The Evolution of Euro Disney’s Hotel Area

In previous articles, we told you that several Southern Californian companies had been involved in the planning and creation of Euro Disney. Sussman & Prejza came up with a corporate design, PBR Inc. laid out the entire property and Sasaki & Associates did the extensive landscaping that was needed to articulate the former beet fields.

We also stated that PBR’s master plan is very close to what was built so far… but it isn’t exactly the same. Today’s so called “resort area” (encompassing the transportation hub, entertainment center and hotels) has a totally different lay out compared to what can be seen on the master plan. How come, you might wonder. What caused this change? Well, you’re about to find out!

PBR is a development consulting firm specialized in suburban town planning.

In a modern suburban town, land uses of the same type are grouped together. Retail shops are concentrated in one zone, apartment buildings in another. These zones are separated by open space, infrastructure or other barriers. As a result, the zones are far from another, usually to the extent that walking is impractical. So people have to get in their cars to go out shopping.

In a traditional urban town, land uses are blended together. Apartment buildings can be found adjacent to retail shops. Because functions are physically and functionally integrated, people don’t have to travel far to get to the shop. They can walk to places and don’t need a car.

The following drawing perfectly illustrates the aforementioned difference. The area to the south of the “Collector Road” is an example of traditional urban town planning. The area to the north of the “Collector Road” is built in a modern suburban fashion.

Summerlin (Las Vegas Valley, Nevada, USA) is a neat example of a modern suburban town. Residential districts can be found in its center. Shops are located in the east and west parts of town. Because both zones aren’t interconnected and there is a huge distance to travel between them, people are encouraged to take their car to go out shopping.

PBR laid out Euro Disney in a suburban fashion as well. Upon close examination, one might notice that the master plan contains all the characteristics of a modern suburban town.

The area inside the circular boulevard was divided in three zones: one for the theme parks (pink), one for the resort center (red) and one for an office & industrial park and a regional shopping center (pale blue). The resort center was split up in several plots each holding a hotel.

All zones / plots weren’t interconnected forcing people to travel long distances to get to the theme parks and the neighboring hotels.

It was this suburban and car-oriented master plan that Robert A.M. Stern came across while visiting the Walt Disney Imagineering headquarters in March 1988.

Robert A.M. Stern is a famous architect who designed (i.a.) the Disney Casting Center in Orlando, the Disney Headquarters in Burbank and Disney’s Beach Club Resort in Walt Disney World. Like many other postmodern architects, Stern rejects the planning concepts of suburbia. That’s why he didn’t like the suburban character of the layout PBR came up with for Euro Disney’s resort center.

During his visit to the WDI headquarters, he commented that “the plans [for the resort center] looked like a subdivision in Orange County California” (Dunlop 1996: 147), “an American subdivision in the French countryside” with “big areas for the hotels [and] all kinds of roads by very little integration of the parts”. He concluded that “it’s very suburban” (Eisner 1998: 278).

For Stern, it was important that Euro Disney’s resort center wouldn’t be suburban because he knew that Europeans are into walking and sophisticated in their design expectations.

Stern’s negative feedback was immediately taken to heart. The Walt Disney Company – and Michael Eisner in particular – was very sensitive to criticism on their European project. They intended to create a world class resort destination that could easily compete with the castles and monuments of the old continent and one of the most beautiful cities in the world: Paris. Disney also considered Europeans as highly educated and refined and wanted to make no design mistakes.

That’s why Stern and Wing Chao – the then chief architect of the Disney company – were asked to take all necessary steps to change and improve the layout of the soon-to-be-built resort center. They hastily invited a group of leading post modern architects (Michael Graves, Frank Gehry, Stanley Tigerman and Robert Venturi) to criticize the original ideas. Over the Easter weekend of 1988, they came together and brainstormed about a new site plan.

On (Easter) Sunday, April 3, 1988, a new (traditional urban) layout for the resort center was found. The architects decided to organize the hotels (and entertainment center) around the formal and central “Lake of the America’s” (later called “Lake Buena Vista” & “Lake Disney”) and several meandering rivers and lagoons. A coherent network of pedestrian walkways and the limited distance between the sites would encourage guests to go to the parks / their rooms by foot.

So yes, indeed, PBR’s (suburban) master plan is very close to what was built so far. But spurred by the royalty of postmodernism, today’s resort center looks different compared to what was envisioned by the development consulting firm. The unique collaboration of the world’s leading postmodern architects resulted in a marvelous site layout (for the resort center) where people don’t need a car (bus or taxi) to get around. They can simply go by foot.

And still today, this a key feature (and selling argument compared to the partner hotels located outside the circular boulevard) of the Disneyland Paris resort area! 

This article was written by our good friend Will. His fascination and appreciation for Disney started with the opening of Euro Disneyland in 1992. Coming from an American Cultural Studies background, Will today is most interested in the original concept of the Euro Disney Resort and the cultural messages that the Walt Disney Company wanted to convey about the United States back in the late 1980s. To Will, the 1992 Euro Disney complex is an outstanding example of postmodern architecture and culture, which should be maintained in and reconstructed to its original state as closely as possible. These concerns and interests lead the author to follow and support the "Designing Disney Research Center. We would like to sincerely thank Will for the efforts that he has made in writing this very interesting article!

Shared Knowledge

Submitted by David Rieseck on March 31, 2014 - 01:41 #

A "new site plan." Several points of clarification may shed a bit different light on this evolution. I worked at PBR and with several of our 'team' prepared the illustrations here; working inside the Imagineering Studio - Burbank. While Don Smith and Bill Phillips principals in the photo enjoyed a series of "suburban" development of the era, be sure they and our team was extremely aware of the suburban / urban complications, desires and when those principles might be at odds.

It is worth knowing that Marne-la-Vallee was first and foremost the newest 'new-town,' over 4000 acres dedicated specifically to de-centralize Paris. Marne was new rail / freeway connections to Paris, to provide housing access and industrial jobs - their anticipated formula for success. Disney was just a single employer looking for a European site, while being courted by other countries as well, Disney was to be the first catalyst for new employment. The French intent was precisely to surbanize (exactly) like southern California. They came to SoCal and PBR because Disney and PBR had history of designing active, functioning, environmentally sound, financially successful and safe community design, even if 'suburban.'

Worth knowing we at PBR were actually versed in new-urbanism as it was yet to be coined, by Arcquitectonica - Duany-Plater-Zyberk (though not actually invented by DPZ) However, there are / were many aspects of Seasidesque design that are not close to an analogous application at the scale of Marne.

At PBR we were continually perplexed with the French "vision" of suburbia. (Apologies, but actually unlike Mr. Stern's notion "they understand design.") We tried exhaustive studies, designs and physical ways to save, incorporate and emulate the 5 tiny existing French villages (see the irregular black spots on the plans) - within the entire site - as some basis for Marne - no interest.

The French demanded physical designs, draughted, engineered and built as quickly and humanly successful as could be achieved at that time, substantially why Disney suggested a US firm. For perspective - there was no internet, no pdf's or document sharing beyond mail. We rendered and packaged massive drawing tubes shipped to Paris almost daily for months. In addition, understandably, Disney demanded we work in the Burbank studios with full vetting, not at PBR, not in France. (They were actually concerned with a potential design leak of their Entertainment District.) Most important, however, the Entertainment District is the "theme park" the new French employer - 300 acres, the Lake District for us/PBR - a mere 350 acres of the 4000.

Prior to the SoCal design seen by Stern's visit in 1988, the French made numerous trips to visit successful US, primarily PBR projects, insisting replication. (See Rancho Santa Margarita, CA) Though perhaps lesser sir-names, at PBR there was tremendous and successful effort to 'massage' the eventual "Lake Disney" to be a true urban gathering/connecting space - prior to the NYC team of esteemed minds seemingly to have saved or fixed. A community water body was set, hotels gathered and pedestrian / bicycle links established; even before any of the for-mentioned architects enjoyed review.

Please understand the entire 4000 acres is / was as you say "planning a European city," the new-town of Marne-la-Valle. Almost above all it required over-arching vehicular circulation to simply function - cars, the bullet train and subways ultimately deliver people, goods and commerce. The documented critique and subsequent design discussed here is just the pedestrian function of a 300 acre lake/hotel area. It is an understatement to describe the needs of the site and client as being solved through an over-weekend brainstorm of albeit distinguished names.

At minimum, understanding the confluence of freeway, TGV and RER train alignments (actually already under construction) with long-term homes and pedestrians for Marne let alone Disney's Park was a bit more complicated than 'tweaking' the Lake District during the charette in a high-power weekend. And yes, all-the-while the French client wanted US style hotel-golf course complexes, individual car access and parking, patio homes and green-belts, oh and 'attractive' investment generating business-parks. Looking closely at the plan you'll notice the mass green forest lower left, the "Caravan park" (trailers and tents, read: Winnebagos). While substantially far from Disney's park in pedestrian terms a long fought discussion to preserve the historic grove - small victories.

My hope is many of the elements (existing villages), road and rail systems provide a functioning framework the French will eventually find successful. I believe the commercial areas, business developments and Disney's Entertainment District eventually provide the jobs and communities that can be called "home." Our vision for the French was not 'theirs' at the time.

As in our history of Washington DC, Napoleon actually razed numerous communities to build the Paris we now love as "planned and organized."


Submitted by Will on April 12, 2013 - 20:47 #

Jon, thank you so much for this feedback.

Submitted by Maxime on April 7, 2013 - 12:40 #

Thank you for your feedback Jon. I'm happy you like the article.

In March 2011, Euro Disney S.C.A. (the company that owns and operates Disneyland Paris) started an ambitious multi year program to protect, upgrade and enhance its existing guest facing assets at the Disneyland Park and Hotels. You can read more about these enhancements here.

Submitted by Jon on March 23, 2013 - 03:23 #

Appreciate all these articles very much Will. Hopefully we can see more of these highly researched, interesting and informative pieces in the future. I love how you focus on the great design the original designers had for Euro Disney. Really, it is probably Disney's best work in regards to master planning and architecture yet.

Currently, the Resort is neglected and decisions are made without any regard to the original intentions. For example the recent renovation of Newport Bay Club has nothing to do with Stern's original vision and now looks like a modern cruise ship instead of a classic New England resort. Ghery's clean Disney Village has transformed into a real mess. Disneyland Paris really has a great gift that they are not taking advantage of.

In regards to the article, it seems like the first iteration of the master plan of Euro Disney was very similar to WDW, with the naturalistic looking water ways and everything being spaced out. The later iterations sort of reflect the urban planning of European cities such as Rome and Paris, where everything is laid out and organized.

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