Disney Co. strays from its trademark Debut: The company has created Port Discovery exhibits, unlike its theme park attractions, that are based in reality and allow visitors to script endings.


When Port Discovery opens its doors at noon today, it will mark the first time in the 45-year history of Walt Disney Co. that a subsidiary has helped design a nonprofit children's museum -- and it might be the last.

Since agreeing to work on Baltimore's $32 million project four years ago as a consultant, Disney has launched a flurry of its urban entertainment projects around the country, from ESPN Zone restaurants to DisneyQuest interactive theme parks.

"If [Port Discovery Chairman] Doug Becker came to us now, we'd say, 'Nice to meet you,' " and walk away, said Martin Sklar, vice chairman and principal creative executive of Walt Disney Imagineering. "We just have too much to do."

At 35 Market Place, the 80,000-square-foot project is one of the largest children's museums in the country, featuring three levels of educational experiences and exhibits tucked inside the shell of the former city fish market. Opening ceremonies are scheduled to begin at 11: 15 a.m. today with a parade starting at the National Aquarium in Baltimore. The museum's doors will open at noon, with 100 children participating in ribbon-cutting festivities.

As they helped put the finishing touches on the museum, Disney representatives said their role in planning the project is almost complete, but what their designers learned in the process is likely to influence the company's urban endeavors.

No Mickey or Minnie

With many Disney attractions, entertaining visitors has been the top priority, Sklar said. "But with this, the learning aspects are as important as any other part. A lot of the things we're working on now are trying to do exactly that," he said.

What makes Baltimore's museum different from most Disney attractions is that "this is a real project," set in a city rather than a theme park, said Doris Hardoon Woodward, a creative director of Walt Disney Imagineering and leader of Disney's design team for Port Discovery.

"This does not have Mickey or Minnie," she said. "This is a real, grounded, urban, nonprofit project, with its own program and objectives. That's fundamentally different from the projects we've created for our own properties."

At Port Discovery, Walt Disney Imagineering was working for a fee as an exhibit design consultant to the museum's staff, and Disney has no ownership interest in the project. It was one of the rare occasions that Disney agreed to work on a project it will not own.

One difference between Baltimore's museum and many other family-oriented attractions, the designers say, is that its key exhibits were created to provide a different experience for every visitor.

In the typical amusement park, visitors have the same experience and leave with the same ending. The Port Discovery exhibits are themed and scripted to varying degrees, stressing concepts that museum educators want to convey. The stories have multiple outcomes, and the visitors help write the endings.

One reason Disney was able to explore open endings at Port Discovery, Sklar said, is that the museum does not have the same high-volume traffic projections as Disney has for its theme parks. The Baltimore museum is expected to draw 475,000 visitors the first year, as opposed to annual theme park attendances, which can be in the tens of millions.

'Immersive experiences'

The lower traffic flow enabled the Imagineers to focus on creating exhibits with multiple endings, and places where visitors could stay as long as they wanted or go through again and again on the same visit.

The result was "immersive experiences" in which visitors "make determinations that change the way the story develops," Sklar said.

Scripts also were kept open-ended because of requests from the museum's educators and other staff members. They requested exhibits that highlight areas that are key to a child's development, such as the senses, motor skills, history and the arts, and challenged Disney's designers to create exhibits that touch on those subjects in ways that are fun and educational.

Miss Perception's Mystery House highlights awareness of the senses. An exhibit called Adventure Expeditions teaches children about a distant culture from another time, ancient Egypt. These educational underpinnings make the museum different from many Disney adventures, which are meant to be experienced for their entertainment value.

Repeat business

Another reason for being open-ended, designers say, is that Disney and the museum staff wanted Port Discovery to have "repeatability" -- to be a place that children would want to visit again and again. The best way to make it repeatable, they reasoned, was to make it changing and unpredictable, with more than one outcome to the exhibits.

That objective intrigued Disney from a design standpoint, Woodward said. "The whole idea of flexibility and open-endedness was very interesting to us," she said.

Designers had a strong desire for the museum to be grounded in reality, which makes it different from a theme park attraction.

While some exhibits are designed to transport visitors to faraway places, other sections make it clear that visitors are in a building in Baltimore.

Making reference to reality was also a goal of the museum staff, Woodward said, because the museum is set in a city and aimed at children from a wide range of economic backgrounds.

It's not meant to be slick or pretty, she said. "It's a hands-on, if-it-doesn't-work-change-it environment."

Grand opening

Port Discovery, 35 Market Place, opens to the public today with a parade featuring the Ravens marching band and cheerleaders. The parade will start at 11: 15 a.m. at the National Aquarium in Baltimore and travel on Pratt Street to Market Place and the museum. Doors will open at noon. (In case of rain, the parade will be canceled, and activities will be held in Port Discovery's atrium.)

Pub Date: 12/29/98

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