Michael A. von Hausen is the author of a new book called Small is Big: Making the Next Great Small to Mid-Size Downtowns published by Vancouver Island University Press. Small Is Big looks to the future and sees enormous potential in small downtowns. To help realize that potential, it provides the tools to both develop and implement an action plan for change.

Below, we're sharing an excerpt from Chapter 3 of this book which discusses four different types of small downtowns based on Michael's research: bypass, historic, tourist, and fabricated downtowns. This segment focuses on what we can learn from tourist downtowns.

Disney is the master of the Hollywood storefront, complete with period actors and the best consumer landscape possible. These landscapes appear almost real, with the safe and cleanliness part guaranteed. Yet we know intuitively when we are being tricked—most of the time. With the advent of media that is super real, that distinction is sometimes blurred.

Disney's Main Street USA (Source: Theme Park Tourist)

Disney's Main Street USA (Source: Theme Park Tourist)

Hollywood storefronts and the creation of artificial Main Streets strike a similar chord. I had my first Disney World experience in 1989. Entering the landscape of consumption is an interesting experience at Disney World, Orlando. Your first encounter is a huge parking lot of dinosaur scale—section on section of unremarkable pavement. Then you are whisked to the main park gates in golf carts to the Disney experience— an imagined landscape, not authentic, but designed and constructed with every detail in mind. Disney landscapes are allegedly the safest on earth for family fun and epitomize the North American dream—clean, big, consumptive, and exciting.

On my first visit I was fortunate to take a backstage tour and see all the intricacies of Disney planning and design, from surveillance to materials and applications. Then in 2002, with my young family, I had the more complete and immersive Disney experience. Coming upon Main Street USA did not catch me by surprise. The external experience was almost pleasant—like Pleasantville of movie fame. Everything was designed to specification, including doorways, windows, front porches, in the Hollywood storefront tradition. Storefront details were well conceived and executed, from the planter boxes to the inviting casual seating framing the entranceways.

What struck me was that this Main Street was a shopping mall in disguise. On further inspection, my analytic mind began to probe further. My subconscious was also kicking in. It was as if I had been put into a movie set—everything was perfect but totally set up. In one sense, the street set was nicely done, but in another sense I felt manipulated. It was so easy to buy stuff that would be used once or twice and be relegated to storage for twenty years, until the existing children grew up and had children of their own.

What can we learn from this experience and apply to our own small downtowns? The lessons at Disney World are interesting, and we can take away a number of strategies from this artificial tourist environment:

  • Pedestrian centric. The Main Street is scaled right for pedestrians first—clearly defined by two-storey buildings, relatively narrow streets, and plenty of façade and street detailing for comfort.
  • Safe and accessible. The site is well lit, accessible, and security personnel are close by.
  • Advanced programming. The Disney experiences are highly programmed throughout the day, from entertainers in central squares in the morning to Main Street parades in the afternoon and finally fireworks at night.
  • Food central. Ice cream, cool drinks, and abundant cafes attract you to add that extra ten pounds to the waistline, offering comfort food at its best.
  • Public restrooms. Accessible facilities are always available within walking distance and are well signed.
  • Information and directions. Maps, signs, and fresh-faced college students are on hand to eagerly direct you to the next exhibit or food stand.
  • Abundant “sticky places.” These are places where you stay longer and spend more. Consider the Main Street saloon or climbing corner—very different and energetic in design details, but memorable details, with many things to observe and interact with. When you spend more time, you spend more money.
  • Doors open. All the places and spaces are welcoming. Products are visible and touchable. The doors are open to attract more curiosity and increase spending.
  • Memorable experiences for all ages. Fabricated but memorable—that was my conclusion. Disney World offers something for everyone, not only small children who want to see Mickey Mouse and Cinderella.
The town of Leavenworth, Washington, transformed itself by following a Bavarian theme and attracted significant tourism. 

The town of Leavenworth, Washington, transformed itself by following a Bavarian theme and attracted significant tourism. 

The Disney experience is reflected in the remake of Leavenworth, Washington. The town of 1,700 residents was on its way to permanent decline when it found its tourist niche as a destination within driving distance of Seattle, Washington. The elements of the Disney experience are evident in Leavenworth (see photos). Design and construction are again top-notch and the result succeeds as a tourist destination.

Leavenworth’s make-believe Bavarian theme is one of the top tourist attractions in Washington State, attracting 2.5 million visitors a year. The theme is executed well and is planned in a way that fits its mountain context. From the architecture and streetscape detailing to the entertainment, the experience is fascinating, welcoming, and clearly signed, with angled free parking on the wide street right-of-way to maximize convenience for visitors.

We need to keep the Disney and Leavenworth experiences in perspective as we develop our next downtown program and design palette. Personally, I valued these experiences but would not return to these places again and again. I view these “downtowns” more as an entertainment novelty than as a preferred destination.

At the same time, in our downtowns we have to realize that we cannot survive on only local buyers—or can we? One alternative is to define your downtown and those aspects that will make visitors and local residents stay longer and spend more. Like Whistler, B.C., or Banff, Alberta, there comes a point where locals must feel overwhelmed by the tourists in their town. One needs to find a balance between economic prosperity and a place called home—your downtown. Otherwise, your downtown becomes a tourist downtown.

About the Author

Michael von Hauson is one of the leading urban designers and planners in Canada. He has completed more than ten downtown plans and has received numerous awards for this work in association with his clients and other consultants as president of MVH Urban Planning & Design Inc. Michael is also an adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University and Vancouver Island University. He is a fellow of the Canadian Institute of Planners and a graduate of Harvard University with a master’s in urban design and specialty in real estate development economics. For more about Michael, visit mvhinc.com.