Ask a Font Creator: The Typography of Disneyland
Posted on 7th February 2017
It’s time again to turn the critical font eye on a vacation destination. This time, it’s the happiest place on Earth: the Disneyland resort. You’d think the typography throughout the resort would be spot-on, all customized stuff made out of beautiful rare fonts. But in reality, there’s some good, some bad, and some downright ugly being used around the parks. I’ll identify what fonts I can, and give close options for the rest. Disney does tend to customize things. Let’s take a look!
If you enter Disneyland and stick to the left, the first big ride you’ll run into is the Enchanted Tiki Room. (Sorry, Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln; we passed right by you.) This ride wasn’t one of the 1955 originals, but it still falls into that pre-1966 period when Walt Disney himself was still alive – it opened in 1963. It was a time before you could just type something out in a computer font and have it printed up, and that really shows here. The signage has been updated and cleaned up throughout the years, but there’s still a real hand-crafted look to the type. It's weird and uneven and they probably would never choose something like this if they were creating the ride today; it's a throwback to a different time.
Similar fonts: FT Master of Poster, Sinzano, Darkheart, Croteau
Continuing on through Adventureland, the next stop is the Indiana Jones Adventure: Temple of the Forbidden Eye. (Sadly, the Jungle Cruise was closed.) Despite its giant mouthful of a name, this is my favorite ride of all the Disney rides in the United States. But this warning sign just makes me shake my head. Five typefaces on one sign is just too many!
Granted, three of those are part of that long ride name/logo. As for the other two: Stencil is perfect for the big red WARNING, but the rest of the type just doesn’t seem to fit to me. It’s a font that goes by many names: BrushArt, Marlo, and Arctic, to name a few. But no matter what name you call it, it just doesn’t seem to fit. It’s a little too cute and kidsy for a warning sign; I’d have been happier with a simple wide sans-serif.
But how’s this for cool: they developed their own alphabet for some of the carvings throughout the queue! Since the concept is that this temple has been discovered by archaeologists, the queue winds you through several different zones, all of which have little bits of this writing that have been unearthed. So how were riders supposed to decipher this stuff?
By using this card, which they gave out for at least the first year the ride was open. This is my own copy from 1995, which is a bit bleached by the sun (the very bottom, where it’s more golden brown, is close to the original color), and a little ratty along the edges, because it’s been in use on my night-table as a bookmark for the last 21 years.
Similar font: Mara’s Eye
Beyond Adventureland is New Orleans Square, home to the famous Pirates of the Caribbean ride. This sign outside shows exactly how text should be spaced on a curve: it’s just beautifully done in that “PIRATES” along the top. The bottoms of the letters aren't crammed together like a lot of upward curves. I like the choices they’ve made here, too: a slightly distressed serif for the name of the ride, and the curly-yet-period-appropriate Beaumarchais for the description in black down below. Even the “sail with the tide” in Art Gothic mixes in well.
Similar fonts (ride name): Karty Solid, Caslon Antique, Sovereign Extra Bold
Just down the way from Pirates is the Haunted Mansion. I’ve always loved the type on this one; it gives the perfect creepy-gothic feel. And it’s rare that a font that’s SO skinny would be used for a logo or signage, because it might be hard to read from a distance. Besides the type, the details on this sign are amazing! I could zoom in and look at it for hours.
Similar font: Rubens
Wandering onward through Frontierland, I came across this restaurant sign. And I haven’t figured out yet whether I like it or not! I find it a little strange that they’re using a gothic-style font (the flat-topped A and lowercase-looking H are indicators of the style) for a Mexican restaurant, but on the other hand, I love how they’ve taken the trailing ends of the Z and the L in “Zocalo” and looped them around the bottoms of the Os. And the carved-wood look is beautifully done.
Similar-ish fonts: Deutsch Gothic, Black Castle, Quael Gothic, German Blackletters
Around the corner in Fantasyland, however, my heart broke a little bit. This mailbox (and yes, you can send actual mail from inside Disneyland) has Papyrus on it. I’ve touched on Papyrus before, and my issues with it are thus: because it comes pre-installed and free to use with most PCs, it’s already in the “way overused” category. But it’s also used for a wide variety of things because it kind of looks like it fits a number of styles (biblical, Mediterranean, ancient Egyptian … the other day we went to two different grocery stores, and one store had a package of Italian meatballs labeled in Papyrus, while the other store had Chinese chicken fried rice labeled in Papyrus) but it never really fits any of those styles well. There are tons of other fonts that would fit the idea of “Fantasyland” far better than Papyrus.
Let’s take a break from Disneyland, and go back to our room at the Disneyland Hotel. Where this pillow is on the bed to greet us. The font here is Pristina, and once again, it’s a font that comes pre-installed on PCs. You’re going to see quite a bit of that back at the hotel. I think the entire hotel was refurbished in the last 10 years or so, and you can tell that they didn’t exactly stretch their imaginations when it came to type. You'd think with all of the premium fonts that the designers have available to them, they wouldn't settle for one that anybody off the street could use to replicate their signage.
I did more sad head-shaking here at the coffee shop at the hotel. That’s Curlz as the headers, and Copperplate for the items. At least there’s a third tall, skinny sans-serif added in there that I can’t identify on sight, but it’s making up a slim minority of the sign’s fonts. My biggest Curlz issue, besides the fact that it's in the overused pre-installed category, is while I can totally see Curlz being used on something for a little girl, it feels wildly out of place on a coffee shop sign.
(On the plus side, the coffee shop sold Dole Whip, which is pineapple soft-serve ice cream. Nothing like Dole Whip for breakfast before heading out for 10 miles of walking around.)
Right next door to the coffee shop is Goofy’s Kitchen, a buffet restaurant where costumed characters come around to your table and either delight (according to everyone else in the place) or harass (according to my husband) the guests. These signs out front told you which characters would be appearing. The font is Ravie, and yet again, it’s a font that’s been standard on most Windows computers for probably 20 years. At least it’s somewhat appropriate here for someone as cute as Minnie Mouse, as opposed to the Curlz in the coffee shop.
Another day, another theme park. We had to walk through Downtown Disney (an area of shops and restaurants, most of which are run by non-Disney companies) to get to the parks, and we passed by this “coming soon” sign. I’m posting it sideways as it appeared in real life. I like the simple logo, but the words “curl surf” are crammed so tightly together and ligatured with one another that it makes me anxious and uncomfortable. It’s hard to read, and my eyes want to move away every time I look at it (which is definitely the wrong thing to inspire with your logotype).
Now let’s head into Disney California Adventure. The Grizzly Peak area is one of the first areas you come to, and I have to say, I like what they’ve done with this sign. It evokes the feeling of the USA’s signage for national forests. They’re using Brophy/Brody (another of those fonts that goes by more than one name) on the top here, which is a pretty close match to the hand-lettered “National Forest” script we’ve been using for decades. The “Grizzly Peak Airfield” on the bottom half looks a lot like Highway Gothic, which is a nice clean sans-serif that makes sense – it’s used for tons of road signs here in the states.
Right at the corner toward Grizzly Peak is this churro stand. As someone who’s had to go gluten-free, I really miss donuts and churros the most. The stand uses Cooper Black at the very top, as well as on “Delivered Daily.” And I like that the W in “Willie’s” is modified to have a little extra flair. Then it mixes up a couple of different retro fonts: it looks like Signpainter Slant for “favorite treat,” and Signpainter Informal for “step right up.” Not sure I would have mixed these two together – they’re similar enough that they clash. Either pick one of the fonts for both phrases, or go with one sign font and pair it with a simple sans-serif.
Farther on into Disney California Adventure, the fonts I can name on sight continue.
For this snack stand, they cleaned up and modified Hot Tamale … but not enough that I didn’t look at it and immediately think, “Oh, that's Hot Tamale.” It’s also an odd pairing with the text right below, which looks like it’s in a modified variation of Speedstyle. The sign uses two fonts that both have a hand-lettered flair, but they have drastically different cultural feelings and moods. Either one should have been paired with a simpler, more straightforward font, in order to let the hand-lettered style font shine as the star of the show.
This is in the Paradise Pier area of the park, themed after the Coney Island-style amusement parks that were popular early in the 20th century. The font used here (and seen in many other places in the Paradise Pier area) is ITC Benguiat. The font was designed to echo the era of Art Nouveau, which would be an appropriate match to the turn-of-the-century amusement parks. However, the font (which was released in 1978) brings the 1980s to mind for a lot of people. It was used on the cover of at least one Stephen King novel back in the ’80s, and the Netflix series Stranger Things recently used Benguiat for their logo to give it a real ’80s vibe. The park was built well before the TV show, of course, but it made for some laughs as we walked through the area.
Also in the Paradise Pier area was this sunglasses shop. This is a case of a font looking like an incredibly common font; even though it isn’t the common font it looks like, it’ll still get lumped in as common. The font they’ve used for “sunglass hut” isn’t Algerian, but it looks an awful lot like it. It’s as if someone took the little ornamental bump-outs from a western-style font and added them onto Algerian. I have no idea what this font actually is; I’ve tried identifying this font in a few different ways, but I just keep getting Algerian as a result.
Finally, it wouldn’t be a trip to a vacation destination without a trip through the gift shop, right? This mug caught my eye because of the cute Donald Duck illustration, but the text on the backside made me cringe. First off, it’s never a good time to just cavalierly reply-all, whether it’s Friday or not. Secondly, Friday should be capitalized. I wonder how many people put eyes on this design before it went into production. My guess is, quite a few.
Also, if that font looks familiar, it’s the same Brody/Brophy they used at the entrance to the Grizzly Peak area! So at least they didn’t make this mug extra awful by using a pre-installed font.
That’s it for this trip – now onward to creating more fonts and finding more font-related things to snark about. Oh, and Chef Goofy says hello!
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