"Main Street, of course, has the Victorian feeling, which is probably one of the great optimistic periods of the world, where we thought progress was great and we all knew where we were going," stated Disney Legend John Hench, who was involved in the design of Main Streets for both Disneyland and Walt Disney World. "This form reflects that prosperity, that enthusiasm. Walt wanted to reassure people. There's some nostalgia involved, of course, but nostalgia for what? There was never a Main Street like this one. But it reminds you of some things about yourself that you've forgotten about."
I love Main Street, U.S.A. at both Disneyland Park and Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom. I have always loved the Disney version of Main Street, ever since I was first taken to Disneyland as a child. The design and concept had a major influence on the creation of American shopping malls and on the revitalizations of main streets in cities across the country.
The location still remains one of my favorite areas at both parks to this day, despite all the changes that have sometimes foolishly been made by executives who didn't understand the purpose and story of this unique land.
Those executives also didn't understand the concept of "diminishing returns" that eliminating charming opportunities for more retail space didn't always result in significantly more revenue. Walt was clear that he didn't want Main Street to be solely an economic center. It was to be an area for social and civic functions (like parades) with an opportunity for guests to participate in the activities of another era and learn a little history in the process.
The Penny Arcade, the small cinema, the flower market, the historical exhibits originally in the shops, the live entertainment, the quaint vehicles, and more were all there for an emotional purpose, not just extraneous window dressing.
However, one thing that has always bothered me is when cast members or books cheerfully chirp that Main Street was inspired by Walt Disney's experiences on a main street in Marceline, Missouri, when he was a child.
It especially irritates me when people describe Main Street at Walt Disney World that way since clearly it is specifically designed to reflect a more affluent, upscale Eastern Seaboard turn-of-the-century town.
One of the primary designers for WDW's street was John de Cuir, who based the look on his Academy-Award winning work on the turn-of-the-century New York Main Street for the film Hello, Dolly! (1969). That is one of the reasons de Cuir's name is on a window on WDW's Main Street.
Once upon at time, when I worked for the Disney Company, I taught nearly 300 different classes that I created about Disney history. One of the most popular was "Everything You Know About Disney History Is Wrong."
In a lighthearted manner, I pointed out that it was not all started by a mouse. Walt did not make the first sound cartoon. He didn't even make the first synchronized sound cartoon. He did not make the first animated feature film. Disneyland was not the first entertainment venue that met the definition of a theme park. The list goes on and on. However, Walt did all these things so significantly better and more effective that they are remembered today as the first.
Christopher Columbus was not the first person to reach the New World, yet generations of school children still believe it to be true because his voyage truly opened up that part of the world to Europe for the first time. There was even a major World's Fair in 1893 (there were challenges so they missed the planned 1892 opening) celebrating the 400th anniversary of Columbus' discovery of America.
Another thing in the class that I addressed briefly was that, at best, Disneyland's Main Street was Walt's memory of the experience of a small town main street, not specifically his interaction with the one in Marceline.
Today's column is an attempt to share why it is very misleading to suggest that Disneyland's Main Street is a physical reflection of the one in Marceline, Missouri.
In August 1948, Walt circulated a memo around the Disney Studios about his ideas for a Mickey Mouse Park to be built across the street on Riverside Drive. It had detailed descriptions of the area that would later develop into Main Street, U.S.A., including a railroad station, City Hall, horse drawn streetcars and a list of potential stores.The Burbank location ceased to be a viable option by fall 1952 for this entertainment venue, not only because of civic resistance to having a "carnival atmosphere in Burbank," but also because Walt continued to add new ideas and expand the geographical footprint of the concept.
The Main Street that is so well-known today was first described in the written Disneyland park proposal that Roy O. Disney presented to the major television networks in New York in September 1953:
"Main Street has the nostalgic quality that makes it everybody's hometown. It is Main Street, U.S.A. Three blocks long, it is the main shopping district of Disneyland. It has a bank and a newspaper office, and the little ice cream parlor with the marble-topped tables and wire-backed chairs. There is a penny arcade and Nickelodeon where you can see old time movies. On the corner is the great Disneyland Emporium where you can buy almost anything and everything unusual."
The written proposal was accompanied by that famous drawing done by Imagineer Herb Ryman over a long weekend with a Main Street that looked very similar to the final version, except for the City Hall and the Opera House exchanging physical locations.
Walt first came to Marceline, Mo., in April 1906, when he was 4. The Disney family lived on a farm just north of the city limits. For the young boy, it was a magical time of discovery and Walt always considered Marceline his hometown.
A hometown is more than just a physical location of buildings. It is a combination of unique experiences, fond memories and most importantly, people, and it was this spirit of community that Walt continually tried to recapture in projects ranging from Disneyland to his original plans for EPCOT Center.
Before the Disney family left Marceline in 1910 for Kansas City, they even lived for a short time in the town itself. Walt became quite familiar with the main street of Kansas Avenue (officially re-named Main Street in August 1998) but it did not physically resemble Disneyland's Main Street.
As Richard Francaviglia points out in his excellent book, Main Street Revised (University of Iowa Press 1996):
"In reality, the streetscape of Marceline in the 1905 photograph presented a somewhat austere appearance. Gaunt power poles lined this street, and the buildings had a relatively ragged profile: although most of them achieved two stories in height, some buildings were one story and, in a number of cases, there were empty spaces between the buildings…To the dismay of the some merchants in 1905, Marceline's streets, even in the business section along Main Street (Kansas Avenue), were a quagmire of mud in wet weather, dusty in dry weather, and what one critic called an ‘equine latrine' throughout much of the year, as horses left piles of droppings in the street as they prodded along pulling wagons or hauling riders."
It was the spirit of the bustling small town Main Street on the verge of a great, big, beautiful tomorrow with its variety of shops, social interactions and good feelings that Walt sought to create in his new theme park rather than a specific physical duplication.
Walt spoke briefly to columnist Hedda Hopper for her column that appeared in the Los Angeles Times on July 5, 1956 before he left to visit Marceline for the dedication of the Walt Disney Municipal Park. Walt said: "I don't remember much about the town. I was 9 when I left, but I drove through it about 10 years ago."
As noted Disney Historian Michael Barrier has pointed out, Walt's vivid memories of Marceline that he shared in later years were about his time on the family farm rather than in the stores on Main Street.
It has been argued that a few architectural aspects from Marceline were used at Disneyland, like the distinctive style of the Zurcher building (a jewelry store in Marceline for 70 years beginning in 1903) that bears a marked similarity to the Main Street Coca-Cola sponsored Refreshment Corner building.
In fact, in recent years, an antique painted Coca-Cola advertisement was uncovered on a wall of a building next to the Zurcher building that Walt may have seen during his time there.
However, it might also be argued that the style of architecture exhibited in the Zurcher building was common of buildings in other small town main streets.
The 1964 Disneyland guidebook written by Imagineer Marty Sklar does not make any reference to Marceline at all, but describes Main Street, U.S.A. as "anywhere in America, circa 1900" and quotes Walt directly as saying, "Many of us fondly remember our small home town and its friendly way of life at the turn of the century... Main Street represents the typical small town of the early 1900s—the heartline of America."
Here was the perfect opportunity for Walt to state that the street was based on his fond memories in Marceline but he didn't.
Many different Imagineers contributed to the final design of the street, including Marvin Davis, Dale Henessey, John Hench, Herb Ryman, Emile Kuri, Wade Rubottom and Sam McKim among others. Some of these same talented artists were also involved in the design of Magic Kingdom's Main Street.
One of the primary contributors to Disneyland's Main Street was Imagineer Harper Goff who was born in 1911 and grew up in Fort Collins, Colorado, where his dad owned a newspaper.
As Goff told the Janzen brothers in the winter 1992-93 issue of The E Ticket magazine: "I grew up there. It was a very prosperous town. We had banks that looked like banks, you know, and there was a Victorian city hall. I was born in 1911 and these buildings were around when I was a kid. When I started working on Main Street, I had photographs of Fort Collins taken. I showed them to Walt and he liked them very much. Disneyland's City Hall was copied from Fort Collins so was the Bank building and some of the others."
Disneyland's City Hall includes elements from the turn-of-the-century courthouse in Fort Collins. At the time, Fort Collins had a grassy "roundabout" in the street much like the one near the entrance of Disneyland's train station. Marceline had no such area.
However, if Main Street, U.S.A .was not an actual re-creation of Marceline, then neither was it a re-creation of Fort Collins.
When asked directly about the influence of Walt's fabled boyhood home in Marceline on Disneyland's Main Street, Goff said with a smile, "Well, that's a good story."
Imagineer John Hench recalled, "When we were designing the original Main Street, U.S.A., only a few historical sources were available to tell us about surface finishes and furnishings in American small town main streets…We found few books, few reproduction period wallpapers or carpets, and even fewer craftsmen who could do period work. It took painstaking research to provide Main Street with the authentic details it needed."
"I'd go to second-hand bookstores and get reference books. Things that are invaluable now on architecture, especially Victorian architecture," remembered Disney Legend Ward Kimball in an interview with me. "When they started planning Disneyland, the Imagineers found out they couldn't find any of these things. But word got out that Ward had collected hundreds of these architectural books. They started coming to me and borrowing them. I never got a window on Main Street even though I was furnishing all this wonderful reference."
"The design of Main Street is typical of the complete researching that has always been the springboard for a Disneyland attraction. Hundreds of books, pictures and historical items were studied to get the feel of the interior and exterior of stores and shops of the 1900 era. A treasure hunt extended across the country into antique shops, private homes and out-of-the-way junk shops in small villages. The searchers tracked down relics of the past ranging from old lighting fixtures to the hitching posts of yesteryear," wrote Imagineer Marty Sklar in 1964.
Main Street's final version also came from observation of other locations on a big research tour in June 1954 that included a visit to Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry and the then-General Motors-sponsored exhibit "Yesterday's Main Street" circa 1900, a walk-through re-creation of a turn-of-the-century American main street.
As art professor Karal Marling wrote, "Main Street USA was already the spiritual heart of Disneyland (from the earliest planning designs). The Chicago Main Street was not the source for the idea. But Disney's observers did note its appealing participatory features, including an old-time photo gallery, the interesting displays of historic merchandise in the store windows, and the lavish hand with which detail had been applied to the facades."
Disney Legend Marvin Davis stated in the 1960s, "There is a subtle difference between the small towns and large towns of any era. For example, Disneyland's bank and opera house would be out of place in a large city, but, in our small town, they are right at home. We were striving to get the most character and flavor into the creation of Main Street. It was much like doing a set for a motion picture. The story-value had to be brought out to put people back in the 1890-1910 period."
Davis described the process, "The storefronts were designed singly, and then we put them into groups according to what would look the most comfortable, and the most authentic. The style we ended up with was a kind of bastardized Victorian."
Whatever the physical inspirations for the architecture, Walt was clear on the reasons for a Main Street.
He wanted a gentle transition from the hustle and bustle of the modern real world to his timeless worlds of fantasy and adventure. Main Street retained some of the superficial aspects of modern cities that guests had struggled through just moments before arriving like a somewhat familiar landscape of buildings and streets.
However, there was no traffic, no garbage, no funeral parlor, no pool hall, no chaos and confusion and everything was scaled down in size like a toy.
Main Street also served as Walt's opportunity to present "Scene One" of the story he wanted to communicate to guests, as well as providing a physical funnel to get everyone to the central hub or Plaza.
It is not Main Street as it actually was but as it should have been, being faithful to the blurred images of the past while removing the annoying imperfections."Walt knew what Main Street was to look like," Hench said. "He could visualize it."
However, that visualization was not the image of the main street in Marceline. Disneyland's Main Street has no spaces between buildings and no distracting power poles marching down the street. Instead of the buildings being painted in a flat white or green because it was cheap and effective against the weather, Disneyland's buildings are filled with the same vibrant colors in the turn-of-the-century Victorian landscape of the animated feature Lady and the Tramp being made at the exact same time.
There is a lot more to say about both Disneyland's Main Street and Walt Disney World's Main Street, but those are stories for another time.
The next time someone tells you that Disney's Main Streets were based on Marceline, please be polite and smile and bite your lip. Some stories are so strong and have been told for so long that no amount of truth will ever make them disappear.
(Send an email to Jim Korkis)
Jim Korkis grew up in the Los Angeles area and since the age of five was a frequent visitor to Disneyland. He was an original member of both the Mouse Club and the National Fantasy Fan Club. He attended all the local conventions where he had the opportunity to interview many of the people who actually worked with Walt Disney. Jim describes his house as looking like "a toy shop and a bookstore exploded and I decided to live in the remains". For over two decades, he has been a freelance writer and a teacher and for a while was a dealer in animation artwork and related resources. His columns concentrate on sharing stories of Disney history that haven't been recorded elsewhere.
From 2006 to 2010, Jim wrote under the pseudonym of Wade Sampson. He finally revealed his true identity in September of 2010. Those articles can be found here.