Theme and Amusement Parks

views updated


"Theme park" can be defined as "a social artwork designed as a four-dimensional symbolic landscape, evoking impressions of places and times, real and imaginary" (King, 2000, pp. 837–839). The term is loosely applied within the industry itself, lumping true themed environments with more traditional, but culturally limited, amusement and thrill parks. But the differences are telling.

Although theme parks are associated with the name Walt Disney and Disneyland, the elements of the mid-twentieth-century theme park as assembled by Disney Imagineering (WED Enterprises in 1952) draw from building, landscaping, and understanding material history of world and art history.

The symbolic power of the theme park draws on the fantasy landscapes built and planted by the nobility of Europe and Asia, such as Bavaria's Neuschwanstein Castle, China's Imperial Summer Palace, and England's Kew Gardens and Hampton Court Palace. European pleasure gardens of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, led by Vauxhall in London and Tivoli Gardens in Paris, were followed in the late 1900s by the Prater in Vienna, which offered mechanical rides, then the world's fairs in Europe and America, especially the 1939 New York World's Fair.

Theme vs. Amusement Park

The concept of the "themed" environment, as such, first entered the American popular domain with the opening of Disneyland in 1955; a journalist at the Los Angeles Times coined "theme park" after the fact when the terminology of the traditional amusement park proved inadequate to capture the themed experience. In a linguistic turnaround, theme park now designates the entire industry, theme and amusement parks together, with the amusement industry (including thrill parks) taking on the theme label for its greater prestige and drawing power with the paying public.

Attributes of amusement vs. theme parks
Amusement ParksTheme Parks
Purpose: challenge physical laws for affective rewards.Purpose: create imaginary places to produce a psycho-social engagement.
Physical dynamicsMental dynamics
AdolescenceChildren, coming of age, adult, senior
Ride nodesLandscape, design nodes
Dramatic motionDramatic detail
Motion statesAesthetic states
Peer-group bondNational communal ethic

The theme park is as different in origins, design, intent, and effect from the amusement park as Ellis Island from Coney Island (see Table 1). As an indication of this confusion, Consumer Reports' first survey of "theme parks" in 2003 covers 450 permanent U.S. parks. Of these, most are thrill or amusement parks, but the standard is set by the top rated, which fit the theme park definition: Epcot and Disney-MGM Studios.

Amusement parks use the immediate physical gratification of the thrill ride: the exhilaration of speed, the loft and drag of gravity, the rush of adrenaline sparked by the mimicked prospect of serious bodily harm. The theme park, on the other hand, is a total-immersion art form built to capture a coherent mind experience, one that owes more to film than physics.

Theme Park Origins

Disney's original motivation for creating the theme park was to present the American public with the anti–Coney Island, although roots of fantasy and symbolism can be traced to Dreamland and Luna Park in their heyday (1904–1910), when "the practice of selling leisure as a commodity was initiated" (Weinstein, p. 132).

In fact, Walt Disney's stated reason for creating a new park model was his dismay and disgust with the carnival ancestry of the amusement park—a visit to Coney Island momentarily discouraged his own park dream. Disney's park was built, in direct opposition to the downscale reputation of Coney Island, expressly for the post–World War II emerging middle-class family-on-wheels. The enduring genius of Disney's invention has set the gold standard in the language, as well as the metropolitan/international art style, of attraction design.

The powerful draw of true themed environments relies more on their ability to reflect core cultural values than on providing amusement in the conventional sense of the circus, carnival, and pleasure park, related thematically to turn-of-the-century trolley parks (such as Lake Compounce in Connecticut, Kennywood in Pennsylvania, and Revere Beach near Boston, Massachusetts). Certainly, Disney's original creation, along with the scores of spin-offs, are recognized as iconic masterworks by the public. The U.S. Disney parks attract upward of 40 million visits a year (in 2003), far exceeding visits to the nation's capital and Philadelphia's Liberty Bell. Over the past five decades, the "Disneyland experience" includes California Adventure in Anaheim (2001); at Walt Disney World in Orlando: The Magic Kingdom (1971), EPCOT Center (1981), Disney-MGM Studios (1989), Animal Kingdom (1998). Abroad are Disneyland Paris (1992), Tokyo Disneyland (1983), DisneySea (2001), and a Hong Kong park in the planning.

Besides their synergistic marketing of movies and merchandise through the parks while promoting the parks through Disney stores and television ads and programming, the huge success of the parks lies in their intergenerational design, allowing each age stage of development—young children, teens, adults, and seniors—to seek out the highest-meaning aspects of the park for their age stage. From child to adult, theme parks offer the high value-added attraction of emotional bonding across generations, the main engine for repeat visitation over the decades (basic to park advertising as well). The parks were not designed for children, but for families that included them—with shared experience as the valued outcome.

Disneyland became instantly popular for the reason any successful American popular culture finds its audience: because it acts as a tool to resolve the classic cultural conflict between the needs of the individual and those of the group. In a highly individualistic culture, the Disney parks provide a common ground by distilling and reconciling, though stories and archetypes, a set of shared values about freedom, initiative, the spirit of creativity and exploration, and their fit with team, family, and community. Among all social art forms, the theme park is remarkable for its ability to bring about this resolution.

Theme Park Features

As a filmmaker, Disney reinterpreted and retold old-world myths, focused through an American lens in a showcase of American themes—optimism, fair play, resistance to oppression, and faith in the future. This recasting of European motifs into American idiom was an immediate hit because it celebrated those qualities Americans most liked about themselves and the ideals they, and others, most admired in their country.

Theme parks are considered prominent, even central, American cultural icons, not only because they are popular forms that cross age and class, but because they offer an index to national culture. Foreigners (including intellectuals such as Jean Baudrillard) have noted that Disneyland is the real America—the world outside is a mere simulation. The Disney parks are capsule concentrations of American ideals, which is the basis for their long-standing popularity. They do not compete with amusement parks on the quality of their rides, but as a mental and aesthetic experience. As park maps reveal, these are symbolic landscapes built on psychological narratives, stories to be relived by visitors together to validate shared beliefs.

Rides and other attractions are the multidimensional descendants of the book, film, and epic rather than the offshoot of the roller coaster and tilt-o-whirl. Theme rides are designed to position the visitor much as a camera lens is aligned, to move riders past a series of vignettes to advance the narrative and theme. The narrative experience is expanded with cued physical sensations—speed, sound, lighting, evocative smells, temperature changes—but the purpose is always to advance the storyline. It is the architecture, including public space design, landscaping—in fact, natural landscaping is the prime differentiator between theme parks and other types (see Scheu)—layered detailing, and the use of symbols, archetypes, stagecraft, and icons as the communications medium, not the rides, that determine the essence of theme parks. As symbolic landscapes, Disneyland and its progeny are closer relatives to the Zen garden, stage set, world's fair, and Cypress Gardens than to Palisades, Rocky Glen, Cedar Point, or Riverview.

Formative Models

One antecedent of the Disney theme park was the "improving" educational mission of the world's fair. For example, the 1893 Columbian Exhibition in Chicago celebrated American achievement in terms of the old world, particularly in the almost exclusive use of European-inspired neoclassical architecture at "The White City." The Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition (1876) featured American achievements as a generic type.

Frederic Thompson and Skip Dundy's Luna Park (1903) and William H. Reynolds' Dreamland (1904) were Coney Island's contribution to the theme park genre. Unlike the better-known Steeplechase Park, which featured thrill rides like the Ferris wheel, Luna Park and Dreamland used the "experiential" powers of the theme park medium to re-create other times, places, and worlds. Along with the thrill rides, visitors could take "A Trip to the Moon," voyage "20,000 Leagues Beneath the Sea," toboggan on an air-conditioned "Swiss Alp," or even, literally, go to Hell—complete with fluttering tissue-paper flames and menacing demons. These were the immediate ancestors, in both spirit and technology, of Disneyland's Matterhorn, Disney/MGM Studios' "Catastrophe Canyon" and "Star Tours," and Universal Studios' "Earthquake: The Big One."

Unique Features

Disneyland was the first permanent commercial theme park, made possible by the emergence of a mobile, educated middle class enchanted with the new medium of television, notably the Disneyland weekly series. Television, the automobile, college educations (through the GI Bill), and the interstate highway systems were the levers that moved America into the middle class after World War II. Theme parks were the symbolic landscapes that allowed a continent-wide ethnically diverse population to share common values, memories, and cultural benchmarks across state and ethnic lines.

Theme parks use the elements of "show" and "story" as communication united by themes: Fantasy, Adventure, the Future, and Exploration, along with Home and Community. The art of graphic and set design, filmmaking (both live action and animation), music, dance, and theater production put to use the technology of stagecraft as altered scale, forced perspective, color harmonics, texture, lighting, sound, and iconography in three dimensions to produce an effect "more real than real." This hyper-reality springboards off our preconceptions—which come from film, paintings, and books, but rarely from memories of the real thing—to evoke the simulation of actually being in a frontier fort, European castle, or turn-of-the-century small town. Theme parks rely very little on signs for directions, place identification, or instructions to park guests. Themes, icons, and images, not words, carry the message—what senior Imagineer John Hench calls the "art of the show" (see Hench).

Within Disneyland's "lands" (Fantasyland, Adventureland, Frontierland, Tomorrowland, and Main Street USA), "one of the most successfully designed streetscapes in human history" (Francaviglia, p. 148), is a clearly coded text, set in icons and images, easily read by any age and across cultures. Almost no written text intrudes, except as part of the image and symbol landscape of various themes within its borders. The reason is that the artifacts within are self-explanatory, because they resonate within their contextual (themed) landscapes. Icons are the signposts that cue the traversing "readers" to the rich patterns of meaning that surround them. The ability of foreign visitors to read the parks as archetypal American landscapes, and to demand park reincarnations abroad in Tokyo and Paris, is testament to the universal symbolic language in which they are couched.

Cultural Significance

Theme parks should be considered among the most innovative social artworks of the twentieth century, if for no other reason than they are deeply rooted in, and reflective of, American core values. Individual industry, creativity, mobility, and success, based on a faith in the future, innovation of the past, and the self-confidence to believe in one's unique vision of the world to invent what is new and different, recap the character of the life history of the park's inventor, Walt Disney. The original Disneyland park in California was a prototype of a new genre of recombinant art form: part art, part artifact, comprising architecture of every era, crafts of every country, and innovative as well as ancient art technologies. They are the hybrid descendants of world's fairs, museums, and the architectural follies and pleasure gardens formerly reserved for royalty and wealth. Conceived and designed by team intelligence—Walt Disney Imagineering—their "collections" of installations and artifacts are integrated in what John Hench called a "sequence of related experiences" (Goldberger, p. 433).

They are closely related to the film arts, which encompass any and all art forms such as set design, special effects, and digital processing. Like film, these places have the powerful ability to evoke because they bypass the conscious mind to plug directly into our pre-conscious cultural matrix. This matrix is built up over centuries of symbol-making, imagery, and iconography. This is an extraordinarily rich resource made up of the received highlights of civilization focused through the lens of creative symbol-making. As Disney expressed it, this perspective was the guiding genius of the prototype park, setting it apart as a personal vision from the more manufactured and standardized (off-the-shelf) nature of amusement park and carnival: "Disneyland would be a world of Americans, past and present, seen through the eyes of my imagination . . ." (Walt Disney: Famous Quotes, p. 29).

These robust forms are nevertheless virtual artscapes in three dimensions that incorporate and reinvent their "real" art sources. These multimedia installations are total-immersion environments, highly interactive in the form of enclosed "dark rides," landscapes both interior and exterior, animation combined with live-action, computer-coordinated effects, and visitor-generated narratives that evoke in the guest a mental journey not only to another place, but often to another time—following the lines of various selective historical narratives.

These are visionary, not "authentic," versions of the past and future, based on archetypes (ideal images) rather than historical record. Disneyland's power, shared with other compelling cultural landscapes, is rooted in culture and shaped as an index of cues that point to our most passionate and deeply felt ideas about who we are and how we think as a people. This gravitational field—of values about America's past, present, and promise of the future embodied in Frontierland, Main Street USA, and Tomorrowland embedded in icons and images—moves visitors through and among the park's sequence of themes.

Beyond direct recreation, the parks' thematic legacy has now converged with every sort of public space, from malls, airports, office buildings, restaurants, and hotels to college campuses, main streets, re-created historic spaces, zoos, and museums. Hardly a place remains—including our own homes—where the telltale imprint of the theme park has not left its emblematic and varied impression. This includes the ubiquitous "shrines" to Star Wars, Lego, Nike, Hollywood, Coca-Cola, and their universe of collectibles. Institutions from hospitals to malls to visitor and corporate centers hearken to the Disney approach to customer service as "guest relations." And, as Richard Snow pointed out in American Heritage, the Main Street revival movement of the National Trust was incubated at Main Street USA.

Parks Modeled on Disney

The first successful non-Disney theme park, Six Flags Over Texas, in Arlington, opened in 1961. Like Disneyland, Six Flags was organized as a spectrum of theme lands dedicated by theme to each of the nations that ruled the state. Since the principles of communication by thematics, the Imagineering design "DNA" can be universally applied to experiential spaces from pure fantasy to hard science, contemporary theme parks come in a broad spectrum of styles and specialties, from science museums to historic shrines to branded characteror product-centered attractions.

Theming has reinvented older park formats. The "nature parks" of Busch Gardens (an Africa theme in Tampa, Florida, plus a second park in Williamsburg, Virginia) and Sea World (Orlando, Florida; San Antonio, Texas; and San Diego, California), and related commercial water parks (Wet n' Wild), take the concept of zoo/aquarium and "marine park" to new heights. This improvement was accomplished thanks to new set designs and live animal performances that allowed the revitalized parks to vastly raise the bar first set a century ago by parks such as Sea Lion Park at Coney Island.

"National" and "international" themed parks draw on regional or world history and culture, expressed by costume, cuisine, music, and decor. Examples are Fiesta Texas (San Antonio, Texas), Polynesian Culture Center (Laie, Oahu, Hawaii), Great America (Santa Clara, California), and the Old Country at Busch Gardens (Williamsburg, Virginia), and sites like the fundamentalist Christian Heritage USA (Charlotte, North Carolina) and Splendid China (Kissimmee, Florida).

Historic theme parks based on the authenticity model include Colonial Williamsburg (Williamsburg, Virginia), whose founding predates Disney; Historic Jamestown and Yorktown; and Plimoth Plantation (Plymouth, Massachusetts). "Process" or "industry" parks include Opryland in Nashville, Tennessee (country music); Hersheypark in Hershey, Pennsylvania (chocolate), and Knott's Berry Farm in Buena Park, California (frontier farming). Popular entertainers occasionally have their own theme parks; perhaps the best-known are Dolly Parton's Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, and Conway Twitty's Twitty City in Hendersonville, Tennessee, respectively). Other parks recreate an old-time village (or "ethnic exposition" historic concept), such as Old Sturbridge in Sturbridge, Massachusetts, and Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan.

While Circus Circus opened the first theme park casino in Las Vegas in the 1960s, theming took over the city in the 1990s. Confirming the shift in audience from high-rolling gamblers to vacationing families, combination casinos and theme parks opened in the same decade; these included the MGM Grand (movies), Excalibur (medieval), the Luxor (Egypt), and Treasure Island (pirates). These were followed by the tour-de-force architectural style "re-creations" of Paris, New York, and Venice.

From Disney's single 200-acre park in Anaheim, theme parks (and their amusement park cousins) have grown to an industry that takes in over $10 billion a year, surpassing even movie theaters in gross receipts (Consumer Reports). At the same time, operating costs, such as capital improvements, training, maintenance, enhancement, and marketing, are also high, including the trend toward constant innovations in attractions to encourage repeat visitation (70 percent at Disney parks).

Six Flags, Great Adventure, Great America, Busch Gardens, and Universal Studios have attempted to copy and enlarge upon the Disney theme formula with varying degrees of success. As these forms begin to consolidate and develop, the two types cross-breed look, behavior, audience, and outcome. So coveted is the "theme" label that the Six Flags Company prefers the term over the more accurate "thrill park," resigning to a perpetual second-class position in the industry after Disney, rather than claim their quite legitimate first place in the "thrill industry." In terms of maintaining the theme, creativity, and richness of detail, the Imagineering approach still sets the design standard by which all other parks are compared. Yet the art of thematics has created experiential places from a basic collection of perceptual cues (music, motifs, icons, architecture, landscapes, and historic touchstones) to become mainstream and metropolitan design for public spaces and reinstated forums of public leisure.

See also: Coney Island, Disneyland, Vacations, Walt Disney World


Adams, Judith. The American Amusement Park Industry: A History of Technology and Thrills. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1991.

Blake, Peter. "The Lessons of the Parks." Architectural Forum (June 1973): 28ff.

Findlay, John M. Magic Lands. Seattle, Wash.: University of Washington Press, 1992.

Francaviglia, Richard V. "Main Street USA: A Comparison/Contrast of Streetscapes in Disneyland and Walt Disney World." Journal of Popular Culture 15 (1981): 141–156.

Goldberger, Paul. "Mickey Mouse Teaches the Architects." In The Art of Walt Disney. Edited by Chrisopher Finch. New York: Harry Abrams, 1973.

Hench, John, with Peggy Van Pelt. Designing Disney: Imagineering and the Art of the Show. New York: Disney Editions, 2003.

"It's Mickey v. Shamu." Consumer Reports 68 (June 2003): 28–33.

King, Margaret J. "Disneyland and Walt Disney World: Traditional Values in Futuristic Form." Journal of Popular Culture 15 (Summer 1981): 114–140.

——. "The Theme Park." In Guide to United States Popular Culture. Edited by Ray B. Browne and Pat Browne. Bowling Green, Ohio: Popular Press, 2000.

Nusbaum, Paul. "Crowded House: Fun and Gaming." Philadelphia Inquirer, (May 29, 1994): 11ff.

Scheu, Diane. "The Role of Horticulture in Theme Parks." Master's thesis, University of Delaware, 1996.

Snow, Richard. "Disney: Coast to Coast." American Heritage 38, no. 2 (February–March 1987): 22–24.

Thomas, Bob. Walt Disney: An American Original. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1976.

Walt Disney Corporation. Walt Disney: Famous Quotes. Lake Buena Vista, Fla.: Walt Disney Company, 1994.

Weinstein, Raymond M. "Disneyland and Coney Island: Reflections on the Evolution of the Modern Amusement Park." Journal of Popular Culture 26 (Summer 1992): 131–164.

Young, Terrance, and Robert Riley, eds. Theme Park Landscapes: Antecedents and Variations. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2002.

Margaret J. King