Main Street U.S.A. — A nostalgic trip down a small city street at the turn of the 20th century. A walk down memory lane in a typical American town of old. There’s City Hall and the fire station. There’s a barbershop on that corner, and a hatter in the opposite. A Confectionary sits on the Town Square, right across from the town’s main Emporium. Walking down the street we find a cinema (somewhat anachronistic, but I digress), a jeweler, a baker, an ice cream parlor, a tobacconist, a magic shop, a penny arcade, and several more places of business one would expect to find in such a place and time.
Unless you go inside, that is.
When the Magic Kingdom first opened, it actually had all of these things and more. Like its Disneyland counterpart, the Penny Arcade was filled with actual vintage nickelodeons, mutoscopes, love testers, and other entertainment novelties from the 1900s. The cinema had fold-down seats and showed an assortment of silent movies, as well as Mickey’s debut, Steamboat Willie (again, anachronistic). Exposition Hall had an exhibit on Walt Disney. And the Emporium was one of several individual stores.
Over the course of the ’90s, Main Street saw some drastic changes. The Penny Arcade was closed, and while a few of its coin-op devices were relocated around Main Street, most were removed entirely. Its location was replaced by more shopping space. The Main Street Cinema also turned into a gift store, with movies projected onto the wall in the back while guests shop.
Originally, Main Street was comprised of four “city blocks” with themed “alleys” called Center Street at the corners. The east side of Center Street featured a toy store, a candle store, and an art festival in the middle of the street, showcasing actual artwork by selected artists. On the west side was a flower market like one would find in Covent Garden of London. Down this alley was a clock shop, a china shop, and the famous Harmony Barber Shop, where vocal quartet The Dapper Dans hung out and serenaded guests. In 2001, the west side was filled in and turned into an expansion of the Emporium. The barber shop moved south, in a corner next to the firehouse. Everything else is gone.
Over the course of the past twenty years or so, both sides of Main Street have been opened up into long, expansive gift shops, with each “shop” being a separate room of a single store. You won’t find magic tricks anymore, or fine china. The glass blower has been replaced by the more modern Arribas Bros. Crystal Arts shop, and the old camera shop has been relocated to Exposition Hall, its former location absorbed into the Confectionary. The Emporium now stretches all the way from Town Square to the Hub.
The first question we have to ask is “why?”
The answer is “money”.
(One of the things Michael Eisner was tasked with when he was brought on in 1984 was literally saving the company. It’s hard to believe now, but from the ’70s into the early ’80s, the Disney company, then simply known as Walt Disney Productions, was too small and financially unstable to sustain itself.)
The Penny Arcade required a lot of specialized maintenance. Those machines were authentic, and required a delicate touch from someone who knew about their intricacies. Not only that, but at the price of an actual penny, they didn’t exactly pay for themselves or the space they occupied. Also, in the 21st century, the novelty of turn-of-the-20th-century entertainment just wasn’t enough of a draw. Even on busy days, most guests just walked by it. Maybe a small number walked in and tried a machine or two, then moved on. Nowadays, few people even carry pennies.
What about all the specialty shops, like the candle shop, or the china shop, or the magic shop? When Walt Disney World opened, it was pretty much the only shopping center in Central Florida, so having specialty shops actually benefited the resort. Locals could pay a small admission fee and buy some nice thing they otherwise couldn’t get without traveling 50-100 miles to a major city.
By the mid-’90s, the Orlando area had expanded exponentially to include countless shopping centers, accessible without having to fight the tourists or pay admission. Also, in October 1981, the Magic Kingdom did away with the General Admission and Coupon books in favor of an all-inclusive admission, and in one year, the price increased by nearly 50% from $9.50 to $15.00 (I’ll let you calculate the inflation for whenever you happen to be reading this). By fall of 1985, it had more than doubled.
A casual afternoon excursion to the Magic Kingdom for shopping and a couple of rides was no longer financially practical. Of course, guests and locals could still shop at Lake Buena Vista Village — which later became Downtown Disney, now Disney Springs — making Main Street’s specialty shops redundant.
Okay, so nobody wants to buy china from a theme park anymore. What about everything else? Does that justify what has been done to Main Street? From the exterior, Main Street looks like a row of individual store fronts, many with the original signage, but from the interior, there are really only a few stores, stretched out and broken up like a department store.
On the west side, there is the Emporium, which stretches from the Town Square all the way up to the hub, with Casey’s Corner the only deviation. The east side is a little more varied, with a hat shop, candy shop, media, jewelry, and pins in the south building, all interconnected. The north building is the most diverse, housing all of the contracted businesses such as Arribas Bros., Edy’s, and Starbucks, most of which are separate, with no entrance into the next store.
For over a decade, I have referred to this as the “Main Street Strip Mall”. Aside from the architecture, vehicles, and cast member costumes, there is nothing old-fashioned about this town square anymore. Inside the stores are CDs, DVDs, and Blu-rays, license plates, Disney trading pins, and merchandise from movie franchises such as Marvel, Star Wars, and Pirates of the Caribbean. It’s essentially Disney Springs’ World of Disney or Epcot’s Mouse Gear in a more condensed form.
So when Main Street was converted, Disney was on hard times, right? They needed to generate more income, and more relevant commercial space was the answer. What about now? I don’t think it’s any secret that Disney is practically printing money at this point. Star Wars and Marvel alone generate regular billion-dollar profits for the once failing company. What harm can it do to transform Main Street back to its former gay ’90s glory?
Less merchandising space? Please. Almost every attraction empties into a themed gift shop where guests can buy stuff they don’t need related to the experience they just had. If they forget, or can’t commit at the time, there are countless other stores willing to sell them the same item at the same price all over Walt Disney World, even at their own Disney Resorts. Disney Springs alone is an admission-free one stop shop for anything available in the parks and more. Run out of time or money before you have to return to the real world? Good news: there’s an app for that! The Shop Disney Parks web store and its corresponding mobile app will sell you just about anything available at either U.S. Disney Resort, and ship it directly to your home!
Disney has no shortage of income sources or merchandising opportunities. So what do they need the Main Street Shopping Center for? I don’t think guests will complain too much if Disney downsized their Mall of Main Street a little. At this point, a lot of guests bypass Main Street altogether because either they’re not ready, first thing in the morning, to buy any junk that they’ll have to lug around all day, or they’ve already spent enough money in the rest of the Magic Kingdom’s gift shops, and don’t want to be faced with more (especially if there are children involved).
But a magic shop? That might get some attention. I remember one of my first visits to Universal Studios, I curiously wandered into their magic shop, saw an impressive demonstration, and walked out with several items — an organic impulse purchase, something I never do in the Emporium or pretty much any Disney gift shop anymore.
A penny arcade might not be a big money-maker, but the novelty of it will draw in passersby for a few minutes, reducing a bit of congestion in the streets. Imagine the benefit of that after the fireworks or parade.
The cinema would be a good place to show the new Mickey Mouse shorts the upcoming Hollywood Studios ride will be based on. There’s some synergy for you. They could even project them in a scratchy, grainy black & white for authenticity’s sake.
We may never get West Center Street back, due to the amount of demolition and construction necessary, but that doesn’t preclude a hidden gem in the corner of East Center Street. (Although I would miss my favorite quiet corner to enjoy a Plaza Ice Cream Sundae.)
I don’t mind the closing or changing of something as long as what is replacing it is either necessary or an improvement. I feel like most of the changes to Main Street have been to its detriment. Sure, the company has an opportunity to make more money, but at what cost? Loss of atmosphere? Theming? Personality?
Main Street is supposed to feel like a real place — like a step back into a simpler time — a place to smoothly transition guests out of the real world, and into “a World of Yesterday, Tomorrow, and Fantasy”. Its idealistic depiction of a pre-technological age draws guests into a strange world that still has all the familiar comforts of home, before leading them into the more fanciful lands beyond the hub.
I suppose my soft spot for Main Street comes from that place of familiarity. I grew up in a small, post-Revolution Era town in Upstate New York, not unlike the city of Saratoga Springs, upon which many of Main Street’s buildings were based. My parents owned and operated the corner drug store for more than thirty years. We had a general store (where I bought a LOT of candy and balsa wood gliders), a movie theater (where I saw many first and second run films), a pizzeria (where I spent much of my allowance on New York-style slices and arcade games), a tobacco and newspaper shop (where I bought several years’ worth of comic books and gaming magazines), and a salon (where I got my hair cut for most of my early life). Everything about the atmosphere of Main Street USA in Florida’s Magic Kingdom reminds me of home.
In Tokyo Disneyland, turn-of-the-20th-century Main Street USA is replaced by World Bazaar, a pan-20th-century pastiche of Downtown New York City architecture, covered by a glass canopy reminiscent of the 1876 Philadelphia World’s Fair. For Shanghai Disneyland, Mickey Avenue — a homogenized hodgepodge of century-plus-old architectural styles — replaces Main Street, featuring two blocks of buildings instead of four, and a much wider road with planters in the middle. This is because neither Japan nor China has nostalgia for small American towns as they were over a hundred years ago.
Then again, neither do we. I have mentioned before how nostalgia for any time prior to the 1980s is waning, beyond the 1950s is all but nonexistent. Most people today didn’t live in a small colonial- or Victorian-era town, and if they did, it was probably heavily modernized by the time of their childhood. Main Street is a temporal anomaly to most guests.
Maybe, like Carousel of Progress, it too needs to be updated or replaced. Maybe take the Tokyo Disneyland approach, and add some architecture from more recent history (World Bazaar features a ’50s-style diner, complete with neon signs and brushed steel exterior). Or maybe take the Shanghai Disneyland route,and replace it with something more fanciful entirely. Maybe Disney should redesign Main Street to appeal more to our parents than our grandparents’ parents.
Whatever they decide to do, if anything (probably nothing), Main Street needs a direction and a purpose. Just being a big Disney galleria is not aesthetically appealing to anyone. What’s there now is an awkward juxtaposition of classic style and modern commercialism. Main Street USA needs to be a place that feels like home. We need to take Main Street back to a place that takes us back.