For the Love of Main Street U.S.A.

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

I have always loved and will always love Main Street U.S.A. at Disneyland Park and the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World. For an audience visiting Disneyland in 1955, the turn-of-the-last-century and the typical small town American Main Street was roughly a half-century old, still fresh enough in people's memories or the many Hollywood movies set in that time period to bring a nostalgic smile at the thought of such things.

It had a quaint, comforting nostalgia about it that prepared guests to experience the rest of the park. However, the era it evokes is now more than a century away. When plans were made for EuroDisney, it was seriously explored to update the Main Street to the Roarin' Twenties with all the energy and excitement of that raucous decade.

Before Disneyland's 50th anniversary, there were proposals to update Main Street U.S.A. to the 1950s (once again making it a half-century away from its reference) but to focus on the aspects of that time that really never were that were showcased in television shows like Father Knows Best, Ozzie and Harriet and The Donna Reed Show.

Basically, it would have followed the style of the Prime Time Café at Disney's Hollywood Studios, emphasizing the common stereotypes of a Happy Days-type American world without any of the darkness that also marked that same era.

Thankfully, Main Street has remained as it mostly was, with the Walt Disney World version expanding a bit to reflect a turn-of-the-last century East Coast city with subtle references to New York, Chicago, and more, rather than Disneyland's rural Mid-western version.

Thanks to sound financial advice, teen pop idol Bobby Sherman managed to hang on to much of the money he made during his windfall years of the 1960s and 1970s before he mostly retired from music and acting and went on to careers as a paramedic and reserve police officer.

The arrival of his two sons, Christopher and Tyler in the early 1970s inspired him to do a little "Backyard Imagineering" that he had first attempted when he was a 'tween.

"I fell in love with [Disneyland] when I went there with my parents on my 12th birthday, and tried to build a miniature version of it," Sherman said.

A model builder ever since he was a boy, he wanted to create something his two sons "would really enjoy." He chose Disneyland's Main Street, exhaustively photographing the original on his visits and eventually persuading the Disney Company to give him a set of plans. The project to make a one-fifth scale version of the famous street took Sherman two and a half years and $15,000 to build in the backyard of his home in Encino.

One of the first people to see it when it was finished was Walt Disney's daughter, Diane Disney Miller, who exclaimed, "My father would have fallen in love with this. He loved models."

More than just a physical location, Main Street was always a larger concept evocative of important core values.

"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 both main streets for Disneyland and Walt Disney World.

A parade down Disneyland Park's Main Street U.S.A under a banner announcing the newest addition to the Disneyland Railroad.

"This form reflects that prosperity, that enthusiasm. Walt wanted to reassure people," Hench said. "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."

Today, far more than a century since its original physical existence in cities across the country, people still relate to the idea of a hometown main street and yearn for the aspects that it represented including small town virtues, patriotism, friendliness, morality, security, family, small business, free enterprise, inventiveness and progress.

The typical physical appearance of Main Street was the major central town road of buildings that were rarely any taller than one or two stories and creating an uneven skyline. The bottom floor was designated for businesses while the upper floors might contain offices for a variety of professionals, like doctors or lawyers; smaller businesses; or even housing for store proprietors or temporary tenants, as well as storage.

A separate stately city hall might also serve as a courthouse or some other civic function. For the most part, Main Street was usually not far from an agricultural or ranching community that needed a common area to conduct business.

Some elements from actual main streets were borrowed for Disneyland, but often abstracted into what some observers refer to as a "hyperreality." Details were sometimes eliminated or sanitized if they did not support the story that Disney wanted to tell.

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.

For Disneyland's final version of Main Street U.S.A., Walt did not include the common unpleasant elements, like a funeral parlor, disreputable bar, pool hall, outhouses, a dog pound, or even somewhat controversial elements like a church or a schoolhouse, although some of those items did appear on early concept drawings.

It is a perfect, orderly, clean and happy community without a hint of anything troublesome.

Walt Disney World's Main Street U.S.A. has subtle references to cities on the East Coast.

For a brief moment in time, Disney guests feel as if they are part of a turn-of-the-last-century town and behaved accordingly in this new temporary reality. They exhibited greater courtesy, friendliness and patience than in their real world. In general, they were also happier in this virtual reality of the past.

Many entertainment options are passive with the audience simply viewing and not participating. Disneyland was one of the very first opportunities for the audience to be part of the entertainment activity.

Guests boarding the horse drawn streetcar or the steam train become enthusiastic and colorful extras in a larger show enjoyed by others. On Main Street U.S.A., everyone is part of the story of a bustling turn of the century town with people buying items or rushing to other appointments or taking a moment to converse with friends.

Main Street U.S.A. serves many of the same functions of a real street from controlling the flow of movement to offering shopping opportunities to even being a temporary stage for events and holidays.

"I've always been interested in the past and history and I think it's vital in the world we're living in today that we can't forget the things that happened," Walt Disney said in a 1956 interview with Pete Martin.

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, Town Hall, horse drawn streetcars and a list of potential stores.

The Burbank location ceased to be a viable option in spring 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 U.S.A. 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."

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 U.S.A.

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."

In fact, Walt's vivid memories of Marceline that he shared in later years were about his time on the farm rather than visiting the stores on Main Street.

It has been argued that a few architectural aspects from Marceline were used 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 at Disneyland.

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, but describes Main Street USA as "anywhere in America, circa 1900."

Many different Imagineers contributed to the final design of the street, including Marvin Davis, Dale Henessey, John Hench, Herb Ryman, Emile Kuri, 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 (Disneyland's) 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."

As I recently learned from Imagineer Tom K. Morris and the research of Imagineer Eddie Sotto, Disneyland's City Hall is probably actually based on the turn-of-the century Bay County Courthouse in Bay City, Michigan. The image was in a book about Victorian architecture in the Disney Studios library also used by Imagineer Ken Anderson as a source for the exterior of the Haunted Mansion.

Goff had mentioned that Walt wanted to recapture his memories of Marceline but "He decided to go with more two-story buildings to allow for additional storage space. That was what we had in Fort Collins where we had banks that looked like banks."

Fort Collins locations like the Avery and Miller Blocks, the old firehouse building, the former Linden Hotel, and the Union Pacific railroad station have all been considered possible inspiration for some of the facades on the Main Street U.S.A. buildings.

In addition there were similarities with the storefronts on Jefferson Street, the First National Bank building, and buildings that had been torn down including Old Main, which burned down in 1970; the county's fourth courthouse, which was demolished in 1957; and the Hottel house, which was razed to make way for a J.C. Penney and is now Old Town's Ace Hardware.

Disneyland's City Hall does include some architectural elements from that 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.

However, if Main Street U.S.A. was not an actual recreation of Marceline, Missouri then neither was it a recreation of Fort Collins, Colorado.

"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," Imagineer John Hench recalled. "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," Imagineer Marty Sklar wrote in 1964. "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."

Main Street's final version also came from observation of other locations on a big research tour in June 1954, which included a visit to Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry with the General Motors exhibit "Yesterday's Main Street" circa 1900, a walk-through recreation of a turn-of-the-century American main street.

As author 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."

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, the scaled-down size of the place and the individual particulars were clearly different and set a different tone. There were no parking problems. There were no gaudy signs. There was no cacophony of extraneous noise. There was no sense of chaos and confusion.

A walk down the street established a sense of playfulness, a vague feeling of being in a different world and most important, a sense of safety and well being.

Walt realized that people in an amusement park or a carnival did not have shared experiences. Using his background as a filmmaker, Walt staged his three-dimensional Disneyland show like a movie with an opening scene staged to encourage reassurance and optimism.

Guests entered through turnstiles just like at a theater. The marquee for the show was the floral Mickey Mouse on a tall berm in the front of the park. The raised berm and train station were the curtain beckoning guests to go through into the theater.

The tunnels featured coming-attraction posters just like in a movie theater created anticipation but also informed guests of what was coming soon. Disney was the first to identify his rides as attractions, a film term, to distance them from the use of the word "rides" to define poorly maintained carnival rides.

Stepping into the theater, guests immediately smell popcorn from the popcorn wagon, just like in a movie theater. The raised berm prevented guests from looking back into the real world and all they saw was a different time period with people dressed in appropriate costumes, music from that era, smells, sounds, and sights that might exist then. It was an immersive virtual reality. The show has begun and it always begins with Main Street U.S.A.