Lessons from the Magic Kingdom: Main Street Metaphors

đź“·Chris DuffyFollowCo-Founder, Liquid GeniusJun 3


I’ve spent a disproportionate amount of time in and around Walt Disney World, Florida. I’ve noticed things along the way which seem to be super applicable to building just about any kind of solution — those things are shared here, in the “Lessons from Magic Kingdom” series. This is the second entry, see the first entryhere.The general design of Main Street is very old. It shares the base design and concepts with Main Street in Disneyland, and Disneyland opened in 1955. Building theme parks is difficult and time consuming, so it’s very likely that the primary design themes and metaphors behind Main Street U.S.A. were developed in the mid to late 1940s.

That’s a long time ago. Things were different then.

Disney was a very different company in the 1940s. They didn’t have theme parks, huge franchises, or cruise lines. All they really had were their animated films — Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio,Fantasia,Dumbo, andBambi were the big ones. Disney certainly knew how to make movies, but they really didn’t have much to draw on when it came to designing physical spaces for customers walk through.There wasn’t much to copy, either. Theme parks didn’t really exist before Disneyland; there were amusement parks, but those are a different thing.So how did Disney design a brand new experience? Did they do countless iterations and test audiences in order to get Main Street right? No… they couldn’t. There are situations where iteration can’t happen — building huge physical spaces is certainly one of those situations.There’s other situations where iteration shouldn’t happen. Like your project. It’s better tojust get it right the first timeif you can.Disney couldn’t build, test, and iterate the design. They had to get it right from the beginning. So they thought about it, and leaned on what they knew.Disney in the 1940s had one proven journey for interaction with customers in physical space — People going to movie theaters to watch their films.They used that concept to guide the design of Main Street and leaned on it to provide core concepts for the entire park.Main Street U.S.A. at the front of the park has a metaphor that few people notice. It’s not just a road to a castle, it’s a movie theater.As you approach the park, you notice that there are two entrances that lead to the beginning of Main Street — one on the far left and one on the far right. These two entrances are like the two sets of doors on the front of a movie theater. This design works great for handling large flows of people going to or coming out of a movie; scaled up it works pretty well at the Magic Kingdom, too.As you walk through these tunnels, you’ll notice there are movie theater posters advertising the attractions in the park. Also the Cast Members in this area are dressed like movie theater ushers.

The movie-theater vibe continues once you get inside. There’s a open, square area before the actual street. This is the movie theater lobby. There’s popcorn and candy for sale here. Popcorn is on the left near the entrance, candy is on the right near the street.Take a look around Main Street using Google Street View here.Walking down Main Street is walking to your seat in the theater. You’re going to go see the magic happen. There are names on the building windows as you walk by — these are people who helped build the park. It’s the credits before the movie.

What awaits you at the end of Main Street?

What do you see at the beginning of EVERY Disney movie?

You see the castle, and you know things are about to get awesome. It all ties together.Almost 70 years later, the world is entirely different, the guests are entirely different — but guests still interact with Main Street just fine. It all works.It works, even though veryfew people notice the metaphor. People operate within the product just fine, despite the fact that they don’t realize it’s built to remind them of a moviegoing experience.It works, despite the fact that a good percentage of the people walking downMain Streetmay have never been in a movie theater — and even if they have, they probably haven’t been in a theater with ushers that wear bow ties and vests.People still enjoy Main Street just fine.This leads us to a few truths about design metaphors that are easy to forget:

Users don’t need to know or understand the design metaphors in order to use and enjoy your product.

You don’t have to force-explain your metaphors to your users. Guests on Main Street quickly figure out more than enough information to operate without needing to know the full backstory.On Main Street, guests can easily see who works for Disney and who doesn’t (consistent costumes), and they can easily see where they need to walk in order to get to the rest of the park (big castle). That’s all the need to be able to do. If they pick up anything else, that’s a bonus, but it’s not important.The metaphors you spend so much time on are borderline useless to the end user. All the user needs are consistent anchors (the castle, the street), transitions (walking down the street), expectations-setting (magic up near the castle) and expectations realization (also, magic up near the castle).The user does not need the deeper meaning behind those elements in order to enjoy the design.If that’s the case…

Design metaphors don’t exist for the users; they exist for the designers.

The metaphors you’re using are not for the users. They are for the designers.The enemy of art is the Absence of Limitations. -Orson WellesThe reason Main Street’s design still works isn’t because the users “get it” — most of them don’t. It’s because it’s a good, consistent design.The reason it’s a good design is because quality solutions come from working within a set of limitations. Disney could have done anything with the design of the park; it was intended to be literally magical. Instead of going full “blue sky” and coming up with something a design completely free of restrictions, Disney gave themselves a box to work within.That’s how you build a consistent, good design — not though unlimited resources and “blue sky” thinking, but through thoughtful selection of limitations to help keep the creativity usable and understandable.This applies to engineering processes, too; Fewer resources and more limitations almost always results in better, more efficient designs.The creativity of Main Street isn’t just the theater metaphor, but a collection of metaphors working together. In order to make this work, you have to know and understand what works and what doesn’t about the themes and metaphors you’re using for the design.As such, it’s critical that designers…

Lean on what the designers KNOW.

Bad designs are often based on metaphors the designers don’t have direct experience with. The designs with metaphors picked by committee, due to market research saying those themes are considered to be “fun” or “exciting” by the target demographic, always fail to impress and/or lack longevity.Picking themes or metaphors based on the target user demographic is fundamentally flawed right out of the gate — because as we learned above, these metaphors and themesaren’t forthe end user. The end user doesn’t care. We chose these things to help limit and guide the design, so the the design can be a good, consistent solution. The designers need a deep understanding of these limitations in order to put together something great — if they don’t have that understanding, the resulting product will similarly lack focus and definition. It will essentially be a “blue sky” design built within a undefined box.Movie theaters and pre-war downtown Americana aren’t particularly happy or magical themes by themselves, but Main Street U.S.A. certainly is both of those things. Main Street is magical thanks mainly to it’s content, not it’s design. Those are two different things, and they need to be built separately. Content can be “blue sky’d” — but the environment built to host the content needs to have limitations that the designer knows well.

Get the base design figured out first, then tweak it to exaggerate the important stuff.

There are many tiny tricks Disney use on Main Street to make the design better. These tweaks add emphasis to existing elements, they are not elements by themselves.Street incline:Main Street itself has a very shallow slope up from the entrance to the park to the castle. This slope isn’t visually noticeable since the buildings block the horizon — so instead of looking like a slope, it just looks like the castle is closer and larger.Smells: It’s common practice these days to use smells to make people hungry or to get them interested in a location. Disney did it here, too, filling the front of Main Street with popcorn and candy smells straight out of the movie theater. These enhance the anchors at the beginning of Main Street — opposite the castle — those anchors of the popcorn and candy stores, the movie posters, and the park entrance itself. As guests are leaving the park, they remember that there’s popcorn available on the way out.Castle scale: The castle changes scale significantly as it goes up, making it look taller and larger than it really is. Not surprisingly, this is an old movie trick, used for making structures look bigger or further away when building sets.Main Street building scale: The buildings along Main Street use a similar scale technique, but in the opposite fashion. Everything above the first story on theses buildings is built at a smaller scale. This makes the castle look taller yet still, and has a strange effect on the humans themselves on Main Street…The scale change on the buildings makes the guests subconsciously feel taller. It’s a strange, hard to describe feeling — but everything just feels better, and it feels like just about anything could happen next.That’s exactly the expectaions-setting Disney was hoping for. It works — without the user knowing the metaphors.

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