Pay Attention to Details Others Ignore

This is the real secret to the Disney Magic, you know.

Main Street USA in the Magic Kingdom is the perfect example illustrating this takeaway. It is at Main Street that the Guest is first introduced to the concept of forced perspective. This theatrical design technique is used by designers who play with scale in the real world in order to affect the perception of scale in an illusory wold. Most of us have a sixth-sense understanding of relative scale, and it is that familiarity that allows Imagineers to trick us by changing the “rules.” Buildings, props, or set pieces are built with size relationships that might be incorrect in order to increase the apparent size or distance of an object or space.

Forced perspective  can be found all around Disney parks, in large exterior spaces and in small interior sets and models. It’s just another way in which the world you encounter at Disney might not be exactly as it appears. Some of the best examples of forced perspective are found on Main Street. For example, each building, with few exceptions, is built with floors that diminish in height in an effort to make them appear taller than they really are without making the whole of Main Street too large and impersonal.

Cinderella Castle, seen at the end of Main Street, is the most extreme example of this practice.

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The scale of the architectural elements and building blocks is significantly different in the upper reaches than in the lower foundation in order to make the Castle seem to soar beyond its 189-foot actual height. The stacked stones of the lower castle walls get smaller and smaller in size as you scan upward. In fact, the handrail at the top spire, where Tinker Bell begins her flight before the fireworks, is only two feet tall rather than the three-and-a-half-foot tall railings we’re used to seeing in standard construction.

Another design technique borrowed from Disney’s film background is encountered when the Guests approach and enter the Park. From the Ticket and Transportation Center, where most Guests have left their cars, Cinderella Castle is visible.

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This heightens the feeling of anticipation one is already experiencing. Once you board the monorail or ferry, you know you’re on your way and you get caught up in the excitement of the journey. You get periodic glimpses of the Castle, but it’s not generally in plain sight. Upon arrival at the park entrance (equivalent to a theater lobby), the height of the train station (full size) serves as a visual barrier to the Park.

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The music here is chosen to represent all the lands of the Park, orchestrated so as not to clash with the visible elements of Main Street. You pass through tunnels where your view is constricted, and it gets darker before the first reveal of Town Square. The pass-throughs are placed on opposite sides of the Square, so that you can’t initially see all the way down the street. Once you’ve had a chance to get your bearings and soak in the atmosphere of Main Street, you’re funneled toward the center of the street where the Castle is finally given away in the ultimate reveal. It’s all intentional, and highly cinematic – by design, of course.

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Brilliant.

These two techniques illustrate the depth of detail that Disney’s Imagineers go into to evoke the memory and effect desired. Take a good look at all the finishes, materials, design detailing, and surface treatments throughout Magic Kingdom. You will find wood, metal, stone, faux materials, props, patterns, and dozens of other materials  – and none of them are accidental. Each was carefully conceived and thoughtfully executed so as to add layer to the scenic design of the Park. No matter which “land” you’re walking through, you feel as if you are actually “there.” That’s because Disney supports the “story” with every little thing they put into the land.

This attention to detail is no accident. Marty Sklar, one of the  most influential Imagineers at Disney, has spent over five decades with the company. Along with longtime mentor and collaborator John Hench, the pair are perhaps most responsible for capturing and translating the essence of Disney-park storytelling design philosophy and practice for his fellow Imagineers. Sklar’s close work with Walt Disney let him to set forth the following doctrine to explain the essential elements of the Imagineering design and development process. Mickey’s Ten Commandments distill the core of fifty-plus years of design and development into ten key points of direction.

  1. Know Your Audience – identify the prime audience for your attraction or show before you begin design.
  2. Wear your Guest’s Shoes – insist that your team members experience your creation just the way Guests do.
  3. Organize the Flow of People and Ideas – make sure there is a logic and sequence in your stories, and in the way Guests experience them.
  4. Create a Wienie (Visual Magnet) – create visual targets that lead visitors clearly and logically through your facility.
  5. Communicate with Visual Literacy – make good use of all the non-verbal forms of communication: color, shape, form, and texture.
  6. Avoid Overload – Create Turn Ons – Resist the temptation to overload your audience with too much information and too many objects.
  7. Tell One Story at a Time – stick to the story line; good stories are clear, logical, and consistent.
  8. Avoid contradictions – Maintain Identity – Details in design or content that contradict one another confuse an audience about your story or the time period it takes place.
  9. For Every Ounce of Treatment, Provide a Ton of Treat – Walt Disney was fond of saying “You can educate people – but don’t tell them you’re doing it! Make it fun!”
  10. Keep It Up! (Maintain It) – Everything must work! Poor maintenance is poor show.

What can you learn from Disney’s Imagineers about the importance of details in your environment?

#5 in a series of #TopTenTakeaways

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