Last night, some friends and I ate at the "Sci-Fi Theater Restaurant" in Disney's Hollywood Studios themepark in Orlando. It's a good reminder to me of how evocative and inspiring well-designed spaces can be.
The Sci-fi Theater is actually a pretty hard place to get a reservation at, in my experience. I've been visiting Disneyworld for several days, and each day that I tried to find a reservation online or in-person, they were all snapped up already that day. So I had to book for a day in advance, and the only available time was a 5:30pm dinner seating, which is pretty early for us.
I was tempted to bail on the whole thing, but I'm really glad we stuck it out. Of all the incredible spaces I've visited this week, the Sci-fi Theater Restaurant is one that I think I'll remember year's from now.
It was a far from perfect experience. There were a lot of little annoyances associated with our dinner — having to wait for our table for 10 minutes, despite having a reservation; an overly chatty and nosy waiter; overpriced, mediocre diner food; eating dinner an hour earlier than I normally do.
But all of those minor quibbles barely register when compared to the awesome experience of sitting in a convertible car with my friends in a simulated 1950s drive-in, watching classic sci-fi movie trailers. Let me reiterate: I was sitting in a CAR eating dinner with my FRIENDS in a DRIVE-IN watching CLASSIC SCI-FI!
It's hard to describe how awesome this was.
I'm old enough to remember what it was like to actually go to a drive-in movie theater. I remember my sister and I loaded into our family station-wagon (with fake wood siding) to see some movie I don't even remember. Possibly "Close Encounters of the Third Kind"? I remember not really being that into the movie, and seeing out of the corner of my eye some other animated movie playing in the theater next to ours. I couldn't hear the audio of course, but I still tried to watch it.
We probably were eating some food that my parents smuggled in, rather than the drive-in fare that I'm sure I would have preferred. If there was soda, it was probably 7-up, since that's all that we ever seemed to have in our house.
I'm certain we drove home before the credits were rolling, since my folks hated to be in a long queue of cars to leave anywhere — church, a movie, fireworks displays, broadways shows, whatever.
So to be sitting in a simulated drive-in theater in the middle of Disneyworld in 2014 was a weirdly familiar and strange experience all at once.
The attention to detail is impressive. It's dark in there, but not too dark. The cars have lots of period detailing, from the shape of the convertibles, the fenders, lights, and license plates. The advertising and signage is all period perfect. The trailers and ads are a mix of familiar and novel, from "Plan 9 from Outer Space" to "Attack of the 50 Foot Woman."
It's that mixture of familiar and strange that is so powerful, and that Disney excels at delivering to the visitor like no other space designer. Whether it's transporting you to a space where everything is much larger than normal ("A Bugs Life"), or toys come to life ("Toy Story"), or the world is collapsed into one pavilion (EPCOT), Disney-created spaces are designed to not just to entertain but to surprise and delight you. They make you stop and say, "Woah, check that out!" Or — more appropriate to our time — you want to post a selfie of yourself there to your virtual wall.
I just spent the day at the Universal Studios themepark, which is trying to be a serious competitor to Disney here in Orlando. It's a huge and impressive facility. But there was really only one space at Universal that made me go "Woah." That was Diagon Ally in the Harry Potter section of the park. The rest of it was brightly colored and cohesively themed. But there was something not quite fully immersive there.
There must be hundreds of small details that are largely invisible to the average visitor that give it that emotive, transporting character. My friend Manu noted how the sound in the Sci-fi Theater was so muted and calm, compared to the cacophony of sounds you hear in the rest of the themepark. That's clearly designed and intentional.
It reminds me that my experience of a place is colored by every other place I've ever been and the emotions and associations that those spaces evoke. That's true whether its a park, a church, a diner, or a pool. It's no small feat to create a space that intentionally makes lots of people feel something special and unique. It's like … magic.