I read an article on MiceChat recently which suggested that part of the reason Universal’s recent aggressive expansion in theme parks has been working is because fans of Universal are less particular about “thematic intrusions” or the “appropriateness of intellectual property,” than Disney fans, who are far more vocal about such things. There may or may not be an element of truth to this claim, but overall it is reductive and doesn’t really get to the heart of the issue. The heart of the issue, as I see it, is that Universal’s parks are fundamentally different in their intent than some (but not all) of Disney’s parks.
Let me explain. The way I see it, you can fit most theme parks into one of two categories. I fully realize that the “there are two types of X” discussions are always terrible and reductive, but please bear with me for a minute as this is the best way I can think of to make this point. Anyway, those two categories are parks that are driven by a specific thesis and parks that are driven by a more broad idea or aesthetic*. The best examples of thesis driven parks are Disney’s Animal Kingdom and EPCOT Center. EPCOT’s thesis is that advances in technology and the sharing of cultural knowledge will help make the world a better place, and in its early days, this was fully supported by the attractions and environments within the park. It combined the ideals found in earlier attractions like It’s a Small World and Carousel of Progress and scaled them up to an entire theme park. Similarly, Animal Kingdom’s thesis is all about humanity’s interaction with the Earth and its living creatures, explored through science, folklore, and legend. These parks have very specific ideals, and any attractions that are added to these parks should support and reinforce them.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have those parks that are based not on a specific thesis, but more of a broad concept or even just a unified aesthetic. This is the category that Universal’s theme parks fall into, but it also exists in a few of Disney’s parks including Hollywood Studios and California Adventure. Here the attractions can be much more varied in terms of subject and content, as they are supporting broad themes like the golden age of Hollywood, the worlds of motion pictures, or the aesthetic of California in the early 20th century. There’s still a line that can be crossed in these parks wherein attractions and environments contradict the theme, but it’s generally much more inclusive and free in terms of content. It’s okay, for instance, for locations and characters from the movie Cars to be present in California Adventure because it fits with the aesthetic, even if Cars isn’t specifically a Californian story.
That’s the big difference here. That’s the reason why theme park fans are okay with a fantasy version of London replacing a New England beach town, yet are outraged over the generically Scandinavian setting of the film Frozen replacing a pavilion dedicated to the people and culture of Norway. It’s not because Universal fans care less about theme than Disney fans, but because these parks demand a different approach. Frozen does not support the thesis of Epcot, but would be appropriate in a park like Magic Kingdom. Similarly, while Avatar contradicts Animal Kingdom’s thesis, it would be right at home in a park like Universal’s Islands of Adventure.
Unfortunately, this idea of a theme park having a thesis doesn’t play well with Disney’s current franchise model, which is why parks like Epcot and Animal Kingdom are suffering (ironically, the model would fit nicely with Disney’s Hollywood Studios, but they can’t be bothered to do anything worthwhile there). Neither type of park is inherently better than the other, but they require vastly different approaches, and currently neither of the major players seem to be interested in developing content for the more specific, thesis driven parks. The success of environments themed around a single property like Universal’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter or Disney’s Cars Land has led to these types of environments becoming the new standard, but they are better suited for the more thematically broad parks. Hopefully we’ll see a return to thesis driven content in the future, but for now, we should look carefully at these franchise driven environments to ascertain where they would be most appropriate rather than just haphazardly applying them as Band-Aids to failing parks that need more specialized attention.
*In addition to those two, there is a third type of park – a park that is driven by specific ideals and world views of its creator. These types of parks are auteurist in nature and we can see examples in parks like Walt Disney’s Disneyland, Joe Rohde’s Animal Kingdom, and Tony Baxter’s Disneyland Paris, but that is a discussion for another time.
8 thoughts on “On the Subject of “Theme” in Theme Parks”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.