Walking Down Walt Disney World's Main Street U.S.A.

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

Even when Walt Disney was alive, he was constantly being told that Main Street U.S.A. was "wasted space," especially Town Square. As Disneyland and later Magic Kingdom continued to grow in attendance, the need to better monetize all of the park space increased—which is one of the reasons for Walt Disney World's 2001 addition of the Main Street Emporium Gallery that completely destroys the story of Center Street and subconsciously steals joy from the guests.

Walt realized that people in an amusement park or a carnival did not have shared experiences. The experiences they did have were often chaotic and unsatisfying. Using his background as a filmmaker, Walt staged his three-dimensional Disneyland show like a movie.

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 and programs for what was playing. 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. The show has begun and it all began with Town Square on Main Street U.S.A.

Main Street U.S.A. would establish the tone of the story that Walt was attempting to tell. It was a warm, friendly welcome to visitors at the beginning of their day and a loving kiss goodbye when they left at night.

The street was like a funnel, allowing guests—no matter how many stops they made along the way—to only go in the one direction where Walt wanted them to go. Whether they walked down the street or sidewalk or through the stores, the guests would eventually end up at the Plaza.

The curtain to the "show" rises in Town Square and Main Street, U.S.A.

From the Plaza, nicknamed the "Hub" because from its center radiated out the entryways to all the other lands like the spokes from the hub of a wheel, guests were free to choose how they wanted to experience the story of Disneyland. They could do their own editing of what to see and when.

However, Walt made sure whatever story they experienced, it always began and ended with Main Street, a shared experience for a diverse audience that all received a pleasant introduction and a happy ending. Main Street provided a consistency for everyone.

"It's nice to come home to good ol' Main Street U.S.A. Inspired by the small town dreams of a young Walt Disney, a walk down Main Street is like stepping back into the early days of the 20th Century. Walt had fond memories of those days and it's a dream we still like to share, especially at parade time. This is Main Street Station. Main Street U.S.A." —Walt Disney World Railroad spiel.

Main Street U.S.A. in Florida has some similarities with its counterpart in California, but it has many more physical differences. Both Main Streets are divided into three distinct sections that serve different functions: Town Square, Main Street itself and the Plaza. Traditionally, all three sections are usually just identified as comprising Main Street USA.

Rather than trying to capture the feel of a small town in the Midwest like at Disneyland, Main Street USA at the Magic Kingdom represents a larger, more prosperous turn-of-the-century East Coast town. For instance, the Main Street Train Station's design resembles a similar upscale train station that existed in Saratoga Springs, New York at this time period.

As Imagineer Alex Wright wrote, "Main Street in the Magic Kingdom is much bigger than Main Street at Disneyland, in keeping with the general upsizing of the entire park and its taller Castle. It is the Main Street of a slightly larger burgeoning town. There are more signs of industrialization, and the architecture is slightly more ornate, in a style we call 'Eastern Seaboard Victorian'.

"This style came into vogue during the 1880s and 1890s, as the Industrial Revolution made possible the mass fabrication of precut architectural details that could be shipped around the country. The lighter and lacier metalwork lends Main Street a more fanciful flair to illustrate the overriding optimism."

The goal was to achieve the spirit of Eastern Seaboard resort towns. The Emporium showcased a Georgian Gingerbread exterior from the Maine and Massachusetts coasts. The brick work of Mid-Atlantic States was found on some of the facades as well as some of the elegant touches of New York's Upper East Side.

The Imagineers were guided by Walt's well known philosophy expressed in his quote, "The concept here (in Florida) will have to be something that is unique so there is a distinction between Disneyland in California and whatever Disney does in Florida."

The overall design of Magic Kingdom's Main Street U.S.A. was the work of Academy Award-winning Hollywood art director John de Cuir, who had done previous work for the Disney Company.

De Cuir was the production designer for the film Hello, Dolly! (1969) and was directly responsible for the lavish 1890 New York street set that reportedly cost over two million dollars to build, and was so massive that it stretched across the 20th Century Fox backlot between Pico and Olympic Boulevards. He won one of his Oscars for his work on creating an elaborate turn of the century atmosphere for the film.

Main Street U.S.A. as it appeared in 1971.

It has been suggested that De Cuir's work on that movie influenced his planning for Walt Disney World's Main Street.

De Cuir is honored by a shared window on Magic Kingdom's Main Street with Claude Coats, Marc Davis and Bill Justice as part of "Big Top Theatrical Productions". Imagineer Eddie Sotto, who was in charge of the design of Main Street for Disneyland Paris, has stated he was inspired by the work of De Cuir.

Other artists who contributed significantly to the design of Main Street included Collin Campbell, Paul Hartley, Ernie Prinzhorn and Dorothea Redmond (who was the major designer on the proposed Main Street Hotel that later became the Gulf Hospitality Center).

Not inhibited by the limited acreage of Disneyland, the Imagineers provided a much more expansive vision of Main Street, themed to what East Coast guests might remember of the more affluent main streets of the time.

"Though often regarded as mere 'replicas' of Disneyland, the Main Street buildings in the Magic Kingdom have their own distinct designs, with a grand cinematic style," wrote Disney authority Jeff Kurtti. "Showcasing popular cultural art, the design of Main Street incorporates the work of famous American artists and illustrators including Charles Dana Gibson, J.C. Leyendecker and Louis Tiffany."

As Imagineer John Hench told me in an interview about the Magic Kingdom's Main Street, "it is exactly the same and completely different." In particular, he was referring to the use of color on the buildings that had to be adjusted for the non-smoggy, clear blue skies of Florida that would affect how the colors would be seen by the guests.

Unlike Disneyland's Main Street U.S.A., the Magic Kingdom interpretation was originally meant to imply a particular day of the year.

At the turn of the century, most people worked six days a week and on Sunday spent most of the day at church and at home with family. To justify why so many people, including children, seem to be filling the streets of the town, it must be a holiday.

The hanging baskets displayed red, white and blue flowers. In the earliest days of the park, red, white and blue semi-circular bunting decorated the upper balconies of the buildings.

Obviously, it must be the Fourth of July. That would mean that besides crowds of people being in town to celebrate, there might be the likelihood of a parade but definitely nighttime fireworks.

The mythology of a real city is reinforced by the names of fictitious companies on the vehicles (Main Street Transportation Co.) and trash receptacles (Main Street Sanitation Dept.). Smaller realistic elements like hitching posts, mailboxes, light fixtures, manhole covers and bus stop signs that adorned the street added to the illusion.

There are several elements at work on Main Street that are not consciously noticed by Disney theme park guests but subtly effect the overall experience.

There was also a particular reason for the original placement of shops on Main Street. Most people are right handed and tend to go toward the right. In general, on the right hand side of the street were placed things that people might need as they entered the park: lockers, stroller and wheelchair rental, hats (either for sunny weather or rain), camera supplies, a café and bakery for a quick breakfast and more.

On the left hand side of the street were the items that guests might need most at the end of the day from a final quick snack of a hot dog to restrooms and Guest Relations. Of course, the most important thing on the left side were shops, especially the large Emporium to buy last-minute gifts. At the end of the day, the Emporium is generally packed with people buying things.

The Coca-Cola Refreshment Corner is on the right side of Main Street U.S.A. as guests depart.

There are shops on the right hand side of the street but they were the more delicate items like china and glass that people would generally save for a final purchase and would then be opposite the more populated and frantic movements of the flow of traffic of last minute shoppers pushing and shoving.

"It's not apparent at a casual glance but this street is only a scale model. We had every brick and tile and gas lamp made 5/8ths true size. This cost more, but it made the street a toy, and the imagination can play more freely with a toy. Besides, people like to think that their world is somehow more grown-up than Papa's was." Walt Disney told Reader's Digest magazine (August 1960) about Disneyland's Main Street in an article entitled "The Magic World of Walt Disney" by Ira Wolfert

Forced perspective is a technique that manipulates human visual perception by scaling items and the correlation between them to make an object appear farther away, closer, larger or smaller than it really is.

Disneyland's art directors like Imagineers Richard Irvine and Marvin Davis had worked as scenic designers for motion pictures and were used to adjusting architecture to make the best use of the confined areas of a soundstage. At Disneyland with limited space, it was important to make the optimum use of that space as well.

These same two Imagineers were also deeply involved in the creation of Main Street for Walt Disney World but used a different scale since the restrictions of space were no longer an issue but accommodating a larger capacity crowd was.

Basically, full scale elements are utilized at the base of a building and then items like windows, trim and bricks become progressively smaller as they rise higher on the outside façade. While the forced perspective is less extreme at Walt Disney World, on Main Street, each floor on the outside façade still diminishes slightly in height by a few feet from the previous floor.

As architectural writer Beth Dunlop explained: "On Main Street, the first stories are full scale but the floors above are much smaller: it is not really the 7/8ths scale (Walt Disney World) or 5/8ths scale (Disneyland) that is often attributed to Disney, but a play of dimensions far more capricious and cinematic than that. Everything was scaled so that it 'looked right,' bigger or smaller than it might be"

The first floor may be a typical 11-to-14 feet high, but the average height of a three story building on Magic Kingdom's Main Street is roughly only thirty feet or so, meaning that the two additional stories have been scaled down proportionately to achieve the look of a regular three story shop.

The trick was to maintain the essence of the time period but to create a sense of intimacy, an area that was less threatening but also communicated to the unconscious mind that this was slightly different than the real world. As a result, the guests' minds are already being prepared to accept the next level of fantasy presented in the other lands.

Guests do indeed get the feeling of being in a colorful doll house where the rules are different.

Guests have a tendency not to fixate on individual buildings but on the long shot of a cluster of stores on a city street where any inconsistencies in the adjacent buildings are not readily apparent. Even the trees on the street are trimmed to a modest height to not overwhelm the nearby buildings and to make them seem a real proportion.

In reality, there are only four buildings on Main Street but to achieve the illusion of different businesses owned and operated by different people, a mixture of using slightly different heights, different colors and different elements of architecture separates each from its neighbor.

Unlike a real street, there are no gaps between each new façade. The facades do not necessarily correspond with the interiors. However, the different facades are visually connected to make the story coherent.

The facades are roughly three to four feet away from the main buildings. There are long narrow catwalk-like walkways behind the facades which accommodate decorations (lamps, chairs, etc.) intended to be seen from the street below. Each of the four main buildings are two stories high and include typical windowless offices and conference rooms.

They are referred to as MO (Main Street Operations) and by number. Odd numbers on the west side of the street and even numbers on the east. The building that houses the Confectionery and Main Street Cinema is known as "MO-7". "MO-8" is directly across the street housing the Emporium.

There are only four main "buildings" on Main Street U.S.A.

Besides using forced perspective, Magic Kingdom's Main Street employs a different type of visual illusion to make the street appear longer as guests walk to the Plaza Hub at the start of their day and yet appear shorter at the end of the day.

Debunking the Disney urban myths that the street physically narrows and that the buildings diminish in size, there is a more logical reason for this illusion.

A vanishing point is an optical illusion where the two parallel lines receding from the viewer like the sides of a road or two lines of telephone poles appear to converge in the distance and disappear or vanish at that point. It is often used to create realistic perspective in a drawing.

It is advisable to slow a guest down in the beginning of the day to get them adjusted to the Disney magic as they walk down Main Street. At the end of the day, a tired guest often with a cranky child still smiles because the journey back to the front of the park seems so much shorter.

Looking down Main Street toward the castle, the vanishing point (the end of the journey) is not the Plaza Hub but Cinderella Castle. In fact, the archway entrance is large enough for guests to see the movement and the color of the carousel so that pushes the perceived distance even further away.

In addition, the castle is raised above the street, another distancing tool. The awnings on the outside of the buildings extend more outward toward the street at the end of the street, again creating the illusion that the street is lengthier.

Looking down Main Street toward the train station, the vanishing point is the flagpole and the smaller area of Town Square making the walk seem shorter. The street also seems to "open up" giving the impression that the end is closer.

To increase this illusion, the street does incline approximately six feet in height toward Cinderella Castle, making it seem like a longer trek since the guest walks a consciously unnoticed uphill slope. At the end of the day, the walk is actually slightly downhill.

"There are a couple of contradictions that occur on a rational level. Like having a castle at the end of Main Street. But here we're calling back the old image of a secured point, a strong place. It doesn't belong on Main Street, but it does belong at the end of a vista like this.

"The old cities of the earth clustered around a strong point … the castle is the strong point – and a home as well. You know the expression, 'A man's home is his castle.' So, in the end, this castle is Everyman's home," stated Imagineer John Hench when I interviewed him on Main Street at Walt Disney World.

The castle serves other functions. It makes Main Street different than just a historical replica like the similar streets at Greenfield Village and Knott's Berry Farm.

"The castle signifies that here is no ordinary history park, its size and presence and sheer peculiarity entice the entering throngs to step along, down the street, past the intersection, to the Hub or central plaza, where all the other equally fantastic and unexpected dimensions of time and place begin," stated Disney park architecture authority Karal Ann Marling.

The castle foreshadows for the guest the leaving of the familiar real world of a familiar city with buildings, vehicles, sidewalks among other elements and entering into a world of magic. It is like a distant vision of the spires of the Emerald City of Oz that beckoned another Midwestern child from her turn of the century home in Kansas to colorful lands of unimagined adventures.

While there is no rational explanation to have a castle at the end of a main street, it clearly satisfies an emotional need and so its existence does not seem to be a jarring contradiction for guests. It serves as a physical and visual pathway to the heart of the park.

Today's Disney executives do not understand the story and importance of Main Street U.S.A., especially to the overall storytelling of the park, and unfortunately in my personal experience dealing with them, they have no desire to know because it would prevent them from making the changes they deem necessary to monetize the area.

The Emporium Gallery was build on the previous site of West Center Street on Main Street, U.S.A.

As a result, many delightful details have disappeared from the street over the decades and never replaced with anything else, like closing the Car Barn to guests where there is a genuine Edison electric light bulb that glows, authentic Calvary lanterns and so much more.

One of my personal favorites fortunately still exists on East Center Street where two adjacent windows that state "Voice and Singing" and "Private Lessons". Both windows are slightly cracked open (an actual speaker is directly below disguised as part of the molding of the window). Occasionally, a loop is heard of the instructor giving the lessons taking place, not always successfully.

So sadly, I advise readers to go an explore and appreciate what is left of Main Street U.S.A. before even more disappears or is transformed into something to support a Pixar animated feature. Grumble. Grumble. As I wave my grumpy old man cane wildly in the air.



  1. By carolinakid

    I miss West Center Street at the MK. If I recall correctly there used to be a lovely Flower Market there among other things.

    Another great article, Jim. So sad today’s park management doesn’t understand or WANT to understand Walt’s vision.

  2. By wdwchuck

    Quote Originally Posted by carolinakid View Post
    I miss West Center Street at the MK. If I recall correctly there used to be a lovely Flower Market there among other things.

    Another great article, Jim. So sad today’s park management doesn’t understand or WANT to understand Walt’s vision.

    Right again Kid. Money was very important to Walt, but for him, it was about using that money to create more. This management group has a whole different view of money. For me it just seems they want to separate mine from me.

  3. Discuss this article on MousePad.