Level Design, Disneyland Style

By Stephen Clarke-Willson, Ph.D.

© 2000 Stephen Clarke-Willson, Ph.D.

All Rights Reserved.

"All [previous] park operators contended that Walt's concept of a single entrance was faulty... Walt remained firm. He reasoned that people became disoriented when they entered by different gates. He wanted everyone to be channeled in the same way, to have their visit to Disneyland structured as part of a total experience.

"Throughout the planning [of Disneyland], a familiar Disney word, 'wienie,' was used. A wienie was a lure, an inducement, in the same way that an animal trainer used a frankfurter to evoke tricks from a dog act. In Disneyland, the castle served as the wienie to draw the people down Main Street. Then, when they reached the hub, two other wienies would attract them to the right or to the left. In Tomorrowland, it would be the towering Rocket to the Moon; in Frontierland, the Mark Twain steamboat."

From Walt Disney, An American Original, by Bob Thomas, page 263.

It is my thesis that as polygon counts and the number and sizes of textures for interactive environments continues to grow, the amount of variety in level designs will increase as well, and the opportunity to introduce "wienies" into levels will grow. In earlier games (say, from a couple of years ago) where textures were reused more and geometry was more limited, the opportunity to introduce wienies into levels was more limited, although it could be done. Before real-time playback, of course, there were the pre-rendered scenes in Myst and The Seventh Guest. I would argue that a lot of the success of these titles was the use of "wienies" to draw the player into the game world.

In this article I pretend that Disneyland is just a set of levels within a game world. Actually, I don't need to pretend: that's exactly what it is. I maintain that Disneyland has one of the most successful level layouts ever made and that we as game designers can learn a lot by examining the design and layout of the levels in Disneyland.

(Note: most of these pictures were taken in May 1998 during a break from the 1998 Game Developer Conference in Long Beach, CA. At that time, the new Tomorrowland was just being completed, so you'll see some construction photos.)


As Bob Thomas mentions, the most famous wienie is Sleeping Beauty's Castle. In the picture, the castle appears much farther away than it actually is. This is due to the use of forced perspective on the buildings lining Main Street. The buildings actually get smaller as they get closer to the Castle. This has the benefit of making Disneyland seem much bigger than it actually is when you enter it; and making it seem much smaller than it actually is when it's time to go and your feet are killing you as you try to make it back to the parking lot.

In Zelda, Ocarina of Time, DeathMountain serves a similar purpose, drawing you into the game as you try to figure out how to get to DeathMountain with it's swirling smoke ring.



The next wienie is from Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, that as this spire was being constructed, an executive looked out of his office window and decided that this wienie looked too phallic, at least from his vantage point, and that top was removed and reshaped.

If you're having trouble designing a wienie, then you can always fall back on creating a large pointy thing. The triangle below is part of the new Innovations attraction located where Carousel of Progress (and later America Sings) used to be. It's a great example of a modern wienie at Disneyland.

Below, you'll find another tall pointy wienie. The actual attraction is below the fanciful antennae array pictured here. But this wienie serves the purpose of drawing you into Tomorrowland.

The HauntedMansion is another great wienie. For some reason this façade was built long before the actual ride was created. (Very little of the ride - in fact, almost none of it - is located in this façade. Most of it takes place a building hidden behind the house itself behind the train tracks.) This wienie was very successful in that everyone wanted to know what was inside! The buzz that was created by this wienie long before the ride opened was huge! In modern times, as the trees have grown up around the Mansion, it's not quite as striking as it used to be. In fact, we'll see lots of former wienies have been hidden by trees as the foliage in the park has matured. But it's worth noting that the HauntedMansion also has a somewhat tall pointy thing on top of it.

Audible Wienies

There was an attraction in Tomorrowland (now defunct - it barely lasted a year) called the Rocket Rods that replace the old People Mover (or People Remover, as insiders called it, since a couple of people died on it). The cool thing about the Rocket Rods is a carefully pitched high-tech motor sound that the cars make as they accelerate around the track. This draws your attention right to the cars as the whiz by overhead.

SplashMountain has a great audible wienie. The big splash from the vehicles (which is faked) as they crash down the final drop also makes a big sound. The sound is audible long before the splash becomes visible as you make your way toward Critter Country.


For unknown reasons, the art of wienie design was little used for attractions developed in the eighties and nineties. For instance, the sign I have outlined below is the only indication that this is where you enter SpaceMountain. The old entrance at least was front-and-center with SpaceMountain itself and had an appealing escalator to get you upstairs. Interestingly, this new entrance replaces a restaurant that was hidden in the dark area behind the sign. The restaurant was so invisible to park guests that it was only open on severely busy days, when crowds of people were desperate to find food. Otherwise, no one ever visited the restaurant at all.

Pirates of the Caribbean, one of the most popular attractions ever at Disneyland, waswienieless. Before the ivy-covered bridge you see below was constructed to help with crowd control during Fantasmic showings (which severely clogged the pathways in New Orleans Square near the Rivers of America), the only evidence of Pirates was the little sign I have outlined near the center of the picture. That sign is still present, but is not fairly well obscured by this new bridge. Once you are on the bridge, it is not immediately obvious how you get off the bridge and into the Pirates attraction. If you happen to be on the correct level, and you happen to notice the two dark tunnels or the small sign I outlined in the lower part of the picture, then you have a chance of getting yourself onto the ride.

To be fair, in the old days of the late sixties and seventies, this ride was so crowded, that all you had to do was look for a big line and you knew you were near something cool. Also to be fair, Fantasmic is so fantasically popular that something had to be done to get people in and out of the area. (BTW, I think Fantasmic is a combination of two words - the first is fantastic - and the second is ... Orgasmic? Just a guess.)


All of the wienies so far have pointed directly to the place the Disneyland planners want you to go. Sometimes it is nice to have something in the far distance that attracts you forward, even though it is clear you're not going to get their for some time. Below, this lovely bend in the Rivers of America (which, of course, is not a river at all), draws you toward New Orleans Square and around toward the HauntedMansion and Critter Country, even though those areas are now completely obstructed by trees. The same thing occurs going the other way - you're drawn around the river bend toward BigThunderMountain and the various paths that lead around it to Fantasyland and Main Street.

Here's another wienie that is a tall pointy thing - the cone and spires of Space Mountain. (Isn't that a great name? Space Mountain - an oxymoron.) The trouble is you can't get there from here - this picture was taken in Town Square of Main Street. If you try to go directly there and through that tiny little door, you'll end up in the back stage area. The problem that had to be solved here was to allow this thing to be visible, just so you would know that there's other cool stuff awaiting you, but to not make the path to it enticing enough to actually follow. So the door to the backstage area is particularly bland. In this case, the small door is really an anti-wienie, because it is supposed to suggest to you that you stay away.

Hiding the edges

Speaking of anti-wienies, hiding the edges of your virtual world is particularly difficult. Many of the levels in Unreal Tournament and Quake III Arena are either enclosed in aexitless building, or floating in space, where the punishment for falling off the edge is severe. The Seventh Guest took placed (on purpose) in a closed environment; and Myst took place on a series of islands. The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time has a large open field in the center of the game. I suspect hiding the edges of that area was a bit difficult to design without looking too contrived. At Disneyland, the edges of the park have the twin goal of keeping you inside without you even getting the idea of trying to get out, and also hiding the outside world of freeways and traffic. As in Zelda's open field, Disneyland's guest areas are surrounded by all kinds of barriers. Some of the Disneyland barriers do such a good job of separating you from the outside world that you don't even notice that you've bumped up against an edge of the park. This is done by making the barriers reach toward the sky, drawing your attention upward and away from whatever might be behind the barriers.

The façade for It's a Small World is particularly engaging and so filled with detail that its entertaining just to look at it. (Much more entertaining than the ride inside, I think most adults would agree.) Also, note once again the use of spires and other tall pointy things to draw your attention upward to the open feeling of the sky (even with clouds as in my pictures) which helps alleviate that closed-in feeling.

In Mickey's Toontown, the fake hills in the distance suggest that Toontown continues forever. But when you get up close to the buildings you lose sight of the mountain ranges, and hopefully forget you're up against the outer edge of the park.

This last example of edge hiding is particularly effective. There's tons of stuff to look at which entices you to find ways to explore it (but the only way back there is on rides like the Monorail, Rocket Rods, Autopia, or Submarines); it gives you a huge sense of depth; but you can't get there and probably don't really notice you are up against one of the edges of the park.

The Hub 

Our final example is "The Hub" located at the center of Disneyland. The Hub illustrates just about every principle, and error, in wienie design possible. The pictures below are laid out to suggest a 180 degree view (that's pi radians for you programmers) from the center of Disneyland after you've made your way up Main Street toward the castle. The center picture is in fact the view of the castle as you get close. Just to make things more interesting, you can see King Arthur's Carrousel through the portcullis of the castle. You might also hear the Carousel music as you approach which further draws you in.

However, the tall pointy thing called Matterhorn Mountain is a stronger wienie and attracts the vast majority of guests. Probably 70% of the first time visitors are drawn to the Matterhorn which begins them on a counter-clockwise exploration of Disneyland. A few will want to head to the right to the new Astro Orbiter. This was just completing construction during my visit, and I must confess to being worried that wienie is too close to the entrance to Tomorrowland and is likely to clog it with long lines in the summer. Still, off in the distance you can see the tall pointy triangle wienie of Innovations.

As you work your view around to the left (the first two pictures), you'll see just want can go wrong with wienie design. The first picture is the view of Adventureland from the Hub. The white arrow points to some bathrooms. Within that last ten years or so, the bathrooms were covered up by some clever design work. The Adventureland bathrooms were always a humorous anti-wienie that new employees were taught about during orientation. Adventureland is so unattractive that most of the shops don't open until an hour or two after the rest of the park. No one is going over there until they are forced to by the crowds in front of the other wienies.

For Frontierland, the idea was that you would sight down through the opening in the fort and see the Mark Twain Steamboat. This was a good idea, but as the trees grew in, the view of the Steamboat got completely obscured! Below, you can see the Steamboat (complete with tall pointy things - the smokestacks) as it was visible in days of yore.


I've attempted here to introduce the term "wienie" to the game community through examples and counter-examples from what I believe to be the most successful 3D virtual environment ever - Disneyland. Ten million plus visitors go to Disneyland every year for $35.00 a pop. While inside, they explore, interact with NPCs (aka employees), buy stuff, buy food, sometimes store their inventory in lockers, and generally wander around in exactly the ways that the Disney designers want them to, without being told to do anything. On the surface, it is a completely free environment to explore. But in fact, it is a carefully manipulated and constrained experience. And it is my thesis that the use of wienies in the design and layout of Disneyland is a key factor in the enjoyment that guests derive from the park, and that a similar approach will work for our own interactive worlds. (And don't forget - when you're stuck for an idea for a wienie, try a tall pointy thing.)


Stephen Clarke-Willson earned a Ph.D. in Software Engineering from the University of California, Irvine, in 1986. Since 1990 he has been involved in the production, design, and programming of video and computer games and other virtual worlds. He has visited Disneyland over 200 times as a guest in addition to working as a Disneyland employee on Davy Crockett's Explorer Canoes. He can be reached at s t e p h e n @ a b o v e – t h e – g a r a g e .c o m .