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Child-Friendly Design

Making a play

Having entertained families for generations, Disney is a master at designing for children. Kath Hudson asks the architects and designers at Walt Disney Imagineering to share their secrets….


Architecture contributes a lot, but is part of the bigger story: it reinforces the stories we are telling,” says Coulter Winn, longtime architecture executive at Walt Disney Imagineering, the design and project delivery arm for all Disney’s theme parks, attractions, resorts and cruise ships worldwide.

“Walt Disney started out with the vision of making the films into 3D worlds that people could visit and we are still doing that now,” Winn says. “With our architecture we aim to create enduring and appealing spaces, but they also need to create the invisible backdrop for the whole experience. The architecture has to be invisible, seamless and transformative.”

Disney architecture is subversive and many of the usual rules don’t apply. Most buildings don’t need to be designed so that the parapets can rise up and down, but Disney architects need to factor in these types of features and it often gets complicated.

The entertainment giant’s success comes down to the strength of its immersive environments and Winn believes this is rooted in the subtle details which help create the backstory. The architecture has to allow for these details, such as the huge amount of electrical work that has to be buried and the fact that parks need to be designed for optimum flow, with spaces for parades and character greeting experiences.

Each project requires collaboration, as there are more than 140 disciplines involved in the design process.

Imagineering architect Eli Erlandson says: “The architectural realm works closely with the audio engineers, the lighting designers, the art glass designers, the specifications department and many others. It’s a very creative environment and we seek commentary, we analyse it and we take it seriously.”

THE CRUISE SHIPS
The Disney Cruise Line is a relatively new business for the company, and broke the mould, since before Disney entered the market, cruise ships were only ever aimed at young adults or empty nesters.

Joe Lanzisero, Imagineering creative executive in charge of design of Disney Cruise Line, says ships are designed so everyone in the family can have a good time both individually and collectively. A number of lessons were learned from Disney’s parks.

“We build immersive environments and tell stories using our great characters to create an emotional connection with the guest,” Lanzisero says. “If they would have heard a song from a movie and a key colour was used in the background, we might try to use that colour to trigger emotions when they are in those spaces. That’s what we brought from the theme parks.”

As the ships were prototypes and offered a finite amount of space, there were immense challenges to creating the right mix of facilities. External play consultants were used to create suitable areas for different age groups: toddlers, five to seven-year-olds, eight to 12-year-olds and pre-teens.

Whimsical touches are most appealing to young kids: the five to seven-year-olds area, Disney’s Oceaneer Club, is very fanciful. The Pixie Hollow room incorporates elements from the film, such as giant leaves, huge mushrooms and landscape murals.

Lanzisero says they are noticing more crossover between younger and older kids. “The younger ones are growing up faster and want to try activities aimed at older children, but the older ones still enjoy the physical play aimed at the younger age group.”

A challenge of the cruise ships was making sure there was a balance of adult areas and immersive environments. As guests stay for up to a week, some respite is offered to stave off over-stimulation. Adult spaces have less overt character references and are designed to be elegant.

ONBOARD FEATURES
Each ship has three restaurants: high end, casual and the Animator’s Palate, which serves up a pure Disney experience. People are made to feel like they’re part of an animator’s palette, by virtue of the giant paintbrushes and crayons that are part of the decor. Video screens look like storyboards. On one of the ships the restaurant feels like a black and white cartoon, but with the use of lighting it switches to colour as the night goes on.

One of the most popular features at Animator’s Palate aboard some of the ships is Animation Magic, where people draw a character on their place-mat. This picture is then scanned to become part of a film hosted by Mickey Mouse. People get to see the character that they drew on screen dancing with Disney characters.

Disney touches have also been used successfully to boost some of the less popular areas of the ship. The underdeck rooms, without portholes, were always less desirable, so Disney created virtual portholes. A video screen made to look like a porthole streams a live feed from cameras positioned on the deck, which is supplemented with the occasional visit from, for example, Buzz and Woody, or Dumbo. It’s proved so popular that there is now a waiting list for the rooms.

When asked what he thinks is the most important point to bear in mind when designing for children, Lanzisero says: “Never talk down to a child. Walt never created films for kids, he created films which were entertaining and spoke to the human condition. So I always try to stay true to that. Stay respectful to children: they are incredible, their minds are open, they have great imagination and you want to stimulate that and create aspirational moments for them.”

The unending stock of characters means there’s never a lack of inspiration for refurbishment and Lanzisero says that one of the qualities of the company is that it’s always willing to listen to guests and reinvest to keep experiences fresh.

Interior designer Amy Young, who worked with Disney on Bistrot Chez Rémy, sums it up: “Imagineers have a real commitment to family and fun, but they also have great films and characters to bounce off, so it’s easy to get excited.”

Case Study

Creating La Place de Rémy

One recent Disney theme park addition is a Ratatouille-themed land at Disneyland Paris, which opened in July 2014. The experience makes visitors feel like they’re reduced to the size of a rat as they’re taken into the world of the film.

After queueing along Paris rooftops, visitors board rat-like vehicles which scurry off in different directions. They fall into the kitchen and travel through scenery from the film including the dining room and the pantry. Bistrot Chez Rémy is situated at the end of the ride and it’s an exciting moment for guests to feel like they’re entering the real restaurant from the film.

Imagineering architect Eli Erlandson was the architect in charge of the project, and her team was tasked with the challenge of taking Paris and taking Pixar’s movie and creating a real-world environment.

“We wanted to create the Paris which Pixar creates in the movie, with its charming quirks and twists, crookedology and false perspective, but still refer back to the real Paris,” says Erlandson. “In the movie the drawn environment lasts for seconds, but we have to recreate the accuracy of the animated scenes, and they have to look right from every angle. We have to make it look believable as an environment, bringing Pixar’s idea of Paris to life.”

When designing for children it’s important to think of scale and a child’s perception of scale. “They won’t think about false perspective, but they will feel it,” she says. “This is something we’ve done in every park. The scale is very important and the friendliness of the park depends on it, so children don’t feel overwhelmed.”

For example, at the Ratatouille mini-land, the show box which houses the ride is a huge building which could be imposing, so Disney uses a façade with diminishing perspective to disguise this. The building is part of the Paris backdrop and the buildings represented have floors which get gradually smaller the higher they go. This technique both adds to the character of the building, and makes it less intimidating.

Like other Disney attractions, the idea is to make people feel like they’re immersed inside a story they know from the film. Since the characters in Ratatouille are rats, the environment has been designed to make people feel like they are the size of rats. This allowed the designers to have lots of fun with the furniture: the high chairs are like champagne corks, giant butter dishes house the desserts, the menus are oversized and the backs of the booths are huge plates.

And of course colour is a very important part of Disney’s architecture and design.

“The décor of the restaurant imitates that of the film, with a deep colour scheme of reds and golds, with blue and white chequered tablecloths,” says interior designer Amy Young. “The main challenge was choosing durable materials, as we wanted it to look consistently fresh, clean and bright, so it will offer as good an experience in 15 years as it does now.”

Guests travel through an oversized pantry that replicates scenery from the Ratatouille film / PHOTO: C VAN HANJA / EDGERIDER
Guests travel through an oversized pantry that replicates scenery from the Ratatouille film PHOTO: C VAN HANJA / EDGERIDER
The décor at Disneyland Paris’ Bistrot Chez Rémy imitates the restaurant in Disney-Pixar’s film / PHOTOS: CATHY DUBUISSON
The décor at Disneyland Paris’ Bistrot Chez Rémy imitates the restaurant in Disney-Pixar’s film PHOTOS: CATHY DUBUISSON
The décor at Disneyland Paris’ Bistrot Chez Rémy imitates the restaurant in Disney-Pixar’s film
The décor at Disneyland Paris’ Bistrot Chez Rémy imitates the restaurant in Disney-Pixar’s film
The décor at Disneyland Paris’ Bistrot Chez Rémy imitates the restaurant in Disney-Pixar’s film
The décor at Disneyland Paris’ Bistrot Chez Rémy imitates the restaurant in Disney-Pixar’s film

Right on queue

Queueing is a recent area of focus for Disney, and it’s now regarded as Scene One of a ride. As a result, new attractions are having features built into the queueing areas to entertain guests while they’re waiting. The new Seven Dwarfs Mine Train at Magic Kingdom (pictured) has an interactive game where children can pan for virtual gems while they are waiting. At the Ratatouille attraction, people walk along the rooftops of Paris while they are queueing, preparing them for what’s ahead.

Right on queue
Right on queue

Inclusive design for children

Morgan’s Wonderland

Theme parks can be prohibitive to children with special needs or disabilities, but that’s beginning to change. Morgan’s Wonderland, a 10-hectare theme park in San Antonio, Texas, puts those children’s needs first, and can serve as a successful example to other attractions who want to make themselves more inclusive.

Inspired by his daughter Morgan, who has cognitive delay, Gordon Hartman had a vision for an ultra-accessible family fun park. The park would welcome all, regardless of their abilities, integrating people with special needs with able bodied visitors to eliminate any awkwardness that may exist.

Opened in April 2010, Morgan’s Wonderland has 25 rides and attractions. Specific design features cater for the needs of guests with disabilities. For example, visitors get an RFID wristband and location station monitors throughout the park enable them to see where another member of their group is by scanning their own wristband. Guaranteeing safety and security gives caregivers peace of mind so they can also relax and enjoy themselves. Limiting the number of people allowed in the park is another strategy that helps guests who are uncomfortable in overly stimulated situations.

Rides were custom-designed and made to look like regular rides, as opposed to rides for people with special needs. Chance Rides built a carousel which is sunk into the ground so that people in wheelchairs can access it. The wheelchair is secured to a platform which goes up and down to give the same motion and experience as guests going round on the horses. There are also benches for guests who are not able to mount the carousel horse. On all rides, lights flicker before they start to indicate to people who are hearing impaired that motion is about to begin. For the visually impaired, an announcement counts down to the start of the ride so guests can anticipate the movement.

Gordon Hartman built the park for daughter Morgan
Gordon Hartman built the park for daughter Morgan
Attractions are designed with accessibilty in mind
Attractions are designed with accessibilty in mind
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Child-Friendly Design: Making a play
Making a play: Disney Imagineers reveal the secrets of kid-centric design
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