Sparkling lights, cheery music, the smell of popcorn, cotton candy, and crisp churros floating through the air — bright colors, immersive worlds, elaborate spectacles from dawn past dusk. This is the imagery that’s conjured up when theme parks and other immersive experiences are discussed: fun, frivolity, and above all a disconnection from the real world.
Some topics that probably don’t come to mind? Infrastructure, transportation policy, civic planning, technological development, history curriculums, gender politics, race relations, and a myriad of other issues normally reserved for some domed building far, far away.
There is a widespread belief that theme parks and related experiences are simply repositories of fun, devoid of politics. But that notion is simply not complete. Themed experiences are absolutely fun, entertaining places where people go to decompress. But they also play a gigantic role in shaping culture. These experiences are the physical repositories of our shared histories, mythologies, hopes and dreams. They are physical models that the world outside the berm looks to for inspiration.
This is not a new phenomenon. Look no further than the Disneyland dedication speech
“Disneyland is dedicated to the ideals, the dreams and the hard facts that have created America…with the hope that it will be a source of joy and inspiration to all the world.” 1
Whose ideals? Whose dreams? Whose hard facts? That is always the key question. In this case, largely those of Walt Disney himself — for better or worse.
On the one hand Disney throughout his life used Disneyland (and later Walt Disney World would continue the work) to advocate for grand public policy. Disneyland was a model of urban design held up as the best piece of urban planning in the United States.2 Tomorrowland was used as a showcase of industry and technological promise. It advocated for the wonders of an interstate highway system — the various Autopias complete with their own miniature cloverleafs —and the adoption of a network of efficient mass transit solutions. The monorail3, the people mover4, the skyway: these attractions were not just built for a fun time, they were built as actual models of what the future could look like. Lest we forget the Carousel of Progress – who’s upper floor contained an entire model city that Disney later endeavored to actually build.5 Tomorrowland reveled in new innovations from industry that it could promote to change the world for the better. There’s an entire generation that still has trouble thinking of Monsanto as anything but a force for good in the world, because of the House of the Future.6 Speaking of…
On the other hand, much of Disneyland sought to educate the public, and especially children, about “their history”: a very white, male, straight, protestant, upper middle class, 1950s perspective of history. Main Street resembles a post WWII fantasy, the world of The Music Man, a lot more than any turn of the century city that actually existed. One cannot fault the desire to create an optimistic, nostalgic getaway but the blurred lines between history and fantasy do have consequences. It’s nice to believe that Abraham Lincoln solved racism and the world lived happily ever after, but it’s simply not the case. Historical narratives like the ones present in Main Street (and we don’t have time to get into Frontierland and Adventureland) that present rosy, over-simplified, black and white stories do have consequences as they embed themselves into the public imagination. One only needs to look at the news to see what they can spiral over decades into.
This is the not-so-fun-and-frivilous side of themed experiences. The legacy of theme parks, particularly in the United States, is chockfull of parks that were created because some businessman with a big checkbook thought children “needed to learn about their heritage”.7 Henry Ford’s Greenfield, Walter Knott’s Berry Farm, Freedomland USA, Silver Dollar City, the first several Six Flags, pretty much every park Randal Duell ever touched: each park became a repository of local myths and legends and every single one outlined heroes and villains, romanticized bits of history, and neglected to mention others—sometimes to great and noble effect—creating positive and personal connections with their visitors and community: places where people could see their own local stories reflected back at them. But not always.
Why do plantation houses conjure up feelings of southern hospitality, charm and grandeur rather than the brutality of slavery? Could it have anything to do with the fact their facades are home to lovable ghosts8, friendly monsters9, and delicious fried chicken10 and not their actual history? Why do the clapboards of the old west conjure up feelings of adventure and exploration and not the trail of tears and genocide? Why is the problem of gun violence in this country minimized? Might it be the proliferation of ghost towns and train robbing shootouts where no one gets hurt?11 Why do people have difficulty accepting that gender might be more complicated than “Ladies and Gentlemen, boys and girls?”
The stories we tell are important. They are shaped by the values we hold and if we don’t intentionally design them to say what we want, we will do so unintentionally. There is no opting out. What is a theme other than the values embedded in a work by the people who create it? Whether it be the intrinsic value of nature and the need for conservation present in Animal Kingdom, the valorization of traditional craftspeople and the need to preserve and showcase their work at Silver Dollar City/Dollywood, or the importance of innovation and creativity at Legoland, every attraction is filled with ideas and agendas from the people who create them. And we can use that fact for immense good.
There is enormous potential for the experiences we create to be used as models for positive social change – both in their content and in their execution. I recently returned from a Virgin Voyages cruise. One of their main shows (produced by 7 Fingers) featured an explicitly nonbinary lead character and the audience went from skeptical to cheering in the course of 45 minutes! The ship’s selective use of gender neutral bathrooms is so well implemented that I daresay most passengers don’t even realize they’ve used one until a few hours later. That’s the kind of potential the field of experience design holds. The places this industry creates are often the first places the public at large encounters new solutions to old problems and can play a critical role in proving the ideas, creating publicity, and accustoming the public to new ways of doing things: whether it be the Dyson Airblade (which I first encountered at a Universal Park), the brilliant Evolv security scanners currently being used by Six Flags and Walt Disney World12, or the accessibility innovations happening at Peppa Pig Park.13
I cannot think of a more appropriate use of themed entertainment than to tell new stories that better reflect the lives of all the people that visit them. I cannot think of a better use of themed entertainment than to model futures that we aspire to live in, to offer a glimpse of what the world could be like. That has always been where themed entertainment succeeds most – whether it’s worlds fairs and expositions, theme parks, or small exhibits – their ability to give people a taste of a better future, a proof of concept, exposure to new ideas, other cultures, to foster excitement and joy that get taken back home with kids who create the future. That’s their best potential and it’s time we start recognizing it.
1 KABC. “Happy Birthday, Disneyland! Iconic Park Celebrates 66th Anniversary Today.” ABC7 Los Angeles, July 12, 2020. https://abc7.com/disneyland-birthday-opening-day-66-when-did-open/1429121/.
2 Marling, Karal Ann, and Centre canadien d’architecture, eds. Designing Disney’s Theme Parks: The Architecture of Reassurance. Montréal : Paris: Centre canadien d’architecture/Canadian Centre for Architecture ; New York : Flammarion, 1997. 170.
3 Disney Docs. “LA Monorail Alweg Proposal.” Accessed January 8, 2022. https://www.disneydocs.net/la-monorail-alweg-proposal.
4 The Story of Disney’s PeopleMover in Texas. Accessed January 8, 2022. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q2a9Yvo2Yyg.
5 Janzen, Jack E., and Leon J. Janzen. “Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress.” The E Ticket, Winter 1995. 35-36.
6 I believe I first heard this anecdote in an episode of The Season Pass Podcast in a Tony Baxter interview. But there’s about 9 hours to sort through and I simply don’t have the time to relisten to it all. It also rings true for me personally, despite not ever visiting.
8 The Haunted Mansion at Disneyland.
9 Monster Plantation/Monster Mansion at Six Flags
10 Disneyland Plantation House. See Also The Plantation House series of novelty gas stations/convenience stores, Dixie Stampede, Dixie Landings, Southern Belles, the use of actual historic plantations as wedding venues, etc, etc.
11 There are really too many of this variety of attraction to name. Consider Knott’s Railroad, Silver Dollar City/Dollywood’s Railroad, Frontierland, Freedomland, Rebel Railroad, Ghost Town in the Sky, Looney Tunes. Funny incompetent bandits have a shootout or commit some other crime where no one ever faces any real danger. It’s a trope.
12 Attractions Magazine. “Interview: Evolv Powers Six Flags’ New Touch-Less Way to Go through Theme Park Security,” May 29, 2020. https://attractionsmagazine.com/interview-evolv-powers-six-flags-new-touch-less-way-to-go-through-theme-park-security/.
13 Stilwel, Andrew. “Peppa Pig Theme Park Reveals Accessible Ride Vehicle; Will Open as Certified Autism Center.” Coaster 101 (blog), November 19, 2021. https://www.coaster101.com/2021/11/19/peppa-pig-theme-park-reveals-accessible-ride-vehicle-will-open-as-certified-autism-center/.