The quote above comes from my favorite attraction in Walt Disney World – the Tomorrowland Transit Authority PeopleMover located in the Magic Kingdom. Most readers will not know this, but my family and I are Disney World fanatics. We regularly trek down to Florida to visit the Mouse. It’s rare for my professional and personal interests to intersect so directly, but when I read this it was – dare I say – magic?
The gist of the linked article is that Disney is getting into the residential development business. Disney – through its Parks, Experiences and Consumer Products division – is starting to design and develop a series of planned communities known as “Storyliving by Disney.” These communities will contain a mixture of residential, commercial, and recreational uses. The first community is planned for Rancho Mirage, California and will contain over 1,900 residential units. This is not Disney’s first foray into residential development. Even the EPCOT theme park in Disney World was conceptualized originally to be a lived-in community.
How Disney intends to distinguish its communities is to apply its longstanding approach to storytelling (in entertainment and theme parks) to community design. I do not think this means there will be a replica of Cinderella’s castle in the central open space or a Buzz Lightyear coffee shop on the main street. What I think Disney really means is that they are committed to creating a “sense of place.” This is a concept we often hear about regarding residential development, but what does it mean?
For some developers, a “sense of place” is rooted in acknowledging the location of the development. Naming the development after the former property owner or the streets after local landmarks. But this approach has minimal effect. For other developers, more attention is devoted to the lot layout, street system or open space design to create a more unique community. I think this approach is more in line with what community planners and municipal officials are thinking of when they think of modern residential development design. But often the geography, topography and economics of the development limit the developer’s creativity. In other instances, the municipality’s ordinances – rooted in thirty or forty years of traditional suburban design concepts – will limit just how creative a developer can be.
Where Disney excels in its parks and resorts is making you feel both at home but also in a different place. It will be interesting to follow along with the design of its first “Storyliving” communities to see how Disney tries to translate those efforts into a planned community. Certainly, the scale of Disney’s first project will afford more opportunity for it to create a sense of place than what is available for smaller-scale residential projects in our region. But perhaps there will be lessons for developers and municipalities to learn if they are interested in bringing the “warmth and charm of a small town” that Disney promises to bring with its Storybook communities. Stay tuned and . . . “see ya real soon.”