Meanwhile, Disney had the bright idea to go around to the areas that lacked landscaping and set up signs with Latin names in the dirt and weeds so it would look like something special. (Today there are more than 7,000 species of plants represented in the Anaheim park.) Miraculously, these types of tricks worked, as attendance at the park exploded thereafter.
Still, back then, space was limited just as it is today. "We are landlocked," Cowley says. As a result, the team must design as efficiently as possible. Take the famed Pirates of the Caribbean attraction, for example. The kitchen for the Blue Bayou restaurant is within the boundaries of the attraction so boats can pass by diners enjoying their meals at their tables.
Inside Blue Bayou, Cowley's favorite restaurant in the park, guests hear the sounds of frogs croaking and crickets chirping. The space is dark, lit only by candles, blue light-up ice cubes in the specialty drinks and the glow of fireflies buzzing about. All of these details come together to replicate the experience of dining during a summer night on the Bayou.
Blue Bayou opened in 1967, long before Cowley joined Disney. But he tells the story of how the original designers were so intent on recreating that scene that they invited Louisiana's governor to visit and give feedback.
This detail-oriented approach continues in all Disney dining environments to this day. "You can't define perfection — you just know if it's not there," says Cowley. "The level of talent on our team and detail never ceases to amaze me."
Because of the tight back-of-the-house space, Cowley is all about developing the right kitchen footprint — not too big, not too small, but "large enough to produce the number of meals and functions it's intended to with enough room to grow." Kitchens must be efficient yet practical. They must also have enough room for proper sanitation and food safety protocols. It's no wonder Cowley prefers equipment that is not just durable but also flexible. Combi ovens, flattop grills and equipment on casters fill that need. Technology also plays an important role in the conceptual design and equipment selection for the foodservice outlets.
Disney has been a leader in the move toward building information modeling (BIM). "We've taken that to the next level," says Cowley. "It's a virtual review of the setup. You can stand in the middle of a space like you're actually standing in the facility. It's great because you can see everything as it is and see how it works. It's like creating a world before you build it."
The BIM studio — in addition to providing design clarity — is critical for development, budgeting and scheduling, Cowley says. Users can even conduct virtual flyovers to look for any mechanical equipment being exposed — again, addressing the sight lines issue. In one case, the team assembled piping outside of the unit and then brought it in because designers had already identified plumbing and electrical needs. Imagine being able to truly visualize what equipment you need ahead of time. "Looking at conflicts and exposing them up front really helps us," says Cowley.
Technology plays a role at the operational level too. While it's heavily integrated with the attraction, things like digital screens and touch screen menus (in Orlando) are used to speed up service where possible.
Back to our tour, we head to Sleeping Beauty's Castle, the hallmark symbol and epicenter of Disneyland. Outside, the sound of water trickles beneath the castle bridge into a stream peppered with lily ponds and stone-carved dwarfs, while Snow White sings her forest songs.
Cowley talks about this "engineering marvel": the castle and hub that branches outward toward Main Street, Adventureland, New Orleans Square and beyond. "Walt thought that if you're standing in the middle, as long as people can see action, it will draw them to that place," he says. "That way, when guests come in, they will instantly be dispersed. One thing Disney knows how to do is move people."
In fact, Main Street was designed such that it appears smaller than actual size; the buildings at the end of the street are taller than the ones closer to the hub. That way, people are drawn to it when they first enter the park, but the park gate looks closer at the end of the day when they're tired and want to go home.
Similar to other Disney parks, Shanghai's epicenter will also feature a castle but of even grander scale and proportions than its predecessors.
At Shanghai, there will be a stronger focus on environmental issues as a "key design driver," Cowley adds. "In some instances, we have changed the orientation of buildings based on sunlight to get more natural lighting and avoid extreme heat conditions." Solar energy and waste management, among other sustainable initiatives, are also being taken into consideration.
Though he finds it hard to decide, if forced to respond, Cowley says he's most proud of his work on Disney California Adventure and the Hong Kong project, and suspects he'll feel similarly about Shanghai. "There's nothing like developing a concept on paper, then seeing it come to life," he says. "Just to see the reaction from other people, too, to what you've done — I can't explain it. It's more like personal gratification more than anything." It's little wonder Cowley's favorite character is Mickey the Sorcerer from "Fantasia."
Later that evening, we wrap up at Carthay Circle, the fine-dining restaurant in Disney California Adventure, which went through its second renovation in 2007. Carthay Circle is the home of a reproduction of the Carthay Circle Theatre, where Walt Disney first premiered "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" in 1937. "It was designed as if it were a place Walt would want to hang out in the '30s and '40s," says Cowley.
In the private, speakeasy-like club with a hidden door and incredible collection of photographs, antiques and original Snow White merchandise, bartenders whip up perfectly prepared, classic cocktails like sidecars and martinis. Outside a red street car passes by with dancers in '30s-era outfits waving newspapers and singing about Hollywood.
Upstairs the theme continues. With a vast number of sommeliers, Carthay Circle's California location naturally focuses heavily on wine as much as on classic cocktails and five-star food. The Carthay Circle development
was also the first Disney restaurant designed using BIM.
It's the perfect place to relax tired feet and wind down from the stimulation outside. In fact, Carthay was designed just for this purpose, Cowley explains, catering to both children and adults. And not just parents, either. Disney sees its share of grown-up annual passholders who make regular trips to the park.