Mel McGowan

Mel McGowan is the founder and President of Visioneering Studios, an international destination design firm, with offices across the US.

Mel combines a unique background in film and a decade-long stint with the Walt Disney Company with experience as co-founder of a strategic branding, media and environmental design firm.

Whether master planning a 2000 acre “new town” or scripting the guest experience of a 2000 seat theatrical experience, Mel approaches each endeavor with a passion for creativity, excellence, and “coloring outside the lines.”

Current and recent projects include Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination, the Las Vegas Mob Experience, the Poverty Encounter for Children’s Hunger Fund, and a village of refuge and recovery for victims of child sex trafficking in Southeast Asia.

Visioneering Studios is a leading global Design and Development company, with offices in OC, Denver, and Charlotte. Its leaders include former Design and Development Principals of Disney, AECOM (the world’s largest design & engineering firm), Universal Creative, Lennar Urban, HOK, RNL, Gensler and HNTB.

Parkology: Disneylandia Debunked – Myth #2 “Disneyland was a reaction against Coney Island and traditional amusement parks”

disney california advernture paradise pier

Disney California Adventure – Paradise Pier

mel mcgowan theme park designerby Mel McGowan

Related: Parkology: Coney Island the First Theme Park? / Parkology: Disneylandia Debunked – Myth #1 “It all started on a park bench”

The generally accepted notion is that the traditional amusement park was a “pit” and that Walt “launched the bar” so high that he created an entirely new paradigm. One of the most repeated criticisms of Disney’s California Adventure 1.0 was the “sacrilege” of Walt’s philosophy and aversion to such parks by incorporating Paradise Pier – a land themed as a traditional amusement boardwalk/pier.

James Rouse’ first “Festival Marketplace” – Faneuil Hall

James Rouse’ first “Festival Marketplace” – Faneuil Hall

In justifying his assertion that Disneyland was the greatest piece of urban design in America, James Rouse (inventor of the “Festival Marketplace” and community developer) said, “it took an area of activity—the amusement park—and lifted it to a standard so high in its performance, in its respect for people, that it really has become a brand new thing.” Disney Legend Buzz Price called it “Walt’s Revolution.” In his typical fashion, Buzz Price had a razor-like insight that what was revolutionary about Walt’s creation could be quantified in terms of two interrelated variables: length of stay and per capita spending.  Disney was able to raise the length of stay from the industry average of 2 hours to 7 hours, and from a per capita spend of $1 to $6 by his second year.

The Original “White City” – Chicago World’s Fair 1893The Original “White City” – Chicago World’s Fair 1893

The Original “White City” – Chicago World’s Fair 1893

white city amusement park chicagowhite city amusement park chicago

White City Amusement Park – Chicago

In multiple biographies, Coney Island and other “carnies” provided Walt with lessons in “what not to do.” An oft-told story is the gathering of the leaders of some of the largest amusement park operators at a 1953 amusement park convention around Cuban cigars, caviar, and a case of Chivas Regal where they skewered Walt’s plans for being impractical, unmanageable and economically unsound. What this “reactionary” narrative ignores, however, is the clear lineage from World Fairs (eg. The Midway Plaisance of the World Columbian Exposition to the 1939-40 World of Tomorrow NY Fair) to Luna Park (which ended its 41 year run in 1944), as well as existing well-run and maintained parks of the day which Walt visited and “benchmarked” including Tivoli Gardens, Knott’s Berry Farm, and Cincinnati’s Coney Island.

Coney Island OH 

Coney Island OH

Opening in 1886, and originally dubbed “Ohio Grove, the Coney Island of the West,” Coney Island was renowned for its own spotless version of the Midway Plaisance and for decades of consistently quality management and entertainment in its historic Moonlite Gardens (still standing). As a result of repeated flooding of its riverside site and in order to position itself for the future, park owners decided to relocate the attractions to a new 1,600-acre site in 1971, dubbed Kings Island.

Hanna-Barbera Land, by Bruce Bushman

Hanna-Barbera Land, by Bruce Bushman

Bruce Bushman, one of the Disney’s original WED Imagineers was hired as one of the key designers of Kings Island. Post Disney, Bushman had returned to his roots as a layout animator for Hanna-Barbera and designed multiple theme parks (including Bible Storyland and Hanna-Barbera Land), which went unbuilt. After Taft Broadcasting purchased Coney Island and Hanna-Barbera, Bruce was a natural choice to design a home for these characters, just as he had designed Disneyland’s Fantasyland as the home for Disney’s animated cohorts. Kings Island’s “International Street” was carefully designed by Bushman as a grand world’s fair axis terminating with a scaled down Eiffel Tower as the park’s central icon. The four blocks were designed with Italian, Spanish, Swiss, and German motifs. The Midway Plaisance of the Chicago World’s Fair, lined with internationally themed buildings had returned! However, the postmodern simulations did not end there. Beyond the Eiffel Tower was a quite literal re-creation of the original Coney Island Mall, itself inspired by the Midway Plaisance, featuring vintage 1920’s rides and gingko trees relocated to the new site.

The Midway Plaisance reborn – at the relocated Coney / Kings Island OH

The Midway Plaisance reborn – at the relocated Coney / Kings Island OH

Along with another historic amusement resort (Cedar Point, opened in 1870), these two Ohio parks, along with Knott’s are the flagship parks of the 19-park Cedar Fair chain, run by former Disneyland President Matt Ouimet.  Ironically, his predecessor (Ed Schott–Coney’s President) was presented with a $1 check by Walt Disney for “consulting services” upon his benchmarking visit in 1956. The check is still held in park archives. Ohio’s Coney Island lives on through directly inspired and nostalgically themed “lands” and midways at Kings Island (Coney Mall), Kings Dominion (Candy Apple Grove), at Cedar Point’s 1963 landscaped makeover of its Midway, as well as at its original site along the Ohio River, where the Moonlite Gardens still stand amidst amusement rides, shade trees, picnic groves and the Sunlite Pool “plunge.”

Moonlite Gardens – A True Survivor

Moonlite Gardens – A True Survivor

Another noteworthy consultant to Walt was George Whitney Jr., whose father and uncle owned San Francisco’s Playland on the Beach. Walt recruited him specifically because of his experience at Playland. He became Disneyland’s 7th Cast Member, serving as Director of Ride Operations from 1954 to 1958. He planned and placed attraction queues, as well as mapped out the locations for entrances & exits. Whitney’s overall planning created more efficient loading on attractions and better flow of guest foot traffic. He was honored for his service with a window on Main Street, above the Market House. Upon his father’s death, he returned to San Francisco to run the legendary Playland on the Beach.

George Whitney’s Window on Main Street

George Whitney’s Window on Main Street

During my tenure at Disney, one of my key insights that I still carry with me was the value of being humble enough to always be able to learn something from “the other guy.” Whether it was hotel operations from Marriott, valet parking operations from Las Vegas or animal care from the San Diego Zoo, we kept our “ears to the ground”. Disney remembers how her father would constantly be pacing off distances when they were out on family outings.  He was constantly absorbing, benchmarking, learning, and synthesizing. Walt found something to learn from mechanics on break as well as corporate titans of industry. Lesson learned.

For the Disney / theme park “purists” that reject the lineage and debt to the humble little trolley parks and boardwalks, their reception to “Toytown Trolley Park” will be interesting. In the midst of the most immersive, elaborately themed park on the planet, the new setting for Toy Story Mania at Tokyo DisneySea will bring the story full circle. One can easily imagine a young Walt Disney peering through these gates to catch a peek inside Kansas City’s own Electric Park, and garnering the first seeds of inspiration for Disneyland.

toyville trolley park 

Parkology: Disneylandia Debunked – Myth #1 “It all started on a park bench”

Disneyland myth debunked - bench in griffith park where walt disney was inspired to create disneyland

“It all started on a park bench”

mel mcgowanby Mel McGowan

Related: Parkology: Coney Island the First Theme Park?

So much has been written and publicized regarding the genesis of Disneyland that it hardly bears repeating it here. However, over the next few posts, I’d like to debunk a few “creation myths”, or at least some gross over-simplifications that have become accepted history in theme park lore.

If you’re reading this blog, you’ve probably heard the “warm and fuzzy” story (recited by the man himself) of a bored Walt sitting on a park bench on “daddy days” watching his daughters at the Griffith Park carousel, wishing there was a place he could enjoy with his kids. However, behind and following this flashpoint, was a process of evolution and synthesis that goes much further back and simmered for decades in Walt’s creative stew.  

Disneyland myths debunked - electric park kansas city

Electric Park – Kansas City

As a child in Kansas City, Walt would peer through the gates of Electric Park, one of the hundreds of Luna Park “inspired” trolley parks around the world. To a Midwestern farm child just arrived from Marceline, Missouri, it must have appeared as a true vision of Heaven on Earth — or at least Oz — realized. This image would linger with him the rest of his life. As a young, disillusioned animator who moved to Los Angeles in 1923 to pursue his new dream of being a Hollywood director, he snuck onto the Universal Studio lot with semi-bogus business cards. The world’s largest movie back lot must have been as magical to him as it was to Steven Spielberg (who pulled a similar move decades later). After he had built the Walt Disney Studios, he was inundated with requests to visit Mickey and the gang. 

disneyland myths debunked - Greenfield Village – Inspiration for Main Street, USA

Greenfield Village – Inspiration for Main Street, USA

In the same year of the opening of his Burbank Studios (1940), Walt visited Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village for the first time and Knott’s Berry Farm opened (which certainly inspired Main Street and Frontierland, respectively).  Coincidentally, in the same year the “World of Tomorrow” (NY World’s Fair) finished its two-year run, serving as an inspiration for Tomorrowland (originally labeled the “World of Tomorrow” on early master plans). Within a few weeks of returning from the 1948 Chicago Railroad Fair (featuring historical settings around trains) and a return visit to Greenfield Village, he issued his first memo on “Mickey Mouse Park.” 

Disneyland myth debunked Knott’s Berry Farm was inspiration for Frontierland Knott’s Berry Farm – Inspiration for Frontierland

Disneyland myths debunked - 1939 “World of Tomorrow” – Inspiration for Tomorrowland1939 “World of Tomorrow” – Inspiration for Tomorrowland

His first 1950 visit to Tivoli Gardens inspired renewed confidence in his vision. For anyone that has strolled past the outdoor cafes, waterfront gardens, twinkle lights, exotic thems and festive atmosphere of Tivoli on a summer’s evening, the inspiration is obvious.

Disneyland myth debunked - Tivoli Gardens

Tivoli Gardens

Walt’s genius was to be curious enough to explore his world and to “file away” relevant benchmarks, and then to synthesize these disparate experiences into a new creation. Our design team was “re-inspired” by Tivoli Gardens when we “channeled” Walt during the “Big Idea” discovery for Downtown Disney’s “Vine Street” in Anaheim. The European-inspired urban festival garden was a perfect “decompression” zone linking the two Disney theme parks with Disney’s first “in-berm hotel” and the Resort District.  The “garden” theme is “fertilized” with increasing amounts of pixie dust as one wanders closer to the “source” (Disneyland) where the garden leaves begins to take on a resemblance to ones you might find in Alice’s Wonderland.

Disneyland Myth debunked - Downtown Disney – Tivoli Gardens inspired “Vine Street”

Downtown Disney – Tivoli Gardens inspired “Vine Street”

Parkology: Coney Island the First Theme Park?

luna park theme park coney island

(Above: Coney Island-Where it all started)

mel mcgowan theme park plannerby Mel McGowan

Welcome to Parkology. As both a fan and a designer of themed attractions, I’d love to create a space to explore the history & future of the form, as well as to reflect on what they mean.

Such musings have largely been limited to the Disney Theme Parks in the blogosphere. However, I believe that each theme park has its own story to tell, and that the impact of “Walt’s Revolution” reaches far beyond the landscaped “berm” designed to keep the “real world” out. We’ll also explore how the design of themed attractions have influenced the world that we live, work, worship, and play in.

From Luna Park to Virgin Galactic’s Spaceport, the themed attraction is a unique cultural art form, with its own heritage, trajectory and extremely large canvases!

Houston, we have liftoff!

spaceship named luna fron luna park theme park artcile new york coney island

(Above: A Spaceship Named "Luna")

Luna Park

Contrary to popular opinion, it didn’t start with a mouse. It also didn’t start with Walt sitting on a bench at Griffith Park eating peanuts while his daughters rode a carousel. Although Knott’s Berry Farm has hung its cowboy hat on being “America’s First Theme Park,” I’d give the plaque to Luna Park.

stereoscopic view of luna park theme park coney island new york

(Above: Stereoscopic – prehistoric ViewMaster – view of Luna Park)

Luna Park was actually built on the site of the first gated amusement park, Sea Lion Park. One of its founding partners Fred Thompson, knew enough about architecture to be dangerous.  The Chicago World’s Fair’s “White City” was a neoclassical vision of Heaven by day and an electric “city on a hill” by night that burned itself into the collective memory of 27 million of Americans that witnessed it during its 6 month run. Its “Midway Plaisance” international amusement zone established the linear mall layout that has been emulated hundreds of times around the world.  It served as the model of the 1901 Pan-American Exposition which featured one of the first “E-Ticket” attractions: “A Trip to the Moon.” The runaway hit was inspired by the silent film of the same name by George Melies (whose amazing talent and story is featured in my favorite film of the year, “Hugo”).

1901 Pan-American Exposition Midway in luna park new york coney island blog

(Above: 1901 Pan-American Exposition Midway)

Melies' Le Voyage Dans La Lune

(Above: Melies’ Le Voyage Dans La Lune)

Rather than simply fusing the “Midway” layout with the neoclassical architecture of the White City (like dozens of uninspired copycats from neighboring Dreamland to the dozens of Electric Parks and White Cities across the US), Thompson intentionally designed the first gated theme park around his “E-Ticket” attraction…and what a theme it was: a city on the moon!  “A Trip to the Moon,” was an extravaganza that was not surpassed until Walt Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” six decades later.  A Trip to the Moon "post show"In a precursor to the motion simulators and 4D theaters of today, your Victorian spaceship seats pitched as painted scenic canvases rolled past portholes simulating a fantastical space voyage. Upon landing you exited the spacecraft and were greeted with sensual “Moon Maidens” offering a taste of cheese pulled off the cavern walls. Talk about a multi-sensory experience!

(left: A Trip to the Moon "post show")

Like today’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter, the anchor attraction was embedded in an immersive environment which extends the story beyond the ride time. Outside “A Trip to the Moon” the fantasy continued with a lunar cityscape consisting of hundreds of towers and minarets described by visitors as an “electric Baghdad by the sea.” Rather than choosing a known historic geography or even directly interpreting a known media property (Melies’ “A Trip to the Moon” silent movie, the first “sci-fi” blockbuster), Thompson and his business partner “Skip” Dundy, loosely appropriated exotic architectural details from throughout Asia and the Middle East in a wholly original composition, using sophisticated scaling techniques such as forced perspective. Entered from an iconic gateway on Surf Avenue, the vista was closed by deflecting the linear “Midway” axis, creating a sense of discovery. Multiple levels included elevated terraces and promenades culminating in the iconic “Shoot the Chutes” ride (the first flume ride, one of the few holdovers from Sea Lion Park).

Luna park theme park new york coney island Electric Baghad by the Sea

(Above: "Electric Baghad by the Sea")

At the scale of just one of Disney’s “lands” (22 acres), Thompson & Dundy had elevated the pleasure garden and amusement park into an wholly immersive, multisensory environmental experience which transported visitors away from the grim urban reality of turn of the century New York. A new art form had been invented: the theme park.

Luna Park midway theme park coney island new york

(Above: Luna Park’s Midway)