Forced Perspective

Have you ever noticed how Disneyland seems both giant and kind of small at the same time? You can thank Walt Disney Imagineering for this visual feat, particularly their methodical use of a technique called “Forced Perspective”. With Forced Perspective, buildings and objects look taller than they actually are, and Imagineers can manipulate perceived distance between objects as well.

To achieve this effect, Imagineers design Disney buildings to a 1- 5/8 – 1/2 scale. The first floor of a Disney building is to scale, but the second floor of the building façade is only 5/8 the size of the first floor. And if there is a third floor, it stands at 1/2 the size of the base floor. When guests standing on the ground look up, the building looks like it stands three stories tall, when in fact it shrinks with each floor.

The best place to see blatant use of Forced Perspective in Disneyland is on Main Street USA. Look at this picture closely:

Notice how the shop with the blue awning appears to stand three stories tall? Look closer, and you’ll see that the second floor is a little too short for a grown person to stand in. And the third floor is even smaller than the second floor, making it the right size for Tinker Bell, but a little cramped for anyone else!

Disneyland’s Forced Perspective also works with stand-alone buildings. The most famous structure in the park, the Sleeping Beauty Castle, uses this visual trick to seem much larger than it actually is:

If you look closely, you’ll see that with each level, the windows get slightly smaller, to the same effect as the buildings on Main Street USA. With this trick, the 77-foot castle seems way taller than in reality, dominating the skyline and proudly guarding the entrance to Fantasyland.

In addition to enlarging the buildings within the park, Imagineers play another visual trick on park guests; they manipulate the perceived distance between different lands. This trick is especially useful in the design of Main Street USA. Guests entering the park see the castle looming in the distance, at the end of the extensive street, but the street seems shorter and more manageable when guests are leaving the park in the opposite direction. Look closely at this building on Main Street USA’s main block:

The right side of the building (the side closer to the gate) comes down at a wider angle than the left side. So guests looking at the building from its right will see it as larger and further away than guests looking at the building from its left. When the whole street has this effect, its perceived size drastically changes. Here is a view of Main Street USA from the garden in front of the gate:

See how large it looks? The castle seems far off in the distance, and the street seems large and inundated with shops to explore. Guests arriving in the park immediately feel excitement about everything there is to explore. On the other hand, tired guests leaving the park at the end of the day don’t see a long, busy street. Forced Perspective makes Main Street USA seem like a short, reasonable walk to exit the park:

Although Main Street USA has the clearest examples of Forced Perspective in use, every land in the park uses this visual trick to make the buildings seem larger than they actually are. Next time you’re in Disneyland, take a minute to look closely at the different Forced Perspective tricks in the park; you’ll have a new appreciation for the genius of Imagineering!

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