Sam Gennawey

Sam Gennawey is an urban planner and planning historian who has always been fascinated by theme parks, amusement parks, and World’s Fair, especially the intersection between history, design, and function.

Over the past 12 years he has worked on more then 120 projects and has designed and facilitated more than 700 community workshops and design Charrettes.

Before that he spent more then 20 years as a recording and broadcasting executive. Most recently he is becoming known as a keen observer of the history and art of placemaking. He is the author of Walt and the Promise of Progress City, a book that chronicles Walt Disney’s interest in creating functional and meaningful places and how we react to his creations. Mr. Gennawey has contributed to a number of books on the topic of themed environments and he also writes a weekly column for called Samland. Mr. Gennawey is frequently invited to speak at urban planning and theme park related events.

Why Disneyland Works

sam gennawey disneyBy Sam Gennawey

Disneyland is a legible urban environment. The park is made up of a series of spaces that unfold before you. John Hench said, “You begin with the first scene and move through.  You don’t throw people into the fifth scene, where they cannot make sense of what is happening.” The payoff is a sense of welcoming, worth, value, and security.

Related: Disney, Theme Parks and a "messy vitality" / "Disneyland not escapism but reassurance."

This quality is achieved by removing visual cues with messages that do not embellish the narrative. In a concept drawing of Main Street USA from 1953, artist Dale Hennesy included a church. Such a civic building would have been common and historically correct. However, this is not reality. It is Disneyland and Walt decided it did not disney the magic kingdom castle under constructionsupport the story and there is no church at the edge of the commercial district.

Every aspect of the public realm came under scrutiny from Walt. For example, when Bill Martin showed Walt drawings of Main Street he said, “[Walt] went over my plans with a fine-tooth comb.  I’d drawn sidewalks on the blueprints with square corners and Walt said: ‘Bill, people aren’t soldiers!  They don’t turn in at sharp angles! Curve the sidewalks! Make the corners round!’”

John Hench said the architecture, colors, background sounds, music, and smells create an environment where it “gives one the permission to talk with strangers.” Michael Broggie added, “[Walt] also thought the Park’s atmosphere could be sophisticated yet relaxed enough that adults would feel comfortable allowing their ‘inner child’ to play, without feeling embarrassed.”

For me, it was Imagineer Bruce Gordon who provided one of the best descriptions as to why Disneyland works. He said, “Walt was hands-on with everything at Disneyland.  This was his park, his dream. I always believed the reason Walt built Disneyland was that he wanted one.” Bruce adds, “He wanted the biggest train layout; he wanted a place for all his toys. In the park he had an apartment above the fire station.  Walt would get up early in the morning, before the park opened, and he’d drive his fire truck around Disneyland.  People would think he was crazy, but he was only playing with his toy.”

Image: ©Disney


Disney, Theme Parks and a “messy vitality”.

Sam Genneway theme park Disney hitorianby Sam Genneway

The real world feels alive when there is a certain messy vitality. A theme park succeeds when there is a lack of visual contradictions. It is virtually impossible to blend these qualities without creating a space that feels uncomfortable and undesirable.
Among other factors, architect Robert Venturi came to the conclusion that successful and dynamic urban environments contain a “messy vitality over obvious unity.” Both Disney and venture agree that it is this quality that is necessary if a place is to feel authentic and resonate with meaning to the users. Such places are embedded with quality, variety and surprise. As a result, the environment puts you walt disney man in space theme parks sam gennewayslightly on edge and you feel more alert and alive in a delightful way. However, too much of this messy vitality and you will only encourage fear. There is a delicate balance.
When asked about this difference, Imagineer John Hench said, “Most urban environments are basically chaotic places, as architectural and graphic information scream at the citizen for attention.  This competition results in disharmonies and contradictions that…cancel each other [out].”  He warns, “A journey down almost any urban street will quickly place the visitor into visual overload as all of the competing messages merge into a kind of information gridlock.”
Hench suggested that the only way to design a successful themed environment is to eliminate any visual contradictions. He defined a visual contradiction as “the active clutter that you see in the real world, which creates mixed messages, sets up conflicts, creates tension, and may even feeling threatening.” Hench taught his team, “If visual details disagree, guests experience active clutter, which has the same effect on the eye as a cacophony of noises has on the ear.” 
By eliminating the visual contradictions, Walt had created a world that was safe, clean, and could not exist outside of the earthen berm that surrounded his park.  What he created was a place that is not about fantasy but is about a sense of reassurance.
In Imagineering the Disney Theme Parks, Karal Ann Marling suggests, “One of the consistent hallmarks of Disney architecture is its refusal to be avant-garde: reassurance, on the contrary, means using the familiar conventions of real-world architecture – and then ‘plussing’ them until the audience has to smile.”
Although he was no fan, Robert Venturi does concede, “Disney is nearer to what people really want than anything architects have ever given them”.
ImageWalt Disney prepares to introduce “Man in Space,” the first of three space-themed television shows he produced in the 1950s. Copyright 2003, THE WALT DISNEY COMPANY.)

“Disneyland not escapism but reassurance.”

This intellectual curiosity lead to a book about Walt Disney’s interest in placemaking entitled Walt and the Promise of Progress City*. As you will see, my focus is usually about the history and design of the North American Disney theme parks but I will stray now and again to check out other venues. 
Because I spend a lot of time working on planning issues outside of the theme park gates and spend a lot of time writing about what goes on inside of those gates, I am frequently asked if there is a difference in the spatial design process between theme parks and the world outside the front gate. As you know better then anybody, there certainly is.

 Evangelist Billy Graham once told Walt that Disneyland was “a nice fantasy.”  This did not sit well with Walt.  He replied, “You know the fantasy isn’t here.  This is very real… the Park is reality.  The people are natural here; they’re having a good time; they’re communicating.  This is what people really are.  The fantasy is – out there, outside the gates of Disneyland, where people have hatreds and people have prejudices.  It’s not really real!”

Walt Disney with drawing of Micky Mouse

When somebody suggested the only reason people go to
 Disneyland was escapism, Disney Legend John Hench took offense and disagreed. He said, “There was never a Main Street like this.  But it reminds you of some things about yourself.” He added, “What we are selling is not escapism, but reassurance.” A visit to Disneyland reassures us that things will be okay.  Here, everything works, places can be clean, people can be nice, and the pace of the world feels right. Imagineers Marty Sklar and John Hench have described the urban design for Disneyland as the “architecture of reassurance.”
Hench said that Disneyland, “Tried to present an undiluted rosy view of the world; contradiction or confusion were qualities the planners of Disneyland associated with the defective, poorly planned, conventional amusement park.”  He added that “Disneyland offered an enriched version of the real world, but not an escapist or an unreal version.  We program out all the negative, unwanted elements and program in the positive elements. We’ve taken and purified the statement so it says what it was intended to.”
Make no mistake. The spaces within the park are not representative of reality but become a hyper reality – stylized and tightly edited versions of the real thing. The buildings are shrunk and edited to meet the needs of the story that binds everything together.
“Walt wanted all the details to be correct,” Hench said.  “What it amounted to was a kind of visual literacy.” He suggested that each space is like a “bead or charm in a necklace. The same thing was applied as you walk around the park. Continuity was the same.  Whether you’re slow or fast, what you look at it the same.”
Theme parks and the real world operate under different urban design organizing principles. Next time I will dive deeper into those differences. 
*Sam’s book, Walt and the Promise of Progress City cab be purchased here.
Image Copyright 2001, THE WALT DISNEY COMPANY