Mickey Mouse Watchtower: Walking Down Main Street

In the first a two-part feature, the Mickey Mouse Watchtower takes a look at Main Street, U.S.A. on both coasts of America, investigating the similarities and differences of our first views of Disneyland and WDW's Magic Kingdom! Later in the week, we'll take a look at the influence of the Main Street, U.S.A. layout on Disney's other theme parks.

Main Street, U.S.A. is one of the more fascinating areas of the Disney theme parks to analyze mostly because of how their historical relevance appeals to the various generations of the guests visiting, especially as those younger generations move into different age brackets. For me, there is still nostalgia for this “land” as the first experience I ever had at a Disney theme park, and essentially being the first experience we ALWAYS have at the Magic Kingdom. It was the setting for sun-addled daytime parades and dazzling nighttime Electrical Parades. I can still taste the ice cream of an afternoon retreat to Main Street. But I think back then I did take it for granted. It was a thoroughfare to more interesting worlds of adventure and fantasy beyond. I think the concept is universally recognizable but it takes a more astute and wiser person to truly acknowledge the magnitude of Main Street, U.S.A’s relevance, both historically and architecturally.

For many guests, there’s still an aspect of taking it for granted whether we returned as young adults, full-sized adults (and then some, after that ice cream) or eventually bringing our own kids. With so much to see now and so much expense to capitalize on, it’s difficult to linger in what has essentially become a shopping area (particularly at Walt Disney World). It’s not as direct of an appreciation for many. But you’d be hard pressed to look back on any vacation to Disneyland or the Magic Kingdom and not recognize Main Street, U.S.A. as the setting of some important memory, whether it be fireworks, parade, silly photograph or just the pure joy of that first arrival. And when you dare to take a look closer and to immerse yourself in the land, it’s easy for even the most cynical person to consider not only the absolute brilliance of Walt’s concept but the magic of how that concept can subtly permeate your memories.

There’s obviously a historical aspect of Disneyland’s Main Street, U.S.A. that trumps the Magic Kingdom by simple virtue of being the park that Walt walked through for 11 years. Disneyland’s even includes a much-revered apartment that Walt kept above the firehouse! I’m not one to base comparisons of the kingdoms on the persnickety notion that Disneyland will always be superior because Walt walked through it. But I do have to say, it adds something, even subconsciously, when you’re there, particularly for those who only know the Magic Kingdom. Sure, there are many thrill-seekers who skip past any love of Walt for the pure thrill of it all. But for the most part, fans of Disneyland and Walt Disney World have an immense respect for Walt himself. So making the pilgrimage to his first park adds a certain emotional reverence to the experience.

One thing that competitors tend to dwell on is how largely the castle looms beyond Main Street, U.S.A. Magic Kingdom’s adaptation is obviously more regal as Cinderella’s Castle stands taller and is treated with more iconic reverence. Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty Castle isn’t as majestic but is the centerpiece of a more quaint approach to the layout of the land. The castles have their obvious design differences that go beyond size as they simple are two different architectural marvels. When I first visited Disneyland, I expected to be disappointed by this, but much like the street leading up to it, one needs to look beyond size and respect the majesty of the concept and creation. Plus, Sleeping Beauty’s Castle has a certain charm that works almost as effectively as Cinderella’s epic majesty, especially when you see how much more effectively it opens up into the Fantasyland behind it than the Magic Kingdom.

The exterior architecture isn’t as disparate as the interior layout of the two Main Streets. Walt Disney World’s is larger and roomier, pointing towards an obviously larger central park icon. It also includes design elements that points towards more eastern, Victorian influence and nods to the Industrial Revolution. But ultimately, guests are meant to enjoy the charm and quaintness of a small town main street and because of that, Disneyland doesn’t lose much luster in comparison to its younger sibling’s bigger size. I definitely had a similar sensation in that regard, especially in my initial few days’ visits when crowds were minimal. (That being said, a crowded Main Street, U.S.A. isn’t going to vary much between coasts as they are both difficult to navigate during peak hours.) One of the more noticeable exterior differences between the two that’s not tied into structural design is the more notable prevalence of trees at the front of Disneyland’s Main Street, including the town square, which I think exuded a more intimate, accessible appeal than the Magic Kingdom’s more open, blander version of the square.

Over time, the inside of WDW’s Main Street, U.S.A. shops has been whittled down to large emporiums with generic merchandising that all flow together. Sure the stores have some thematic qualities, but for the large part, when inside you feel like you’re in Downtown Disney. Disneyland has stayed consistent and true to its original conception more effectively, maintaining store individuality and many of the original shops that have since departed the WDW version. This includes the Penny Arcade and the House of Magic, two beloved long-time stops along Main Street, U.S.A. that harken back to that bygone era. WDW has instead chosen to expand its plush toy displays!

Disneyland’s Main Street Cinema is actually a cinema, whereas WDW’s has hosted a multitude of shops. This is an unfortunate use of the space, especially with such cool architecture outside and the obvious historical connection with Disney’s cinematic oeuvre. The same can be said about the Exposition Hall, which once hosted The Walt Disney Story but is now mostly a retail facility with a small theatre in the back. Sigh. I think fans would be more endeared by the concept ofMain Street, U.S.A. if there was more inside the walls than just merchandise or high priced collectibles.

Both Main Streets host their fair share of eateries and a good assortment of quick foods whether it be an ice cream cone, a muffin or even a corn dog. The restaurants are pretty standard fare and have never been incredibly appealing to me. I didn't find many startling differences for food on Main Street in either park, though my curiosity was piqued by the Carnation Cafe in Disneyland which has a nice, affordable menu. Alas, long lines prevented me from ever sticking a fork in their meatloaf stack!

Of course, the parks share many of the same core values. The sly concept of Main Street, U.S.A. acting as the opening credits of a movie works in both parks, with the posters under the train station and the references to Imagineers (or the “filmmakers”) in the windows above the shops. The train stations, albeit of different design, still sit proudly at the very front of the park, whisking passengers off to the other lands. The transportation, like the trolley or horse-drawn carriages , carries guests to the ends of Main Street, U.S.A. Both parks have street entertainment that takes the theme of the land one step further. These shared concepts all help make the experience of visiting either Main Street, U.S.A. in Disneyland or the Magic Kingdom quite similar and possibly one of the closest duplications of such between any of the parks’ lands.

How amazing the foresight to create a Main Street, U.S.A. based on an era that had only been some 50 years prior and thus experienced by not only the Disneyland’s namesakes (Walt and Roy) but also some of its Imagineers. Yet more than 50 years since Disneyland’s opening, that era is equally as cherished even as there remains very few who ever walked down such a main street in America. Despite the architectural and practical changes to the main street concept in our neighborhoods over the years, we still have an affinity for the version that Walt captured at the fore of his park. It’s almost as if he truly recognized how timeless the turn of the 19th century would be this many years later. Or maybe Walt himself has helped us all appreciate that architecture and history because of his own homage to it!

But perhaps most importantly, Walt and his Imagineers came up with a wildly incongruent concept, a turn-of-the-century, middle-American main street leading up to a fantastical, medieval castle, and made it an essential part of the theme parks' genius. You could shift around most of the other lands (except for Fantasyland) or reallocate attractions within the lands, as Walt Disney World did in some cases from the Disneyland layout, and still retain the ideology of the theme park. But neither Disneyland nor the Magic Kingdom would be the same if Main Street, U.S.A. were removed or shuttled to another part of the park. Disney would resurrect the concept for Disney-MGM Studios but for the most part attempted different opening formats for the rest of its secondary theme parks, to varying degrees of success, both practically and aesthetically. But that’s a topic for another day!


The Disney Dad said...

If you think of The Magic Kingdom (both of them) as a live interactive movie. Main Street USA functions as both the introduction and the credits. You walk into Main Street and are immediately immersed into the story of Walt's childhood. (Complete, I might add with credits in the windows of the shops.)

Then you see the big opening scene, the castle. Each of the lands functions as a major scene in the movie. At the end of the day, you have a big close with the firework show and the parade, and back down Main Street USA for the credits and final scenes.