Walt Disney World Theming, Part 2

by Mark Goldhaber, staff writer

I'm very pleased and honored to be joining the MousePlanet community. After being a reader here for a couple of years, a contributor of news updates for a few months, and a contributor of two articles thus far, and it's a privilege to be joining the staff here. If you haven't already read the previous articles, they're under the WDW Update section, on Epcot live entertainment and continuity of theme.

I plan write on some of the fun stuff that makes the magic happen, like today's article on theme-transitioning, things to look out for on your next trip, attractions that never got built, behind-the-scenes secrets, and more. If there's anything you'd like to know more about, drop me a line. I'll be glad to share any information as well as any interesting tidbits that I can dig up. Enjoy this article and have a magical day! — Mark

Last time, in “Walt Disney World Theming, Part 1: The Continuity of Theming,” I promised you that I would tell you about theming at Frontierland, Liberty Square, and Adventureland.

When we left off, I discussed how continuity of theme can keep the theme of an attraction going even beyond the boundaries of the attraction itself. Today, let's look at how Imagineers create transitions between wildly divergent themes without the change being jarring. This is important, because if you are trying to establish a sense of place — which is Disney's area of expertise — you don't want it disrupted by having a jarring transition from one theme to another. By slowly blending from one theme to the next, the transition becomes nearly invisible: You never lose your sense of place, while still moving from one theme to the next.


Let's start about as far from Toontown Fair as you can get in the park — Caribbean Plaza and Pirates of the Caribbean.

Feel the flavor of the islands in the plants, buildings, and fountains that surround you. Now, let's flow from the plaza and courtyards of the Caribbean to the Mexican coast with El Pirata y el Perico.

As we leave the Mexican coast, we round the turn to Frontierland, and we head north a bit to Texas and Pecos Bill's Tall Tale Cafe and Mile Long Bar. We soon find ourselves in the Old West with nary a shock in sight. We're still in the moment, still far from Central Florida in the 21st Century.

Photo by Ian Parkinson

From the cafe, let's slowly transition toward the east through the Country Bear Jamboree and several Western-themed shops. Walking past the covered passageway to Adventureland for now, we pass a small shop and the Diamond Horseshoe Jamboree. Is this part of the Old West? Or a more Midwestern feel of the big-town dance hall? Regardless, it's a much easier transition to the Liberty Tree Tavern, an 18th Century colonial inn.

Now that we've gently made it back to the East Coast, let's go back in time to Colonial-era buildings, through such styles as Georgian (as seen in Williamsburg, Virginia) and Dutch New Amsterdam (from New York City and the Hudson River Valley), which carry us around past the bridge to the Hub.

Coming back toward the Rivers of America, the Hall of Presidents brings us into the Federal style of Philadelphia, before we move forward through the 19th Century via the New England-style buildings along the waterfront.

Photo by Brian Bennett

Take a close look at those buildings tucked along the side of the Hall of Presidents. Each building jumps forward in time about 20 years from the one before it. Note how the lower parts of the buildings in Fantasyland — just barely visible under the upstairs extension of the Columbia Harbor House — are not too out of place. And, indeed, if we continued on to Fantasyland, we would slowly transition to the German and Tudor styles of the westernmost buildings of that land. This brings us all the way to the Hudson River Valley Gothic style of the Haunted Mansion.

How did we get here?

There — we've slowly transitioned from the old Caribbean to the mid-19th Century Mid-Atlantic via Mexico, the Old West, and the Colonial eastern seaboard without once disrupting our sense of place. Not bad, huh?

By carefully sliding between geographic location and historical era, we have managed to include attractions, dining, and shopping in many various themes. And not only is the architecture themed, but so are the background music, the “sidewalk,” even the garbage cans!

Look at the ground as you pass from Frontierland into Liberty Square. See the metal plate? Notice at the river edge of the plate how a stream empties into the Rivers of America. The metal plate is a symbolic bridge over the great dividing water of the Mississippi River — bet you never knew that one. And, of course, across from all of the buildings in Frontierland and most of Liberty Square, the Rivers of America are a constant theme, working well with all of the places and times.

Looking at the rest of Adventureland

As we cross the bridge from the Hub, the masks and other decor prepare us for our entry into a tropical paradise with their combination of Polynesian and Southeast Asian architecture.

We see the former Adventureland Veranda, the Aloha Isle (home of Dole Whips), the Egg Roll Wagon, and the Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse. Next, we come upon the well-integrated “tunnel” to Frontierland, which holds the restrooms and public telephones, and looks like a covered walkway between the shops. The interior of the tunnel is designed to meld well into both Adventureland on one end and Frontierland on the other, without looking out of place in either. This is done by styling the interior with fairly nondescript wooden walls, while having a covered horse-and-cart style entry on the Frontierland side and an island-style entrance on the Adventureland side.

The Way We Were

Before we continue, let's look back at the Magic Kingdom of the early 1990s. *Bzzzt*

...We approach an open marketplace in the center of Adventureland.

The many tropical-themed shops with Polynesian and Southeast Asian architecture open onto a broad plaza, with the Asian-themed entrance to the Jungle Cruise off to the left, and the Polynesian-themed Tropical Serenade (better known as the Enchanted Tiki Birds) in front. The open plaza has planters with tropical plants and ledges to sit on. As we walk, the islands transform from Polynesian to the Caribbean as we approach Caribbean Plaza.

The Way It Is

OK, let's return to today's Magic Kingdom. *Bzzzt*

...We approach a crowded marketplace in the center of Adventureland.

A few, large, desert-themed shops with Polynesian and Southeast Asian architecture and tent-like Middle-Eastern awnings open onto a crowded plaza with the Magic Carpets of Aladdin squeezed into the middle of it. The Asian-themed entrance to the Jungle Cruise is hidden behind foliage off to the left and the Polynesian-themed Enchanted Tiki Room – Under New Management is in front of us, visible just beyond the Carpets. As we keep walking, we come upon the Caribbean island feel of Caribbean Plaza.

For many, the sudden imposition of the Arabic desert themes in the middle of the lush island tropical land feels somewhat disruptive to the theme. All of the re-themed changes just don't work for some people — even though the Imagineers did their best to make the Aladdin ride fit into Adventureland by using awnings on the shops surrounding Adventureland Plaza from the Adventureland Bazaar to the Agrabah Bazaar (and consolidating the stores from five to three).

This may be partly due to the fact that while the awnings are Middle Eastern, the buildings above and behind them are still Polynesian and Southeast Asian in design. Also, the transitions are also just a bit too abrupt and jarring.

Despite some missteps, Disney Imagineers are always looking to convincingly make you feel like you are somewhere else, even when you are in the middle of going from one theme to another. Compare that to the jarring juxtaposition of themes at most other theme parks, and you can see where Disney's immersive theming wins out again.

Special bonus factoid

Disney subtly changes area music to match the theme changes between lands. Yet there is one place in the Magic Kingdom where the transition is so abrupt that there is no area music, because there is no way to match the juxtaposed themes. Think you know where it is? Go ahead, guess. I'll wait.

Dum-da-dum dum-da-dum dum-da-dum-da-dum.

Ready? Go across the far right bridge from the hub. When you get across the bridge, you find the Enchanted Grove to your left, the Mad Tea Party in front of you, and Cosmic Ray's Starlight Cafe on your right.

Listen. Yep, nothing.

Coming up

Next up, we shift from theming concepts to discussing some functional theming and look at how Disney pays tribute to those who made major contributions to the history of Walt Disney World — the signs in the windows on the second floor of the buildings on Main Street, U.S.A.