I’m starting to think that “good” themed entertainment design is actually a combination of two distinct design philosophies that are actually separate, just tend to occur together.
One is like themed entertainment design “proper”. Perhaps Narrative Design is a good word? This is the art of imbuing narrative and story and values into the built world.
But there’s also the philosophy of experience design, though that term has been so co-opted by UX people I think I need to distinguish it as like “radical holistic experience design” or “emotion design” or something.
And when we think about traditional theme park/themed entertainment design we’re really talking about those two things combining together. A theme park is a place that has been designed to tell stories about the world and reflect a value system back at us, but also meticulously crafted to create as frictionless an experience as possible, with specific guest emotions and states of being in mind.
But like you can have one without the other. It is entirely possible to design story and narrative based experiences that don’t put much work into the experience angle, and vice versa. And like it’s not always even a bad thing per se. Like I think there’s a lot of experiences in every day life, like gyms, that could be radically improved by focusing on guest experience, emotions, and states of being that don’t particularly need a strong narrative focus (though something wouldn’t hurt). A true focus on guest experience would also inevitably lead to a more just society.
Similarly architecture at large could be improved and beautified if, as my one professor put it, designers remembered to have an idea.
But specifically in theme parks and the experience “industry” the thing that makes it special, notable, and feels lacking when missing, is the combination and laser attention on both. I think this might be in part because the narrative side is generally accomplished through things like visuals and sounds and the experience side more through how things are structured, layout, service, etc: more intangible. But when you combine the two you can use things like color and texture and pattern to affect emotions, and the physical experience to shape the story and you get this really nice feedback loop where one superimposes on the other and not to get too esoteric, but you create a new harmonic reality.
Incidentally, I’d argue that the original Disneyland designers were much more of the experience design school with just more than normal emphasis on narrative, and it wasn’t until the 60s and 70s with the Worlds Fair and Epcot that they became experts at the theme part of it.
narrative design x experience design = themed design
at least until we get some better words.
Just as like a practical tiny example. Say I’m tasked with creating a small park in a city. Not a theme park just like a 1 acre public park. A designer not rooted in either philosophy would probably just plant down some trees or a fountain, maybe a statue of some notable local figure and boom park. It’s fine.
A designer working from an experience POV would decide “hey I want this park to be x” in this case let’s say it’s supposed to be place of peace and reflection. And because this is a holistic experience designer they’re going to think about everything from the size of the sidewalk leading into the park, the public transit around it, the height of the the trees, all these things to try to create an experience as peaceful as possible. So in this case the park is designed with easy access to the neighboring three streets but also designed so that the central area of the park is shielded from the surrounding neighborhood by a small raised area of land and some tall thick trees to quiet it down and make it peaceful. Being a holistic experience designer this person also is considering things like safety, making sure it’s not too isolated, and accessibility to make sure it’s peaceful for everyone. Much better experience but perhaps lacking in meaning. Though you can always bring your own.
Meanwhile the designer focused solely on narrative is designing a park that seeks to honor a prominent member of the community who recently passed. Sir Ida Gudeeds. One of his good deeds was giving water to homeless people. So the park is designed with a lot of fountains and a lake to represent that. And idk everything is arranged say in a way that’s a timeline of his life. There’s pictures, and history lessons, etc. Much better sense of place with real actual purpose and meaning. But it might seem somewhat superficial or trite or feel more like a piece of art than a place depending on how it’s executed. But sometimes that’s all you need.
Now one day experience designer and narrative designer get together and boom magic happens cause they’re like, “WAIT you got some peanut butter in my chocolate” “No YOU got some chocolate in my peanut butter”. DELICIOUS! What if we made a space that was designed for quiet peace and reflection AND we target that reflection to the life of Mr. Gudeeds!
Now we have a park that uses a central water feature to generate a sense of calm AND it both literally and figuratively celebrates the life of Gudeeds. We install a bunch of really nice public water fountains so that the homeless ALWAYS have a source of fresh, cold, clean water as a way to carry on the legacy and remember and experience it viscerally. The timeline of his life surrounds the quiet area and encourages us to contemplate what we might do to be more like him. Repeat this process until 5 inception layers deep for best results and then you have THEMED ENTERTAINMENT (or whatever this field should probably be called)
One thought on “Theme Park Musing #11 – What Actually is Themed Entertainment?”
If you have access to an academic library, I’d recommend requesting a copy of Concurrent Urbanities: Designing Infrastructures for Inclusion. The author is not a theme park fan (I got hipped to it as I read his rather scathing critique of theme parks), but it’s actually prescriptive rather than simply critical and theory oriented. You can read some of it here, probably (Google Books might also be an option for a preview if you want to do that before investing the time into reading it):