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Sense of Places and Times - Part One

Geographical and Historical Theming
in Walt Disney World
Text and Photographs by Stephen Clark

Theming. That word, by the way, does not exist in the dictionary but all those who design and visit Walt Disney World (WDW) know it. Webster’s definitions of the word ‘theme’ include ‘artistic representation’ and ‘a specific and distinctive quality, characteristic’, so perhaps ‘theming’ like the word ‘motif’ means constituting a theme. Enough linguistics. All those who have visited WDW, or at least read literature on that theme park, have come across descriptions of places in WDW like...

"Capture the mystery and romance of a trip up the Mississippi" (Dixie Landings Resort)

"Romantic vision of the early West’" (Wilderness Lodge Resort)

"Capture the Calypso Spirit of the islands" (Caribbean Beach Resort)

"Elegant haciendas that provide a romantic escape" (Coronado Springs Resort)

These statements entice the visitor to experience an exotic or romantic place, perhaps a place they have only dreamed about. The statements also evoke a time in history, experiencing something that may not exist anymore in reality. That is what this article is about. What are the places and times the designers set to depict? What are the themes used to evoke such an experience? And perhaps, does it work (at least to this observer’s mind)?

WDW’s exhibits of theming are evident in Epcot’s World Showcase – thematic versions of real places, and in various WDW resorts – thematic versions of places and times. Much of this article is centered on describing what is there and what is used to invoke sense of places and times. The selected examples in this discourse are drawn from some of the pavilions and resorts associated with North American geographies and histories. Other places, particularly the many wonderful World Showcases at Epcot are also worthy of writing about, but perhaps another time. With that said, this is not meant to be a scholarly document, but more for enjoyment and hopefully providing another interpretation of what many millions of visitors have seen at WDW.

World Showcase at Epcot

Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI), working on occasion in conjunction with the countries’ corporate sponsors and tourism organizations, designed the World Showcase pavilions. Therefore, it is assumed that the representation of each country would not only put it in the best light, but also highlight those elements that would appeal most to a visitor; a visitor not only to the pavilion, but hopefully also to the actual country itself.

The World Showcase pavilions were designed with a greater flexibility than the resorts; they did not have to be lodgings. In one respect, the pavilions did not have to be anything specific, retail or otherwise. Taking to one extreme, a pavilion could have consisted of empty, architecturally styled buildings just for the sake of decoration and picture taking. But with each pavilion costing tens of millions of dollars, they had to get their money back somehow. So instead of empty buildings, they filled the spaces with shops, restaurants and in some, tourism movies. The spaces they fill do, for the most part, provide the visitor with a sense of the country’s places. It does seem like the architecture and layouts of the pavilions were designed for the purpose of experiencing the history and geography of the place, and that the use of the spaces were an afterthought.

Upon entering the World Showcase from Future World, none of the pavilions are prominent because all you see is a collection of buildings, landmarks and landscaping around a very large lagoon (World Showcase Lagoon). The placement of the pavilions around a body of water is for convenience, allowing the visitor to visit each pavilion in an orderly manner – clockwise or counterclockwise. But viewing a pavilion from the water (on a boat) or looking across the water can be somewhat disconcerting. Some of the places the pavilions depict are not, in reality, near a body of water. The designers, however, had in mind to view each pavilion towards its front with your back to the lagoon. That is why there is the large walkway separating the pavilions from the lagoon. Even though viewing a pavilion from the walkway is more ‘accurate’; a photograph of nearby pavilions along the edge of the lagoon (such as viewing China and Norway from Germany) can be quite dramatic in the right light.

East side of the World Showcase Lagoon, viewing the China and Norway pavilions
East side of the World Showcase Lagoon, viewing the China and Norway pavilions

That leads into another disconcerting perspective – that you can view China and Norway together! But there is no sense deliberating that point, it is a theme park. If, however, you could design on a very large piece of land, you would perhaps represent the world’s major lands and seas as they are situated geographically. There you would find China and Japan neighbors, as you would the European quintet: Norway, United Kingdom, France, Germany and Italy.

Back on the discussion centered on the lagoon, the other entrance into the World Showcase is through the International Gateway along a waterway connecting the lagoon to the water bodies of the Epcot Area Resorts. The location of this waterway, more like a canal, separates the France pavilion from the United Kingdom pavilion, thus perhaps symbolizing the English Channel. In actuality, standing on one side of this ‘channel’ and looking across to France or United Kingdom, you can easily interpret this to be the Seine or Thames, respectively.

Viewing the France pavilion from across the "Seine". If on the other bank, you would be viewing the United Kingdom pavilion from across the "Thames."
Viewing the France pavilion from across the "Seine". If on the other bank, you would be viewing the United Kingdom pavilion from across the "Thames."

The American pavilion

The American pavilion is the most unique of the pavilions. The original concept for this pavilion was a sleek, ultramodern two-level structure on stilts modeled after the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C. (thank goodness that was rejected - how appealing would a round concrete bunker be?). What they settled on was a traditional "American" façade that would blend in better with the more traditional architectures of it neighbors.

The America pavilion with its traditional Georgian architecture
The America pavilion with its traditional Georgian architecture

Despite not wanting to show up its neighbors along the World Showcase Lagoon and that the purpose of the pavilion was to host The American Adventure attraction, a scaled down version using a singular building was appropriate. Besides, how would you choose to represent the United States of America in the way the other pavilions represent their countries? What would it look like? If you would just go by architectural styles, you would perhaps include (among others)...



Typical U.S. Region




Symmetrical layout, brick or painted wood (red, white, yellow), pediments with columns around entrances

East Coast

18th Century

Colonial Williamsburg


Adobe or stucco, 1 – 2 stories, low pitch clay tile roof, exterior and interior archways with columns


17th/18th Century (early style);

early 20th Century (revival style)

Governor’s Inn, Santa Fe (early style); Balboa Park, San Diego (revival style)

Greek Revival

Rectangular building, series of columns supported by an entablature, brick and stone or plastered wood

Eastern and Southern

Early/Mid 19th Century

Magnolia Hall, Natchez


Wood/brick/stucco construction, 2 – 3 stories, low roofs, overhanging eaves, balustraded or wrought iron balconies

Eastern, Southern and Midwest

Mid/Late 19th Century

French Quarter, New Orleans

Folk Victorian

Clapboard sidings, lean-to type front supported by posts, flat roofs, 1 – 3 stories

Midwest and West

Late 19th Century

Old Dodge City

High Victorian

Wood/brick/stone construction, elaborate cornices/roofs, cupolas, gazebos, rounded or multisided towered sections


Late 19th - Early 20th Century

Hotel Del Coronado, San Diego

Rustic and Naturalism

Rustic or sculpted logs arranged horizontally, log posts or columns, wooden fencing/railing, used in log cabins to large lodges


Early 20th Century

Old Faithful Inn, Yellowstone

If you study this list, you will see that WDI has done each of these, and more, within the WDW property...

Georgian – Liberty Square (Magic Kingdom)

Spanish-Colonial – Coronado Springs Resort

Greek Revival – Dixie Landings Resort-Magnolia Plantation

Italianate – Port Orleans Resort

Folk Victorian – Frontierland (Magic Kingdom)

High Victorian – Grand Floridian Resort

Rustic and Naturalism – Wilderness Lodge Resort

To include these styles in an American pavilion would simply be redundant.

The designers settled on perhaps one of the most recognizable architectural style in American history: Georgian, described as symmetry with classical details. This was a style for important public buildings and wealthy residences along the eastern seaboard in the 18th century. Many of the buildings in Colonial Williamsburg, Independence Park in Philadelphia and Boston’s Faneuil Hall and the State House are of this style with its red bricks, white columns and shutters. When a visitor sees this type of architecture, it invokes images of American colonial and Revolutionary War periods with its history of this country’s quest for independence and liberty, which matches well with the main purpose of this pavilion: The American Adventure attraction. The building has been described as ‘stately and inviting’, making the (American) visitor feel at home while conveying a sense of grandeur.

It certainly works on that level; it is quite a photogenic structure. But, unlike the other pavilions, here you don’t ‘enter’ into a courtyard or walkway and become surrounded by its exterior architectures. Instead, you enter a single building and inside is what you would expect from a formal colonial-style building – white columns, simple yet elegant moldings and railings, red carpets and light fixtures resembling candlelight. But where function is more important than form, the interior is just a staging area for the attraction. Other than looking at the incredible paintings and quotes on the walls, there is very little interaction in this pavilion. The only place where a visitor can loiter without having to be herded into the theatre is the Heritage Manor Gifts store at one wing of the building. This is a very attractive room with colonial-style French doors, wood floors and furnishings.

One of the most common ways a visitor can experience the ‘ambience’ of the architecture and décor is at a sit-down restaurant. All of the other pavilions have such a place. The American pavilion has only a fast food place. It is imagined that visitors would enjoy a similar restaurant in the American pavilion using the décor found in the Heritage Manor Gifts store, much like the Liberty Tree Tavern in Liberty Square at the Magic Kingdom.

Truthfully, there are numerous ‘American’ places that can be experienced at WDW. The American pavilion is experienced, not so much in its architecture, but in its first-rate audio-animatronics attraction, The American Adventure.

The Canada pavilion

The Canada pavilion viewing the likeness of the Chateau Laurier on the left and a trading post on the right
The Canada pavilion viewing the likeness of the Chateau Laurier on the left and a trading post on the right

The Canada pavilion has invoked surprisingly considerable discussion specifically on what was chosen to represent that country. One school of thought is that in order for theming of actual places (past or present) to succeed, it must lack a specific geography. Others believe that visitors can have a more immersed experience by presenting a consistent architectural style of a period or a place. The latter is what WDI has followed in designing the lands in the Magic Kingdom (and Disneyland), the various resorts and of course, most of the pavilions at the World Showcase. The exception seems to be the Canada pavilion.

The features of the Canada pavilion are based on actual structures, but are presented in a disjointed manner. Canada has as wide of variety of geographic regions as its southern neighbor, the United States. The designers were perhaps faced with the same dilemma - how to portray Canada when it varies from the foggy banks of Nova Scotia to the prairies of Saskatchewan to the peaks of the Canadian Rockies and finally, to the deep forests of British Columbia? Some of the other countries depicted in the World Showcase are perhaps more relatively geographically homogeneous that they can focus on a place or a time (France, Germany and Norway comes to mind). What the designers of the Canada pavilion did was to throw in a facsimile of places from several of the regions of Canada: Butchart Gardens in Victoria, British Columbia; Chateau Laurier in Ottawa; a mine entrance from the Rocky Mountains; a French-Canadian structure typically found in Quebec; and others. The designers perhaps had in mind to capture the essence of Canada without being reminded of an actual place. On this point they succeeded. However, a visitor can only get somewhat a sense of place in each of the structures but not as a whole. Moving from one structure to another provide very little continuity, therefore it is hard to ‘feel’ like you are somewhere in ‘Canada’.

So how do you design a Canada pavilion that could immerse the visitor into a ‘Canadian’ sense of place? This could perhaps be done by focusing on one region and not on a hodgepodge of several regions. The France pavilion focuses on early 20th century Paris, the Germany pavilion on a Bavarian town and the United Kingdom pavilion on a English city with its layers of architectural styles. What region of Canada could be its focus? Here are some examples.

The Atlantic Provinces are very attractive with its mist-shrouded rocky coasts and fishing harbors but that nautical theme has been done somewhat in the Yacht and Beach Club Resorts.

Expanding upon the French-Canadian theme, as shown in the Chateau and a couple of the minor buildings in the pavilion, would be an idea. The problem would be not to make it similar to the France pavilion.

Moving further west geographically in Canada, you come across the wide expanse of grasslands, farmlands and prairies. It would be hard to create a theme centered around such a region, it has not been done on a large scale in WDW. However, such a region is not unique to Canada. In fact, it is one of the most common landscapes found in most all parts of the world.

The Rocky Mountains in Canada would be a very attractive theme since the Canadian Mountie is an enduring symbol of Canada. If the lagoon were channeled to create a small water body and then build various stone or log structures against the backdrop of a ‘mountain range’, this would perhaps succeed in recreating a sense of place in the essence of Banff National Park in Alberta.

Another popular region within Canada is the West Coast, especially around Vancouver and Victoria with its gardens, numerous waterways, deep forests and high mountain peaks. The Canada pavilion captured some of this in the depiction of Butchart Gardens, totem poles and some of the smaller log structures. Perhaps making the Gardens larger with various log and stone structures and a waterway would succeed recreating a British Columbian sense of place.

Any of these choices would elicit both positive and negative responses but it would work better than a little of each thrown together.

The Mexico pavilion

The exterior of the Mexico pavilion with a Mesoamerican pyramid rising above a cantina
The exterior of the Mexico pavilion with a Mesoamerican pyramid rising above a cantina

The Mexico pavilion is unique in that most of its ‘outdoors’ theming is done indoors. What is actually outside includes an informal Cantina, an Aztec-inspired pyramid (which acts as the entrance to the inside attraction) and dense tropical foliage. Of all of the pavilions, this one works the best being in Central Florida. With its palm trees and many other types of tropical trees and bushes, all placed in its natural hot, humid environment, the exterior atmosphere of the Mexico pavilion feels like being in the Yucatan Peninsula. The pyramid is designed to represent elements of ancient Mesoamerican civilizations that go back to the third century A.D. Such elements include a steep flight of stairs front and center, a series of steps or terraces, a small temple on top representing the sanctum of the high priests and a carved stella that is placed to prevent children from climbing those steep stairs. The placement of the pyramid among the foliage does appear that it was ‘discovered’ by hacking through the jungle.

The designers of the Mexico pavilion did want to include most of the attractions inside, thus they only had to design one main building (instead of several as in the case of most of the other pavilions). Like the American pavilion, the architecture chosen had to be of one general style that invokes a common and popular theme within Mexico. With the Mesoamerican civilizations (Aztecs, Mayans, Incas and their many variants) being unique to Mexico, Central America and South America, it probably was easy to come up with the concept of an ancient pyramid representing these civilizations, since such pyramids are one of the most popular tourist attractions in the Western Hemisphere. Apart from pyramids, other architectural styles common in the perception of Mexico include adobes, stucco and terra-cotta buildings and the Spanish-influenced plazas, wrought-iron balconies and tile roofs. These are all represented in other places within WDW and are not unique to Mexico. However these are what the designers choose for theming inside the pyramid.

Most people’s connection to the Mexican culture is through Mexican restaurants. The common theme of such restaurants typically includes a stucco, adobe or terra-cotta style building with an interior of ceramic tiled floors, false balconies, a waiting area looking like a plaza with a small fountain, colorful decorations and low, relaxing lighting. These elements, mainly borrowed from the Spanish culture mixed with native Mesoamericans, are evident in old settlement towns such as Taxco, as well as in most cities catering to tourists (especially along the United States/Mexico border).

What you see upon entering the pyramid is a museum of artifacts of Mexico’s civilizations. Such artifacts include a Sun Stone (Aztec Calendar), Toltec warriors and large Olmec statues. Once beyond the museum part, you find yourself on a residential terrace one flight of stairs above a large plaza. Surrounding the plaza are several colorful building facades of the Spanish-Colonial period with flower-decked wrought-iron balconies, decorative carvings and lantern-type lightings. These facades are actually storefronts selling jewelry, dresses, silver goods and other souvenirs. The plaza itself has at least one requisite ceramic tiled fountain. The main elements of the plaza are numerous vendor carts selling wares tourists expect to find when visiting places such as Tijuana, Juarez and Laredo.

Also in this plaza is a dining terrace where visitors can watch the ‘market day’ activities but also the small indoor lagoon. Across this lagoon is a panoramic setting with a pyramid ruins, stone statues and a smoldering volcano. The plaza, the terraces and the lagoon are lighted to simulate dusk and an early moonlit evening. This is interesting in that the designers chose to offer a moody and relaxing atmosphere of twilight and early evening. On a design level, they probably wanted get away from the reality of Mexico being a hot, dusty (or in some areas, humid) place where daytime activities are somewhat limited. Practically though, coming out of a hot, humid (most of the time) environment of Central Florida, the Mexico pavilion draws the visitor into a place where it not only looks cool and relaxing, but actually is with its air conditioning and low lights.

The interior of the Mexico pavilion shows a cool and relaxing village atmosphere with its many street vendors
The interior of the Mexico pavilion shows a cool and relaxing village atmosphere with its many street vendors

Overall, the Mexico pavilion offers what most visitors expect of Mexico: pyramids, plazas, street vendors, mariachi bands and cantinas. From the outside, it appears to be a spare design as compared to most of the other pavilions. All it has outside is a lagoon-side cantina and a very ornate pyramid that is worth a picture or two. Once inside, visitors tend to pass right by the museum part to get to the fun part of the plaza for shopping and eating, as well as the short Rio de Tiempo ride through Mexico’s history. By bringing the sense of Mexico’s place inside, it is duplicating the successful designs of Mexican restaurants. Alternatively, if what you see inside with the plaza were to have been designed outside, much like the Italy and Germany pavilions with their buildings around a plaza or courtyard, it may have not worked as well. The reason is that the central activity is the street vendors, which would only fit thematically of being ‘outside’ of a building on a street or plaza. The shops, on the other hand, that are inside the interior facades would work either way, as evident in every pavilion. By bringing the street vendors indoors though, it gets visitors out of the sun and rain to leisurely shop for merchandise in an atmosphere that is comfortable.

In part two Stephen discusses the Walt Disney World resorts

You can write Stephen Clark at:


Part Two


Stephen Clark grew up in two very different regions: the Finger Lakes region of New York State and then in San Diego, California. He had constant exposure to Disney throughout his childhood; from reading old Disney books his mother had as a child, to seeing nearly every Disney movie that came out in the 1960s and early 1970s (the only movies his parents would take him to see).

Stephen’s first exposure to Disneyland was on a high school band tour that played at the park during the Bicentennial. Since then, he had made frequent visits to Disneyland (and recently to Walt Disney World) and still believes that the old CircleVision’s America the Beautiful was the best attraction ever.

Stephen received a Masters Degree from the Univ. of North Carolina – Chapel Hill where he studied regional geography. In addition to his long career in Geographic Information Systems, Stephen ran a landscape photography business in Colorado and had several gallery showings of his award- winning landscape photographs.

Nowadays, Stephen is content reading from his large collection of history and geography books, doing genealogical research and playing historic- based computer games.

Stephen lives in Colorado Springs with his wonderful wife Dayle and their 3 year old son, Sean and 11 year old stepson. Joshua.


www.cr.nps.gov (for a good description of ‘Parkitecture’)

www.realviews.com/ architecture


Regional Landscapes of the United States and Canada, Stephen S. Birdsall and John W. Florin, John Wiley & Sons

Walt Disney’s EPCOT: Creating the New World of Tomorrow, Richard R. Beard, Harry N. Abrams, Inc.

Designing Disney’s Theme Parks: The Architecture of Reassurance, Edited by Karal Ann Marling, Flammarion

Since the World Began: Walt Disney World, The First 25 Years, Jeff Kurtii, Hyperion

Inside the Mouse: Work and Play at Disney World, The Project on Disney, Duke University Press

Birnbaum’s Walt Disney World 2000, Jill Safro – Editor, Hyperion

Walt Disney World: A Pictorial Souvenir, The Walt Disney Company

Walt Disney World Resort, 2000 Vacations, Walt Disney Travel Co., Inc.


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