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Let’s move to Disney town! Will life in its 2,000 themed homes be a dream or a nightmare?

It seems fitting that, in a Californian desert city named Rancho Mirage, there should be an improbable fantasy world rising from the parched, sandy ground. At the starry intersection of Frank Sinatra Drive and Bob Hope Drive – named after two Hollywood celebrities who used to frequent the area’s exclusive country clubs – a hoarding trumpets the arrival of , a “Storyliving by Disney community”. In this square mile of desert near Palm Springs there will soon stand a gleaming new world of 2,000 homes arranged around a sparkling turquoise lake, where every aspect of life will be curated by the entertainment corporation.

Cotino offers superfans a place to live out their wildest dreams; a chance to live in a Disney movie “where the story is all about you”. It will feature a clubhouse inspired by the futuristic mansion from Incredibles 2, where neighbours can bond over Disney-themed art lessons, enjoy dinners inspired by Disney stories and join family days with Disney-related activities.

The themed homes, which will start north of $1m (£792,000), promise to be “infused with the company’s special brand of magic”, while a forthcoming town centre, featuring a street market where local artists will sell Disney-themed arts and crafts, will be “abundant with opportunities for laughter”. – a bold proposition for an area that suffers from extreme drought – will be kept an unnatural shade of Avatar blue all year round, courtesy of patented Crystal Lagoons technology. Cotino seems to be as close as you can get to living in Disneyland itself, with every detail honed by Disney imagineers, every service provided by Disney “cast members” (ie staff).

Launched in 2022, with another 4,000-home development in North Carolina on the way, Storyliving by Disney represents the latest chapter in the expansion of the world’s largest entertainment company beyond the screen. It is a century-long tale which is being brought to life in an eye-opening centre for architecture in Bordeaux, France, charting how Disney went from making flickering animations of a talking mouse to sprinkling its themed fairy dust over every aspect of our lives. The company’s $180bn portfolio now includes film production, cable and streaming channels, theme parks, cruise ship holidays, golf courses, theatre productions, safari expeditions, music publishing, an airline, and even its own island in the Bahamas where you can .

‘Wizard of happiness’ … Walt Disney planning Disneyland in 1954.

With revenue from cinema and streaming falling in recent years, income from Disney’s “experience” division is soaring, and property development is the next logical step. Disney tried it before in Florida, first with utopian plans for (the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow), followed by the quaint town of , but Storyliving takes the branded living experience to the next level. It has been calibrated to capitalise on loyal fans’ emotional attachment to the House of Mouse when they make the most expensive purchase of their lives, while creating a captive audience to ply with branded services forevermore.

As Amy Young, creative director for Cotino, says in a promotional video: “You don’t see many new home communities that people have a real emotional connection to, and we thought, ‘We’ve got a real emotional connection to our guests.’” It’s evidently enough of an emotional bond to make residents cough up $20,000 to join Cotino’s neighbourhood club, and $10,000 a year thereafter for the rest of their happily themed lives.

The exhibition at Arc en Rêve, titled The of Staged Realities, paints a portrait of Walt Disney as a natural-born developer, a cartoonist who understood not only how to lure people into his magical worlds but how to keep them coming back. It is a story of human psychology as much as architecture and design, with Walt self-styled as the avuncular wizard of happiness. As the exhibition’s curator, Saskia van Stein, puts it: “His main medium was the American psyche.” And boy, did he know how to exploit it.

Disneyland occupies a central place in the story, as the first physical manifestation of Walt’s cartoon universe. Just as the modern Disney company is built on cross-promotion – with films nudging consumers towards themed rides and merchandise, and vice versa – so too did Walt realise the importance of television to the success of his planned theme park. In the 1950s, he struck a deal with ABC television network to invest in his acquisition of 244 acres of land around Anaheim, . In return for its investment, Disney himself would front a weekly TV show for the network, in which he would tell stories about technological progress and alternative realities – and most importantly, update viewers on the process of building Disneyland.

‘The story is all about you’ … the site of the new community planned for California.

“It will be a place of hopes and dreams, facts and fancy all in one,” he as he pored over maps and models, introducing viewers to the nostalgic wild west realm of Frontierland; the futuristic utopia of Tomorrowland; and the rose-tinted Fantasyland, home to “anything your heart desires”. More than half of all TV owners in the US tuned in, exposing a rapt audience of more than 28 million people to Disney. It was a stroke of marketing genius: by the time visitors arrived in Disneyland, they were already familiar with it, having seen the plans evolve on their screens, providing the kind of intoxicating frisson of meeting a celebrity in the flesh.

The exhibition shows how brand partnerships were a key weapon in Disney’s promotional arsenal, beginning with the , one of the chief attractions of Tomorrowland in the 1950s and 60s. A cluster of cantilevered capsules made of reinforced plastic, this was a sci-fi hymn to the possibilities of plastic, featuring a dishwasher, a microwave, a two-way camera for video calls, plastic crockery and an electric toothbrush – all long before their widespread adoption in suburban homes.

Monsanto House of the Future, 1957.

Bringing movie stagecraft into the built environment, Van Stein reveals how visual tricks are deployed in Disney’s parks, such as the use of “Go Away Green”, a patented shade of drab olive deployed to make things disappear. It is used to colour everything from lamp-posts to fences and loudspeakers – as well as the concrete foundation of the now-demolished Monsanto House. Meanwhile “Blending Blue” is used to disguise unsightly taller structures.

Scale is also a chief part of the illusion, with buildings’ floors built incrementally shorter as they rise – at 5/8 scale above the ground floor, then 1/2 scale above that – making the worlds feel cute and “pony size”, as Walt put it. He also took cunning poetic licence with features such as the US flags found throughout the parks – each lacks a star or a stripe, allowing them to dodge the usual regulations that apply to the daily raising and lowering of the Stars and Stripes.

Another innovation – which went on to influence today’s smart cities – were the utilidors, a sprawling network of underground service corridors connecting the different themed lands in Florida’s Disney World. They were introduced after Walt was bothered by the sight of a cowboy walking through Tomorrowland on his way to his post in Frontierland in the California park, which Walt felt destroyed the illusion.

The tunnels housed automated vacuum waste disposal, hidden deliveries, costuming spaces for cast members, kitchens and emergency services, forming a ”below-stage” warren for the theatrics above. As the New York Times architecture critic cooed after a visit in the 1970s, Florida’s Disney World boasted “an array of technical innovations that would make any city manager drool,” making it “perhaps the most important city planning laboratory in the United States”.

As it is being staged in , the exhibition has a section dedicated to Disneyland Paris and the surrounding suburban developments it spawned. After a long and hard-fought competition between various European countries in the 1980s to host this hallowed outpost of US culture, France was awarded the prize – and had to cough up more than four times the amount that Disney put in for the privilege. The project was described as a “cultural Chernobyl” in the French press at the time, with the park seen as destroying a vast swathe of prime agricultural land. The gift that Disney boss Michael Eisner presented to France’s future president Jacques Chirac, didn’t bode well either: an original painted animation celluloid of the Evil Queen offering Snow White a poisoned apple.

The exhibition documents the ongoing development of Val d’Europe, a Disney-themed new town near the park, created after a deal in 1987 gave the company unprecedented control of urban planning codes across almost 5,000 acres of surrounding land. The result is a surreal series of Florida-style gated communities gussied up in French fancy dress, with clusters of inflated Hausmannian wedding cakes cropping up in the fields of Marne-la-Vallée. Poignant photographs by Eléa Godefroy, taken while walking around the periphery of the Disney domain, document how these unreal enclaves sit within the surrounding countryside. Each year, they nibble away a little more land, as the Happiest Place on Earth expands across the globe.