Disney Emerges as an Architectural Patron Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

By commissioning world-renowned architects to design high-profile buildings around the world, the Walt Disney Company established an unprecedented system of corporate patronage.

Summary of Event

At a spring, 1990, press conference heralding the opening of the Swan Hotel at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, Walt Disney Company chairman and chief executive officer Michael Eisner announced that the world was entering the “Disney Decade.” Typical corporate hyperbole, perhaps, but Eisner’s declaration may have been prophetic. The architectural world, at least, was entering a new era, one in which a single corporation would champion contemporary architects with unprecedented vigor. Walt Disney Company [kw]Disney Emerges as an Architectural Patron (1990’s) [kw]Architectural Patron, Disney Emerges as an (1990’s) [kw]Patron, Disney Emerges as an Architectural (1990’s) Architecture;Walt Disney Company Walt Disney Company [g]North America;1990’s: Disney Emerges as an Architectural Patron[07530] [g]United States;1990’s: Disney Emerges as an Architectural Patron[07530] [g]France;1990’s: Disney Emerges as an Architectural Patron[07530] [c]Architecture;1990’s: Disney Emerges as an Architectural Patron[07530] Eisner, Michael Graves, Michael Stern, Robert A. M. Isozaki, Arata Gehry, Frank Predock, Antoine Grumbach, Antoine

From 1990 through 1992, eighteen buildings by nine respected, world-renowned architects were constructed at three different Disney locations, and dozens more were in the planning stages. From hotels to shopping malls to corporate headquarters, these buildings signaled that the Disney organization had made the leap from architectural enthusiast to patron.

Disney’s patronage began in 1984, when Eisner became chairman and chief executive officer after an eight-year stint as president of Paramount Pictures. Eisner had always been interested in architecture, and assuming the helm at Disney gave him corporate backing for his interest. In 1985, he established the Disney Development Company, a subsidiary designed to oversee all land development and planning outside the corporation’s theme-park gates. Headed by president Peter Rummell, Rummell, Peter who came to Disney with a background in real estate and finance, and senior vice president Wing Chao, Chao, Wing a Disney veteran with a degree in architecture from Harvard, the Disney Development Company set out to make Eisner’s architectural dreams a reality.

Eisner was particularly fascinated by corporate architecture and the different images it could project. Insisting that Disney was in the entertainment business above all else, he began studying architects in order to decide which ones he could trust with his corporate message. After visiting buildings, reading books, and attending lectures, he knew what he wanted. In the late 1980’s, he commissioned Michael Graves to design the Team Disney headquarters building on Disney’s Burbank, California, lot and the Swan and Dolphin hotels at Walt Disney World in Orlando.

Graves was an obvious first choice. Known for colorful, classically inspired buildings, Graves was considered a big-name, serious architect, but one who could never be accused of being too serious. At the time, he was best known for the Humana Corporation Headquarters Building in Louisville, Kentucky (1983) and the Portland Civic Center Building in Portland, Oregon (1983). By the late 1980’s, he was one of the country’s best-known architects.

When the Team Disney building was completed, it generated considerable controversy in the architectural press. How, many critics asked, could anyone take seriously a building decorated with the Seven Dwarfs? Other critics agreed with Graves that the name “Disney” means fun, and the nineteen-foot-tall dwarfs were certainly fun.

Eisner also agreed. Shortly after seeing the design for the Team Disney building, he commissioned Graves to design two hotels at Walt Disney World. The Swan and Dolphin hotels opened in early 1990, with such features as two twenty-eight-ton turquoise swans in front of the Swan Hotel and winsome dolphins decorating every conceivable surface of the Dolphin Hotel. Distinctly nontraditional buildings, they also received significant publicity. Again, Eisner was pleased. The hotels projected his message: “We’re not about safe-deposit boxes. We’re in the entertainment business.”

Architect Frank Gehry.

(MIKE CASSESE/Reuters/Landov)

As Disney World expanded, so did Eisner’s roster of big-name architects. Amusement parks Disney owned twenty-eight thousand acres at Disney World, and some of the world’s best-known architects were given the task of turning that acreage into entertainment in three dimensions. Robert A. M. Stern, a New Yorker best known for designing opulent private residences on Long Island, designed the Yacht Club and the Beach Club, twin resorts wrapped around a human-made lagoon. Stern was another obvious choice; his architectural style, both pre-Disney and for Disney, closely resembled the work of the company’s in-house design group, Walt Disney Imagineering. Walt Disney Imagineering The Imagineers, who were responsible for almost every Disney building and attraction until the Eisner era, were experts at themed architecture such as that found on Main Street U.S.A. and New Orleans Square at Disneyland. Stern’s Disney World hotels followed the Imagineering lead: They were nostalgic, storybook versions of the great East Coast resorts of the early twentieth century. Eisner was satisfied; he continued giving Stern commissions, and, in 1991, Stern became a member of the Disney board of directors.

The most unusual job at Walt Disney World went to Arata Isozaki, one of Japan’s best-loved architects, who was known in the United States for having designed the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (1986). Eisner’s mandate to Isozaki was to design a building that would express the notion of time, one of Eisner’s self-acknowledged obsessions. Isozaki responded with a combination of pure geometric forms, the centerpiece of which was a 120-foot tilted cone, open to the sky, with a sundial perched on its rim. An ambitious work, the Team Disney Orlando building was definitely not cast in the Imagineering mold, yet it was nevertheless a themed building.

Two years after Eisner announced his “Disney Decade,” the Euro Disney Resort opened at Marne-la-Vallée, twenty miles east of Paris. Euro Disneyland The planning of Euro Disney’s theme parks and hotels began in 1988, when a group of architects, including Eisner favorites Graves and Stern, redesigned the park’s master plan. When the $4.4 billion, 4,800-acre Euro Disney opened in the spring of 1992, six hotels, an entertainment center, a campground, and a theme park were in place.

The individual hotels at Euro Disney were themselves part of a larger theme: Each represented a region of the United States. Stern designed the Hotel Newport Bay Club and the Hotel Cheyenne; Antoine Predock of Albuquerque, New Mexico, known for his use of bold “desert colors” on residential and cultural buildings, was responsible for the Hotel Santa Fe; Hotel New York was designed by Michael Graves; and the lone European, Antoine Grumbach of Paris, built the Sequoia Lodge. By far the most innovative aspect of Euro Disney, and the only one not overtly themed, was Festival Disney, Festival Disney a collection of restaurants, shops, and theaters designed by Los Angeles architect Frank Gehry, who was known for his use of industrial materials on corporate and cultural buildings. Festival Disney was an amalgamation of jagged building forms with a central, angled midway. Stainless-steel pylons reached into the sky, with a canopy of tiny white lights topping the pylons.

In just two short years, Eisner’s “Disney Decade” was well under way. Some of the world’s most famous architects had designed Disney buildings, and through these buildings, the Walt Disney Company gained a new, more adventurous corporate image.


Patronage has been a part of architecture since the profession began. From Egyptian pyramids to Italian Renaissance palazzos to huge steel-and-glass towers on Madison Avenue, powerful leaders have cultivated illustrious architects whose talents have been used to express their patrons’ position and influence. In that respect, Michael Eisner and the Walt Disney Company are part of an age-old tradition. There are differences, however, between the Disney style of patronage and the traditional practice. Unlike conventional patrons, Eisner did not choose and cultivate a single architect. Instead, he enlisted the services of more than a dozen of the best-known contemporary architects, repeatedly commissioning them to design some of the world’s most high-profile buildings. Walt Disney World Architecture;Walt Disney Company

The outcomes of Disney’s architectural patronage also have been different from those of traditional patronage. Rather than designing buildings intended to glorify the patron, the architects working for Disney designed buildings for the average citizen. First in Florida and then in France, anyone who entered the gates of the Magic Kingdom could experience and appreciate architecture by some of the world’s best-known architects. Thanks to Eisner’s efforts, high-art architecture became accessible to the masses.

Not everyone was pleased with this development. From the time Graves’s Team Disney building in Burbank was announced, Eisner and his grand scheme for Disney architecture became a favorite controversy among architects and the architectural press—and, in time, the general press. With each new building, the controversy grew; by the time Euro Disney opened, French critics were calling the theme park a “cultural Chernobyl.”

Some architects refused to join the new Disney populism. British architect James Stirling, Stirling, James the 1981 winner of the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize, turned down an offer from Eisner. “We’re not very sympathetic to the theme idea,” he explained. “To me, it seems demeaning and trivial and somehow not profound or important.” Even Frank Gehry, who in fact took Eisner up on his offer and designed Festival Disney at Euro Disney, later had second thoughts about the idea of mixing architecture and entertainment. He acknowledged that “it’s precarious to be co-opted by Mickey Mouse.”

In reality, no architect had to be co-opted by Disney; all had the option of turning down Eisner’s offers, although the offers usually were so lucrative that it was difficult to refuse. In the worldwide economic downturn of the late 1980’s and the early 1990’s, the institutional and cultural commissions that traditionally have been the path to architectural fame and success began to disappear. Even the best-known architects had to compete more fiercely for the few plum projects, and Eisner’s enthusiasm was most welcome. Arata Isozaki admitted that he was questioned quite strongly when he accepted Disney commissions, yet he accepted the challenge, and his Team Disney headquarters is one of the most interesting of the Disney buildings.

Rather than overtly trying to co-opt anyone, in certain ways Eisner was trying to give the public what it wanted. In the 1980’s, architecture began to become simultaneously more commercial and more accessible to the general public; more general-interest books on the subject were published than ever before, and major museums mounted more architecture and design shows than they ever had. Architects in unprecedented numbers began designing everyday objects such as furniture, silverware, and scarves, and the public kept buying them. Architecture and design became mainstream. Eisner read the public and used an emerging trend to Disney’s advantage.

This is exactly what Walt Disney Disney, Walt himself had done fifty years earlier. He made his reputation and fortune by drawing flat cartoon images and setting them into motion. When his animation efforts became hugely popular in the mid-1950’s, he made them three-dimensional and built a town for them in Anaheim, California. Then he invited the public to come visit.

Eisner’s task was tougher: The generation he needed to attract to his new theme parks grew up watching Disney and visiting Disneyland. Consumers were more sophisticated in the 1990’s than they were in the 1950’s, and they needed more sophisticated entertainment. Eisner took a chance that world-class architecture could provide that sophistication. In bringing famous architects and their work to the general public, he established a system of corporate patronage that seemed likely to remain unrivaled. Architecture;Walt Disney Company Walt Disney Company

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Andersen, Kurt. “Look, Mickey, No Kitsch!” Time, July 29, 1991, 66-69. Presents a general-interest look at the Walt Disney Company’s architectural patronage. Takes a genial stance toward Eisner and his ambitions, characterizing him as an enlightened despot.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Branch, Mark Alden. “Why (and How) Does Disney Do It?” Progressive Architecture 71 (October, 1990): 78-81. Critical article addresses Disney’s place in the world of contemporary architecture.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dunlop, Beth. Building a Dream: The Art of Disney Architecture. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1996. Uncritical, enthusiastic presentation of the architecture of Disney from the original Disneyland forward. Includes discussion of the Euro Disney buildings and their architects. Features photographs and architectural drawings.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Goldberger, Paul. “And Now, an Architectural Kingdom.” The New York Times Magazine, April 8, 1990, 44-45. Architecture critic discusses how Disney and “big-time” architecture fit together. Concludes that in the last decade of the twentieth century, architecture and entertainment, which had been moving together for years, finally reached a powerful intersection.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Marling, Karal Ann, ed. Designing Disney’s Theme Parks: The Architecture of Reassurance. New York: Flammarion, 1997. Collection of essays was published to coincide with an exhibition first mounted at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal. Contributors from various disciplines discuss the influence of the Disney parks on the architectural imagination. Includes bibliographic references.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Scully, Vincent. “Animal Spirits.” Progressive Architecture 71 (October, 1990): 89-90. One of the country’s best-known architectural historians admits he is perplexed by Disney’s new architectural agenda. Notes that he likes the Swan and Dolphin hotels but laments the loss of innocence they seem to signify.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stephens, Suzanne. “Manifest Disney.” Architectural Record 180 (June, 1992): 54-59. Critical review of Euro Disney asks some important questions about the future of “entertainment architecture.” Describes the buildings by the “high-design” architects and concludes that the architectural efforts at Euro Disney ultimately fail to offer either an escape from everyday life or a serious intellectual challenge.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tetlow, Karin, Justin Henderson, Jean Gorman, and Beverly Russell. Interiors 151 (May, 1992): 118-171. Entire issue is devoted to the Disney Development Company, which was the winner of the journal’s fourth “Corporate America Design Award.” Takes a systematic, noncritical approach to Disney’s architectural program, giving detailed descriptions of each new building at each location.

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Categories: History