R. Duell – The Other Theme Park Designer

October 13, 2022

Cover of brochure for R. Duell and Associates (1970s).

Sometime overlooked are the contributions to theme park design generated by the architectural practice of the firm R. Duell and Associates.  After the success of the original Disneyland in Anaheim, California, other companies wanted a piece of the new theme park segment of the leisure industry, and developers for the new theme parks needed architectures and design companies to create the new parks.  Among the several companies that emerged to meet the need was the company R. Duell and Associates located on 606 Wilshire Boulevard, Santa Monica, California.  

Image of Astroworld, Houston, Texas.

Even before joined the team at Walt Disney Imagineering, I was interested in the process of designing and delivering theme parks, and so with the naivete that youth provides I reached out directly to Duell, and he agreed to meet for an hour one afternoon in his Santa Monica office.  As soon as I was in his office, I peppered Randall Duell with questions from the list I prepared, and he was more than generous with his time and knowledge.

Image of Hershey’s Chocolate World. Hershey, Pennsylvania.

The company started with Mr. Duell who was born in Kansas and moved to Los Angeles way back in 1912 (110 years ago) to graduate from USC and its school of architecture.  After years of contributing to the design of many buildings in metropolitan Los Angeles, he was hired in 1936 by the film studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer as a set designer and retired from MGM in 1959.  Refusing to truly retire he joined the company Marco Engineering where he worked with C. V. Wood (of Disneyland fame) on theme parks such as Freedomland U. S. A. in the state of New York.  Next, Duell left Marco Engineering to establish his own company that he named ‘R. Duell and Associates’ where among his early projects was to design Six Flags Over Texas.  Mr. Duell shared with me that due to little money for theme facades for the project he had to be clever. While he desired to build an authentic western town while having little money, he decided to travel around Texas and purchased empty buildings and store fronts that he could design around. He and his team would back ward design the building bits and pieces he found for use in the Texas town he couldn’t otherwise afford.

Example of a ‘Duell loop’. Great America theme park.

While designing Six Flags Over Texas, Duell developed the park organization scheme called the Duell loop, or ‘racetrack’.  This design was a clear, simple, and efficient design to both move guests and to provide services.  The Duell loop was used in the park design of Magic Mountain, Great America, Astro World, and many other parks.  It’s very likely that if you’ve visited a Six Flags park you’ve walked on a Duell loop.

Randall Duell.

Randall Duell passed in 1982 and the afternoon he spent talking and educating me in his Santa Monica both inspired and informed me in my career in theme park design and at Walt Disney Imagineering.

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