They say first impressions are often wrong. "Don't judge a book by it's cover", you know, that sort of thing. There are a myriad of reasons for this disconnect between books and their covers. Perhaps it's a new edition looking to differentiate itself, or perhaps there was some publisher interference that prevented the author from realizing their vision. Going further, maybe the author's vision for what the book is can't be visualized well, or maybe the author simply doesn't understand their own work. At the end of the day, however, the reasons for the disparity matter little. The reader feels they have been misled, and the visual thesis of the book was flat out wrong. Of course, the reader then proceeds to spend hours reading said literature and may come back around to liking or even loving it after their initial confusion or disappointment.
Theme parks, existing as a physical art form, have much less leeway when it comes to these initial moments. True, guests will go on to ride their favorite rides, eat their favorite food and see their favorite shows. But at the end of the day, they'll go on back through that entrance gate, and if it's somehow disappointing, that's going to taint their experience. In other words, if you're going to build a theme park, you better make damn sure the entrance counts for something. A park entrance is essentially the thesis statement for the park itself, and it should encapsulate the experience in a nutshell. So, without further ado, let's examine how parks approach this cornerstone of their narrative framework.
For starters, let's look at the original - one of the most imitated and popular entrance styles of all - Disneyland.
For what comes after you pass under it's archways, Disneyland's entrance is surprisingly understated: a single, small train station sitting on a hill, with a flower bed featuring a Mickey Mouse design resting in front of it. There are tunnels on either side of the flower bed that lead to Main Street and feature those classic attraction posters, but if you're standing outside, you won't see those yet. Trees block our line of sight to anything beyond, such as the Matterhorn or the castle. Overall, there's nothing here that immediately portends the fun that you're about to have. It's not overly fantastical - and you could likely find a similar station or building somewhere in small town America. The flowerbed is again nicely kept, but still would not be out of place in some downtown display, though the Mickey design might change to something else; there's only a hint here at what awaits you beyond. So what makes this entrance so special, so iconic?
There's a few factors. First, the symbolism. A train station is a transitory space, and when you enter Disneyland, you're traveling from the mundane, ordinary world to a realm of fantasy where anything can happen. Sure, there's the plaque that tells you that, but you don't need to read it for you to inherently understand this idea when you walk through the tunnel and see the castle at the end of the street. By designing the entrance around a form of transportation, the Imagineers utilize your subconscious to transport you further into their world. All without saying a word.
Second, the somewhat ordinary-looking entrance preserves the big reveal. The combination of station, berm, and trees prevent you from seeing what comes next, and builds anticipation. As you wait to enter the park, your mind runs wild with possibilities of what could be just beyond the gates. When you finally do get through and finally see Main Street, the castle, and everything else, there's a moment of wonder at the sight of it all. Were there no train station and you could simply see the castle directly, all of that anticipation and wonder would dissipate much faster as you wait in line to enter. By taking the form of a transitory space and withholding the most fantastical aspects of the park, the Disneyland entrance let's your brain work in it's favor, allowing you to excite yourself about the day to come and ride that excitement throughout the rest of the day. Let's call this entrance style the closed curtain, as it serves a similar purpose to and likely drew inspiration from a theater curtain.
In most cases, the castle parks tend to copy the closed curtain concept quite faithfully, with a few variations. Walt Disney World and Disneyland Paris forego the subtle transition from ordinary to fantastic, instead opting for showcases of grandeur - WDW doing so by having you cross a lake to get to the entrance, further removing you from your reality, and Paris doing so by placing a grand Victorian hotel in front of the station, accomplishing much the same. Shanghai Disneyland follows the original concept but bleeds a bit more into the fantastical, having a Mickey-themed train station (with no train) at it's gate. Tokyo Disneyland has the largest departure, having no train station at all, instead replacing it with a large building that is a mix of a theater and a marketplace. The theater motif is used for a different type of transitory space, and the closed curtain style is still adhered to:
|The incorporation of a marketplace motif in Tokyo's entrance probably makes it the the most honest of them all!|
As for Hong Kong Disneyland? Why, that's up in the title image. It's virtually identical to Anaheim's entrance.
The more interesting variations come with the non-castle parks. Several of them continue to use the closed curtain style of entrance, while others are much more experimental and forego it in favor of completely new styles. Though some secondary parks use the closed curtain style, they aren't really focusing on the transition from the ordinary to the magical (though that is an element) as they are on establishing their thematic bend. Consider Walt Disney Studios in Paris:
Yes, it is a fairly ordinary space by Disney standards, and yes it is a closed curtain-style entrance, as it obscures what lies beyond it, but this entrance plaza is much more about establishing the film focus of the park. Does it work? Absolutely! Does it reach us on as subliminal a level? Not really. This entrance is much more overt in its intentions. We don't have to imagine what we're about to experience because the park tells us straight up. We may imagine what lies in store for us, but our mental wanderings will be limited to the world of film, rather than our wildest fantasies.
(Hollywood Studios has a similar idea, except with an open curtain. We're able to see the Chinese Theater at the end of the street from the moment we enter the park. Rather than creating it's own thesis, the entrance relies on the park icon to make the statement for it. In this case, the statement is essentially the same between the two studio parks, but the execution is different.)
One more to consider before we move on to other styles - the entrance to Tokyo DisneySEA:
And another view here:
Here we have another closed curtain-style entrance, only by the time we enter this park we have been completely transported from Tokyo to Renaissance-era Italy. This jump establishes the theme of exploration and travel immediately by displacing us, forcing us to become explorers ourselves! The themes are reinforced by the moon phase plaza complete with spinning globe upon the fountain. This entrance is again much more direct in it's intentions than that of a castle-park, but still preserves both that feeling of anticipation and the idea that anything can happen, as we have no idea where this park is going to take us. DisneySEA's entrance is likely the closest to the castle parks in terms of thematic thrust, but takes a very different approach in making such a statement.
And that's a wrap for closed curtain parks! From here we move on to more experimental styles. We'll move from the fairly mundane to the more bizarre.
After closed curtain style, the next most popular style seems to be open curtain. Rather than creating a thesis statement for guests to absorb prior to them entering the park, this style of entrance lets the park speak for itself. If your park has a strong sense of cohesion, especially in it's opening areas, this approach can work rather well. If not, your park can seem slapdash and a bit disjointed. Let's compare two parks that utilize this style to see it's pros and cons.
Here we see Disney's Hollywood Studios. As mentioned above, this entrance lets the Chinese Theater do most of the talking, though it's important to note the cohesion of the entrance avenue as a whole. The entire street supports the idea of the Golden Age of Hollywood, and while the rest of the park has shifted away from this idea, guests still get a good sense that the park is about great cinema. Hollywood Studios substitutes immediate excitement for the closed curtain's anticipation, and most open curtain entrances do as well. However, this one in particular maintains a bit of that anticipation due to the guests not knowing what else the park may hold, as well as the unified style and the lack of immediately apparent attractions. There's a mystique to the park that's not always preserved well with this entrance style, but Hollywood Studios manages it nicely.
And here we have Universal Studios Florida. Well the left side anyway. What you see on your right once you've entered the park is this:
Of course before all this there's the famous Universal archway and globe, but those aren't technically part of the park itself. For posterity's sake, though, here's what you see before you reach the ticket stands and turnstiles:
Universal Studios Florida is an interesting case in that the idea of this park and of DHS are largely the same, and this even stretches to their park entrances. Both are largely open vistas beyond their turnstiles, though Universal goes against the grain of having a themed main corridor and instead elects to throw as much intellectual property and as many attractions as possible at you as soon as it can. This may be due to the relatively small footprint the park has, but what's odd about this decision is that Universal does indeed have it's own stretch of themed Hollywood streets, and they're quite well done. For my money, they'd make a significantly better opening stretch of the park. While the entrance plaza definitely tells you you're at a movie-based theme park, it does so bluntly, and as a result fails to capture the tantalizing anticipation or sense of magic that DHS's entrance manages elegantly.
Now, open curtains generally open up to some sort of view of a central plaza or park icon. However, there's no hard and fast rule that the entrance areas have to open up to anything in particular, only that they have to lead to the rest of the park. While we're talking about Universal, their second park is a good example of this third type of entrance, in which you enter the park to be totally immersed in the first land you come across with little hint of what's to come. We'll call this style, fittingly, "Port of Entry".
Universal's Islands of Adventure park forgoes the traditional hub structure and elects to go with a ring style park, and as such, no other lands are really visible at all from the entrance. Instead, you're greeted with the above, their entrance land, which greets you with a generic adventure theme. What really differentiates this type of entrance is not so much what it does so much as was it doesn't do. There is no icon to see, no preview of the park, no grand overture of things to come. Your first impressions of the park rely solely on the contents of this land and this land alone. In Islands of Adventure, then, this first land is used to try to solidify the adventure motif on it's own. In doing so the land heavily favors it's conceptual architecture over the physical. Consider that the land itself is purposely vague, not carrying too many signs of any one real culture and instead treading lightly into fantasy. This is by design. In the Port of Entry style, the first land is the overture, and unless the theme park is themed around a physical space, they must skew more conceptual to establish the themes of the park early on.
|Buena Vista Street is maybe the only Port of Entry that can really get away with focusing more on the physical architecture.|
Other parks with this entrance style seem to follow this idea of conceptual lands as entrances. Animal Kingdom is perhaps the most successful of these, with it's Port of Entry being "The Oasis", a land that is nothing but dense forest, walking paths, and a few animal exhibits. With just these few elements, the land is able to convey it's themes of nature, exploration, and education quite nicely. Of course, this style of entrance is one that had already been implemented by dozens of zoos around the country, but the execution here is still great.
And finally, we come to our fourth and final entrance type, which is a bit of an oddball. I speak, of course, of the entrance to Epcot.
Epcot has, to my knowledge, one of the most unique park designs in that it combines a loop design in one half with a hub in the other half. On top of that, it's one of the only parks to front load it's icon. There's no need to go into the park to see it, as it's just on the other side of the turnstiles. So does that make this Open curtain-style? Closed curtain? It's not exactly Port of Entry.
I'm putting Epcot in it's own category. The closed curtain style has the entrance itself give the park's thesis statement. The open curtain style has the park make it's own thesis statement. Port of Entry has the first land make the park's thesis statement. But only Epcot has a ride make the park's thesis statement.
Sure, you don't have to go on Spaceship Earth when you first come into Epcot, but the way the park is designed it's practically begging you to do so. And why shouldn't it? The ride is a showcase for everything you'll see around the park. It's got technology, science, history, culture, and the ever important goal of making the future brighter through shared human progress. And it's continuously loading to boot! Though the ride has changed over the years, it's one of the few parts of the park that still has a tenuous grasp on the ethos of EPCOT Center. Everything you need to know about the park is in that ride. It's like it was designed that way or something. Let's call this style of entrance "Welcome Wagon" (because it welcomes you and you ride it...that makes sense right? Does that work?)
So there you have it! The four categories of park entrances I've found - Closed Curtain, Open Curtain, Port of Entry, and Welcome Wagon. All with distinct styles, advantages, and disadvantages. Have any thoughts on this topic? Agree or disagree with my analysis? Let me know in the comments? Oh, and thanks for reading!
P.S. Also, I will be making a follow-up post to this soon regarding Expedition Isles - no, I haven't forgotten that project! Just been a bit busy.