Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Disneyland Aesthetics: The Co-development of Disney Theme Parks and Film; and Analysis of Theme Parks through Film Theory, a Dissertation

As part of my final year of university study, I was required to write a dissertation on a subject of my choice; for which I chose Disneyland. I am proud to be able to say that after many months of hard work, my 11,000 word paper, with 7,000 more words of additional content, earned me First Class Honours (the highest UK award) and contributed towards me graduating as Valedictorian. I can now share my work with those that may find it of interest.

Disneyland Aesthetics
The Co-development of Disney Theme Parks and Film;
and Analysis of Theme Parks through Film Theory

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The abstract:

This dissertation examines the creative and aesthetic links between Hollywood cinema and contemporary theme parks, with specific focus on Disneyland. By examining the history of the industries, I identify the impacts each has had upon the other, with particular focus on synergy, and then use this to support the assertion that film theory can be used to creatively analyse theme parks and their attractions, supported by a case study example of the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction at Disneyland. Data has been collected from literature concerning both film theory and theme parks, field research, quantitative analysis of Disneyland’s attractions, newspapers, articles and an interview conducted by myself with Eddie Sotto, former Vice President of Concept Development at Walt Disney Imagineering. The dissertation recognises the creative, cultural, economic and technological impacts of Disney theme parks, justifying them as credible creative texts, and then finds success in applying key film theory, including the frame, mise-en-scene and the three act structure, to Disneyland, additionally identifying new criteria of analysis specific to the medium. I then conclude by highlighting the trends which are currently leading the theme park industry away from film, increasingly incorporating techniques of video gaming to differentiate from the rise of immersive 3D cinema.

I will also include an extract from the third chapter, 'Dissecting Disneyland':

Criteria of Analysis

With the grounding in film, and the exportation of film techniques such as studio backlot design, the notion of perspective, and the notion of immersion, it stands to reason that ways of analysing the creative qualities of film may be applied to Disneyland attractions. I wish to focus on two; mise-en-scene, and the three act structure.

Mise-en-scene is perhaps the more obvious of the two concepts. Following from its identification in the theatre, theme park show scenes can be quite obviously seen as sets, populated by audio-animatronic actors, and analysed as such. Many of Disneyland’s larger attractions are quite literally housed in soundstages .


Most of Disney’s sets are built under scale, in the style of storybook realism – they are realistic, but a representation of what we would optimistically remember, hope or imagine a place to be like, not as how they actually are or were. Classic movie tricks such as forced perspective, trompe l’oeil and matte painting are utilised - a layering which has come to be known as ‘stratification’ – a “method of stacking elements of design so that they appear to recede endlessly into space” . This is demonstrated for example in New Orleans Square, where the under-scale masts of a sailing ship are visible peeking above a rooftop, giving the illusion that a full sized port lies just beyond the building .

Imagineer Marc Davis emphasised movement in the sets, which he called animation, to bring the scene to life and push it beyond a static diorama, perhaps appropriating the effects used in Victorian panoramas and myrioramas to give the illusion of life. Restaging notes for the cave scenes in Tokyo’s Pirates of the Caribbean demonstrate this;

Necklace … should be made out of very light material. […] Beads should swing with air movement. Light scene so jewels sparkle (fibre-optics, mirrored ball – or any other way to give the scene animation).

Practically, the sets are almost interchangeable with movie sets – wooden, fibreglass or concrete constructions dressed only on one side to look like their intended surface; rock face, brick wall and so on. Imagineering includes two specific disciplines for this, ‘character plaster’ and ‘character paint’ (referring to giving character to a construction), which produce “the hard finishes in the park that mimic other materials”, including aging .


The idea of the actor and the character becomes uniquely blurred when applied to an attraction. First are the Cast Members, who, as explained in the section on performative labour, are expected to support the theme – for example, greeters at the cowboy Big Thunder Mountain will welcome guests with a “Howdy, pardner!”

Once on the attractions themselves, the actor role is often taken by the animatronics – lifelike robots designed as caricatured figures synchronised with audio dialogue so as to seem realistic. Justifying their assignation as actors, I would refer to the similar motion-capture technology used for films such as Disney’s A Christmas Carol , in that an Imagineer will record the movements that the figure will later repeat . As such, there is a human performance, both physically and from the voice-over artist.

The third possible category, more character than actor, but which should not be overlooked, is the guests themselves – as they are clearly people viewable within the three-dimensional frame of each other guest’s experience. Just as seeing a contemporary family walk along the riverbanks of the 1951 African Queen would massively impact the emotional and storytelling aesthetic of the film, Imagineering goes to huge lengths to create realistic fantasy worlds only to have people in Mickey Mouse clothing walk through them. The effect is that perhaps the environments can never be truly convincing. When tasked with designing a Space Pavilion for Epcot, Eddie Sotto deliberately avoided creating a space station environment as he felt the presence of guests and fire exits would dominate the illusion. This handicap to convince is not necessarily bad however, as Disney is not intending true realism and emphasises the fantasy of its worlds, creating an arguably stylised mix of environment and crowd which helps define the Disney experience (which I will explore later). The guests in fact add hugely to the dynamism, kinetics and mood of the park - apparent to the few that have wandered a deserted Disneyland, frequently describing the absence of other people as ‘spooky’.

Costumes & Props

Variations exist between the costumes of the Cast Members and the animatronics. On a ride like Pirates of the Caribbean, for example, the animatronics are dressed in realistic pirate costume; appropriate to the setting, with accurate fabrics and colours, including dirt and rips as appropriate. Their intention is to imply a world of real pirates. Props, such as treasure maps in Pirates of the Caribbean, instruments in the Haunted Mansion or traps in Splash Mountain are also included, often stylised to match their setting.

Cast Members however wear much more simplistic pirate costumes, generally with no more than three or four variations amongst the entire staff working the attraction. Whilst this is no doubt an effect of the laundry and uniform requirements of the park, the costumes are nevertheless made up of more childlike, primary colours and all Cast Members are required to wear a name badge. The result of this is a stylized costume transition between the amalgamative fancifulness of Disneyland, and the Hollywood realism of the attraction.

Disney is so strict with the story effect of Cast Member costumes that Cast Members dressed in the costume of one land are not allowed to walk through another land, barring exceptions for parade and firework control . Walt Disney World took this even further by constructing underground tunnels, called Utilidors, beneath the park to allow Cast Members to move about without disrupting the above theme.

If you are interested, please click here to download it. Any comments would be very much appreciated!


  1. I am unable to download the rest of the article, I really want to read it! It says the server cannot be found, I've tried Chrome and Firefox browsers. Any tips?

  2. Also unable to download, very interested to read.. Any ideas?

    1. Hey Henry, I'm quite reluctant to send this out now that it's been six years since I wrote it! It has led to a book, though, which hopefully you'll find more interesting: www.ThemeParkDesignBook.com