The magic of Main Street, USA
Many visitors are aware of the trick of the eye on Main Street USA, just inside the entrance of the park, where the original designers used ‘forced perspective’ to make buildings look larger or smaller than they really are. But there’s more to this postcard-perfect promenade than horse-drawn carriages and old-fashioned ice cream parlors that appear several stories tall.
First, Main Street USA isn’t just a generic version of Middle America – this section of the park was modeled on a real place and set in a specific time. The place is Marceline, Missouri, better known as Walt Disney’s hometown; the time is 1910. Nearby Tomorrowland is set in 1986. Worth noting? 1910 and 1986 are the years of Halley’s Comet – the only two times in the 20th century when the comet appeared in Earth’s vicinity.
Don’t hurry too fast through the park’s nostalgic entrance without appreciating other little-known details. Like the fact that before he became a famous comedian and actor, Steve Martin used to work at Disneyland, learning his first tricks at the Main Street Magic Shop. Or the wall near the lockers where the bricks don’t match. That’s because Walt was testing out different shapes and sizes here before choosing the perfect building materials for the rest of the park. Today this wall, rarely noticed by passersby, stands as a testament to Disney’s creative effort and attention to detail.
Creating the fantasy
When you step into Disneyland, the air is rich with the aroma of freshly baked waffle cones. And it’s not just because there are actual waffle cones baking somewhere, which of course, there are. Disney uses ‘Smellitizers,’ a system of vents connected to underground tunnels, to push patented aromas around the park. In Main Street, USA, the fragrances are of food and vanilla candy; the staff switches it up around the holidays, when the air is filled with the scent of peppermint.
Of course, this being Disneyland it’s not enough to have signature aromas or an impeccably trained team of ‘cast members’ to sustain children’s fantasies. Disney Imagineers also invented their own shade of green to deemphasize or conceal some of the park’s essential but less glamorous features, from buildings and fences to trash cans. The color – known at Disney as ‘no-see-um green’ – is intended to make certain things blend into the background. The designers want you to look at Sleeping Beauty Castle, not the recycling bin for plastic bottles, because the last thing you should be thinking about at Disneyland, is, well, garbage.
Hidden hotel rooms and secret sports
So we’ve told you about Walt’s private apartment and the members-only cocktail bar Club 33, but here’s a few more secret locations and architectural features to add to the list.
Above the Pirates of the Caribbean ride is a lavish luxury apartment called the Dream Suite. The space was originally designed by an Imagineer, Dorothea Redmond (who was well-known for her work as a set designer on Gone with the Wind and several Hitchcock films) and decorated by Walt’s wife, Lillian. The space was originally intended for Walt to entertain VIP guests, but he died before he could use it. In 2008, the opulent (and thoroughly renovated) suite was again opened, but you can’t pay to stay. You can win access through an occasional sweepstake – or if you happen to be (or know) an A-list celebrity, you might (might) get invited to sleep in this five-star pad.
And one more architectural treat. The towering Matterhorn mountain, a manmade structure modeled after the famous peak in the French Alps, is the location of the Matterhorn Bobsleds roller coaster, but what most visitors don’t know is that high above the ground, roughly 100ft up, there’s a secret basketball court. Wedged into an attic-like space in Matterhorn mountain, it’s used by cast members during breaks.
The dark side of the Haunted Mansion
Thrill-seekers grumble that the Haunted Mansion ride isn’t actually scary. Indeed, despite the supernatural theme, the New Orleans Square attraction is appropriate for kids. But there’s an eerier side to this faux Victorian estate, one that’s based in real life – and death.
While waiting in line, visitors pass the time reading the jokey inscriptions on the tombstones planted in the mansion’s front yard. Despite appearances, some of these graves memorialize real people, namely thirteen Imagineers who worked on the park’s early designs. One gravestone inscription reads ‘Here lies / Good old Fred/ A great big rock / fell on his head,’ a nod to Fred Joerger, a set designer responsible for the elaborate rock formations throughout the park (but no, Joerger did not die when a rock fell on his head – the inscription is only a joke). Another reads ‘Dear sweet Leota / Beloved by all / In regions beyond now, / But having a ball.’ It’s an homage to Leota Tombs, a Disney artist whose head was used to test the designs for the crystal ball in the Haunted Mansion’s seance room. Reportedly, Imagineers liked the look so much that they kept Tombs’ likeness for the disembodied head in the crystal ball, still on display today.
If real life and death isn’t dark enough for you, seek out the mysterious bullethole in the Grand Ballroom. It’s tricky to spot: that’s because it’s now partly hidden by a spider web suspended from the fourth column on the right. It’s said that back in the 1970s a child with a BB gun – or an adult with an actual shotgun – fired through the glass, and Disney decided to cover it up instead of replacing the huge pane.
The future is now
Walt Disney dreamt big. He didn’t just want to create theme parks for entertainment purposes, he wanted to shape the way people live. It’s well known that Epcot, a theme park in Florida’s Disneyworld, wasn’t meant to be the educational attraction it is today. E.P.C.O.T. stands for the ‘Experimental Prototype City of Tomorrow,’ and was Walt’s plan for the utopian town of the future, an innovative community in which large corporations would develop and test new technology for urban living. The plans fell apart after Disney’s 1966 death, and Epcot opened as a theme park within the Walt Disney World Resort in 1982.
But his vision for future communities lives on. Back at Disneyland, Walt’s original theme park, Tomorrowland, looks like a sixties-era vision of the future, complete with shiny rockets and metallic orbs, Jetsons-style. But look closer: all of the plants in this section of the park are edible, a reflection of Disney’s sustainably minded ideal that landscapes could double as urban farms. Go ahead, pop a grape or a plum in your mouth, and feast your eyes on the aesthetically pleasing lemon trees and colorful cabbage plants: they're all part of Uncle Walt’s master plan.