Architecture with a Plot

Theme and Layout at Pandora

Fellow Disney scholars and historians will recognise this title as a chapter name in Beth Dunlop’s Designing a Dream, the bible for all of Disney’s iconic architecture. It’s a profoundly detailed look at the details in Disney’s property – both public and private. Dunlop notes in her chapter that “Of all the arts, architecture is the most unlikely to have a plot, [it’s all] proportions and aesthetics, abstraction and allusion, craft and construction.” To people in the field, the very notion that architecture can tell a story is absurd. Yet for Disney, it’s the literal foundation to making the parks a successful product, making their parks the majority market share in the industry.

elisfkc from Orlando, FL, United States [CC BY-SA 2.0]

However, much like the history of Disneyland itself, this came about through a gamble. As mentioned in previous posts, the original Imagineers were Animators, Ink and Paint artists and visual effects artists – they were all filmmakers. Many did not have formal training in architecture and engineering. While they did have help from some experts, they were certainly out of their comfort zone. Through creating animated films, they knew they had a strong approach to creating stories, so it seemed natural to apply it to designing a theme park. For architecture, the story ideas that are pivotal to us are the story’s Theme, and the story Layout.

In animation, and by extension film in general, the theme is what you want the story to reflect. For instance, the story in The Lion King (1994) is about a lion who has to dethrone his uncle who took the throne unlawfully and became king. This is very different from the theme, which is of being true to yourself and embracing it. In filmmaking, the theme is vital in the story process. If a plot element doesn’t serve the theme, it is redundant.  

Layout, in cinematic terms, is comparable to the structure. In animation, this is predominantly done in storyboarding. It is how the viewer navigates the narrative to get from plot point to plot point, but it also needs to guide the viewer in understanding the theme, not as an immediately obvious fact, but as a gradual revelation. Doing so rewards the viewer and offers a sense of satisfaction.

Theme and Layout are different terms in themed entertainment design and it’s important to understand the complexities of both in order to appreciate what goes into making you, as a guest, become lost in the stories that designers are trying to tell. As I’ve recently learnt, seeing a theme park in the eyes of the designer is an acquired skill. ­­Walt Disney Imagineering has recently collaborated with Khan Academy to create a course ‘Imagineering in a Box’. It’s similar to a course that Pixar created a couple of years ago, but it’s a fantastic look into the Imagineering process for anyone who is unfamiliar. So, to save some reading time, I’ll cite the two videos on Theme and Layout that describe the two concepts in perfectly simple terms.

If you are still interested in Imagineering, this course is a fantastic look at their process (so good, I’m using it to build a spec-pitch for a Cuphead themed land I’m working on).


Now that we understand Theme and Layout, it gives us an appreciation of what truly goes into the architecture of Disney parks. While indeed, theme has some glaring similarities between cinematic and reality, it also shares some differences that are worth addressing. When we are considering theme in a theme park setting, the difference predominately lies in how we approach storytelling. Because most attractions follow a different story, designers will use the theme as their main philosophy. If the story fits the theme, it will work in the park – in theory. By having multiple stories that service a singular theme, it is more immersive, not as repetitive, and that theme has a bigger impact on the guest.

As legendary Imagineer Joe Rhode refers to in the video on theme, Pandora: The World of Avatar is not about the indigenous species that live on that planet, it’s about the conservation of that planet. That theme works so well because it not only fits into the theme of Disney’s Animal Kingdom in general but it a socially important message in society as a whole.


The land manages to convey this theme better than the film ever did. For me, this plays a role in the debate over Avatar in film scholarship. Avatar, to many (including myself), is a bad movie. The characters are problematic, the narrative is poorly developed and the film panders to the gimmick of 3D. Yet the best part of that film is the setting. The environment is stunning. So being able to wonder the world, looking at each intrinsic detail is an experience that is meant to be explored in real life. Better yet, it’s a natural thematic fit for its theme park.


This is where layout is so important. Pandora isn’t an easy to navigate area. Sure, you have the ‘weenie’ (a term coined by Imagineers to describe an identifiable point of interest i.e. a castle) in the Floating Mountains, but unless you have been studying a park map, you’re left to wonder the land, admiring all of the smaller details. Yet there’s an infinite amount of practicalities to consider too, such as restrooms, evacuation routes and the almighty trash can.


That’s the magic of Disney architecture. It’s a rare instance where the medium is used as a foundation for interactive stories. Stories that are decided by the guest. The reason it works so well is because Theme and Layout are used as the instruction manuals that guide designers to establish technologically ground-breaking foundations for the guests to tell stories and create memories for the rest of their lives.

  • Vimeo - White Circle
  • Twitter - White Circle
  • Instagram - White Circle

A Project by

Hamish Thompson
© Wheely Good

The Disneyland Project is not affiliated with The Walt Disney Company or its affiliated companies. The work on this website belongs to Wheely Good Productions unless otherwise stated.