John Hench and the Language of Vision

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

I recently did a well-received presentation at the Rosen Hospitality Center for a group of students about the importance of theming. I had to point out that the words “storytelling” and “theming” were not interchangable. Theming is immersive and in a themed environment every element contributes to telling the story with the guest as part of the narrative. More importantly, there are no contradictions to distract from the story.

For instance, if you stand on Main Street at the Walt Disney World Resort's Magic Kingdom, you do not need a huge flashing neon sign to tell you that you are on Main Street, U.S.A. All five of your senses are engaged. You hear the sounds of the train in the station, the horses clopping down the street and background music that captures the spirit of the turn of the century. You smell popcorn and, thanks to smellitzers, fresh baked goods. Early enough in the morning you smell horses, as well. You can purchase homebaked goods to taste. Everything you are able to touch seems real, not made of plastic or fiberglass. In fact, some of the things in the Car Barn and the Harmony Barber Shop are indeed authentic from the turn of the century. Everything you see from the buildings to the cast members remind you of that era.

The Magic Kingdom is home to the three tallest mountains in the State of Florida, but you can’t see them from Main Street. You don’t hear the beat of the jungle drums from nearby Adventureland. Everything is telling you that you are on Main Street between 1890 and 1910.

Although no turn-of-the-century towns had a castle at the end of the street, that castle offers an emotional assurance because it is an anchor that provides a sense of direction, a secured reference point to help you acclimate yourself no different that a geographical or architectural location like a mountain or a tall building.

I learned to understand and appreciate this concept from Imagineer John Hench who referred to it as “the language of vision,” meaning that the guest is not consciously aware of how all five of his senses are being manipulated to draw him into the story.

I was reminded how fragile that illusion is when I recently visited Disney’s Hollywood Studios with some friends from Iowa. As we stood by Sid Cahuenga’s shop discussing the fine attention to detail in recreating the Hollywood of the 1930s and 1940s that never was but always will be, our admiration was marred by the booming sounds of the Radio Disney float that blared out-of-theme music up the street. That pounding, conversation-drowning music continued at full blast, even when the float was parked in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theater and flooded down to where we were standing. It completely overpowered the authentic, calming, delightful music of the 1930s and 1940s meant to ease us into this themed world of a cinematic Hollywood.

It is difficult for me to blame Disney cast members for trampling unknowingly on what helped make a Disney park different and better. I know they receive more training on Work Brain, sexual harrassment, safety issues, the Hub and other important stuff than they do on the philosophy behind the heart of Disney. In fact, I think most of the current Disney management just assumes that things will work as they always have and that somehow, just like magic, the cast members will get the historical background and pixie dust they need once they are on the job.

However, in those work locations, no one seems to fully understand any more why things work or used to work so well. Of course, at the opening of Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom, there were plenty of “Walt’s Boys” still around who could communicate those philosophies to the new hires on the job. With authority, they could demonstrate that this is why we do what we do.

One of the most profound Imagineers when it came to explaining the philosophy behind a Disney theme park was the late John Hench, who I had the pleasure of meeting a handful of times. After each encounter, I felt like a blind man who was not only suddenly able to see all the colors of the rainbow but to see them in a way that most people never would.

As the Magic Kingdom supposedly completed its Phase One development in 1975, Hench took the time to share his thoughts on why it all works. Things were different in those days. Someone was clever enough to capture those thoughts and put them down in a little handbook for new hires. Of course, that booklet quickly disappeared and nothing comparable exists today.

The booklet contained the general information a new hire might need to know, the history of the Disney Company and more. However, the highpoint for me is the section of Hench explaining why the two Disney theme parks were so successful and so loved. I heard him say similar things in person to those curious enough to ask. I am reprinting those forgotten Hench’s thoughts here in the hopes that new generations might benefit from this lost knowledge.

John Hench:

"Well, this theme show idea really works at both the conscious and the subconscious levels in the guest's mind. There are a number of things that happen to them which they may very well remember…a ride…a personal contact with an employee…a lunch…a particular show…or any one of dozens of others. But equally important, if not more so, is the sum total of all the thousands of little details of which the guests are never quite fully aware…details working at the subliminal level.

“Take Cinderella Castle, for instance. Most people walk up to this point and take a picture. In fact, more pictures are probably taken right here of that castle than anything else perhaps in the world. But if you walked up and asked a guest WHY he likes the castle…WHY is it worth photographing?… He could never tell you. He'd probably stammer out something like 'Because it's just beautiful.' And yet, when he gets back home and shows his pictures, the feeling will never be the same that he experiences simply standing here.

“The fact is, as we stand here right now, there are literally hundreds of stimuli etching an impression…and an experience in our minds through every one of our senses. Probably the most conscious and obvious stimulus is visual…we are looking at that castle and we think it is beautiful. Yet consider the factors that are playing on our sense of vision.…the colors…the lighting, the shapes and designs. There is a static nature about the castle structure itself that makes you think its been standing there for centuries. And yet there is motion…the motion of those flags, and the trees around us made by the wind. The movement of people, vehicles and boats, water, balloons, horses, and the white clouds passing by overhead.

“Look up at the top of the castle. At the base of the highest tower are a series of tremendously detailed gargoyles which you can barely see from the ground. And yet they are also part of our 'magic formula.' They are part of a thousand little tiny details we are looking at right now but don't consciously perceive. Individually they are nothing. Collectively, they add up to a visual experience that the guest can't find anywhere else.

“Now consider what is happening at this moment to our sense of hearing. As we stand here, we are hearing something that the best stereo or quad system in the world can't duplicate. We are hearing an ever-changing background: music, the sounds of waterfalls, horses' hooves, bells, a marching band, popcorn popping, and even the familiar crowd murmur that we usually sort of consciously tune out.

“Think about the sense of touch…inanimate objects like this rockwork…animate objects like that horse pulling that trolley car. Or those Fantasyland characters in the castle's forecourt. Those things are not projected film—they are real. If you close your eyes, you can reach out and touch them…feel them.

“Those flowers aren't plastic…you can smell them. That popcorn…you can go over and taste it.

“Think about it carefully. As we stand here and look at that castle, every one of our senses are coming into play. This is total involvement. You can never capture this moment and take it home with you in a camera or tape recorder. You can only take this experience home in your mind. Now, multiply this moment by an entire day…by a week…by a thousand other different experiences…and you start to get some idea of the Disney theme show.

“Of course, there are some limits to how far you can go in a theme experience. We don't want to add smoke to the fire effects in the Pirates of the Caribbean…that would be a negative stimulus. In our jungle we keep the real insects to a minimum. In Frontierland, we could be more authentic by making dirt streets, eliminating air conditioning in the buildings and replacing restrooms with outhouses. How many medieval castles ever had piped-in music or drinking fountains with chilled water? Frankly, if we created a totally perfect, authentic themed experience where we had complete realism, it would probably be ghastly for contemporary people living here in the 1970s.

“What we create is a 'Disney Realism,' sort of Utopian in nature, where we carefully program out all the negative, unwanted elements and program in the positive elements. In fact we even go beyond realism in some cases to make a better show. Don't forget, people are coming here to be entertained…it is a show, you know. We create a world they can escape to…to enjoy for a few brief moments…a world that is the way they would like to think it would be.

“The Jungle Cruise is a good example of what I'm talking about. It began in 1955 as an adaptation from our True Life Adventure films. We created an attraction where all the things that you might see on a jungle river journey actually do happen. The truth of the matter is, you could probably spend two years on a real journey like that before you'd see everything.

“Later, in selected Jungle Cruise scenes, we further enhanced the entertainment value by adding a touch of fantasy here and there. Take the elephant bathing pool, for example. Our guests know that real elephants wouldn't lurk under the water and then rise up to squirt the boat. And they know a real herd of elephants wouldn't be quite so happy with a strange boat in their midst. Real elephants would have either retreated defensively into the jungle or smashed the boat to pieces. But again, we've programmed Utopian realism, added a touch of fun and fantasy and the guests love it.

“Interestingly, for all its success, the Disney theme show is quite a fragile thing. It just takes one contradiction…one out of place stimulus to negate a particular moment's experience. Take that street car conductor's costume away and put him in double knit slacks and a golf shirt.…replace that old Gay Nineties melody with a rock number…replace the themed merchandise with digital clock radios and electric hair dryers…tack up a felt-tip drawn paper sign that says 'Keep Out'…place a touch of astro turf here…add a surly employee there…it really doesn't take much to upset it all.

“What's our success formula? Well, it's attention to infinite detail…the little things, the minor picky points that other companies just don't want to take the time, the money, the effort, to do right. As far as our Disney organization is concerned…it's the only way we've ever done it…it's been our success formula in the past and it will be applied to our future projects, as well. We'll probably still be explaining this to outsiders at the end of our next two decades in this business."



  1. By jpg391

    I like John Hench's thoughts on how Disney's attention to detail can and does effect people as they walk through the parks.

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