When looking at theme parks, I feel as though there has never really been a sufficiently good explanation of what defines them as an artistic medium*. When looking towards other media, it’s easy to define what they are. Literature is words on a page, collected into sentences and paragraphs to inform, enlighten, or entertain. Film is a collection of images – displayed in close enough succession to create the illusion of movement – to inform, enlighten, or entertain. Video games are a combination of visuals and sounds that can be manipulated by the audience to inform, enlighten, or entertain. Are you seeing the trend here? Theme parks, on the other hand, are a much harder thing to nail down. Obviously we have our Wikipedia definition (“a group of entertainment attractions, rides, and other events in a location for the enjoyment of large numbers of people”), but to me, that seems to describe more the idea of theme parks as a business rather than as an art form.
Recently, my family was in town, and after spending several days at Disneyland, I took them to Knott’s Berry Farm for their first visit. At Knott’s Berry Farm, there is a sign displayed prominently over the entrance gates, declaring it “America’s 1st Theme Park.” My sister – who tends to be more of a fan of Disney than of the medium as a whole – objected to that claim, and insisted that Disneyland was the first. To be fair, Disney has a tendency to spread misinformation about itself (how many times have you heard that Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was the first feature length animated movie ever made?), but when you get right down to it, the weird history of Knott’s challenges a lot of our assumptions of what defines a theme park. Does a theme park need to have rides? Knott’s Ghost Town didn’t get its first ride until nine years after it opened. Does a theme park need to be a gated attraction with an admission fee? That didn’t happen at Knott’s until 1968. Does a theme park need to have multiple, distinctly themed lands? Knott’s didn’t open its second themed area until 1969, almost 30 years after the park opened? So was Knott’s Berry Farm not a theme park for its first 9-29 years?
The problem is that a lot of how we define a theme park comes directly from the model Walt Disney created when building Disneyland. Disneyland is the proverbial gold standard that all theme parks are compared to, and it has largely taken over the way we define the medium as a whole. The problem is that this pigeonholes the medium into one fairly specific thing. If we compare Knott’s to Disneyland, Knott’s breaks a lot of the rules that Disney established – rules that have defined “theme parks” for nearly 60 years – but the things that make Knott’s different from Disneyland are the very things that make it special. In the same way that Disneyland is Walt Disney’s interests and world view made tangible, Knott’s Berry Farm is a somewhat eccentric outpouring of Walter Knott’s psyche. It feels slightly lopsided and off-kilter, as if the park was the product of a series of escalating, unplanned expansions, because that’s exactly what it was. It’s the byproduct of a poor man who became a rich man by selling berries and his wife’s fried chicken, and then started buying up oddities and things that interested him to entertain his guests. Knott’s Berry Farm is messy and imperfect, but to scrub that away would be to remove its soul; the same soul that we refer to when discussing art.
The definition of this medium as defined by the success of Disneyland is terribly restrictive and does a disservice to other works that are not the same as Disneyland and aren’t trying to be. It’d be like saying all science fiction movies must be like Star Wars, or all video games must be like Call of Duty. A work can be successful, and influential, but when we change the definition of a medium so that it only reflects copies of this one thing, that’s a problem. Beyond that, the idea of defining this medium by whether or not it has rides also seems unintuitive to me. I’m going to go out on a limb here, and propose my own definition.
A physical space which is constructed to immerse an audience in an artificial environment in order to inform, entertain, or enlighten.
That seems like a more satisfactory definition of the medium as an art and clarifies the difference between experiences like Disneyland or Knott’s Berry Farm from more generic amusements. It also, however, opens up the door for other experiences that we don’t traditionally call “theme parks.” Things like zoos and haunted houses and even some museums use immersive theming to inform, entertain, or enlighten, and I don’t see how they differ on a fundamental level other than in the flawed superficialities we’ve already discussed (i.e. they don’t typically have rides). They share a similar ethos, even if they look different on the surface.
So, perhaps in addition to a new definition, we also need a new name for this medium. I’ve heard the terms “themed entertainment” and “themed design” thrown around, but neither really seem to fit. After all, most entertainment is themed, and that moniker could just as easily be used to describe books, movies, video games, etc. as it could theme parks. Themed design is a little better, but still doesn’t quite work. I don’t really have any worthwhile suggestions, but we definitely need something that more clearly defines the art than “theme park,” which, as I’ve mentioned, refers more specifically to a business.
I know a lot of this is out there and perhaps a bit esoteric, but if we want to treat this medium as an art form, we need to look at these kind of things. A “re-branding” might be the best thing in the world for this medium, and including experiences like museums would provide immense opportunities for broadening the medium’s scope to include experiences beyond attractions designed for families with children. There’s an incredible power in being able to visit a tangible place that doesn’t exist in the “real” world of today. We can read about things in books, we can see them in pictures and in movies, and we can even interact with them in video games, but here is where you can touch them, be surrounded by them, experience them without the filter of a page or a screen. There is so much potential out there for this medium, and in order to achieve it we need to fundamentally alter the way we think about it.
*I don’t want to get into a video game-like debate over whether theme parks are “art” right now, but suffice it to say, I believe there is artistic potential in the medium, and to say the medium itself is inherently incapable of producing art is reductive and frankly untrue.