After two years of compromised, constrained, or completely cancelled travel plans, this past winter break my family and I finally went on a proper vacation. With both kids fully vaccinated (and my wife and I fully boosted), the complex risk calculations all of us have been forced to make since March of 2020 finally returned an answer that allowed us to be tourists once again.
Where did we go, you ask? We went to Disneyland.
Growing up in Arlington, Six Flags was my theme park (see p. 58), but I never quite made it to the Happiest Place on Earth. I knew of Disneyland, of course, and in architecture school I learned to use it as a synonym for something cartoonish or otherwise inauthentic. But when I visited for the first time with kids of my own, I saw how fully they embraced the experience. As far as my children were concerned, Disneyland wasn’t fake at all. No, Big Thunder Mountain might not be a real mountain, but the excitement felt while riding a runaway train through it certainly was.
As tourists, we purposefully leave the comforting world of the everyday to seek out heightened experiences found only in what we see as strange and new. Even if we are traveling to a beach to relax, we still do so in search of something beyond what is normally possible. And after nearly two years of remote learning, virtual meetings, and an otherwise socially distanced existence spent inside our homes, it feels especially good to finally emerge out into the world once again.
Walt Disney may not have trained as an architect, but as an animator he was able to entertain millions by creating imaginary worlds on screen. He brought that same sensibility to the table when he decided to create a “real” imaginary world in Anaheim. As architects, we similarly make the imaginary real every day. It may be easy to lose sight of this truth while wrestling with budgets and building codes, but sometimes we can bring to life something that transcends those constraints. Sometimes, we can create magic.
Beyond Disney’s original vision for the park, one of the things I find most intriguing about Disneyland is how it is not a static thing. It has been improved and expanded over time. Disney famously said that his park would never be completed but would “continue to grow as long as there is imagination left in the world.” And indeed, Disneyland did continue to evolve. Successful attractions were improved while failures were demolished. As architects, we are almost never given that opportunity. Mechanical systems may be upgraded or carpet may be replaced, but we are almost never able to significantly improve the spaces we create once they’re built.
Getting things right the first time is hard. That’s why we try to learn what we can from the projects we’ve completed. That’s why, as tourists ourselves, we visit buildings designed by others so that we might learn from them as well. And when we return to work, we do our best to create homes and schools and offices that attempt, in their own way, to make the real world just a little more magical.