The blueprint could have possibly been used by the Imagineers, the team behind the creative and technological innovations. The term Imagineers, merging imagination with the technical know-how of engineers, was coined by Walt, and is the name of the group of designers tasked with transforming the former orange grove into Disneyland in 1955. Since then, the unit oversaw the production of the theme parks, robotic animatronics, new attractions, holiday resorts, cruise ships, real estate, entertainment venues, game developments, and all other output of the firm. These expansions depended heavily on the commercial success of storytelling: animated movies, the selling of merchandise, earworm songs, children’s magazines, and the unprecedented growth of fan clubs. Every animated character ever imagined has a rational infrastructure of technological, jurisdictional, and creative deliverables at its foundation – a construct connecting the magic to the money.

Since Disney’s early days in the late 1920s, the sugarcoated narrative has been highly controlled. All the assets of the company are exceedingly scripted into a co-relational web of parts which together constitute an immaterial cultural production. The cartoon characters make their way from the cinema screen onto a lunch box. By doing so, these characters live subliminally in our collective imagination.

In the blueprint, solid lines divide and mark the different sequential parts in the process. The dotted lines, from top to bottom, presuppose a more fluid and reciprocal connection between the different departments responsible for delivering outcomes. The different parts, such as Show Design, Architecture Design, Ride Engineering, Construction, and Operations/Participant Affairs illustrate the co-dependence and intricacies between the different departments leading to a new project. Testing, adjusting, surveying, monitoring, trend, and value analysis are the standard operating procedures that oil the apparatus that creates a singular sensation with a predictive outcome. The company’s cultural output, by now bordering on global hegemony, disseminates and perpetuates Disney’s ethos.

The carefree whimsy of Disneyland performs by the grace of pragmatic organisation, such as displayed in this blueprint. Outward simplification, innocence, naïvity, and cuteness are strategies to create a sheltered sense of familiarity. The seamless merging of the staged and the real, dissolving into one other, makes it increasingly hard to disentangle the ways in which we are moved to behave – making the strategies problematic. For the architectural profession, however, it is useful to obtain a fundamental understanding of the different design narratives at play in a Disney creation. The analogies that can be made between Disney and architecture are many; ideas becoming storytelling, research, concepts, visualisations, drawings, and blueprints, are all instrumental in the process of seducing a client or user. All these are essential to the materialisation of the design.

The last block on the blueprint reads ‘Post mortem one year after opening, implying a further year of tweaking the project to perfection. Could we imagine this kind of long-term commitment, care and precision without the Disney dogma? Blue skies forever.

Project Life Cycle, 1988. Blueprint, 460 × 1920 mm. DMC 3356.

The Architecture of Staged Realities is on display from the 5 September – 22 March 2022 at Het Nieuwe Instituut in Rotterdam (formerly known as NAI) The Netherlands.