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Walt Disney World Theming, Part 1

The “Continuity of Theming”

Wednesday, April 23, 2003
by Mark Goldhaber, contributing writer

This is the first of a few pieces I'll be doing on “theming” at Walt Disney World. Today, I'm going to talk about what I call “continuity of theme.”

What is “continuity of theme”?

Continuity of theme is where the attention to detail by Walt Disney Imagineers really sets the Disney theme parks apart from all the other parks out there. It is that ability to take a concept and expand the story of an attraction beyond the attraction itself, sometimes into completely different attractions.

But how does it set Disney apart from other parks?

Well, do you get the same feeling at other parks as you do at Disney? Do you get the feeling that you actually are somewhere else, or just that you're at a nicely decorated place?

Continuity of theme is immersive. It gives you a visceral experience that brings you a more complete sense of place. It brings you into the fantasy. Other parks can theme some stuff nicely, but the theming is nowhere near as complete and/or complex as it is at Disney parks. To quote Disney Legend John Hench, “It's one of the special charms of Disneyland that not only is the architecture related, but the ideas are related. You get the impression of ambience.”

When it's done right

The most obvious example of this is the extension of the attraction's theming to its queue. A very simple (and less encompassing) example is the enormous pages from Pooh books in the queue for The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh ride. Probably the most immersive example would be the stroll through the gardens and lobby of the Hollywood Tower Hotel on your way to the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. From the not-quite-level walkways to the screams from the Tower above to the deserted lobby to the announcement sign whose fallen letters spell out “EVIL TOWER U R DOOMED,” it all puts you into a very unsettled mood. In fact, the theming is so integral that if you go through the queue too quickly, you may not even get the full impact of the ride.

Sometimes, it's what happens after the attraction is over. Take, for example, the way that Iago stays in character, heckling the crowd as it leaves the Enchanted Tiki Room – Under New Management. And, for those who delay departure long enough, he stays in character long enough to insult a venerable Walt Disney World attraction, saying, “Well, I'm exhausted. I think I'll go over to the Hall of Presidents and take a nap.”

When it's done wrong

When continuity of theming is done really well, you don't even notice it unless you are looking for it. When the theme is disrupted, however, it intrudes into your consciousness — sometimes jarringly.

What goes through your head when you look across World Showcase Lagoon at all of the pavilions, and right as you see France, you see the Swan and Dolphin Resorts off in the distance? Does it throw you off a little?

Disney has done a tremendous job over the years of building up the hill behind and next to the France pavilion and doing further landscaping to try to hide those wrongly located hotels. However, they can't quite hide the view of the misplaced fish and fowl, and it disrupts the theme. [Don't start telling me that dolphins are mammals. I know that. However, the sculptures on the roof are based on the 17th Century Italian sculptures by Bernini of dolphinfish, also known as dorado or mahimahi.]

Today's example

To illustrate the concept of continuity, let's talk about Mickey's Toontown Fair.

Toontown Fair is just Disney character houses. What other continuity can there be, and why would they put so much effort into something that's just aimed at children?

Aside from the facts that children probably notice more than adults, and that they are arguably the target audience of a large portion of the Magic Kingdom, continuity of theme is for everyone in every corner of every Disney park and resort.

So let's take a walk through Minnie's house. Take a look at the walls. Minnie has some framed posters of magazine covers on her walls. The issue of Minnie's Country Living below is themed to Goofy's new business giving flying lessons. Articles include “Goofy Gives You a Crash Course in Flying,” “I thought the sky was falling... But it was just Goofy, by Chicken Little,” “A Psychiatrist asks, 'Are You Afraid of Flying, or Just Afraid of Flying With Goofy?',” and “Why It's Rude to Just Drop In on Folks! By Donald Duck.” As you can see, the water tower on his farm is still intact.

This framed magazine cover poster in Minnie's House helps extend the theme of the Barnstormer roller coaster and provides some of its back story as well. Photo by Mark Goldhaber.

Of course, Goofy being Goofy, the plane's final resting place was inevitable.

Goofy's first attempt with a barnstorming airplane had less–than–perfect results. This exterior theming helps to add a thrill factor to the ride. Photo by Mark Goldhaber.

There was also a painting in progress in her art room that appeared to be of the scene outside her window just moments before Goofy flew into the water tower. Unfortunately, I didn't snap a photo of it in November, and when I went to take photos for this article in February, the painting was missing and the easel was empty. I can only guess that it was being rehabbed or something.

Next, we see a cover story about the launching of Donald's boat, the Miss Daisy. Daisy is starting what will be a long-term problem with the boat taking on water.

This magazine cover poster from Minnie's House shows the dedication of Donald's boat, which has already sprung a leak. This foreshadows the wet experience awaiting guests at the Miss Daisy. Photo by Mark Goldhaber.

And, of course, the boat itself is just across the way.

The Miss Daisy is docked in Toontown Fair, looking just like the picture in Minnie's House. The wet fun starts just to the left of the photograph. Photo by Mark Goldhaber.

The next issue on the walls shows the progress being made on Mickey's House as the construction crew keeps working away in the background. Maybe not making progress, but working.

This magazine poster in Minnie's House apparently dates to the early days of Mickey's Toontown Fair, as it shows the (attempted) construction of Mickey's House. Photo by Mark Goldhaber.

And, despite the best efforts of Donald and Goofy, the house appears to have turned out just fine. [Though they're still working on the kitchen inside.]

Mickey's House apparently did get built, despite the problems seen on the magazine cover — which helps link Mickey and Minnie's Houses together thematically. Photo by Mark Goldhaber.

There are many other little details linking the various attractions and the land itself together into one coherent theme, but I think you get the idea. Disney's Imagineers have made sure that there are enough details reinforcing the theme that even people who are not aware of what is there are still enveloped in the theme, and they can't help but feel the Toondom that permeates the land.

There has been some concern that, due to budget cuts, that Imagineers have not been able to do as much immersive theming as they have in the past. While this is probably true, they still manage to provide the best overall theming around.

Next time, let's look at the theming of the transitions between Frontierland, Liberty Square, and Adventureland.


Mark is a 38-year-old computer geek working for the State of New York. He lives in the suburbs outside Albany, New York, with his wife and 4-year-old miracle boy.

Mark is an 18-trip veteran of Walt Disney World, with three Disneyland trips also under his belt. He is also a Disney stockholder and a DVC member who collects Disney sericels, books, clothing, and just about any other thing with The Mouse on it that he can lay his hands on.

Mark also interviewed with WDW Professional Staffing twice, but both positions ended up going unfilled. Between visiting WDW, planning trips for himself and others, fantasizing about trips to WDW, and reading everything he can about Walt Disney and his legacy, there's not much time left for anything other than family time, but he's perfectly happy with that.


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