Walt Disney World, or: ALL THE SPACE
Like its west coast counterpart, the beginning of Disney’s Orlando resort is the stuff of legend. And (spoiler alert), for much the same reason, the origin story will not be the specific object of interest for this installment. The (credit where credit is due) decent attempts at subtlety during the land acquisition process, and the adjustment of purpose prompted by Walt Disney’s death, make for charming (and highly marketable, just saying) stories. They have also been influential in defining the purpose and identity of the resort, but what really concerns us here is once again the particulars of the relationship between the physical property and its surroundings. In this case, it is critical to begin by acknowledging just how much the planning for the Orlando resort was influenced by the performance of its predecessor. While this seems like an obvious statement on its surface (it does not come as a shock that the company would have looked to Anaheim Disneyland’s decade of existence when planning for Orlando), it is difficult to overstate the degree to which the Orlando resort has been (and will likely continue to be) defined based on its sister property.
It is therefore fitting to begin an exploration of the Orlando resort with an eye toward the question of boundaries, as it is a topic of high visibility for visitors as well as one which implies that there has been some degree of development since the opening in Anaheim. The most noticeable difference is one of scale, as the “invasion” in California prompted the company to stake a much larger claim on the east coast (roughly 25,000 acres, compared to the 160 bought in 1953 for the Anaheim property). This results in a much lower density within the property, as well as an extensive buffer zone separating Disney from the city of Orlando (as much of the original land purchase was intended to be left undeveloped). While I have once again made something of an obvious point here, it turns out that the implications for a footprint of this size are rather hefty. In the first place, when approaching the resort it is never made entirely clear exactly what or where its edges are. Unlike in Anaheim, where the back sides of attractions are visible to passersby on the city streets, there is no place within Walt Disney World where one can reasonably ascertain the contours of the resort from ground level (this is also difficult from the air, as even the tallest structures offer little in the way of an effective vantage point and the property does not sit within easy viewing distance of the MCO flight corridor). Thousands of acres of extensive landscaping (landscaping that is, very importantly, intended to appear natural) effectively obscure most structures from view until the observer is in close proximity (in most cases, inside a parking area), and except for signage those traveling through the property are given little to indicate that they are moving through anything other than Central Florida roadside woods.
This roadside wilderness, or rather the road itself, offers another intriguing site for analysis. While transportation will be dealt with on its own in the future, it is so deeply implicated in the formation and management of the resort’s boundaries that the topic deserves some mention in this installment. To begin with, it is vital to note that for the vast majority of its inhabitants (both visitors and staff), the resort is only accessible by road, and in a strictly private manner. Whereas the Anaheim resort can be reached entirely by public transportation (the entirety of the property is accessible by foot, Orange County Transportation Authority buses serve the bordering streets and connect to intermodal transit centers providing both local and intercity bus and rail service), the only way to access Disney’s Orlando property is to drive in on one of a handful of state or interstate roads. With entry being offered (tacitly) only to privately owned and/or officially contracted vehicles, and even ride-sharing being kept on a short leash (so as not to interfere with the company’s own “Minnie Van” service), one must travel deep within the property before encountering anything that resembles a monitored entry point (these would be, depending on perspective, either the parking lot ticket booths or the security stations at each park). Monitoring, however, is both an active and passive process, and these staffed checkpoints merely continue a job that has been initiated by the landscape.
While the issue of density has already been introduced, it is worth pausing for a moment to consider its interaction with those of transportation and access. In doing so, we can begin to understand just how diffuse boundaries are even within the resort. As one can easily imagine, and also see quite clearly on any map or aerial image, there are few (visibly) hard edges within the property. Rather, the company seems inclined to rely preferentially on isolation in order to maintain its territorial integrity. During the drive into the property, as I teased earlier, the visitor is rarely permitted to see much more of the landscape than is required for the placement of the road surface, which gives the impression that the space simply continues just beyond the tree line. Somehow, far from seeming channeled, the impression given by the drive in is one of meandering through a woodsy road. This continues all the way into the parks, where one is equally unlikely to encounter an obvious obstruction such as a perimeter wall or fence. Instead, “natural” barriers are provided by sculpted landscapes or building facades. Even though one can often approach a physical edge quite closely (and in the case of the Magic Kingdom’s Space Mountain even cross it, as the attraction is in fact located outside the perimeter of the park), because these edges are formed by spaces with which visitors can interact, the implication is that the universe of the park just keeps going. Beyond the space of the parks, fleeting glimpses of the surroundings, granted by momentary pauses on the taller outdoor attractions (all of which are kept under 200 feet in height in order to avoid the necessity of installing warning lights for aircraft), reveal the distance which needs to be covered in order to reach other resort areas and, eventually, the world beyond. This principle also works in reverse, as internal divisions within the parks collapse distances on the scale of both light and geological years, and in the case of the Animal Kingdom park the two work in tandem. Here, few would question the proposition that the planet Pandora (of Avatar fame) and Earth’s Cretaceous Period (you know, then one that most of the dinosaurs in the Jurassic Park franchise are from) are apparently situated within walking distance of one another, and yet the view from the top of the Himalayan-themed Expedition Everest roller coaster (located between them, in the “Asia” section of the same park . . . I know, I know) never fails to inspire surprise as riders are reminded that they have actually been in Florida the whole time.
The point of all this is that Disney company has actually pulled off a rather impressive feat of spatial trickery here. The sheer size of the resort’s footprint, along with its peculiar pattern of development, has held the Orlando metro area at bay in a variety of ways. On one hand, this is more or less transparent: the distance between city and park, maintained by apparently undeveloped green space, offers both physical and metaphorical room for those on property. When moving through or into the resort, one does so not on an urban street or within a public conveyance, but from the comfort of a private vehicle traveling along an interstate highway. Surrounded by green space and other concealing features of the landscape, there is often little to announce the company’s presence aside from roadside signage. Even the four massive resort signs that straddle major highway entrances feel somewhat out of place, as the space on either side appears more or less the same. Parks and hotels seem to congeal from out of the background, not quite coming into view until one is essentially in the parking lot. Once inside the gates, we are then made to understand that an infinite universe is contained without edges in each park, which itself seems to fade into existence from out of the aether that constitutes the majority of the resort’s footprint. Traveling through the space thus gives the impression of crossing unthinkable stretches of time and space to reach destinations that always manage to sneak up on you. In a way, one does not so much enter the resort as just sort of become engulfed in it. And all this without a fence.
So, Who Cares?
This is a fair question, but I have to confess that I have no good answer. Maybe we can get to one by starting with the facts. In the two US Disney properties, we have examples of two different strategies for managing boundaries and dealing with the cities that lie beyond the berm. For the Anaheim resort, historical circumstances forced the company to wall itself off, maintaining a dense presence within a confined area. Moving outward and away from the center of the resort, its presence is made apparent through interventions in local and regional transportation systems. A distinct geographical boundary obscures an enterprise that is, nevertheless, fairly tightly integrated with its surroundings in a number of ways. On the other coast, stretching out is the name of the game. With a large footprint, the company is able to establish a sizable buffer zone between itself and the environment around it, separating itself physically as well as concealing much of its mass even from those not filtered out by the restricted opportunities for incoming transportation. Inside the gates, the scale of the property is constantly manipulated by compressing physical and temporal distances in one moment, then expanding them in the next. The result is the creation of a space that is implied to be infinite, yet somehow fully contained in an area that does do without explicit boundaries of any kind. Perhaps we can find solace in the knowledge that for the Disney parks, as is so often the case, edges function more as sites of exchange and negotiation than as a container. Rather than cloistering themselves, as was (at least to some degree) the original intention, it seems that the resorts have only sutured themselves to their surroundings in weirder and creepier ways.
If pop culture scholarship has taught me nothing else (it most certainly has not), it is that everything is always the worst. And in that spirit, I can happily say that this is only the beginning. If you managed to make it this far, then you can look forward to *probably* surviving the horrors that await you in the rest of this series. If boundaries are the skin of the beast, then future installments will examine its innards in pornographic detail.