Walt Disney World Architheming

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

The Disney Company is known for its unique vocabulary and for coining new terms that become common usage, like "Animatronics." In the 1990s, the term "architheming" appeared on Disney literature, but by the turn of the new century, it completely disappeared.

In today's column, I will explore why and where the term originated. Basically, it was replaced by the more popular phrase "entertainment architecture."

"In creating our new buildings, we have gone for quality and excitement. We have hired some of the world's most prominent architects and have given them the opportunity to fully flex their imaginations and contribute to the creation of a landscape that can't be found anywhere else on the planet.

"In our architecture, Disney continues to produce the kind of groundbreaking entertainment that keeps the Disney name magical to people around the world. Our architecture is part of the show."

That was the introduction written by Disney CEO Michael Eisner to the limited edition 20-page full-color booklet, "Architheming at the Walt Disney World Resort," published in 1992 by Walt Disney World Seminar Productions (part of Disney University) to be given to guests taking the seminar.

However, the book proved to be an expensive giveaway and offered no opportunity to include newer buildings that were being built almost every day without redoing the entire book, so it was replaced by a special pin for participants.

Disney quickly found that giving away special pins for classes (that, on the average, cost 65 cents each to make and included everything from the initial design to the finished product) was more cost-efficient.

The cover of the book was a double door the opened to the text and photos inside. The doors had the humanistic doorknob character from the Disney animated feature Alice in Wonderland, or more precisely, a photo of the physical re-creation of that animated doorknob that was on the front doors of the Walt Disney World Casting Center.

Walt Disney World Seminar Productions included "Wonders of Walt Disney World" programs for young people and "Disney Learning Adventures" for adults (including special classes for management and educational professionals, as well).

The WDW Seminar Productions were absorbed into the Disney Institute shortly after it opened in 1996. The youth programs were renamed Y.E.S. (Youth Education Services) and the adult programs were renamed D.A.D. (Disney Adult Discoveries).

Some of the original Disney University programs were included. Some were changed significantly. Some were dropped entirely. However, an architecture class proved popular with guests and was very much in keeping with Eisner's agenda for the Disney Company to be known for its commitment to architecture.

The Disney term "architheming" was coined by Disney University instructors Ken Cannon and Kaye Bundey to explain how WDW combined the basics of architecture with the concept of story theming. The term never really took hold with the general public or the Disney Company and is not used today, but was prominent on Disney Company literature of the 1990s.

When I worked for Disney Adult Discoveries in the late 1990s, two of the tours that I instructed were inspired by that original "architheming" class and were titled "Disney by Design" and "Disney's Amazing Architecture."

Both tours were designed to expose guests to the creative use of architecture to tell stories both inside and outside the Disney theme parks.

As part of my training, I had to spend many hours to become conversant in the basics of architecture, architectural terms and history, and more specifically, the Disney approach to "entertainment architecture," the term that the Disney Company decided was better to describe what they were doing.

There was some classroom instruction, but, primarily, the classes consisted of taking guests out in van to various locations to describe the architecture of places like the Casting Center, Team Disney, Reedy Creek Fire Station on Buena Vista, Disney's Wilderness Lodge, the Italy pavilion in Epcot's World Showcase, and more.

The class was so popular that I was specially requested to take out a group of 30 visiting German architectural students on a special tour around the property.

When Eisner came on board in 1984, he became a well-known patron of architects.

"You can have bad architecture that costs just as much as good architecture," he remarked at the time. "Most hotel companies are driven by operations, so you have these hotels that were built in the '70s that function beautifully but are as ugly as the day is long. It costs the same to do well as badly. It's exactly the same price if you build 1,200 ugly rooms."

Eisner saw hotel architecture as an opportunity to redefine the Disney Company as the need for new resorts to accommodate guests at Walt Disney World became apparent. Ground had already been broken at a new hotel complex near Epcot and Disney's partner in the project, the Tishman Corporation, was determined to hire a conventional architect to create a conventionally upscale convention hotel.

Eisner fought for using architect Michael Graves, who had never designed a hotel before in his life.

"Look, we are an entertainment company," Eisner said. "We're Disney. We've got to have the biggest, the best, the most tasteful."

However, the finished Dolphin and Swan resort hotels designed by Graves faced criticism as grandiose, confusing and garish among other complaints.

Eisner, speaking at the dedication of the Dolphin Resort and responding to initial criticism, called them "designs that err on the side of the fantastic."

He asserted that "the only way to avoid such criticism is to build a bland box… Impact is what great architecture is all about."

At the dedication, Graves acknowledged that this type of architecture could not exist anywhere else but at Disney. He emphasized that Disney "offers a liberation from context."

However, the Disney Development Company supposedly monitored all the well-known architects they engaged fairly closely so they did not exceed the agreed upon "competitive budget."

Eisner's preference for architecture was what he called "strength with lightness" that meant a sound design but with a whimsical touch.

In the May 1992 issue of the architectural magazine, Interiors, is a lengthy article, written by Jean Gorman, where it was stated that "the [Disney] craze for big-name architects began partly as a practical response to increasing the company's profit-making potential and partly as a conscious effort to develop and refine its image outside the parks…

"Driven by Eisner's enthusiastic fascination for architecture, the Disney Development Company looked beyond the in-house team of Imagineers toward outside architects who could appeal to a sophisticated consumer," the article continued. "Eisner maintains that being a name-brand architect is not the only criterion for consideration. The willingness and ability to design projects that are compatible with Disney's entertainment philosophy also plays into the selection process."

An article in the July 29, 1991 issue of Time magazine stated:

"Disney has a reputation among architects (as among filmmakers) for tightfistedness and micro-management. On each (architectural) project, Eisner is brought in five times to review the plans, approving masonry textures, paint colors and light fixtures.

"One reason the chairman says he meddles more in the design of a hotel than he does, for instance, in the production of The Marrying Man (a troubled 1991 Disney live-action feature film) is that 'movies go away, but buildings stand as monuments to your bad taste'.

"Plus he thinks he's good at inspiring architects. 'I know how to make creative people see that something is not as good as they can do. Or I tell architects Don't give up. Don't accommodate.' Eisner thinks big and will not take 'no' for an answer… He doesn't know exactly what he wants, but he wants it to be amazing, and he wants it badly."

At least one architect, James Stirling, declined an invitation to participate in designing a Disney structure. French architect Jean Nouvel proposed a resort hotel for Disneyland Paris based on a Rationalist theme, while architect Peter Eisenman suggested an underground hotel for that theme park.

While those projects never went beyond the initial discussion stage, some projects greenlit by Eisner did not develop further, like Antoine Predock's Mediterranean Resort, a theme hotel inspired by the Greek Islands that was planned to open in 1992 at Walt Disney World.

Instead, Predock designed the Hotel Santa Fe for Disneyland Paris that opened in 1992, with a Pueblo Revival architecture style to represent the American Southwest.

Peter Dominick's Wilderness Lodge was actually supposed to include a larger imprint called Buffalo Junction (sometimes called Fort Wilderness Junction). That would have been a 600-room hotel between Disney's Fort Wilderness Resort and Disney's Wilderness Lodge with a street area of shops and restaurants themed to the Old West (think of a Wild West version of WDW's BoardWalk) and would have had the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show from Disneyland Paris.

Wing T. Chao, who was the senior vice president for master planning, architecture and design with Disney Development Company in the 1980s and 1990s, had a master's degree in architecture from Harvard University. He credited Eisner with Disney's patronage of architects.

"It's because of his (Eisner's) personal love of art and architecture, and his leadership. He personally gets involved with our architects at every design meeting," Chao told the Orlando Sentinel newspaper in July 11, 1990.

Eisner's mentor in architecture was Victor Ganz, a vice president of New York's Whitney Museum of American art, who Eisner said "literally took me by the hand and helped me understand and appreciate art. I wanted to use the architects who were on the cutting edges, the young and new breed."

It was Ganz who recommended Michael Graves to Eisner, as well as some other architects.

Chao told reporters that Eisner was just continuing the vision established by Walt Disney.

"Walt wanted to give his guests the same quality of experience in their hotels that they get in the parks," Chao said.

Chao kept a file of information on roughly 700 architectural firms, from which he culled likely candidates when a new project arose.

To support this architectural agenda, in 1997, Disney Adult Discoveries produced a limited-edition full color 60-page booklet titled Walt Disney World Architecture to distribute in the "Disney by Design" tour.

Once again, Michael Eisner wrote the introduction:

"Fun. Magic. Dreams. It's who we are. Our guests come here to be amused, startled and delighted, and there is no reason that unique experience should stop once they leave the magic of our Theme Parks. That's why we've sought out some of the best architects in the world to help us expand our vision to resorts and buildings beyond the Theme Parks. We are making a daring new statement in architecture. One of impact and imagination, a big 'Wow!'

"The three-dimensional dreams you'll see and read about here are intended to take you on their own unique emotional journeys where something unexpected and surprising turns up around every corner. Each tells a story and each story is a new adventure you're invited to share. So, please come in and join us on a new flight of fantasy."

This delightful booklet is somewhat rare because shortly after its publication, Disney politics reared its ugly head and the book was forbidden to be sold or given to guests.

Basically, an influential department head felt that despite the multitude of approvals by various other departments, that since he had not been given an opportunity to review the project that he was going to deny his approval.

The majority of the print run was destroyed although some copies were indeed distributed to guests before the edict came down and others were given to instructors at the Disney Institute.

The cover had an image of Mickey's sideways face composed of architectural elements like real bricks, the inside rings of a tree, a decorative window and similar objects.

Just as today, the Disney theme parks sell some "Disney Park Only" small booklets, that was the intent of this publication. One of my copies of the booklet has a $2.95 Disney price tag on it and this copy was briefly sold only in 'The Disney Institute' gift shop. Since it cost roughly six dollars each to produce this book, it was obviously being sold at a loss to promote WDW architecture.

Every entry was two pages. One page had a big color photograph and a paragraph about the architect, while the facing page had a description of the structure. The entries concentrated on the buildings outside of the theme parks, primarily the WDW resorts.

However, there were also entries for two gas stations on Buena Vista and buildings in Celebration.

Another factor in the "recall" of the book was the publication of the much more expensive book Building a Dream: The Art of Disney Architecture by Beth Dunlop (1996, Harry Abrams) where the previously unnamed department head had reviewed and approved that text.

The book was replaced with a pin and a laminated card with the Nine Elements of Disney Design: Color, Materials, Interior Architecture, Illusion, Landscaping, Music, Signage, General Exterior and Attention to Detail.

Here's one Disney architectural secret I learned at the time that I don't think has appeared in any other article about Walt Disney World architecture: The Crossroads shopping center at Disney World was designed by Hunton, Brady, Pryor, Maso of Orlando, who were also responsible for construction drawings and construction administration for the Isozaki Team Disney building across from Downtown Disney.

That's the building with the huge sundial cone that some people felt looked like a nuclear power plant.

The four-story, 401,000-square-foot structure covers a space the size of three football fields and includes three toriis, just like the entrance to a Japanese temple to cleanse the heart, mind and soul of those who enter.

Of course, these toriis all have black mouse ears. Barriers had to eventually be placed in front of the building entrance because people were driving and walking into the shallow reflecting pool, not realizing it was a pool of water because it was so still.

Clyde Brady, a partner with Hunton, Brady, Pryor, Maso of Orlando, told the Orlando Sentinel that the immediate effect of Disney entertainment architecture was that "we're seeing people coming to us, looking for theme architecture. Everything's got to have a theme or a certain character."

Chao stated that Disney entertainment architecture fell into three design categories: "modern," as in Isozaki's "abstract" Team Disney building; "derivative," either of a style or period, as in Stern's Yacht and Beach Club resorts ; and "fanciful," as in Graves' Dolphin and Swan.

"Some projects overlap categories," he reminded reporters.

After the Dolphin dedication, Eisner was asked if he thought his approach to entertainment architecture would result in better architecture outside of Disney property.

"The answer is 'yes,' " Eisner said. "It can't hurt that we're helping push architecture forward."

Before the Disney Institute opened, Eisner addressed the staff and he said that he felt his two greatest legacies to the Disney Company would be culinary (better quality food offerings in a Disney theme park than merely the standard hot dogs and hamburgers) and architecture (that entertainment architecture could work outside of a theme park).

I believe he accomplished both of those items on his agenda.



  1. By schnebs

    Interesting article as always, Jim. Personally, if Disney still offered a choice of a pin or something more substantial for going on a tour or taking a class (like a booklet or a railroad spike, which they used to offer on the "Magic Behind Our Steam Trains" tour), I'd take the latter. Thanks for the peek into how petty jealousies can lead to real problems - sorry to say, that's not just something you see at Disney.

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