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Main Street USA, Walt Disney World, Magic Kingdom, Orlando, Florida, USA

Walter Elias Disney’s first Main Street was Kansas Avenue in Marceline, Missouri. His father bought a farm near there in 1906, but before long he had to put his property up for auction, and with the proceeds he bought a paper route in Kansas City. At the age of nine Walt was climbing out of bed every morning at three-thirty to go to work. “In the winters there’d be as much as three feet of snow,” he recalled toward the end of his life. “I was a little guy and I’d be up to my nose in snow. I still have nightmares about it. What I really liked on those cold mornings was getting to the apartment buildings. I’d drop off the papers and then lie down in the warm apartment corridor and snooze a little and try to get warm.” Summers were more fun. Disney’s father didn’t believe in toys for children, but “on nice mornings I used to come to houses with those big old porches and the kids would have left some of their toys out. I would find them and play with them there on the porch at four in the morning when it was just barely getting light. Then I’d have to tear back to the route again.”

When Disney came to build his world, he included the occasional show of fangs but he chose to make his small town a place of absolute safety, to make permanent the feel of those fleeting moments on the morning porches. You get to Fantasyland, Tomorrowland, and all the other lands by walking past a couple of blocks of turn-of-the-century storefronts. The models for them can be found in any small Midwestern city, but they have been embellished. They seethe with elaborate wrought-iron decoration; half the windows are topped with bright awnings; Queen Anne exuberance is brought to its final ebullient absurdity. But the overall effect is not absurd. It is amusing and comforting—amusing because it is so cannily done, comforting because the set designers whom Disney had build his street employed the old stage trick of forced perspective. On the street floor the buildings are seven-eighths full size, the second stories are five-eighths, the third one-half. The result is that your eye tells you are looking at full-size buildings, but you feel about them as you do about every revisited place of your youth: it is all so much smaller.

Disneyland is the extension of the powerful personality of one man. It is not, like many perfectly good modern theme parks, a group consensus on what might make a nice place. It is a nice place, of course—so much so that the standard criticism claims it is altogether too sanitized, too cut off from real experience. This doesn’t bother me much; the world provides plenty of real experience whether you want it or not, and I don’t mind somebody trying to trick me into thinking otherwise for a day or two. But I was interested to see whether Disney’s American past was simply the pap some historians have called it.

I believe that street is a triumph of historical imagination. It is, of course, not true to the physical reality of the past that Disney knew: Kansas Avenue in Marceline was rutted, raw, naked of trees. But however crude and unformed those streets look to us today, they revealed something else to the people who lived along them. The architectural styles on which Disney artfully elaborated were exuberant enough in their original form to suggest the era’s very real confidence in human and material progress. The fact that it is only part of the story does not make it a lie. Sinclair Lewis found his Main Street foul with hypocrisy, cant, and blighted aspirations. He wasn’t wrong. But neither was Walt Disney.

Once you enter the "Happiest Place On Earth," you'll be transported back to the early 1900's as you stroll along Main Street U.S.A. You'll find shops; restaurants and vehicles that transport you to yesteryear. Be sure and check out the names of the "proprietors" in some of the Main Street windows - these are some of the folks who helped Walt realize his dream of building Disneyland.

In Old English and Old Scots, "Town" (or "toun", "ton", etc.) originally meant a fortified municipality, whereas a borough was not fortified. But that distinction did not last long, and "Edina Burgh" or "Edinburgh" - modernly called a "city" - was a fortified "town" from its founding.

In modern American English, a town is usually a municipal corporation that is smaller than a city but larger than a village. In some cases, "town" is an alternate name for "city" or "village" (especially a larger village). Sometimes, the word "town" is short for "township." Some US states designate towns and townships as political subdivisions of Counties. In general, towns can be differentiated from townships, villages, or hamlets on the basis of their economic character, in that most of a town's population will tend to derive their living from manufacturing industry, commerce, and public service rather than primary industry such as agriculture or related activities.

A place's population size is not a reliable determinant of urban character. In many areas of the world, as in India at least until recent times, a large village might contain several times as many people as a small town. In the United Kingdom, there are historical cities that are far smaller than the larger towns.

The modern phenomenon of extensive suburban growth, satellite urban development, and migration of city-dwellers to villages have further complicated the definition of towns, creating communities urban in their economic and cultural characteristics but lacking other characteristics of urban localities. Some forms of non-rural settlement, such as temporary mining locations, may be clearly non-rural, but have at best a questionable claim to be called a town.

Towns and cities have a long history, although opinions vary on whether any particular ancient settlement can be considered to be a city. A city formed as central places of trade for the benefit of the members living in close proximity to others facilitates interaction of all kinds. These interactions generate both positive and negative externalities between other's actions. Benefits include reduced transport costs, exchange of ideas, sharing of natural resources, large local markets, and later in their development, amenities such as running water and sewage disposal. Possible costs would include higher rate of crime, higher mortality rates, higher cost of living, worse pollution, traffic and high commuting times. Cities will grow when the benefits of proximity between people and firms are higher than the cost. The first true towns are sometimes considered to be large settlements where the inhabitants were no longer simply farmers of the surrounding area, but began to take on specialized occupations, and where trade, food storage and power was centralized.

It is estimated that ancient Rome had a population of about a million people by the end of the first century BC, after growing continually during the 3rd, 2nd, and 1st centuries BCE. And it is generally considered the largest city before 19th century London. Alexandria's population was also close to Rome's population at around the same time, the historian Rostovtzeff estimates a total population close to a million based on a census dated from 32 CE that counted 180,000 adult male citizens in Alexandria. Similar administrative, commercial, industrial and ceremonial centres emerged in other areas, most notably Baghdad, which to some urban historians, later became the first city to exceed a population of one million by the 8th century instead of Rome.

During the European Middle Ages, a town was as much a political entity as a collection of houses. City residence brought freedom from customary rural obligations to lord and community: Stadtluft macht frei ("City air makes you free") was a saying in Germany. In Continental Europe cities with a legislature of their own were not unheard of, the laws for towns as a rule other than for the countryside, the lord of a town often being another than for surrounding land. In the Holy Roman Empire some cities had no other lord than the emperor. In Italy, Medieval communes had quite a statelike power.

In exceptional cases like Venice, Genoa or Lubeck, cities themselves became powerful states, sometimes taking surrounding areas under their control or establishing extensive maritime empires. Similar phenomena existed elsewhere, as in the case of Sakai, which enjoyed a considerable autonomy in late medieval Japan.

The difference between towns and cities is differently understood in different parts of the world. Indeed, languages other than English often use a single word for both concepts (French ville, German Stadt, etc.). Even within the English-speaking world there is no one standard definition of a city: the term may be used either for a town possessing city status; for an urban locality exceeding an arbitrary population size; for a town dominating other towns with particular regional economic or administrative significance. Although city can refer to an agglomeration including suburban and satellite areas, the term is not usually applied to a conurbation (cluster) of distinct urban places, nor for a wider metropolitan area including more than one city, each acting as a focus for parts of the area. And the word "town" (also "downtown") may mean the center of the city.

Richard F. Snow. Disney: Coast to Coast. American Heritage. February/March 1987; Volume 38, Issue 2.


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