On the Subject of “Theme” in Theme Parks

8 thoughts on “On the Subject of “Theme” in Theme Parks”

  1. JMHO:

    It’s not because Universal fans care less about theme than Disney fans, but because these parks demand a different approach.

    I don’t necessarily think that’s true. EPCOT, for example, isn’t that different conceptually from any other theme park. There’s two distinct sections, each with an ethos – that’s fewer than Disneyland or Magic Kingdom and more than some others. Building a fantasy place in World Showcase in lieu of an actual nation, for example, just ignores the ethos and hurts the integrity of what it is that section is supposed to be gunning for. I don’t see it differently than I would building a giant UFO themed attraction in the middle of Frontierland or constructing an Egyptian pyramid in DCA.

    Universal’s ethos historically was less about creating multiple “immersive” zones and creating instead a single one. Universal is a filming lot with different “sets” essentially as a theme, and the real point of separation for each attraction took place at the attraction entrance. I don’t think that’s necessarily invalid or unacceptable, but there’s plenty of Disney uberfans who’d disagree.

    1. I see what you’re saying, but I think parks like EPCOT and DAK have a much more specific point to make than anything we see in parks like DCA or USF.

      It’s true that most modern theme parks are built from the template of Disneyland (separate themed areas, each with their own design goals), but most parks also should have some sort of wholistic identity. Even the previous iteration of Universal’s design goals, as you mentioned, ties into that park’s larger thematic identity (putting guests into the worlds of movies), but the approach has obvious evolved. Still, that goal differs from the kind of explicit thesis we see in parks like EPCOT or DAK. Universal, DHS, DCA, etc. are creating attractions tied together by a broad idea or aesthetic, where EPCOT and DAK are actually using their attractions and environments to construct an argument. There’s a purpose to every element of these park that goes beyond aesthetic.

      1. We’d probably diverge widely on what exactly the thesis of EPCOT and DAK are and how the attractions fit into what both are attempting to do. I’m not saying that as a cop-out from wanting to discuss this further, I just sense that you may see a degree of depth that I don’t believe in being there.

      2. The thesis of each park has become muddled after years of ill-conceived changes and additions (particularly in the case of Epcot), but if you go back to their early years, there’s a very tightly constructed argument at play in each park. EPCOT especially used to be almost like a giant, interlocking puzzle, where each attraction built upon the last, with a couple attractions serving as climactic moments where all the pieces come together.

        This level of complexity no longer exists in the park, but it did at one point, and it was designed very specifically to be that way. DAK was never as elaborate (because they faced major budget issues), but there was a similar sense early on of a cereal thesis supported by the attractions and environments, but this has once again been hampered by later developments.

      3. The first trip I ever made to EPCOT was back in 92, so I’ve definitely have some memories of the “old” EPCOT or at least something that was much closer an approximation of it than what exists now. My viewpoint, as it has evolved over the years, is that Future World presented a positive view of the future as was a condition of its construction via funding and continued sponsorship from corporate partners who wanted it to reinforce consumerist values. World Showcase does something similar, except instead of offering what I now see as largely shallow corporatespeak and diversion, it applies that thinking to entire nations thanks to both the investment of commercial partners and national governments. I don’t think we’d see eye to eye then.

      4. I totally get that. EPCOT aimed to be higher brow than it ended up being because of corporate sponsorships and the need to at least masquerade as a family theme park. EPCOT, even in its best state, was never perfect, but it’s ideals were sound, and I think it did genuinely attempt, and often succeed in supporting the park’s thesis, even if it also had other goals imposed on it both internally and externally.

  2. Hmm, I’ve started and stopped so many replies as I think, re-think, and re-think again about this.

    But I’d generalize some of what you said:

    “Having a thesis” is one of a number of sliding scales for the themeing of park, or a land or even a specific ride in a park. The scale can range from concrete statements in dedications, to vague slogans provided by marketing, or any combination in between.

    To the extent that a thesis exists, it provides part of the “rules” we use to judge additions and changes to a park, land or ride, just like in all storytelling we use the internal “rules” set up by the story to determine if what’s happening works, or breaks the universe of the story.

    My favorite storytelling example: “Energy field created by all living things, that surrounds and penetrates living beings and binds the galaxy together” = rules setup. “Midiclorians” = broken fiction.

    The more generalized the thesis, the more we accept in it. The more we’ve been told, read or seen as the “rules” for the fiction, the more we can, and will judge it by. It’s not some differing general standards of fandom between Universal and Disney fans. Each case is different, against its own preconceived fictional universe or “rules” and how we as fans evaluate it.

    Clearly “Ride the movies” and “Harry Potter Land” is a much different case to judge than “See the people of Norway and their customs” and “Frozen”.

    Change the scale from park to land, and it’s laughable to think Harry Potter fans aren’t analyzing Diagon Alley in deep detail in comparison to the universes of the books and movies and are somehow less particular about things. :)

    Anyway, great, thought-provoking read!

    (FYI–I just read Eisner’s dedication to Animal Kingdom, and you could made a good case for how Avatar land could fit there *perfectly* using it. I was actually a little shocked.)

    1. Yeah, there’s definitely a sliding scale element, and as I admitted I the article, I’m using a reductive version of a bigger idea simply to make a point.

      As for Animal Kingdom’s dedication, I think it’s important to understand that “thesis” of a park is established not only by its dedication speach, but by its content taken as a whole. If we were to compare theme parks to movies, the dedication is almost like a film’s log line. So, imagine you were sitting down to watch a movie called Animal Kingdom’ described as an exploration of animals… real, ancient, and imagined. Now imagine that you spent the first hour and a half of the movie exploring animal life and local folklore of Asia and Africa, and discussing ancient life on Earth, and then you cut to a scene from James Cameron’s Avatar. It would feel out of place, despite technically fitting under the broad umbrella of the log line.

      And that’s sort of my point of this article. There’s a very specific thesis that is evident in Animal Kingdom as a whole, and Avatar contradicts that thesis (as does Dino-Rama, but that’s a whole other issue). If the park were more thematically loose, Avatar might be able to fit, but that’s not the park that Joe Rohde designed.

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