The Main Streets of Disney's Other Parks

In the second part of a two-part feature on Main Street, U.S.A., we take a look at how that concept influenced other Disney theme parks, and which parks deviated from the concept completely.

When Walt Disney and his Imagineers created the ultimate blueprint for what would become Disneyland, the concept that was front and center in the park was Main Street, U.S.A. The turn-of-the-19th-century-themed Main Street would not only show-off Disney’s ability to craft nostalgic architecture but it would also revolutionize the theme park concept. Because of the hub-and-spoke design of the park, guests could choose to skip a certain land, but short of hopping right on the Disneyland Railroad (or eventually escaping to the Disneyland Hotel via monorail), it was near impossible to avoid Main Street, U.S.A. as both the first and last sights of your day at the park. It helped transport guests from a realistic (albeit historical) concept into “the world of yesterday, tomorrow and fantasy” and subsequently back home.

When Walt Disney World was planned, there was no doubt that Main Street, U.S.A. would once again bring guests to the hub and beyond. But enough success and attendance on both coasts would eventually bring the need and want for new parks and in the next 30 years, Disney would open four more parks domestically, each with a varied or drastically different theme than their flagship kingdoms. Would the company replicate the concept of the main thoroughfare to a hub? Yes, and No.


The first Disney park to open without a castle at its center instead put a massive geodesic sphere at its front entrance. Right off the bat, EPCOT Center would deviate drastically from the Disneyland/WDW layout. (To this day, it remains the furthest from that concept and, in my opinion, the most successful of those alternative layouts.)

Upon entering Epcot, Spaceship Earth acts as your portal to both the world of the future and the cultures of yesterday and today. So instead of building up to the reveal of a castle and the lands beyond through subtle transitions and sly imagery, Epcot puts its “wienie” (and a top signature attraction) at the fore of the park, holding nothing back and showing everyone how different this experience will be.

To reach the other attractions within Future World, one must walk to either side of the Spaceship Earth entrance, filtering into the plaza between Innoventions. And just like that, you’re in the Future World hub. Go left for the logical side of the brain, go right for the creative side or keep moving forward onto World Showcase.

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Innoventions is hardly a Main Street concept visually but within its walls, it does act in very much the same capacity, harboring both quick eateries and gift shops like those main thoroughfares in Disneyland and WDW. And just like those parks today, the intent is that upon your exit, the allure of merchandise pulls you in from the street. Of course, much like Main Street, U.S.A., Innoventions also holds its own exhibits.

But as a thoroughfare, it’s a completely different concept. It literally is the core of Future World and is thus passed through more frequently than Main Street, U.S.A. The design of the area lends itself to the circularity of Future World with Spaceship Earth as a sphere, Innoventions’ rounded outer walls, and the layout of the attractions and landscaping. (World Showcase itself is an extension, another circular layout though with a body of water at its “hub”.) Though ultimately, Future World was designed to be more of a free-form experience, allowing for wandering and zig-zagging. Thus, it’s not reliant on a thoroughfare to bring guests to a reveal or lands beyond. As such, Innoventions is often skipped by time-restricted guests. Even if you never walk into a Main Street, U.S.A. shop, it’s an experience you are incapable of skipping.

Ironically, or perhaps intentionally, Epcot still does contain Main Street ideology, just without the U.S.A. suffix. World Showcase includes many countries that contain recreations of their historical town architecture via streets and squares, many of which had varying influence on the main streets that would eventually permeate Middle America. The visual concept of these streets and squares isn’t always the same as they don’t lead to many major unveilings and typically just dead-end. But the theory still prevails as you will find eateries, shops and even movies or rides within the meticulously-detailed architecture. Some of the best examples of street theming are the United Kingdom and France pavilions, with Germany and Italy offering more of a town square concept, and Mexico and Morocco imitating the winding open-air markets of their native lands.

Disney’s Hollywood Studios

Unlike Epcot, Disney’s Hollywood Studios sticks more closely to the Main Street, U.S.A. format with its own street upon entering the park. This time though guests walk down Hollywood Boulevard, modeled after architectural elements of early Hollywood. And at the end of the street is every actor’s castle, a movie theater. Specifically, Grauman's Chinese Theater. Unfortunately, a giant sorcerer’s hat now clogs up DHS’s hub and out-wienies Grauman!

Hollywood Boulevard contains the Main Street-esque theming, with street performers, well-detailed storytelling architecture, conceptually-similar shops, and even various tributes to Imagineers in the windows above! Beyond that architecture are some fairly generic shops with a Studios slant to the merchandise contained within. Though Sid Cahuenga’s One-of-a-Kind is one particularly unique stop along the boulevard, with a more Hollywood-centric focus to its memorabilia.

With the opening Sunset Boulevard a few years after the park’s premiere, DHS had a second street that actually runs much longer with more points of interest and an even greater wienie waiting at its end, the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. Like Hollywood Boulevard, Sunset Boulevard recreates famous architecture but this time from the '40s.

But it also contains a few notable shops like Sunset Club Couture where a Disney artist is available to customize character watches on the premises. Once Upon a Time, replicating the famous Carthay Circle Theatre which once premiered Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, also has a Disney artist on hand for sketching and customizing your favorite character. (The shop specializes in household items.) Again, most of the other shops are the fairly generic souvenir stops found throughout the parks.

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Disney’s Hollywood Studios is actually the most street-centric of the theme parks, carrying the Main Street theme through the aforementioned immediate sections of the park and technically extending to Pixar Place, Commissary Lane, and Streets of America. In fact, the Echo Lake area is really the only free-form section of the park not contained to straight alleyways. Though these streets aren’t conceptualized like Main Street and really are meant more to emulate the nature of film studios than anything else. That said, with attractions, shops and eateries lining some of these lanes, a guest gets a similar vibe throughout their visit to the Studios.

Animal Kingdom

While Animal Kingdom takes the hub-and-spoke model to its ultimate extreme, it completely eschews the concept of a straight thoroughfare to its core. Upon entering the park and passing the ubiquitous guest relations quarters, the guests immediately submerge into the thick of Animal Kingdom’s jungle theming, traversing meandering paths until they emerge within view of the Tree of Life.

From the Tree of Life’s Discovery Island home, guests are on the ultimate Disney hub with spokes that cross over bridges to the main land surrounding Discover River. On the other side of each of those bridges are the lands of Animal Kingdom. It’s a nice twist on the balanced circularity of Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom, with enough ingenuity to make Animal Kingdom’s layout one of Disney’s most innovative and refreshing. Unlike Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom where Imagineers expertly transitioned between lands in a gradual, subtle manner, Animal Kingdom’s lands are set apart from each other and utilize natural elements to distance the lands. After all, you don't want a dinosaur looming too closely to Asia!

As for those roads most travelled, while there may not be a main street amongst them, both Africa and Asia are successfully themed to emulate the architecture of the native lands, including shops and eateries designed like markets and villages.

Kudos for Animal Kingdom for taking its guests to its core in an aesthetic way that is true to the park’s theme. After all, it is the ANIMAL kingdom so theoretically we’re walking along their idea of a main street.

Disney’s California Adventure

Disney’s California Adventure had the unfortunate restriction of being the first park since Disneyland to open in a space constrained by very specific borders. (The park had to fit within the space of Disneyland’s parking lot.) This meant that the layout couldn’t really warrant more evenly-distributed positioning of the park’s various lands. And by balancing the park’s entrance with Disneyland’s across the way, any main thoroughfare upon entering would have had one of the park’s shortest lengths to contend with leaving little room for a significant hub or anything spectacular at the end.

After entering through the gates and passing the various guest relations areas, guests pass under the Golden Gate Bridge replica and are immediately in Sunshine Plaza, DCA’s pseudo-hub. On the nearest outskirts of the hub are some California-themed shops and a pair of eateries (Baker’s Field Bakery and Bur-r-r Bank Ice Cream) but before long you’re thrust into the other lands of the park. Needless to say, Sunshine Plaza is Disney’s weakest central “hub” and DCA’s main entrance street its weakest thoroughfare. Some of the theming is actually pretty neat and I think the California-themed music playing in the area is a great touch but the unspectacular entrance is incredibly substandard for a Disney park. This is an example of the antithesis to the Main Street concept which is all about building anticipation and pulling the curtain back slowly; here, there isn’t much to prevent you from making a sharp right and hurrying to Soarin’.

The Backlot section of the park, immediately to your left upon entering is an homage to DHS’s Hollywood Boulevard with its own shops, eateries and attractions lining the streets. The road takes a few sharp turns for bigger attractions, with the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror standing tall at the end of one of those turns. The Tower of Terror is one of many of DCA’s prime attractions that reside in this relatively smaller area. While this makes for great maneuvering from ride to ride, there is only one-way in and out of this area of the park currently (this is expected to change). Perhaps Imagineers chose not to put this concept at the front and center of the park for fear it would emulate DHS too closely. However it is for all intents and purposes DCA’s main street, it’s just not one you can take in and out of the park!

Currently, DCA is undergoing construction to expand and strengthen its rather limited offerings and one of the key elements of this rehab is the reconstituting of the park’s entrance, both architecturally and structurally. With the entrance gates moving further into the outside plaza, the reconfiguration of the monorail bridge, and the straightening of the entrance thoroughfare, not to mention a more visually-appealing and historically-relevant Carthay Circle-designed “wienie”, Imagineers are aiming for a better themed introduction to the much-maligned park. Upon its completion, the thoroughfare will more closely resemble the park’s closest cousin, Disney’s Hollywood Studios, though with a greater focus on Walt Disney’s personal relevance in Hollywood.

The folks at Disney have done a nice job treading the line between maintaining a smart concept and making innovative departures from that concept when justified. It would not have served them creatively if all six domestic theme parks had the same exact concept, even if thematically different. DCA shows us an example of a park that needed that creative spark while Epcot shows us that if you're going to throw the concept out the door, do it with style! Epcot (along with Animal Kingdom) also show us that the new kids on the block, relatively speaking, can also go a long way towards putting their own indelible stamp on theme park design and culture. But at the end of the day, there is no finer opening credits to a living motion picture than that of Main Street, U.S.A.


pat said...

Now I need to go back and REALLY LOOK at Main Street. Amazing details and connections.