Disney in Detail: Main Street, USA

    If you’ve ever been to Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, inevitably, the question will come up.  Maybe it’s back at the hotel, going over your day’s adventures.  It could be while on the bus ride back after a late night at Extra Magic Hours.  Or maybe days, or weeks–months, even–after your vacation, as you sit with your family or friends looking through the photo album.  But if you’re in any Magic Kingdom conversation long enough, someone will always ask:

“What’s your favorite ‘land?’”

For some, the answer is easy.  The immersive ambience of Adventureland calls to their wanderlust.  Or the nostalgia of Fantasyland makes them feel like a child again.  For others, the answer changes with their mood.  The beauty of the park is that the concrete, bustling metropolis of Tommorowland is within walking distance from the rural outpost of Fronteirland, so committing to one area is hardly necessary.

My answer, it seems to me, is the most overlooked portion of the Magic Kingdom.  Main Street, USA, is often not even considered one of the “lands.”  Although the first area the guest experiences, it’s often looked on as the way in/out of the park, merely an accessway.  Main Street is the only area to boast no rides or traditional attractions (save for a one-way horse-and-cart or antique fire engine ride from the town square to the “hub”).  People don’t tend to linger around Main Street, with perhaps the exception of the occasional father, resting on a bench with the kids while mom peruses the vast array of merchandise in the Emporium.

I always gravitate back toward Main Street when I’m not in any particular hurry.  Now don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of other places in the park to relax, soak in the atmosphere, and just people-watch.  In Adventureland, next to the Swiss Family Treehouse, savoring a Dole Whip.  Just inside Tomorrowland, in the shade of the Noodle Station, watching Push the talking trash can harass unsuspecting tourists.  Or in Carousel of Progress, where I can usually fall asleep for a good forty-five minutes before the cast members realize someone’s in there (I end up with “It’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow” stuck in my head for weeks afterward, however).

But Main Street keeps calling me back.  I don’t know what it is.

Main Street, USA was arguably the area closest to Walt Disney’s heart when he was designing Disneyland.  The street is famously modeled after Walt’s boyhood town of Marceline, Missouri, at the turn of the century.  The Magic Kingdom’s Main Street, however, is probably more accurately a depiction of the more modernized Kansas City (Walt’s home town after Marceline, before he made the move to California.  The original Disney Brothers studio was in Kansas City, and it’s where Walt met legendary animator, and original Mickey Mouse artist, Ub Iwerks).  There are aspects of other regions as well, including Philadelphia and New England.  All of the architecture is circa 1910.

When the crew at the studios, under Walt’s direction, was building Disneyland, no one had any experience in making or running amusement parks.  Walt knew this was okay, because he didn’t want an amusement park.  He wanted a theme park, a term that hadn’t even been used yet.  He was going to re-invent the amusement park, and create an entirely new kind of entertainment venue.  And one thing he and his staff did know how to do, and do well, was make movies.

The whole idea behind the park was to make guests feel as if they had stepped through the screen and into a movie.  Which movie depended on which land you were in.  Main Street was to be the gateway to these lands.  A single street, in the style of a bygone small American town, leading up to the center of the ingeniously designed hub-and-spoke layout of the park, where you could choose your first destination.  Main Street is the only land in which you have to pass through.  Unlike other amusement parks of the time, Disneyland had only one entrance/exit, so as to control the guests experience completely.  And the park’s designers controlled it to make it feel like a movie.  Even if you don’t notice it.

Outside the Magic Kingdom, you buy your ticket and look up the hill at the massive brick train station before you.  You cannot see anything beyond the station, even the towering Cinderella Castle.  The station acts like a big, red curtain, hiding the wonders behind it.  As you pass through the building, you’ll see retro-painted posters advertising some of the rides the park has to offer.  These are, of course, the coming attractions.

(Side note:  In the train station, look for a shelf high overhead that serves as a lost-and-found.  You’ll find a bone belonging to Pluto, the Genie’s lamp, the White Rabbit’s pocket watch, and several other familiar items…my favorite is a wooden leg engraved with the name “Smith,” a wonderful reference to a corny “Mary Poppins” joke)

There is nothing that duplicates the feeling you get, every time, when you exit through one of the train station’s brick arches and the whole World seems to unfold in front you.  You are hit all at once with the sights, the sounds, and the smells.  It truly feels like a curtain has just risen to reveal a spectacular set, and even if you’ve seen it before, it’s better than you imagined.  The difference is you’re in the middle of the movie.  The enormous castle stands glimmering at the end of the street.  Of course, that’s the first thing your eye is drawn to; that’s the whole point of it.  But all around you, the smell of popcorn or baking cookies, the sauntering honkey-tonk music, the clip-clop of horses on the pavement, the people filing in, all with looks of anticipation and excitement (or, depending on the time of day, filing out, all with looks of exhaustion and fulfillment).

As you make your way down the street, you’ll notice the names of fake businesses painted on the windows of the second and third stories.  Some of these are the names of dummy corporations used to buy out the Florida land bit-by-bit so sellers wouldn’t realize it was Disney and jack up the price (one for example: the “M. T. Lott” developing company, which, on paper, was owned by a Miss Minnie Mouse…way to be inconspicuous, fellas).  Most, however are real names of people who were instrumental in building the park and within the Disney company.  So as you’re walking down toward the castle, it’s as if the opening credits are scrolling by you.  When you exit the park, they serve as the ending credits.  No matter which direction you’re heading, the first and last names are always the same: Walt Disney.  He’s the only person with more than one window:  One on each side of the train station, and one over the ice cream parlor, facing the castle.

The first part of Main Street when you come through the train station is my favorite part.  Set up like a town square, surrounded by buildings with a small green with a flagpole in the middle, it makes for a great place to rest and soak in that Disney feeling.  There is a small flag ceremony everyday around 5 pm, which veterans can ask to be a part of.  The flag is lowered and folded while a small brass band plays.  While every building on Main Street is adorned with flags, only the main one is lowered.  This is because most of the others are actually lightning rods.  It’s also because the big one is the only real American flag.  Walt Disney was nothing if not patriotic, so Disney gets around the whole ritual by making sure every other flag is missing a star or a stripe to avoid having to take down dozens of flags every day.

The four main buildings surrounding the square are all in different American architectural styles.  Three of the buildings are the only ones on the street, and some of the very few in all of Walt Disney World not built using “forced perspective.”  Forced perspective is a trick Imagineers use to make the buildings on Main Street, Cinderella Castle, Animal Kingdom’s Mount Everest, the country pavilions in Epcot–and just about everything else in Disney–appear taller and bigger.  The second story on the Main Street, USA buildings is only 7/8ths the size of the first story, and the third story is only 7/8ths the size of the second.  The painted “bricks” on Cinderella Castle get smaller as they go up, until they disappear completely.  The resulting effect, often used in movies, is that everything seems much bigger than it actually is.

However, the train station, city hall, and the exposition center are all completely full size.  This serves to hide the view of the Contemporary and Polynesian hotels, which would ruin the ambiance of a small town in 1910. (You can still reportedly see the Grand Floridian from some areas.  Also, the Contemporary can be viewed from Tomorrowland, and I’ve heard you can see the Polynesian from Adventureland, but I can’t figure out from where.  If you know, or even better have a picture, let me know!).  Because the castle is smaller than it appears, and the train station is actual size compared to the rest of the street (that given with the slight incline in terrain toward the hub), when you first arrive, the castle seems farther away.  When you’re leaving, with aching feet and sore legs, the train station appears closer, making the street seem shorter on the way out.

The City Hall is basically the administration building.  Guests services and first aid are housed here.  The Expo Hall used to be a nice little retreat to soak up some air conditioning and watch some old Mickey Mouse shorts, but as of late, Mickey and Minnie have been using the space for meet and greets while Toontown gets demolished.  Next to the Expo Hall is Tony’s Town Square, a lovely Italian restaurant based on the romantic eatery from “Lady and the Tramp.”  As far as my experience, the food is hit-or-miss, but the ambiance is great.  Look outside for the Lady and the Tramp paw prints in the cement.  And while you’re over that way, sit down next to the statue of Goofy on a park bench.  It may just strike up a conversation.  There’s a great statue behind the flagpole of Minnie Mouse and Roy Disney, but it’s much less talkative.

The firehouse is worth a visit (Engine Company 71, named for the year the Magic Kingdom opened, 1971).  Patches from fire departments from all over the world are displayed (Disney received so many, they can no longer fit them all in the firehouse.  A cast member told me any new patches they get are sent to the Reedy Creek Fire Department, Disney’s actual fire department, where they’re displayed in their station).  Having a firefighter for a father, this is a must-stop for me every trip for some unique police/fire/emergency services themed souvenirs.

The park’s largest gift shop, the Main Street Emporium, stands to the left (most people walk to the right, so most of the food/travel supplies shops are to the right as go in, and gifts and souvenirs are mostly to the left for when you’re leaving).  The Emporium has such a vast and wonderful back story, that I could–and shall–devote an entire post to it.

Squeezed between the firehouse and the Emporium, barely noticable is the Harmony Barbershop, a real, actual, working, no-joke barbershop.  They specialize in first haircuts, and make quite the ceremony out of it.  They also offer colored gels, and finish all work off with a sprinkling of pixie dust.  The barbers there perform between 350-400 services a week.

Down at the end of the street is Casey’s Corner, a great baseball-themed counter service restaurant.  You can order some corn-dog nuggets and enjoy them on the bleachers inside, or take them outside where a ragtime piano-player might be playing a Disney tune.  The white upright piano, according to story, was a gift from Mickey to Minnie on the 50th Anniversary of Disneyland.  The hammers are coated with a thin layer of plastic to give them extra bounce and add to the honkey-tonk sound.

Main Street is loaded with little hidden secrets.  Toward the middle of the street, to the right, are two small side “streets” (more just inlets, really).  On a quiet day, pause outside a second story window advertising singing and dancing lessons, and you may hear a vocal student practicing scales, or a tap-dancer.

There’s an old phone (it’s been moved around a bit, I believe it’s in one of the shops now).  Pick up the receiver to listen in on a party line.  A mother and daughter complain about the price of hamburg (Five cents a pound!), talk about what’s on sale in the Emporium, and a nosy neighbor tries to eavesdrop. 

Listen for the telegraph in the train station.  The Morse code it’s tapping out is Walt Disney’s speech from Disneyland’s opening day.

The walkways on Main Street are red.  There are a few different stories as to the reason behind this.  Some sources say simply, safety.  Others say it represents a red carpet.  One story says that Disney’s photo sponsor, Kodak, worked with Imagineers and determined that the red worked best against the background and people’s skin tones making for the ideal picture.  At night, service vehicles must travel down the street.  They are required to be outfitted with a special pan underneath so as not to drip anything on the pristine road (also the reason it’s impossible to buy chewing gum in any of the parks).

Like I say with everything else, SLOW DOWN!  Next time you’re in the MK, take your time walking down Main Street instead of rushing to get into the park.  Take a listen to the Dapper Dans singing barbershop quartet.  Talk to one of the characters around; the mayor and fire chief are eager to talk to guests.  Grab some popcorn and check out the immensely talented Main Street marching band.  You’ll gain a whole new appreciation for the gateway to the magic.

Until next time, See Ya Real Soon!

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Filed under Disneyland, General WDW, Magic Kingdom

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