The "Essence of Disney" Challenge

by Mike Scopa
AllEars® Feature Writer

Feature Article

This article appeared in the April 20, 2010 Issue #552 of ALL EARS® (ISSN: 1533-0753)

Here's the challenge: choose somewhere in Walt Disney World that best exemplifies the "Essence of Disney." For our purpose here we are imagining that we are given this task by someone who is coming to Orlando for the first time and wants to be shown first-hand the best example of the essence of Disney in a theme park.

Sound easy? Well with the many choices you have at Walt Disney World it's not the difficulty of the challenge as much as making what you feel is the best choice from the number of different possibilities.

I gave myself this little challenge and decided that it would be interesting to pick an area in each of the four major theme parks that would hit me as a suitable place to illustrate the essence of a Disney theme park.

But before we get into those places let's look at the qualities that define the true essence of a Disney theme park.

The Art of Storytelling

What sets a Disney theme park apart from other theme parks is that Disney puts so much effort and time into the art of storytelling. This begins with the actual environment or setting of a theme park. For instance, when we walk through Tomorrowland at the Magic Kingdom we get a sense of a futuristic city, not just decades, but maybe a century into the future.

Hollywood and Sunset Boulevards in Disney's Hollywood Studios remind us of Hollywood in the 1940s and 1950s. The pavilions in Epcot's World Showcase put you smack in the middle of the culture that pavilion represents. Finally, let's take Asia in the Animal Kingdom. The feel, the look, the sounds around you remove you from central Florida and take you to that corner of the world. The art of the storytelling begins with the setting and the environment.

Attention to Detail

When someone uses the phrase "the Disney way," my first thoughts go to the attention to detail brought to a general area of a park, an attraction, a parade, fireworks or restaurant. How many times have we found ourselves discovering yet another detail? We find something with every visit to a Walt Disney World theme park.

Not only that -- sometimes it's unexpected detail.

For example, who would have thought to have artwork inside the "Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh" depicting Mr. Toad handing a deed to Owl? That's meaningful because the Pooh attraction sits on the site of the former home of "Mr. Toad's Wild Ride."

Have you ever noticed the very distinctive hidden Mickey on the mural as you enter the AFI section of Disney's Hollywood Studios' Backstage Tour?

These are just two examples of some of the details, may I say hidden details, which are found throughout Walt Disney World.

I remember visiting Universal Studios and the old E.T. attraction and enjoying the bicycle ride through E.T.'s forest. Later that evening while enjoying Splash Mountain I noticed a striking difference between the two attractions. While riding the Universal Studios attraction I noticed I could see the ceiling, whereas when I looked up in Splash Mountain I saw leaves and branches and no ceiling. Details, details, details -- they make a difference.

Suspending Disbelief and Wanting More

These two go hand in hand. If I am placed into an area where I can forget my troubles and actually believe -- even for a second -- that I am actually going through a pirated village or riding in a haunted elevator or even face to face with a Yeti, I first tip my hat to the Imagineers and then I say either, "Give me more!" or "I'm coming back."

If I discover something different each time I experience an attraction that too will bring me back. I want to see what else I can find that I hadn't noticed before.

The ability to satisfy your audience and to continue to whet their curiosity is a huge part of what makes a Disney theme park and its components so unique. So there are the major components. Now let's do some exploring.

Our first stop is The Magic Kingdom.

As much as it would be easy in this park to choose Main Street USA, my choice is Liberty Square. This often forgotten "land" has quaint shops that showcase Disney's merchandising expertise, and also houses a colonial-themed restaurant in the Liberty Tavern, displaying Disney's ability to effectively theme its restaurants. The Square's two attractions also fit the bill for our three components.

Of course I am talking about The Hall of Presidents and The Haunted Mansion. Both of these attractions capture so much of the Disney essence. The Hall of Presidents, to me, is the grandfather of Epcot's The American Adventure, and the film and story that accompany the showing of the US presidents so clearly illustrate the storytelling ability found in a Disney theme park.

The Haunted Mansion is recognized as being a Disney signature attraction. Throughout the attraction guests are not only told a story, but are witness to so much detail that went into the attraction, from the cobwebs throughout to the carefully set dining room table. Every time I pass through that attraction I notice something I hadn't noticed before and that has me coming back over and over again.

The other elements in Liberty Square add to the setting -- the stocks, the Liberty Tree, the Riverboat. All contribute to the setting of the story to be told within Liberty Square.

The next stop is Epcot's World Showcase. I have chosen this area of Epcot because I have always marveled at how Disney theme parks are so focused on detail. The pavilions that populate World Showcase take so much pride in their culture that this pride is manifested in the authenticity of what we experience in each pavilion. Authenticity to me means detail.

The shops all have that particular feel for the represented country. Cast members who hail from their respective countries run the pavilions and you can see the pride they bring to their jobs.

Much care was taken to provide authentic cuisine for each of the pavilions and although I recognize that some of the offerings have been toned down for the American palate there is still enough left to give you a feeling that you are eating in a Parisian bistro or enjoying yourself in an English tavern.

World Showcase's attention to detail gives you the sense that you are actually in that pavilion's country. It is truly an area that exemplifies the essence of a Disney theme park.

Disney's Animal Kingdom is the youngest of the four major Orlando theme parks and when you stop and think about what is offered to the guests you begin to realize just how well the Imagineers have studied what their park guests have enjoyed over the years and what has worked for them.

I guess if I had to choose an area of the park that best exemplifies Disney essence it has to be Asia. Let me start off by talking about Expedition Everest. Before I even get to the ride itself let me touch upon what has been mentioned by many guests as perhaps the best queue in theme park history. The Expedition Everest queue is my strongest argument as to why I picked the Asia part of DAK for displaying the essence of Disney.

Establishing the setting and the environment and telling the story, that's what the EE queue does for the guests. The queue takes you through such interesting areas as the offices of a fabricated tour company, a shrine, a general store and, last but not least, a Yeti Museum -- all part of the storytelling art of Disney. Of course the story is not worth telling unless it is brimming with detail and quality and that is what you will find in this queue.

The ride itself finds guests just letting themselves go and enjoying themselves, forgetting reality, and as they leave the attraction their first thought most likely is, "I wonder what the Fastpass distribution time is right now?" because they want to come back for more.

The other areas of Asia also fit the bill -- the design of the entire area plus the Yak and Yeti restaurant completes the picture. It is a perfect example to show first-time visitors the true essence of a Disney theme park.

I have saved the best for last. If I had to select but one park and one area out of all I have discussed it would be what I am about to tell you.

When I turn to Disney's Hollywood Studios I think of not just one area, but of a particular attraction I have grown to value more and more with each visit to Walt Disney World. The attraction is One Man's Dream. Without a doubt it is the first place I would bring a first-time guest to Walt Disney World to explain the essence of a Disney theme park.

Here are my reasons.

When it comes to the essence of Disney it all starts with the mind of Walt Disney. This exhibit shows the roots of Walt Disney World. It displays Walt Disney's early successes and we all know that Disneyland, the first Magic Kingdom, was influenced by many of Walt Disney's hits on the big screen as well as television.

So why not look at what this exhibit shows and then begin to tie all the components into how they served as the foundation for the first and future theme parks?

Some examples are:

  • The model for Disneyland's Main Street, USA.
  • Models of Disneyland's and Disneyland Paris' Sleeping Beauty Castle
  • The model for the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror
  • The model for Animal Kingdom's Tree of Life

But more than everything else is the amount of space given to "The Florida Project" and the film in which Walt Disney himself discusses Epcot and his vision of what was to happen in Central Florida.

This attraction does so much in showing all that has led up to what goes into a Disney theme park that without it we would forget the essential key factor -- Walt himself.

So in a manner of speaking it all starts with One Man's Dream and from there it moves to the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, and Animal Kingdom.

The essence of Disney and how it is manifested in a Disney theme park began in the mind of Walt Disney. It's no wonder that when an Imagineer or an animator starts or finishes a project the first and constant thought that comes to mind is, "What would Walt think?"

There is one thing for certain and that is there is no wrong or right answer to this challenge -- it simply comes down to the individual and what Disney essence means to you.



Other AllEars® articles by Mike Scopa:


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Mike Scopa has been a huge Disney fan for as long as he can remember. He first visited Walt Disney World in 1975 and has returned many times (how many? he's lost count!) since. Mike is a contributor to the Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World and Cara Goldsbury's Luxury Guide to Walt Disney World, and has served as keynote speaker for MagicMeets. He is also co-host of the WDWTODAY Podcast and writes a regular blog, The View from Scopa Towers, for AllEars.Net: addition, Mike is co-captain of Team AllEars® -- the AllEars.Net Running Team that will participate in the Walt Disney World Marathon Weekend in 2011.


Editor's Note: This story/information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all current rates, information and other details before planning your trip.