Who Is Behind Walt Disney's Architecture?

When Dwarfs Hold Up Buildings and Architects Play

A dwarf holds up Disney's Burbank Headquarters, architecture designed by Michael Graves
A dwarf holds up Disney's Burbank Headquarters, architecture designed by Michael Graves. Photo by George Rose / Hulton Archive / Getty Images (cropped)

The Walt Disney Company must be a fun place to work. Even the Dwarfs have smiles on their faces. "Heigh-ho, Heigh-ho, it's off to work we go!"  But who knew the little fellows would be asked to hold up the floors of Disney Headquarters in Burbank, California? Internationally known American architect Michael Graves knew, because he designed the whimsical building. Walt Disney's Seven Dwarfs and the Disney architects make entertainment architecture happen.

What is Entertainment Architecture?

Entertainment architecture is the design of commercial buildings where entertainment is their architectural theme. It's been loosely promoted and/or defined by the entertainment industry, with the Walt Disney Company leading the way.

You might suppose that entertainment architecture is the architecture of theaters and amusement parks, and structures exclusively designed by Disney architects. However, the term entertainment architecture can refer to any building or structure, regardless of its location and function, provided that it is designed to stimulate the imagination and encourage fantasy and whimsy.

Some works of entertainment architecture are playful recreations of famous monuments. Some feature enormous statues and fountains. Entertainment architecture is often considered postmodern because it uses familiar shapes and details in unexpected ways.

Examples of Entertainment Architecture:

Perhaps the most striking illustrations of entertainment architecture are amusing theme hotels.

The Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas, for example, is designed to resemble a giant pyramid filled with over-sized imitations of ancient Egyptian artifacts. In Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, the Fantasyland Hotel stimulates make-believe by decking out rooms in various themes, like the Old West and ancient Roman splendor.

You will also find many examples of entertainment architecture in Disney World and other theme parks. The Swan & Dolphin Hotels designed by Michael Graves may be considered entertainment architecture as guests discover giant birds lurking through windows into lobbies. It is a destination in and of itself. Likewise, the exaggerated pediment at Disney Headquarters in Burbank, California is not supported by Classical columns but is held up by six of the Seven Dwarfs (see image). And Dopey? He's at the top, within the pediment, unlike any other symbolic statuary you've ever seen.

Disney Architecture Needs Disney Architects:

The Walt Disney Company is not just for kids. When you visit any of the Disney theme parks or hotels, you'll find buildings designed by some of the world's leading architects, including Michael Graves.

Typically, theme park architecture is, well, thematic. Borrowing popular motifs from history and fairy tales, theme park buildings are designed to tell a story. For example, it's well known that the romantic Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany inspired Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty Castle.

But the Walt Disney Company wanted more when Michael Eisner took over. ''We're not about safe-deposit boxes.

We're in the entertainment business,'' Eisner told The New York Times. And so the company set out to find architects to develop an entertainment architecture.

At Disney, architects may:

  • strive for historic authenticity and recreate historic buildings, or
  • take a whimsical approach and exaggerate storybook images, or
  • create subtle, abstract images, or
  • all of the above.

How? Take a look at the Swan and Dolphin hotels designed by Michael Graves. The architect creates a storybook destination without stepping on the toes of any Disney character. Giant sculptures of swans, dolphins, and shells not only greet each guest, but also stay with the visitors throughout their journey. Sculptures are everywhere.  Located near EPCOT in the Walt Disney World® Resort, the hotels' architectural theme not only takes storybook-like figures, but also environmental elements as their theme.

Like the swans and dolphins, water and sunlight are everywhere. Waves are painted as murals on the hotel's facade. The hotel itself is an entertainment destination.

Architects Who Have Designed for the Walt Disney Company:

Check out the work of these top Disney architects. Architecture becomes magic, whether designing for Disney or not:

Architecture for Sale:

All architects do not submit to the blatant commercialism behind entertainment architecture. Most notably, when the Disney Company was enlisting architects for their Disney World expansion, Pritzker Laureate James Stirling (1926-1992) denied Disney's advances—the commercialization of Britain's Queen, the  changing of the guard, and other traditions soured the Scottish-born architect on using architecture for commercial promotion.

Many postmodernists, however, jumped at the challenge of designing an architecture whose purpose was to entertain. They also jumped at the chance to be part of the powerful Disney empire.

Building a Dream:

One of the best sources for in-depth information on buildings at Disney resorts world-wide is Building a Dream: The Art of Disney Architecture by Beth Dunlop.

Don't let the "Disney" name in the subtitle fool you. Building a Dream is not a travel guide, a child's storybook or a sugarcoated romanticization of the Disney empire. Instead, Dunlop's picture-packed book is a careful study of the imaginative and often-revolutionary designs found in Disney theme parks, hotels, and corporate offices.

Seeing Disney Through An Architect's Eyes:

Author Beth Dunlop has written for numerous architecture, design, and travel magazines, as well as being the architecture critic at the Miami Herald for fifteen years. In her book Building a Dream, Dunlop approaches Disney architecture with the care and respect of an anthropologist. She examines original concept drawings and historic photographs and she conducts extensive interviews with architects, "imagineers" and corporate leaders.

Even in its early days, the Walt Disney Company pioneered imaginative building styles. Dunlop traces the evolution of the first Disney Main Street, Future World and the original corporate offices. For Dunlop, however, the most exciting architecture was created when Michael Eisner took over the Company reins in 1984. Eisner commissioned prize-winning architects such as Robert A.M. Stern, Michael Graves, Robert Venturi, Arata Isozaki, Frank Gehry, and Aldo Rossi (1931-1997) to create new designs for Disney theme parks worldwide and also for the Disney planned community, Celebration, Florida.

Where's The Thunder?

Devoted Disney fans may wish Dunlop had spent more time on Cinderella's castle and Thunder Mountain. However, architecture enthusiasts will be fascinated by the inside story of how the trendy new architects Eisner hired managed to incorporate Disney motifs into complex and often abstract designs. Building a Dream is a book studded with anecdotes: We learn about the heated competition to build the Swan and Dolphin hotels and the oriental philosophies expressed in Isozaki's striking Team Disney building. We make dizzy and sometimes disorienting leaps from Disneyland to Walt Disney World to EuroDisney. An occasional technical term, such as "scuppers along the parapet" may leave some readers baffled, but overall Dunlop's tone is relaxed and conversational.

At over two hundred pages and with a focus on the Eisner years, Building a Dream includes interviews with architects, drawings and color photos along with a helpful bibliography. But, while you're admiring the work of these great architects, don't forget to go on that Haunted Mansion ride. It might be more scary than the Disney-designed homes in Celebration, Florida. Or not.

Learn More:

  • Building a Dream: The Art of Disney Architecture by Beth Dunlop, Abrams 1996, Disney 2011
    Buy on Amazon
  • The Language of Post-Modern Architecture by Charles Jencks, Rizzoli 1991
    Buy on Amazon
  • The New Paradigm in Architecture: The Language of Postmodernism by Charles Jencks, Yale University Press, 2002
    Buy on Amazaon
  • Disney Deco by Patricia Leigh Brown, The New York Times, April 8, 1990
  • The Art and Architecture of a Disney Resort, Walt Disney World Swan & Dolphin Resorts

Sources: Disney Deco by Patricia Leigh Brown, The New York Times, April 8, 1990 [accessed October 2, 2015]; Additional photo of the Team Disney Building in Burbank, California by George Rose / Hulton Archive Collection / Getty Images