Disney Parks Infrastructure – Boundaries, Part I

In honor of the season, it seems appropriate to open with an anatomical metaphor. Though this point can and should be disputed (by someone else, and after this post has gone up), one might consider the skin to be one of the fundamental boundaries of organisms at every level of complexity. In addition to serving as a container for its material components (most of them, anyway), for my own questionable purposes the more important characteristic of skin is its capacity to act as a mediator between an organism and its physical environment. It is therefore fitting to begin our infrastructural analysis by exploring the sites and surfaces through which the Disney resorts meet the rest of the universe. Though the company trades on immersion, the relationship between a Disney park and its habitat is considerably more complex than simple binaries can capture (inside vs. outside, etc). This relationship, riddled with slippages and held together by workarounds, will be illuminated in this and the next post by exploring the distinct ways that each of Disney’s US resorts continuously negotiates its own boundaries. In the same way that skin serves as a zone of interaction between a physical body and a physical world, these boundaries serve as critical sites at which the Disney company is constantly re-articulating its relationship with the spaces and communities that surround it.

Disneyland, or: Damn It, Why Didn’t We Plan For This?

article-2543873-1ade975900000578-344_964x404Disneyland’s creation myth is widely known and, at least at the moment, does not need repeating. The resort’s seemingly divine inspiration, and the blind sprint toward its debut, are considerably less interesting for our purposes than the steaming mass of urban humanity that stormed its gates in the ensuing decades (there is, of course, the possible exception of the opening day fiasco, which will more than likely make an appearance in this series). From the beginning, Disney’s Anaheim resort has suffered from something of a space problem. As the preceding photo amply demonstrates, the park’s (and in the early days, it was indeed just a park) immediate popularity inspired a land rush that saw nearly every adjacent property claimed by entertainment and hospitality providers, and the company was rather unsurprisingly left with little room for expansion (both physically and economically). More important, however, is the fact that as a result of this onslaught of related interests Disneyland was never quite able to function as the closed system that Walt Disney had imagined (I stress the word imagined here, as we shall soon see that no amount of planning and design can keep the outside world at bay).

It is precisely this constant semi-alien presence that has shaped the resort’s peculiar relationship to its surroundings. Without the elbow room enjoyed by its east coast counterpart (to be explored in this series’ next installment), the Anaheim resort can be characterized by its varying acknowledgment of, and reliance on, infrastructure to make its presence known and felt. Wedged against I-5 and cut through by city streets, Disneyland defines its extended space through seemingly casual acts of seepage. Parking lots and employee facilities (often some distance away from the main gates) are physically connected by the company’s own transit service, an arrangement that enables a sort of shoe-string annexation of the space between the resort proper and its colonies. These stretches of city roadways, also carrying hotel shuttles and Anaheim Resort Transportation (a quasi-government transit provider, partially contracted by Disney and separate from the county’s main service) vehicles in addition to normal street traffic, are noticeably better kept and more aesthetically unified than those just a few blocks beyond the main strips of the resort area, and it is here that we see the resort’s most overt use of infrastructural tactics to incorporate parts of the surrounding area while simultaneously marking itself as distinct. The strategy shifts, however, as one moves farther into the space of the resort proper.

The official company shuttles converge in the relative serenity of the resort’s bus terminal, having entered from a service road that peels off from Harbor Boulevard (the resort’s eastern boundary). All other traffic is forced to enter through the front gate, as it were, as non-Disney vehicles release their passengers along Harbor Boulevard to join other pedestrians as they file through a break in the shrubbery that surrounds the resort on most sides. The transition, while lacking physical subtlety, does facilitate a rather elegant adjustment in terms of pace and mood. The next choke point is thus approached once safely inside the (quite literally biologically-defined) space of the main property, with familiar tunes from popular franchises replacing the clamor of the busy street just beyond the hedge. A security station, featuring a hands-on bag inspection and metal detectors, momentarily increases crowd pressure (to a degree that varies based on attendance) before releasing the human torrent into the resort’s central corridor. It is at this point that we begin to notice an apparent slackening in the mechanisms of separation. Disney works hard here to make sure that their security operation has a likable human face. There are no locking gates at this checkpoint (nor overt barriers of any kind, for that matter), and none of the x-ray scanners that one would expect to find at an airport. Officers ask permission to check bags, and occasionally wave people around the (temporary) stanchions to bypass the metal detectors, all to give the impression that this process is nothing more than a momentary inconvenience. Completely ignoring the fact that the resort has to be one of the most heavily monitored vacation sites on the planet, the atmosphere between the terminal and the security station is intended to suggest a greeting of guests, rather than a screening for potential disruptions to the resort’s operation.

Having been given a friendly go-ahead by security, those moving into the next resort area witness the disappearance of nearly all forms of familiar infrastructure. By design, Downtown Disney (the food, retail and entertainment district forming a central corridor through the resort and offering access to both parks from the on-property hotels and the world beyond) is meant to stand apart from downtown Anaheim. With little in the way of visible utilities (wires, pipes, gutters and the like), the only non-food/retail work being carried out by the occasional sweeper and the parking lot trams being the sole vehicular presence, there is essentially nothing to indicate what exactly keeps this place running physically. The wide and (relatively) uncongested pathways make it very clear that this is a space meant to appear as though it has no other organizational principle than that dictated by the whims of those meandering through it. Downtown Disney is, thus, more of a place to move through than to go to. Familiar Disney imagery sits alongside established brands such as Lego, Splitsville and The VOID (these will, with the exception of Starbucks, disappear entirely once inside the actual park gates), providing an intermediate space between the all-Disney universe of the parks and the everything-else of the city outside. Ticketing is a centralized affair here, with a handful of simple kiosks flanking a wide plaza suggesting that rather than getting into the parks, the real work lies in making it out of Anaheim. In Downtown Disney, we are thus presented with a space that references a type of real-world location without the inconvenient support systems required for its operation. Moving into this area is therefore akin to entering a show set, albeit one that facilitates a transition between the city outside and the fantasy space inside the parks.

The logic shifts yet again once inside the parks themselves. Entering through whimsical (ie – sanitized) representations of localities significant in the life of Walt Disney (1920s Hollywood or 1900s Marceline, MO), we are drawn by vintage conveyances (electric streetcar, omnibus, horse-drawn carriage, etc) into a universe where infrastructure is encountered as an amusement above all else. With nearly every physical structure tied to a recognizable IP (the workings of which are deemed largely inconsequential) and transportation systems providing a focal point for attractions such as the Rivers of America and the Disneyland Railroad (ie – the “boring” ones that let you get off your feet for a little while), the physical logic that governs the space is fascinating in its tendency to teeter between confirming and denying infrastructure as a mechanism for defining and separating spaces. This is all a rather roundabout way of pointing out that Disneyland has established something of a concentration gradient when it comes to physically asserting itself. Moving outward from the parks, while the environment presented becomes more grounded (an upscale urban leisure space, as opposed to a world of Star Wars, Marvel and Pixar), there is no pretense that Downtown Disney represents any kind of functional municipal entity. As the the borders of the resort proper are reached, things that actually work begin to creep into the picture. The bus terminal off of Harbor Boulevard waits just outside of the security checkpoint, and beyond this the live border that signals perhaps the most drastic break in Disney’s grip on the physical environment. Those on foot pass the resort’s driveway and step through its hedges, entering a zone where Disney is forced to negotiate its presence within the regular-ass city that houses it. Remote facilities, like satellite states linked to the Disney mainland by the fleet of parking shuttles, are still clearly visible for several blocks, and those traveling out of the city may very well notice the increasing height of buildings (reportedly reduced in the vicinity of the resort so as not to ruin sight lines from within) and catch a glimpse of a licensed airport shuttle heading to or from John Wayne or LAX. Interestingly, the farther one travels away from Disneyland, the more overtly the resort relies on infrastructure to assert its presence in the physical landscape. From its narrative (though not practical) acknowledgment within the parks to its indisputable but generally unnoticed presence in the road-, rail- and airways of the Los Angeles metro area, Disneyland’s shifting infrastructural stance underscores the fact that no matter how it tries to separate itself the resort can never quite exist without the city that it continues to define.

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