“As Act 1, Scene 1 for Disneyland, Main Street is appropriately pleasant, reassuring, and undemanding.”Smithsonian, 1991
Following the advice of architects at Pereira and Luckman, Walt Disney knew early on that his park should only have one entrance and exit to help orient guests visiting the expansive and unfamiliar space. Funneling guests past a row of shops isn’t bad for business either. Walt decided this corridor would be, as described in documents presented to investors, a three-block-long commercial street with “the nostalgic quality that makes it everybody’s hometown.”
For inspiration, Walt first instructed Imagineer Harper Goff to look at Marceline, Missouri, where he and Roy grew up. Goff did as he was told and presented Walt with the plans, which included mostly single-story buildings.
According to Goff, Walt quickly realized they’d need two-story buildings for additional storage and other needs. Goff then turned to the main drag of his own hometown of Fort Collins, Colorado which had mostly two-story buildings.
In a 1994 interview, Goff said he showed Walt some photos of Fort Collins and “he liked them very much. Disneyland’s City Hall was copied from Fort Collins…so was the bank building and some of the others.”
One building from Marceline did prove useful as a model, the Zurcher building – which would provide the basis for Coca Cola Refreshment Corner.
As with most things in Disneyland, Walt didn’t want replicas of the real world – he wanted a perfected version of reality. Landscaping didn’t include typical plantings, it was more formal and distinct from what people would find in their local parks. Walt imported cresting and railings from old plantations in Nashville, Memphis, San Francisco, and Sacramento.
Imagineer Bill Martin said “[Walt] went over my plans with a fine-tooth comb. I’d drawn some sidewalks on the blueprints with square corners and Walt said, ‘Bill, people aren’t soldiers! They don’t turn in sharp angles! Curve the sidewalks! Make the corners round.” Walt initially wanted the buildings along Main Street built at five-eights scale to create a more intimate, nostalgic feeling. While that would look fine from the outside, standing and shopping inside a building that small just wouldn’t work. Imagineers solved the problem by making the ground floor 90 percent in scale, the second floor 80 percent and the third floor 60 percent. The result would be a masterclass in forced perspective and one of the most romanticized streets in the world.
Walt first introduced America to Main Street, U.S.A. on the debut episode of the Disneyland television show. The model of Main Street was made by Disney Legend Fred Joerger.
Less than a year later, Main Street would be brought to life not only with guests strolling along its sidewalks, but with vintage cars and horse-drawn trolleys. To add even more color Walt added audio soundtracks coming from the building windows. Disney writer and voice actor Larry Clemmons said “Walt asked me to come to the Studio to work on Main Street. He had an idea for having soundtracks coming out of the windows. I wrote the soundtracks for the man getting a gold watch at his retirement party, the dance studio lessons, the pain and yelling in the dentist’s office.”
The core Main Street, U.S.A. concept has been replicated without significant thematic changes at Disney parks in Florida, Tokyo, Paris, and Hong Kong. An argument can be made that it’s one of the most underrated achievements of Disney Imagineering.