The STROAD I had to drive on outside of Walt Disney World.

Lessons from a trip to Disney World

I had the very good fortune to be able to spend last week in Orlando, FL, with my family doing the things that a family of four would do while in Central Florida. We spent a few days at Disney World, went to the ocean, did a lot of swimming and going out to eat and enjoyed some important time together. My parents — retired teachers from Minnesota — had rented a condo down there for the winter and so my wife, two daughters and I spent the week at their place.

Now I’m a Disney junkie. I wrote last year about how my early experiences at the theme parks was a gateway drug that got me into Strong Towns and, ultimately, into the New Urbanism. In fact, last week I kept thinking about an article that my friend Dan Bartman had sent me just before I left. It was a blog post titled, “in defense of “green day” urbanism,” and it used punk rock as a metaphor for what I had also experienced. Here’s the opening paragraph:

People sometimes complain that “New Urbanist” or “town center” developments like Downtown Silver Spring are fake and sterile. But the way I see it, these projects are to urbanism as Green Day is to punk rock. They may not be “authentic,” but if done well, they can get people to seek out the “real stuff” later on.

I visited New Orleans in 2001, which was during the first stage of my conversion from engineer to whatever it is I professionally am now. Hated it. Through my eyes it was dirty, smelly and run down (and this was before Katrina), a huge departure from the sterilized car-centric environments I had grown up in (and grown accustomed to). I could not figure out why people liked the place.

I visited New Orleans in 2010 and again in 2011. Loved it. Same place, but my eyes saw it and I experienced it much differently. What an amazingly rich environment, full of life and activity. One of the truly great cities of North America. I could not understand why every place did not yearn to capture their own local variant of what was going on there.

The story of that conversion is a complex one (you’ll have to read the book) and has left me with this challenge: How do I help others understand their places differently without their having to go through the long, painful and confusing path that I took to get here?

Disney World — and to a lesser extent Disneyland in California — presents to me an opportunity for a short cut, one that goes right to the core of what middle class, suburban America is seeking.

From a layout and design standpoint, the Disney World resort complex is the ultimate strong town. There you have places (theme parks, resorts, commercial areas and other destinations) that are connected by roads. Those roads accommodate fast moving cars, buses, monorails and even travel by boat. Internal to each of those places are networks of streets — largely devoid of cars but, where cars are present they are slow moving and pedestrian-compatible — that provide access to these places and support a complex environment.

People shell out thousands of dollars a week to come to this strong towns environment. They live in accommodations that are spartan in size but generous in quality. They spend little time in their own private space but instead voluntarily press the flesh with the subset of humanity affluent enough to afford to be there. They travel by public transportation — even buses — and stand in line for nearly everything. While I’m sure there are nightmare stories, my experience has been that people traveling here generally adopt the Disney approach and treat others with a degree of deference and — dare I say — respect not commonly found in most American environments.

In short, ordinary middle-class Americans pay exorbitant amounts of money to spend time in an environment that they pay exorbitant amounts of money to avoid spending time in back home. Sure, back home in the sterile suburbs they don’t have the Pirates of the Caribbean, the Disney princesses and the fireworks spectacular, but in terms of time spent, those things are such a small fraction of a typical trip. The majority is spent in Disney’s ongoing social experiment, an environment that most people find very rewarding when they experience it.

Because of where my parents’ condo was located, I got to experience the STROAD hell that surrounded the park as contrast each day. In California, this can be seen right outside the gates of the park where hotels, fast food, strip malls, wide roads and fast cars dominate. Walt Disney was appalled at what happened in the land surrounding his California park so, in order to avoid the same fate in Florida, he purchased what is essentially an entire county. (If you want a good book about this, I recommend Chad Emerson’s Project Future.)

Unfortunately, instead of eliminating the mindless, over-engineered blight, it only displaced it. It was six miles from my parents’ place to Downtown Disney. My GPS would always tell me this is a trip that should take 22 minutes. Four minutes for the three miles on the streets/roads within the park and then 18 minutes for the three miles of STROAD outside the park. Here’s what the latter looks like in Google Earth.

The STROAD I had to drive on outside of Walt Disney World.

The typical American STROAD, this one just outside of the Walt Disney World Resort near Orlando, Florida.

I have to relate a couple of stories though just to demonstrate how ingrained the American development pattern is for our society. On the way home one day, after spending time in a place my entire family found delightful, we were in our car stopped in the six lanes of congestion on the above-pictured STROAD when a complaint on the traffic was heard from within the car (I’ll not name the complainer except to say it was not a female). Not a family to complain without suggesting a solution, the next breath contained the “obvious” approach necessary to end this traffic crisis: more lanes and a few more traffic signals. When I objected and explained how it was the signals and the lanes that were causing the problem, how this same traffic flowed freely a few miles back where there wasn’t all this junk along the highway, I was dismissed.

Back at the gated condo, a warning was issued about the speed of travel through the access road one must cross to get to the pool. This complaint was voiced from the passenger seat again later when we were driving to go out to eat, with the classic solution this time being the installation of speed bumps. During this discourse, we rounded a corner that used a tight radius and an approaching car was forced to yield for a second or two while we passed. “They need to widen out that corner,” was the analyses from the passenger seat. I pointed out the connection between the fast speeds and the sharp turn, but it was not heard. I actually would have had more credibility had I suggested a pedestrian overpass or traffic signal.

A photo of the condo unit we stayed in showing the place where the traffic was "too fast" and the place where the corner was "too tight".

At Disney World, I see thousands and thousands of people each day embracing a built environment whose basic structure they otherwise loath. There’s a lesson to be learned here, although I’ve not figured it out myself yet. More importantly, I’ve not quite figured out how to transmit it, but it gives me some hope.

If you’d like to learn more about Disney’s approach to design, building great places and how gingerbread is the perfect Spring compliment to pirates and ghosts, consider signing up for our Strong Towns tour of Disneyland. This April 14 in Anaheim, CA, just prior to the APA conference, I’ll be giving a planner’s tour of the Disneyland park. This is a fundraiser for Strong Towns with the donation of $200 which includes a park ticket and lunch with us. There are only five spots remaining so sign up today.

And finally, I love this little tilt shift video that highlights transportation within the place known as Disney’s Magic Kingdom. Enjoy (and it’s okay to smile a little too).


Charles Marohn

About Charles Marohn

Charles L. Marohn, Jr. PE AICP is the President of Strong Towns, a Minnesota-based 501(c)3 non-profit organization. He is a Professional Engineer (PE) licensed in the State of Minnesota and a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP). He has a Bachelor's degree in Civil Engineering from the University of Minnesota's Institute of Technology and a Masters in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute. Strong Towns supports a model of growth that allows America's cities, towns and neighborhoods to become financially strong and resilient.