- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 24, 2001

I visited Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif., with my family in June 1973.

The temperature was 102, but Lucinda, 6, and Georgeanna, 5, were unstoppable. They rode the Dumbo Flying Elephants, floated in boats through "It's A Small World," set sail on the Mark Twain Riverboat in "Frontierland" and saw Snow White and the dwarfs parade down Main Street.

Lucinda later vomited — she had taken too many rides and eaten too much junk food — but Disneyland was the peak experience of her California trip.

Fast forward 27 years to the "Designing Disney's Theme Parks: The Architecture of Reassurance" at the National Building Museum and see the mixture of magic and fantasy that entranced both children.

If Walt Disney (1901-1966) had lived he would be 100 this year. He built his vision, the first Disney theme park at Anaheim, in 1955. Mr. Disney's wizardlike recipe of happy story telling in an illusory, wondrous world proved a winner.

The National Building exhibit of 200 drawings, plans, models, renderings and archival photographs traces the genesis and development of Mr. Disney's ideas from his first, unsuccessful amusement park in Burbank, Calif., to the parks built in France and Japan after he died.

The show is dense with documentation on Mr. Disney after he moved to Los Angeles in 1923. His animation business in Kansas City had failed, and he began the Walt Disney film company with his brother Roy that year.

His animation and film work were successful in California, but he wanted more. He had dreams of inventing something new with working trains, models and a park. In the 1940s he made the large wood-and-steel box train car in the show's introductory gallery.

Mr. Disney also wanted to move animation, which was locked into the flatness of the 2-D screen, to a 3-D ambience.

He visited the Golden Gate International Exposition of 1939 in San Francisco, which featured fantastic turrets, castles, palaces and towers. He traveled to Chicago in 1948 to see the Railroad Fair. He built a backyard railroad behind his house in the Holmby Hills neighborhood of Beverly Hills in 1951.

He looked at the old buildings that Walter Knott bought up for his "ghost town." Knott was the owner of a successful berry farm near Anaheim and created the town as entertainment for customers waiting for his wife's celebrated chicken dinners.

A drawing in the exhibit shows a building at the Knott town that was big enough for people to enter. Mr. Disney's initial inspirations had been the miniatures of the fairs, but he started thinking of large environments. He envisioned people moving through them.

His ideas predicted today's environmental and installation art in several ways. He wanted people to interact with his kind of "art."

Mr. Disney had lost interest in filmmaking in the early 1940s with the bitter strike of workers at the Disney Studio and the failure of his "Fantasia."

He wanted an environment he could control. Children were asking to come to Hollywood and see where Mickey Mouse lived. He began thinking of a locale: "A little park, with statues of Mickey and the other characters, with picnic tables, grass and trees. A place for all the kids who wanted to meet Mickey. A place where happy, non-unionized employees could bring their families on the weekends," writes curator Karal Ann Marling.

It's here the exhibit fails. The show makes no effort to illuminate Mr. Disney the man and genius behind the parks. Rather it concentrates on the "machine" or design team he assembled and called the "Imagineers."

Granted this is a scholarly exhibition. Walt Disney Imagineering opened the Disney Art Library to Miss Marling and the Canadian Centre for Architecture, the exhibit's organizers. They researched documents never examined before.

The show needs more of Mr. Disney's flesh-and-blood. It speaks of his perfectionism and obsessive attention to details but not about his exacting father.

The peripatetic Disney family, headed by Elias Disney, moved to Kansas City in 1911. The father obtained a paper route and had Walt begin delivering papers at 3:30 a.m. The youngster had to climb icy steps to place papers behind customers' storm doors, while other boys just threw papers on lawns.

Walt Disney had spent four years in Marceline, Mo., before Kansas City. He remembered them as idyllic and always recalled the community spirit of harvest time.

Disneyland's Main Street derives in part from there. He got the idea for Disneyland's Magic Mountain from the town's garbage dump, a former slag pit. He also developed in his interest in trains and farm animals in Marceline.

It's unclear which audiences the exhibit organizers aim to target. Children have called the museum to inquire about rides. There are no rides, and the exhibit may be too scholarly for youngsters. The show probably will attract mostly visitors interested in contemporary architecture and popular culture.

"The Architecture of Reassurance" goes beyond Mr. Disney's death. Although in the beginning his name evoked imagination and a childlike wonder, now it calls up mass consumerism and culture. Disney parks, hotels and stores became marketing phenomena of the 20th century. Unfortunately, the exhibit does not separate the two distinct phases.

The exhibit also fails to illustrate the obvious connection between Disney designs, entertainment and marketing with American museum philosophy and activity.

A few years ago Thomas Krens, director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, told a group of Georgetown University students that museums changed drastically. "They're now at the high end of the entertainment business," he said.

Sound like the Disney theme parks? Definitely.WHAT: "The Architecture of Reassurance: Designing the Disney Theme Parks"WHERE: National Building Museum, 401 F St. NWWHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays and noon to 5 p.m. Sundays,through Aug. 5TICKETS: FreePHONE: 202/272-2448


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