Sunday, August 16, 2015

Wayfinding in Themed Design: The “Weenie”

Author’s note: this is the first in a series of articles about how designers use the concept of wayfinding in theme park design. Miller (1992) defines wayfinding as “a goal-directed process of determining routes through an unfamiliar environment” (p. 1), and that is the definition I will use from here on out. It is worth noting, as Lynch (1960) describes, that “it…seems unlikely that there is any mystic ‘instinct’ of wayfinding. Rather there is a consistent use and organization of definite sensory cues from the external environment” (p. 3). As such, the design of the built environment has enormous potential in facilitating this process. Design-assisted spatial orientation has the ability to decrease congestion, direct crowd flow, and promote guest satisfaction within parks, as I will describe further in these articles.

What is a “Weenie”?
The “weenie” is an architectural concept named such by Disney Imagineering in describing “visual magnets” that draw guests from one area to another (Sklar, 2013). In Disney parks, these are seen everywhere and on every scale. From the turnstiles of the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida, guests are led throughout the park by the draw of weenies: first drawn into the center hub by Cinderella’s Castle; then from the hub to each of the “lands” by gateways that indicate the theme of the land that follows; then within each land to the major attractions by yet another weenie, like Space Mountain’s cone and spires in Tomorrowland or the distant peaks of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad in Frontierland (see Fig. 1). Through these “magnets”, Disney is able to draw guests to the far reaches of its parks and create avenues of predictable foot traffic.

Figure 1: Weenies at three scales, top to bottom; Cinderella's Castle (Queen, 2010), the gateway to Tomorrowland 
(, n.d.), Big Thunder Mountain Railroad (Weiss, 2011).

Weenies and Legibility
We can find insight on Disney Imagineering’s weenies in some classic environmental psychology theory on legibility in urban form. In Kevin Lynch’s influential The Image of the City (1960), legibility is defined as “the ease with which [a city’s] parts can be recognized and can be organized into a coherent pattern” (p. 2-3). This pattern produces the “image” of a city’s urban form. Lynch breaks this image into five fundamental components, which he lists as paths, edges, districts, nodes, and landmarks (p. 47-48). Many studies following the publishing of Lynch’s book have confirmed the validity of these elements as the building blocks of urban form. In the context of themed spaces, Disney’s weenies closely parallel landmarks, and as such we can find inspiration from the substantial literature that stem from Lynch’s classification.

So understanding weenies as landmarks of the built form of the themed space, how do they contribute to legibility? Lynch describes landmarks as external objects used as point references; this means that their influence on the urban form is based on their physical presence differing from that of their surroundings. He says, “Since the use of landmarks involves the singling out of one element from a host of possibilities, the key physical characteristic of this class is singularity, some aspect that is unique or memorable in the context” (p. 78). This singularity is maximized through clear form, contrast with surroundings, and prominent location, with the second being the most effective of the three (p. 79). Already we can see these characteristics aligning with those of effective weenies. An icon like Cinderella’s Castle is an obvious example, its vertical spires rising high above the gardened hub below; but the effectiveness of smaller weenies like the Magic Kingdom’s themed gateways also becomes clear, their theming providing a stark contrast to that of the hub and castle preceding them. Above all, Lynch’s theory suggests that in order for a weenie to be fully effective in forming the “image” of a themed space, it must serve as an icon, characterizing a space while also standing out within it.

Weenies and Navigability
Memory-based navigation
There is a clear link between weenies’ abilities to make a space legible and their power in making a space navigable. Lynch’s explains that landmarks are useful as point references for greater spatial awareness. Similarly, the aforementioned weenies of the Magic Kingdom cue guests into their location within the park as well as each themed space; Cinderella’s Castle is widely recognized as the center of the park, while Space Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad act as point references to clue guests to their location within Tomorrowland and Frontierland, respectively. While these weenies have implicit drawing power, as will be described under the next heading, this sort of reference is memory-based and requires exposure to the weenie and its surroundings.

Based on this memory-based approach, we should next ask what makes a weenie memorable? For that we turn to the writings of Donald Appleyard, who sought to build on Lynch’s concept of landmarks by discerning seven characteristics of buildings that lead them to be easily remembered. Evans, Smith, and Pezdek (1982) conducted an analysis of Appleyard’s characteristics, finding five of the seven them to be stable and well generalizable. These were the presence of kinetic movement around the building, sharp singular contours, large relative size, complex shape, and high use (p. 242). It is worth noting that these five characteristics were correlated with recall of building descriptions and names; Evans, Smith, and Pezdek also tested for building characteristics correlating with location recall and found different results. Among their respondents, building location recall was correlated significantly with brightness of color, the spatial prominence of the building, and the use of high quality materials (p. 242-3).

These eight characteristics should be considered in weenie design in addition to Lynch’s three characteristics of effective landmarks. Looking at Disney’s best weenies, we see that many of these characteristics are already part of the Imagineers’ design vocabulary. Returning to Lynch’s focus on singularity as the umbrella concept of effective landmarks, it would seem that these design characteristics likewise fit beneath. Thus, having covered legibility and memory-based navigability, I will now seek to assess how weenies can contribute to implicit navigability of a themed space, paying particular attention to this concept of singularity.

Implicit navigation
If the sensory experience of a weenie is unique enough to create an iconography that enters the public consciousness, visitors may have preexisting knowledge of what to expect from the weenie; more often, however, the attraction of the weenie is implicit and relies on a sense of mystery to pull visitors in. As such, weenies ought to be designed to reveal just enough information to captivate guests while still leaving key questions unanswered. These questions are what will pull the guest through the themed space to the weenie itself, where whatever ride or attraction it represents waits.

It is the designer’s responsibility to understand how this pull can be harnessed to help guests navigate a space and to build such that weenies organize that space to be easily navigable. Preserving this sense of mystery is thus not only an element of the architectural design of the weenie itself but also the layout and planning of the context around it. The powerful attracting force enacted by the weenie upon the guest is key in creating a coherent flow of traffic in a themed space. As such, the surrounding spaces should be designed to accommodate directional foot traffic towards and away the weenie. Supporting attractions should work in conjunction with this flow of traffic, not in contention with it. Spaces of refuge and rest should similarly be planned to accommodate guests in foot traffic and not interfere with the traffic itself. 

The layout and design of the weenie’s surroundings can also enhance the sense of mystery pulling guests along. While visual prospects of the weenie should be clear from all major entrances to a themed space, occasional obstructions of the view along the thoroughfares can be an effective tool in slowly revealing new information about the weenie’s story. Such obstructions allow the guest to view the weenie at distinctly different scales (see Fig. 2). In the example of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, he may first just view the tall red peaks from afar, but upon passing the Liberty Belle Riverboat he is suddenly presented with a view of the mine trains running along the tracks from across the water. Drawing closer, he is finally presented with the ride entrance and the theming elements of the queue and station. This method of slowly revealing information is more effective when broken into noticeable chunks; a constant approach of the ride in full view would lack the surprise of each new reveal. 

Figure 2: The reveal of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, left to right; notice first the appearance of the red peaks (, n.d.), then the addition of a kinetic element as the roller coaster track becomes visible (, n.d.), and finally attraction entrance with queue and station elements (Weiss, 2011).

I now want to return to Lynch’s singularity as a potential umbrella concept for weenie design. These considerations of the need for mystery in implicitly drawing guests towards the weenie suggest a hierarchy: when a guest enters a themed space she is already bombarded with sensory information; the goal of the weenie designer is to create an impression so powerful that its draw overwhelms that of smaller attractions along the guest’s path towards it. As such, the weenie must be the most powerful element of a themed space, its mystery more powerful than that of the attractions with which it shares that space. I believe that this is in itself a description of singularity: that just as a landmark should contrast from its surroundings, a weenie’s draw ought to contrast with the draw of its surroundings. Thus, I posit that Lynch’s theory of singularity is applicable to both landmarks and weenies, and that this similarity further solidifies the validity of the comparison between the two.

Figure 3: Characteristics of good weenie design, depicted as falling under the umbrella concept of singularity described by Lynch.

Case Study: The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror

The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror at Disney’s Hollywood Studios illustrates good weenie design in spectacular fashion. Visible high above Sunset Boulevard, the ride’s effectiveness as a weenie is much more than simply due to its physical prominence. Doors up the main façade reveal the ride in motion, and shouts and screams from the riders provide an auditory element to the weenie’s appeal. It is easy to imagine standing on Sunset Boulevard below, looking up at the imposing structure of the tower and watching riders on board fall away into darkness. Where are they going? What is the story that got them there? These questions play a role in drawing the guest to the ride’s entrance, at which point the queue and scenery designers take over the storytelling and pull the guest onto the ride itself.

Sunset Boulevard presents a typical high-traffic thoroughfare literally through its theming as a street and the secondary spaces as the sidewalk and streetside buildings (see Fig. 4). In fact it is not uncommon to see guests even implicitly follow basic rules of road traffic, staying on the right side of the “road” in both directions during periods of heavy crowds. These theming choices illustrate how design can implicitly influence behavior: the “road” acts as the fastest route for guests to take to the weenie ahead, while the sidewalks provide a more leisurely option of travel where guests can spend more time viewing their surroundings. The elevation difference provided by the curbed sidewalk, planters holding tall palms and theming elements on the sidewalk, and the shops and eateries lining the far sides of the sidewalk further suggest this hierarchy of traffic speeds to guests.

 I will not evaluate the Tower of Terror along the checklist of characteristics listed above, but it clearly is highly successful if we use them as metrics of an effective weenie. The tower rises high above its surroundings, and the pink, highly ornamented structure distinguishes itself from all theming below. Heavy pedestrian flow at its base and high use as a popular attraction is complimented by the ride’s kinetic presentation along the façade. These elements of the weenie’s design create a distinct contrast between it and its environment, and it is no stretch to say the structure holds high singularity in the themed space.

Above all, the Tower of Terror’s effectiveness is clearest not analyzed but felt as a guest in the park.  Such is the power of good design; while we can piece apart shared characteristics of the most successful weenies, it is only through a coherent story and a commitment to detail and quality that the guest truly feels its power.

Figure 4: Sunset Boulevard, with the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror in the background. Note the structure's physical prominence and distinction from the themed space below. Also note the street theming of the thoroughfare and the resulting direction of guest foot traffic (Jedi94, 2014).



Evans, G., Smith, C., and Pezdek, K. (1982). Cognitive maps and urban form. Journal of the American Planning Association, 48(2), 232-244.

Jedi94 (Photographer). (2014). Sunset Boulevard section at Disney's Hollywood Studios [Photograph]. Retrieved from File:Sunset_Boulevard_at_Disney%27s_Hollywood_Studios.jpg

Lynch, K. (1960). The Image of the city. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. (Photographer). (n.d.). [Untitled photograph of Tom Sawyer Island with Big Thunder Mountain Railroad in background]. Retrieved from

Miller, H. J. (1992). Human wayfinding, environment-behavior relationships, and artificial intelligence. Journal of planning literature, 7(2), 139-150.

Queen, C. (Photographer). (2010). [Untitled photograph of Main Street and Cinderella’s Castle]. Retrieved from

Sklar, M. (2013). Dream it! Do it!: My half-century creating Disney’s Magic Kingdoms. New York: Disney Editions. (Photographer). (n.d.). [Untitled photograph of Tomorrowland gateway]. Retreived from (Photographer). (n.d.). [Untitled photograph of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad from across the water]. Retrieved from rumors/2014/01/01/next-gen-memory-maker-rumors-photos-coming-to-pirates-of-the-caribbean-big-thunder-mountain-railroad-and-the-haunted-mansion#prettyPhoto[gallery3]/0/

Weiss, W. (Photographer). (2011). Big Thunder Mountain Railroad in Frontierland (Photograph). Retrieved from

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