The attention to details in a Disney movie always amaze me. The sand and beach in Moana, Elsa’s ice palace in Frozen, and Merida’s hair in Brave, to name a few. Not surprisingly, the designers at Walt Disney World pay just as much attention to details.

My family loves to go to Disney World. One of the things I like to do is to look at the buildings and details that make Disney seem like a magical place. So, I thought I’d share the details an architect notices when she walks around the parks.

Cinderella's Castle at Walt Disney World Magic Kingdom

Walt Disney World – The Details

Everybody knows Main Street is supposed to be Main Street, USA – a typical town at the turn of the 20th century. But, how do you convey a time and place in a building? How do the designers do that?

I could get all nerdy and talk about the archetypal building characteristics and historically accurate materials, the massing of the buildings, or the implied visual fabric of a community. But that’s not much fun. And we’re talking about Disney, here, which is all about fun.

At the Disney parks and resorts, the details make the “magic”. The details are how you make people feel like they are in a different time and place, or how you tell a story. Here are some of the details I noticed on a recent trip.

Walt Disney World Magic Kingdom – Telling a Story

Sir Mickey’s store in Fantasyland is a great example of architecture telling a story. The building, near Cinderella’s castle, tells the story of Mickey and the Beanstalk. On the outside, a gigantic green vine sprouts through the roof and the side of the medieval fairy tale-like shop. Inside, you can see Mickey climbing the beanstalk.

Walt Disney World store interior with Mickey Mouse figure standing on a giant beanstalk.

My favorite detail is Willie the Giant peeking inside the store. It’s just like in the cartoon! These are the details that allow the architecture to tell a story.

Willie the Giant peeking inside of Sir Mickey's store in Walt Disney World

The Barnstormer roller coaster in Storybook Circus is another great example of an attraction telling a story. Goofy has built an airplane and performs an air show as only he can. The ride incorporates details of Goofy’s flying mishaps.

To provide relief from Florida’s scorching hot sun, Disney installed these clever shade structures. Made of canvas circles tied to a metal ring, they are reminiscent of a 1920’s era “flying circus“. The simple graphic style and faded colors of the canvas are great details that reinforce the theme.

Round canvas shade structures in Walt Disney World Magic Kingdom

Walt Disney World Animal Kingdom – Telling a Story

The Maharajah Jungle Trek in Animal Kingdom also tells a story. The animals of the jungle have taken over the the abandoned palace of a wealthy maharajah, and everything is in a state of ruin.

The roof of the palace has collapsed and is open to the sky. You can even see the individual bricks in the opening. Water has ruined the carvings on the walls, and stained the ceiling. Not pretty, right? But, those are all details that would be accurate if the palace really were abandoned.

Ceiling of ruined palace in Walt Disney World Animal Kingdom

The concrete covering of this wall has deteriorated so badly that you can see the underlying structure of brick and steel reinforcing bar. Large sections of the wall are just rebar – the concrete is completely gone. I thought the rebar detail was a great idea to add to the storytelling in this area.

Dilapidated fence post in Walt Disney World Animal Kingdom

Walt Disney World – Another Place

Disney’s architecture and details can also take you to a distant location. The outside waiting area to the Magic Kingdom’s Enchanted Tiki Room is designed to be a Polynesian ceremonial house. With that in mind, timber posts and beams are tied with rope, the roof is woven bamboo matting,  and the lighting covers are made of bamboo. They all combine to remind you of being somewhere very tropical.

Tiki Room roof made of tied logs and bamboo matting in Walt Disney World

The entire world of Epcot is obviously designed to make you feel like you are in another place. I saw this entrance in the Italy Pavilion. The carved stonework, paving, lighting, door, and even the benches look like they belong in Venice.

Venice-inspired store entrance in Walt Disney World Epcot

This awesome door handle shows the attention to detail that makes you feel like you are in Italy.

Fish shaped door handle to a store in Walt Disney World Epcot

The Art Nouveau entrance to an alleyway in the Paris Pavilion reminded me of the Parisian subway entrance I saw in Kim’s Paris Travel Tips post.

French Art Nouveau style wrought iron and glass entrance at Walt Disney World Epcot's Paris Pavilion

Pagoda shaped lanterns line the walkway near the China Pavilion. The fence pattern behind the lanterns follows the China theme.

Two Chinese pagoda style lanterns in Walt Disney World Epcot

Sure, the designers could have just used plain wood on this timber framed building near the United Kingdom Pavilion (I think it’s the Rose & Crown Pub). Instead they covered it with medieval wood carvings and made the column look like a guy from the Canterbury Tales.

Carved wooden entrance to a building in Walt Disney World Epcot

Walt Disney World: Another Time, Another Place

Architecturally, Hollywood Studios is hands-down my favorite park. It’s like stepping into 1940’s Hollywood. Lots of Art Deco, Streamline Moderne, and neon.

Details definitely do the heavy work in making it feel like you are in a different time and place. The park entrance is designed to look like the Pan-Pacific Auditorium in Los Angeles. (Built in 1935, the original building was destroyed by a fire in 1989.)

Neon entrance to Walt Disney World Hollywood Studios

The entrance to the Hyperion Building is all chrome, neon, and Art Deco styling. Definitely 1940’s Hollywood.

Art Deco metal gate and column with neon top at Walt Disney World Hollywood Studios

What says 1940’s more than this stoplight? It actually works – the little arm goes down when the light changes, and the “Go” sign comes up.

Old time stop light at Walt Disney World Hollywood Studios

Walt Disney World – Another Time

The new Toy Story Land, inside Hollywood Studios, definitely takes you to another time: childhood. Not only is everything toy related, you are the size of a toy and everything is gigantic.

This restroom is designed to look like it is made of wooden blocks, and the signage is made of Scrabble tiles. A Tinker Toy canister and a Cootie Bug are on the roof.

Restoom designed to look like toy blocks and scrabble tiles in Walt Disney World Hollywood Studios

I was in another part of the park when my daughter texted me a picture of the Fisher-Price camper, and I practically ran to Toy Story Land. I had this toy as a kid, and my kids played with it when they were little. It’s even got the boat on top!!

Life sized Fisher Price toy camper in Walt Disney World Hollywood Studios' Toy Story Land

Walt Disney World – Themed Details

I noticed a lot of animal themed details in Animal Kingdom. This heron corbel supported the roof of a snack shack.

Wooden building corbel carved to look like a heron at Walt Disney World Animal Kingdom

This tile floor is in a nearby bathroom. Frogs!Frog pattern mosaic tile floor in Walt Disney World Animal Kingdom

Finally, these tap handles were on a drink cart. I like that they are a little rough and rustic; it fit in with the area.

Three metal beer tap pulls in the shape of a tiger, a crocodile, and an ape at Walt Disney World Animal Kingdom

Next time you’re at Disney, take a look around. You might be surprised at the details you notice.

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  1. I am normally a people watcher at Disney. On my next trip I will definitely pay more attention to all the special details. You got me at the Chinese lantern/fence.

  2. I also love the details, and since at least the late ’80s have been photographing the same sorts of things at Disneyland. I started after we went to Dland after the huuuuge redo of Fantasyland, and I realized that I had no photos at all of the old things the way they were, and that made me sad. So now I go for details as well as the “establishing shots” to show where we are and what things look like. I’ve only in the last 4 years been to Disneyworld finally, and have followed the same tradition. Thanks for yours; gives me more things to look for when I go again in November!
    (I have quite a few trips that I haven’t even reviewed photos for posting yet, and plenty of trips prior to the mid-2000s that are prints that I need to scan in still. I just enjoy the whole environment.)

    1. Lucky you – there’s so much to admire at Disneyland!! Love the old attractions like Alice in Wonderland and Small World, and Bug’s Life was so clever (too bad they closed it!). But, I think my favorite is Cars Land. I really want to take photos there at night. Thanks for stopping by!!

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