Learn from Disney

Being a big planning nerd, and planning for an upcoming trip to Disney World’s Magic Kingdom in Orlando with my daughter, I found myself researching the design, planning, and implementation of the world’s busiest and most profitable amusement park. During the early years of the park, one of the primary, and few, attractions that was present was MAIN STREET U.S.A. It is no happenstance that this was the first and one of the most well-planned areas of the park. Let’s outline a few of the reasons why it is of importance to the overall park, and what can be learned from Disney’s years of experience:


  1. Designed to imitate yet be distinct – MAIN STREET U.S.A. was designed to reflect a traditional downtown of the early 20th century, offering adequate spaces and a diverse offering of amenities. It is the proportional scale and adequate use of space that create strong public and private spaces. No matter how busy the park is, someone can always find a quiet corner to have a private conversation or just get a reprieve from the business of 50,000 plus visitors a day.
  2. Idyllic mixture of vibrant and welcoming stores – When civic leaders are striving to provide an increased and diverse mixture of main street amenities that meet residents’ needs, they would do well to look at MAIN STREET U.S.A. The designers have managed to provide the largest economic engine for their park, within a downtown corridor and conveniently located to all surrounding amenities. In this space you can find bakeries, restaurants, gift shops, coffee shops (Starbucks), and almost anything people would want to purchase for their day at the park. While this article is not a case study, and Disney is very secretive about their data, this area should be studied to better understand the economic impact and amount of revenue created. My personal guess is that it would be more productive and have a higher ROI (return on investment) than any other main street in the world. The take-out lesson from this is: by providing the goods and services people want or need, more people will shop local and support the local economy.
  3. Vibrant, attractive and CLEAN – While the whole area is a reproduction of a downtown, the designers took the best attributes of many downtown corridors to reproduce the attraction. Think about it — wide streets, ample sidewalks, better-than-adequate lighting, intricate public and private spaces, all of which are kept spotlessly clean and attractive. It is through this realization that one begins to understand the importance of a clean atmosphere. Without the abundant clean and shining surfaces, users would not have the same feeling.
  4. Average users are on foot, enjoying the atmosphere without vehicles – It should be noted that vehicles are not permitted within Disney World, and it is remarkable to realize how much more people utilize the roadways and expansive right-of-way when there are no vehicles on the roads. As residents are typically confined to sidewalks when walking in their own communities, it is rather impressive to witness the diverse and often sporadic paths people walk when vehicles are not present. By providing more space for people, businesses are offered additional spaces for sales, the mingling of users, and all-round civic uses. This should be considered when people begin to redesign downtowns for the next generation with less vehicular traffic.
  5. Congruent and distinct buildings and signage – It is no surprise that MAIN STREET U.S.A. has a congruent style of buildings and signage, yet what most people do not realize is that each building or sign is distinctive. Many downtowns struggle with the theory that buildings and signage should be similar, yet distinct. MAIN STREET U.S.A. in Disney World’s Magic Kingdom is an excellent example of why this is an important goal. Through the unification of the building types, forming and massing, the corridor has a congruent feel, yet each building has different setbacks, windows, doors, colors, and signs. Walking down the corridor one may not notice that each building is independent and unique, only that they are all in a symbiotic relationship, helping one another be distinct yet part of the overall downtown fabric. This is a lesson that should be instilled in all downtowns. Providing a similar style of building and restricting styles of signage do not take away from the freedom to be creative. It simply helps a community achieve a cohesive look and feel, all the while driving revenue and attendance to your downtown.]
  6. Warm and welcoming – It should go without saying that the more friendly and inviting a store owner is, the more people will want to visit the store. Employees stationed within MAIN STREET U.S.A. are welcoming, inviting, and approachable. They are not on their phones, not distracted, and not trying to be somewhere else. They are there to serve you. This principle should be more prevalent within our downtowns across the country. Think about the old hardware store in most towns. When someone entered a little bell rang and the owner approached to ask how they could help. It was this personal service and knowledge that drew return visits. It is also this simple act of personal attention that most communities are currently missing.
  7. Utilization of space is maximized – Anyone who has been to the Magic Kingdom will know that all the space along the corridor is filled. No one will ever see a non-programmed window, a blacked-out door, or even a vacant store front. This maximization of space should become the norm within each community. In order to provide a more diverse and prosperous downtown, space must be maximized. MAIN STREET U.S.A. is a perfect example of space programming and utilization. Upper floors are built and used for storage or company spaces, high-traffic businesses are located along the main corridor, lower-traffic businesses on side streets, and throughout all of it there are no blank spots.


When planning the busiest amusement park in the world, Disney World showcased a nostalgic American downtown. Even if you don’t like that concept, we would like you to think about a few things before casting judgment:


  1. MAIN STREET U.S.A. is arguably the most economically thriving downtown within the United States.
  2. By locating the majority of goods and services in the corridor, designers have ensured that the corridor is frequented and remains important no matter how COOL the other attractions are.
  3. The corridor is quite possibly the most active, inviting, cleanest, and most visited small downtown within the US.Downtowns that do not focus on cars can be better utilized by other methods or means.


So let’s think about what some of the takeaways are from the most profitable and thriving downtown in the U.S.A. Not all of these will work within all communities, so it is important to learn from other successful downtowns and alter them to meet the specific needs of each community.


  1. Do not leave your downtown to chance — plan it! By planning your downtown, spaces can be provided for all uses and users.
  2. A diverse downtown is a thriving downtown. By providing necessary goods and services, and mixing them with desired extras, a downtown will become the hub of your community allowing people to shop and make an impact locally.
  3. A clean downtown is an inviting downtown. If your downtown is dirty — clean it! You will be surprised how this simple act will increase your community’s civic pride.
  4. Vehicles should be secondary uses for a downtown. By putting the focus on pedestrians and making them feel safer, people will spend more TIME and MONEY in a downtown.
  5. Similar buildings and signage is not a bad thing. By offering similarity while allowing for small personalizations, a downtown will feel more cohesive and congruent.
  6. In the era of social media and smart phones, we must remember what people visit a downtown for:  people-to-people interaction. Train your businesses to provide service and interaction and watch them flourish.
  7. There is space for everyone in a downtown. It may not always be on the first floor or on the main “drag,” but downtown is for everyone. Ensure businesses and establishments are in the location that will have the best impact for them.


Without doubt, MAIN STREET U.S.A. at Disney World’s Magic Kingdom has lessons to teach everyone, regardless of whether you are experienced in Main Street organization or still a novice. Learn from their experience and use the best practices within your own community.