Theme Park The Great American Amusement Parks Tourism Essay
[…] You know the fantasy isn’t here. This is very real … the park is reality. The people are natural here; they’re having a good time; they’re communicating. This is what people really are. The fantasy is out there, outside the gates of Disneyland, where people have hatreds and people have prejudices. It’s not really real! –
Walter Elias Disney
For the American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, a theme park can be defined as ‘an amusement park in which all the settings and attractions have a central theme, such as the world of the future’  . The Collins English Dictionary provides a broader definition: ‘(Non-sporting Hobbies / Other Non-sporting Hobbies) an area planned as a leisure attraction, in which all the displays, buildings, activities, etc., are based on or relate to one particular subject’  . Explanations provided by dictionaries are too general to be considered exhaustive solutions to theme park definition problem. Gothelf, Herbaux and Verardi suggest that a theme or amusement park is a generic term for a collection of rides and attractions assembled for the purpose of entertaining a large group of people. Camp adds that a theme park is an outdoor attraction which combines rides, attractions and shows designed around a central theme or groups of themes. But still, these starting definitions identify a theme park as a mere entertainment park based on a guiding theme around which the park takes shape.
However, it is possible to find more elaborate definitions beginning with Domenech who claims that theme parks encompass many different types of entertainment and, more often than not, include show attractions (live or films) and educational attractions such as live animal attractions and museum type attractions. Heo considers other element as basic pillars to define a park as themed. He describes theme parks as ‘an aggregation of themed attractions, including architecture, landscape, rides, food services, costumed personnel, and retail shops’. Kemperman starts from Pierce’s characterization of theme park to outline her own definition. Pierce suggests that theme parks are extreme examples of capital intensive, highly developed, user-oriented, man-modified, recreational environments, and Kemperman supplements his classification explaining that theme parks attempt to create an atmosphere of another place and time, and usually emphasize one dominant theme around which architecture, landscape, rides, shows, food services, costumed personnel, retailing are orchestrated.
It is possible to observe that the author includes not only the physical component, but also the service and human elements which results not to be set aside when trying to outline what exactly a theme park is. The basic assumption here is that theme parks cannot be classified as mere recreational and ludic spaces or tourist attractions. Regardless of their size and scope, theme parks are the mirrors and sense providers of societies in which they are placed. By selectively interpreting the reality, transferring emotions and feelings from the personal to the commercial sphere and generating emotions and feelings, parks say a lot about our societies, needs and imperatives (Clavé 2007).
Eyssartel and Rochette consider a theme park as a place where all the family can have fun, escape and forget its daily life, be marvelled, enrich their knowledge, reflect upon the past or imagine about the future. It represents one of the rare leisure products which let people share memorable moments and emotions. The two authors continue specifying that a theme park is at the same time a distraction place, a cultural oasis, a technological centre, a huge hypermarket organized like a clock. Furthermore, theme parks are urban spaces with a commercial vocation where architecture, art and technology resources work for a cultural project which main goal is visitors’ satisfaction and pleasure. Minardi and Lusetti provides a more comprehensive and brief definition of theme park by stating that it is a synthetic multifunctional structure, based on a themed and organized space that offers an integrated system of services intended to be a recreational activity for the masses. Theme parks depict synergic and coherent blending among three main dimensions: spectacle, tourism and commerce.
Rochette and Valndani & Guenzi identify different dimensions that coexists in a theme park, as a kaleidoscopic object that embrace simultaneously many spaces and places. Thus, a theme park can be seen as:
an island, because the park depicts an ideal independent world that is divided both physically and psychologically from the real outside. By going in it, visitors travel in a space and time dedicated to childhood, marvel and enchantment. The island is the symbol of an anti-world included into ours.
A labyrinth, which well expresses the explorer’s discovery of new worlds represented by different themed lands. Each land must be visited and crossed by visitors who follow pre-arranged rhythms and paths provided by the park itself. A theme park is a fluid labyrinth where flows of traffic are unforeseen, but assisted.
An attraction park, where restaurants and shops too become part of the spectacle. Attractions are part of that pre-arranged rhythms and paths established to guide visitors inside the park, adding a constant surprise.
An ensemble of décor and design. Decorations are used to recreate different kind of worlds and fantastic spatial-temporal dimensions in a theme park inside. Care in décor details entails practicality, appeal, safety and resistance as main key success factors for the park.
A cultural metabolite, where different worlds are portrayed and diverse styles coexist at the same time despite their opposing dissimilarities (i.e. east and west, real and magical, past and future, etc…). The main objective is not just to re-create a piece of other reality, but also to generate surprise, marvel and illusion in the visitor who is the real protagonist in theme park play. On this regard, theme parks seems to be akin to television logics with its typical scene juxtaposition. But if television stares at it spectator, theme park unveils a different kind of spectacle where the whole senses are seduced, stirred, excited.
A new emotional place, as in theme park reign a hyper-synesthesia in which all sensations are stimulated. In theme parks, the sensorial dimension and imagination are mixed together to create a total immersive and unforgettable experience. Among the sensations the park is meant to stimulate that of vertigo is the first in terms of importance. Vertigo sensations both physically through speed, falls, shakes-up, accelerated rotations combined with plunges and climbs in rides; and mentally with lot of messages aimed to generate a sensing chaos. The result is visitor’s general disorientation, like in a real labyrinth, and her prominent role in the spectacle performed.
A theme, as referred to ‘the use of an overarching theme...to create a holistic and integrated spatial organization of a consumer venue’ (Lukas 2007). The importance of theming in a theme park will be further analyzed in the third section of this chapter.
A city micro-universe, like Disneyland Paris where small independent villages live together and people in it, cast members, contribute to park’s life. Theme parks can be easily associated to real cities as they are independent and organized entities with their own transportation systems, general services and security. Inside theme parks everything must be properly pre-arranged and managed to assure its good functioning.
A urban laboratory, where technical dimensions such as architecture, scenery, urban organization, engineering and maintenance, work in concert to provide a quality service to park’s visitors through personnel and physical structures. The quality of the service is evaluated in terms of theming choices, personnel behaviour and policies (i.e. Disney’s clean, cool and smiling), overall park or brand image. The ultimate goal is succeeding in enchanting the visitor who find herself in a sort of ideal city.
Lukas reduces theme parks’ features to six by considering a theme park as:
oasis where all contradictions of the outside world can be happily resolved.
Land bringing together all the dimensions of environment, perception and experience into a vast whole, thus becoming spaces of hyper-sensation.
Machine that is both the amusement and theme park’s raison d’être. In theme park, it is a piece of the story being told through theming, something that affects visitor’s body and mind.
Brand. According to Lukas, theme parks first become places and second they become branded places, accomplished by their entering into an intimate relationship with the corporation and its associated logos, ideologies, feelings, values and experiences. Theme park as brand connects with people in an intimate sense evolving in lovemarks, as in Disney case. Lovemarks intended as ‘the charismatic brands that people love and fiercely protect’ (Roberts 2005) entails consumers’ loyalty and command both respect and love. If a theme park is able to develop its own brand as a cultural icon they can become very powerful products.
Text, considering park’s theming as a mobilized form of storytelling becoming a real narration, a story that is transferred from the world of theme parks to the visitors own world.
And Show because visitors are not passively watching leisure activities, but are part of them through active involvement and play. Visitors, architectures, sceneries, and personnel are all part of theme park’s spectacular performance.
In particular, the role of play, intrinsic in theme parks, is emphasised also by Caillois as a combination of social, psychological and physical dimensions able to express the fantasy that the physical place is asked to perform. Huizinga’s theory of play argues that, considering all the formal characteristics of play, it is possible to identify it as a free activity standing quite consciously outside of ordinary life as being ‘not serious’, but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly. It is an activity connected with no material interest and no profit can be gained by it. It proceeds within its own proper boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules and in an orderly manner. It promotes the formation of social groupings which tend to surround themselves with secrecy and to stress the difference from the common world by disguise or other means (Huizinga 1971, p13). Complying with Huizinga’s description of play, it is possible to delineate a clearer and detailed definition of theme parks by including its main features before outlined. This kind of approach takes into consideration the basic pillar which sustains theme parks main rationale: provide a total experience to its visitors.
According to Huizinga, there are three main features that characterizes the play:
Play is voluntary: it is an autotelic activity that is done just for its own sake. People choose to do and to stop it.
Play has its own logics and rules: the latter can be formal or informal conventions. Anyway, while play is in progress the rules of the real world are suspended and the play proceeds according to its own internal constraints. Rules stimulates their own overcoming, funding the key figure of the so called ‘trickster’ who defines a subtle balance between rules and their sidestepping  .
Play pertains to a specific time and, most importantly, a specific space that can be formally defined, such as a ride cabin or path, or can be informal and transitory, such as the mental space of visitors.
All the previous statements can be assumed for theme parks.
Play is the temporary construction of a microcosm, an ‘other world’ where the rules are simpler and the interactions are more formalized and obvious. This otherworldliness can be also noticed in theme parks as they let people travelling to other places and other time periods than the real world, often confusing and ambiguous. This journey results in a different sensorial and attitude dispositions that clash with those of everyday life. As cited by Lukas, the power of the otherworldly is the capability of a force to carry an individual, both physically and mentally, to some other place and state of being. Once the visitor is immersed in this other world, she reorients herself to the new place.
In this way, visitors take part in the theme park play and, by partly breaking the rules as tricksters, become themselves active agents in the performance of the park’s spectacles. Visitors create a spectacle within the spectacle through interagency.
II.1 Birth and development of dream machines
The Great American Amusement Parks considers the European pleasure gardens of the XVIIth and XVIIIth centuries as the earliest amusement parks. However, it was with the technological advances of the Industrial Revolution that mechanical rides of the modern amusement park came to light. In this specific field of development, American parks led the way.
As Domenech presents in his paper, amusement parks have a long history that can be traced back to the medieval ages, when they took the form of traveling fairs. Today, the tradition of traveling fairs remains alive in state fairs, county fairs, and renaissance festivals. However, amusement parks that are established as destinations rather than traveling attractions are more commonly referred to as a theme park, developed in the U.S. in the late 1800’s. The first theme park came into existence in 1893 as the Colombian exposition held in Chicago. Nevertheless the first relevant theme park was developed by trolley operators aimed at attracting weekend visitors at the beach resort of Coney Island in New York in the late 1800’s. Halfway through the 20th century, Walt Disney created the Disneyland theme park near Los Angeles, California and established the blue print for what most successful theme parks look like today (Domenech 2009).
Pleasure gardens became especially popular areas between the XVIIth and XVIIIth centuries where one could escape from the urban environment. As suggested by Eyssartel and Rochette, gardens are not just cultivated spaces, but also a form of cultural space. Gardens represented imaginary spaces retaining strong connections with visual arts. The concept of garden is the symbol of the relationship between the natural chaos and the order in culture, associated to the idea of paradise. The order principle is well evident in French style gardens, whereas the idea of disorder is apparent in English-Chinese gardens.
At this point, it is possible to make a distinction between different types of gardens. Versailles gardens put in place a so called ‘French style’ which reached its apogee in the XVIIth century with the creation of the Gardens of Versailles, designed for Louis XIV by the landscape architect André Le Nôtre. French style gardens were characterized by symmetry and perspective by means of specific garden architectures and water games. The guiding principle was that of imposing order over nature through ornate carpets of floral designs and walls of hedges, decorated with statues and fountains. This kind of garden was completely different compared to the so called ‘English style garden’ which emerged in England in the early XVIIIth century, and spread across Europe, replacing the more formal, symmetrical Garden à la française as the principal gardening style of Europe (Allain, and Christiany 2006). The English garden were usually composed by a lake and recreations of Gothic ruins and classical temples, bridges, and other picturesque architecture, designed to recreate an idyllic pastoral landscape. Another type of leisure garden is identified with the name of ‘Gardens of Suzhou’ or ‘Classical Chinese gardens’ which recreates natural landscapes in miniature. Its architecture and aesthetics influenced the English garden. Classical Chinese garden purpose is the triggering of intense emotions and conveyance of metaphoric messages by the environment through different sceneries and decorative elements. The garden was not meant to be seen all at once, it was laid out to present a series of scenes. Visitors moved from scene to scene either within enclosed galleries or by winding paths which concealed the scenes until the last moment. The scenes would suddenly appear at the turn of a path, through a window, or hidden behind a screen of bamboo (Chiu 2010, pp10-11). Chinese gardens are filled with architecture which occupies a large part of the space. The garden structures are not designed to dominate the landscape, but to be in harmony with it (Dunzhen and Wang 1993).
That is why Lukas (2008) highlights that what early leisure gardens establish is not simply that humans may inhabit the land, but that they may modify it in artificial ways that perfectly fuse the natural and the unnatural. The earliest pleasure gardens include Tivoli of Copenhagen, Jenny’s Whim, Vauxhall gardens, and Ranelagh gardens in London, Vienna’s Prater, where acrobatic performances, fireworks, dancing and music were performed. Lukas carries on emphasizing that pleasure gardens were and are not theme parks. However, the multi-use entertainment space typical in pleasure gardens had an impact on the future appearance of theme park. The theme park, as influenced by the multi-use entertainment space of the pleasure garden and later the world exposition, provides the patron with all she desires, with the only limit being the patron’s imagination and energy to contribute to the amusement (Lukas 2008).
Universal expositions or world fairs had a greatest influence than pleasure gardens on current theme parks. World's fairs began in 1851 with the construction of the landmark Crystal Palace in London, England. The purpose of the exposition was to celebrate the industrial achievement of the nations of the world, of which Britain just so happened to be the leader. Starting from then on, world’s fairs have been held in major cities focusing people attention on means of transportation and movement, technological and scientific progress by building great architectural structures and symbolic monuments. World fairs represented also the ‘opening ceremony’ to massive tourism with 5 million visitors in 1855, 16 million visitors in 1878, and 50 million visitors in 1900 in Paris’ Universal Exposition (Eyssartel and Rochette 1992, p29).
The World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago is seen as an early precursor to the modern amusement park. This fair was an enclosed site that merged entertainment, engineering and education to entertain the masses (Adams 1991). Rides from this fair captured imagination of the visitors and of amusement parks around the world, such as the first steel Ferris wheel, which was found in many other amusement areas like the Prater by 1896. Moreover, the experience of the enclosed ideal city with wonder, rides, culture and progress represented by electricity, was based on the creation of an illusory place (Alter 1997).
The use of a geometric, radial and an ordered structural plan introduced at the Columbian Exposition would become a standard part of most amusement parks, fairs and carnivals. In Chicago’s universal exposition in 1933, for example, it was possible to see the first example of a long commercial street where all the attractions are connected as in Disney’s Main street. Furthermore, in Brussels world exposition in 1935 was applied the typical radical structure to avoid bottlenecks and assure a fluid passage of visitors (Valdani & Guenzi 1999). World’s exhibitions offered their visitors rides and entertainments such as galleries, arcades, games of chance and shows (Alter 1997). It is evident from previous examples that with the time going by, universal expositions have been overtaken by their ‘mise-en-scene’: the initial educational purpose was replaced by entertainment and leisure seduction. Thus, world fairs exemplified like modern theme parks a good merge among art, technique, imagination and commerce (Valdani & Guenzi 1999). As Lukas pointed out, world’s fairs promoted the important theme park principle of the total package: they created distinctive entertainment zones with clear boundaries and coherence. While people never fully accepted the entertainments of the pleasure gardens as a new reality, with the world exposition a new tradition of the ‘real’ emerges (Lukas 2008). Furthermore, world’s fairs fused past, present and future in a compact unicum by stressing the desirable aspects of present life, mentioning the past with nostalgic attitude and reflecting interest in the future. Democracity, the futuristic metropolis built up in occasion of the New York World’s Fair in 1939 – 1940, proves the special interest about the future. However, universal expositions and world’s fairs lost popularity after 1964 – 1964 New York World’s Fair, due to the advent of new forms of transportation and fairs’ increasing costs and losses. Despite their ruinous end, world’s Fairs established a new dimension of entertainment.
Theme parks are becoming more and more educational, communicational and entertainment places, where science is spectacularized (Valdani & Guenzi 1999). According to the definition provided by the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles, "...The public museum as understood today is a collection of specimens and other objects of interest to the scholar, the man of science as well as the more casual visitor, arranged and displayed in accordance with the scientific method. In its original sense, the term 'museum' meant a spot dedicated to the muses - 'a place where man's mind could attain a mood of aloofness above everyday affairs’ (The Museum of Jurassic Technology website 2012). More in general, scientific and technological centers are today conceived as museums devoted on scientific successes and technological progress and they are pursuing the same theme parks’ strategy. In recent years, science museums are used to apply interactive ways to present new technologies to customers and to involve them into the active discovery of new interesting scientific and technologic dimensions. They usually host planetariums and cinemas to make people dynamically participating and having fun in what is going on, holding at the same time an educational role.
Eyssartel and Rochette describe science museum as educational places, communication places, and leisure places, where everywhere the Science is performed. According to their opinion, the themed approach represents the most appropriate way for a blending between exact and human sciences and spectacularization among the different connections that link them. Theming is also a pretext for the creation of a consistent path, like theme parks most common structure.
Lukas observes that of the early influences on the theme park, including pleasure gardens and world’s fairs, amusement parks are the most significant. Amusement or Luna parks started to appear in the first decade of 1800 and were characterized by mechanical attractions combined with human attractions, too. The latter will later become, together with animal shows, the main spectacular component of circuses. The typical elements characterizing Luna parks were terror and mystery, in order to convey a thrilling soul to the park, camouflage shows and rollercoaster rides. Luna parks were usually travelling spectacles, called initially trolley parks in the U.S. These parks originally consisted of picnic groves and pavilions, and often held events such as dances, concerts and fireworks. Many eventually added features such as swimming, carousels, Ferris wheels, rollercoasters, restaurants and other resort facilities to make an upgrade to amusement parks (Alter 1997). Adams and Clabrese & Codeluppi report the existence of between 1,500 and 2,000 amusement parks in the U.S by 1919. However, there were also some examples of stable Luna parks such as one of the first and most relevant at Coney Island, New York. Between the last two decades of the XIXth century and World War II, Coney Island became the largest amusement area in the U.S. At its golden age, it contained come major amusement parks: Sea Lion Park, Steeplechase Park, Luna Park, and Dreamland, as well as many independent amusements. Coney Island offered, like universal expositions, a physical space where different amusements could coexist (Lukas 2008, p37). After its first years of activity, hotels and restaurants were added to the initial service offer, contributing to clear the way for theme parks. In 1895 Paul Boyton, showman and adventurer known as ‘Fearless Frogman’, opened Sea Lion Park, a leisure park themed around water. In 1897 another amusement park opened its doors by George Tilyou who was been inspired by the Ferris Wheel at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. Steeplechase Park, was based on people’s dynamic involvement in attractions, unlikely Sea Lion Park which was rather static in its attractions. Furthermore, Steeplechase was decided to be an enclosed space completely monitored and controlled by park operators. In this way the park contributed to give its operators a strong sense of identity, like theme park will later achieve, and the idea that amusement parks are places where all contradictions of the outside world can be happily resolved (Lukas 2008, p49). An important and revolutionary change introduced by Tilyou was the creation of Steeplechase’s corporate logo connecting visitors to the park’s imaginative world. Tilyou realized that ‘people liked seeing shows, but they liked seeing people more’ taking part in a sort of rite of passage. The focus on people and their desires, and the conception of amusement park as a mechanical response to the body, represent Steeplechase’s legacy for following theme parks.
Luna Park appeared on the American amusement park scenes in 1903 by Frederic Thompson and Elmer Dundy. The park took the place of the previous Sea Lion Park which closed in 1902 due to new attractions competition. The park, inspired to the moon in itself, created the first spectacular fantasy world through architecture, sceneries and technology of illusion. The park resulted to be more spectacular than any other amusement park known until that moment with impressive attractions, rides and shows creating a sense of parallel fantastic other world. Architect Rem Koolhaas spoke about a system of metaphorical meaning and architectural eclecticism. He further recognizes the influential and lively role of architecture in the creation of worlds within Luna Park’s world making possible the realization of a variety of places to be visited in the span of one day. The prominence of design and architecture together with the supremacy of lights constituted one of the key success factors of Luna Park. These can be found in the constant effort in stupefying the patron who is put in the middle of the amusement, the focal value of spectacles, the variety of entertainment and the construction of a safe, clean, and happy place.
Another amusement park based in Coney Island proved to be a predecessor of modern theme parks; this was Dreamland funded in 1904 by New York senator William H. Reynolds. This park was meant to be a high-class entertainment field with elegant, lavish and extravagant architectures which cost over $2 million. Reynolds established all the main elements inside the park on a superior and more excessive scale than his competitors, although most part of Dreamland’s rides and attractions were just copied and pasted from the other amusement parks. The innovation set by the park was the intent to control and manage visitors flow and rhythm inside the park and the attempt to educate the public with didactic exhibits along rides and thrills (Entertainment Designer 2011). Reynolds also introduced the so called ‘Freak shows’ exhibiting biological rarities and physically unusual humans, referred to as ‘freaks of nature’ expected to be shocking to the viewers. However, just seven years after its opening, Dreamland park was destroyed by a dramatic nighttime fire.
Although Luna parks are Leisure parks precursors, they should not be confused as they display some fundamental differences in both their structure and entertainment offer. One of the leading principle of Luna parks is the anarchy among its several rides and attractions as there is not any ‘fil rouge’ or thematic connection among the attractions. Instead, in a leisure or theme park, it is possible to observe a thematic continuity throughout the various rides and park areas. Luna parks display what is called the ‘temptation of the forbidden’, meaning there could be violent attractions, shows, and events in it, and visitors are fully aware of that. Unlikely, leisure parks have very strict moral, performance, and behavioral norms to respect. Especially in Disney Parks, it is not possible to sell alcoholic beverages, with the only exception of Disneyland Paris; no reference to sex or politics is allowed and there are rigid rules to comply with also for cast members. These rules are formalized in a specific ‘Appearance and behavioral code’.
II.2 Typologies of theme park : an attempt of classification
The type of theme parks nowadays available to the public covers a wide variety of businesses ranging from the well-known large scale theme or leisure parks with ‘white knuckle’ rides, to historic properties, museums and art galleries, religious sites, industrial plants, zoos, and wildlife parks (Kemperman 2000, p1).
There are different classifications of leisure parks according to different authors, but basically from the industry point of view we have a simple distinction between water parks and theme parks, from an academic perspective, instead, a broader categorization is available.
According to Tosetto (1986) a leisure park classification consists of:
Natural parks which includes botanical gardens, zoological gardens, and safari parks which represents a mixture between science and spectacle; moreover, they satisfy the interests for the nature expressed by modern societies.
Water parks that are mainly focus on the entertainment component with artificial waves, themed rapids, swimming pools with water chutes, etc…
Sea life parks mingling scientific and educational elements with entertainment and fun through aquariums and spectacles involving sea animals.
Urban parks which are basically permanent luna parks and multifunctional recreational centers that offer simultaneously cinemas, theaters, restaurants, shopping malls and a vast array of other spectacles and services.
Theme parks characterized by a specific theme or inspiring principle around which they are built in terms of structure and park activities.
According to Lusetti (1998) a different classification of attraction park is possible. This includes:
Sealife parks which main focus is on an educational dimension.
Water parks which main focus is on fun and play side.
Theme parks which represents the broadest category.
Faunal and safari parks.
Amusement or luna parks.
Sartore (1993) suggests a distinction between two principal park families: natural – faunal park and recreational parks in the strict sense. The latter include three main typologies of parks, such as attraction parks, theme parks, and water parks.
As for Lanquar’s classification (1991), there is a relevant distinction among:
Theme parks: the official birth date of this kind of entertainment park is 1955 when Disneyland Anheim came to ligh. The difference with the other types of park is the presence of themed lands or themes attractions which unify the different park areas. Disneyland provides a spatial division, a themed space, and an attraction offer which have become the referring model for later parks.
Luna parks characterized by the presence of different strolling entrepreneurs who meet in a specific place in certain periods of the years, managing each one her own attractions. In this type of park, the machine has its prominence over human abilities. First examples of luna parks are found in Copenaghen (Tivoli Gardens) and Vienna (Prater) around 1850.
Parks of attractions which are developed by a company that builds up and manages the different attractions. The initiator of this category was Sea Lion Park in Coney Island, New York, opened in 1887.
Park of shows, which found inspiration from Universal Studios opened in 1963 in Hollywood. They offer audiovisual attractions which main themes are movies, music, and simulation techniques.
Parks of interactive stimulation (science and technical parks) like Futuroscope and La Villette in France. These are technological villages which can be considered like open-air science museums, multimedia parks which main guiding theme is represented by technological frontiers in imaging and communication.
The Italian website Parksmania.it, that registers and describes theme and entertainment parks internationally, broadens the previous categories distinguishing among further groups:
Mechanical parks, composed by rides and hi-tech attractions characterized by speed and thrill.
Indoor parks, placed in closed, entertainment, and design - architectural structures.
Children playground parks which represent a sort of evolution of common recreation grounds.
Family parks, which offer attractions for the entire family.
Calabrese and Codeluppi (2009) instead narrow the previous distinction identifying five main categories of fun park:
Attraction parks are the original model which inspired all the following theme and amusement parks. On their side, attractions parks are the synthesis of a long history of spectacles and entertainment shows.
Disney parks. The two authors consider Disney as "the theme park" for excellence. Its formula focuses on a detailed and accurate setting combined with attraction movement. The resulting global experience is amplified by transforming a simple visitor in guest and a group of attractions in a different, entertainment world. Indeed, Disney parks are defined by Pine and Gilmore as ‘experiences directors’.
Theme parks, characterized by an ‘already known content’ that provides consistency and cohesion to visitors who go through it. Theme parks are spaces organized around a unique theme that is simultaneously real and fictional. Value is given not by what appears to eyes, but by sensations the place induces to visitors.
Naturalistic parks which main focus is visitors’ edutainment through direct experiment, play, sport or artistic activities, multimedia and interactive technologies.
Corporate museums deriving from the assumption that a company is not only a place where products and services take shape, but it is also a social object, with its own past and history, able to promote culture and to create fruitful connections with the local community and territory. Among the different European countries, Holland, Germany, France and Switzerland are those which count the highest number of corporate museums in the Old Continent.
A further classification of the different areas dedicated to free time is provided by Valdani and Guenzi (1999), who analyzes the nature of recreational parks through a map based on two dimensions: park’s content that can be either cultural or ludic, and level of dynamism, that is action or relax. The result is a positioning map to place parks according to both their similarities and level of replaceability for customers.
Whichever way recreational parks are classified, what they have in common is the ludic and entertainment component.
II.3 From amusement parks to theme parks: the importance of theming
We don’t put people in Disney. We put Disney in people. –
Disney trainer Richard Park
The consumer finishes the story, but the object of the story belongs to those who run the script –
To substantiate the importance of theming in theme parks, it is necessary to make a step back and to briefly explain the difference between existing entertainment park. According to the available literature (Lukas 2008, Eyssartel and Rochette 1992, Valdani and Guenzi 1999, Lukas 2007, Calabrese and Codeluppi 2009, Codeluppi 2002) amusement and theme parks have some distinctive feature that prevent using the two terms as synonym. In the classification of a park as amusing or themed, it is possible to consider another category identified as ‘thrill park’. The latter is based upon roller coasters and other thrill rides that can display a certain level of theming, but that does not constitute the relevant link among the several park’s rides. When visitors enjoy a Thrill Park, they do not feel part of a different other world, as in a Theme Parks; instead, they are shaken-up by the speed and adrenaline of the first set of thrill rides. Furthermore, they also differ from amusement park as the latter combine thrill rides with more chilling activities. One consideration to do with regard to theme parks is that they can still have a thrill aspect. Theme park category does not preclude the presence of exciting roller coasters or thrill rides.
The main distinction between amusement and theme parks is that it was after the development of the amusement parks that theme parks were established. The oldest known amusement park is Bakken, in Denmark, which has been traced back to 1583. Moreover, while theme parks have a central idea, amusement parks do not. Theme parks depict a unified theme which connects its different areas or land, could it be a brand, an historical period or character, whereas amusements parks have no such unified themes but only different rides and attractions assembled together to entertain people. Theme parks architecture, décor, characters, food, music, attractions, landscaping and overall appearance is arranged to create a consistent narrative path to be followed and in a way believed by visitors. Guests become in this way a small piece of the park’s illusion-story and, at the same time, they create their own narrations by filtering the reality they live in its inside through the mental grid composed my their personal features. Indeed, as Lukas well explains, theming is a materialized and mobilized form of storytelling and as an overall form it becomes a text […] in theme parks worlds, where personal narratives are a powerful motivating force. He continues arguing that theming is culturally significant, particularly in the ways in which it is interpreted and acted on by individuals.
According to the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions a theme park is an amusement park that has themed attractions, be it food, costumes, entertainment, retail stores and/or rides (Wong & Cheung, 1999, p320). What seems to be the main distinction between theme parks and amusement parks is a core theme which runs through all or many park attractions. The theme becomes the main part of park’s experience (Pikkemaat and Shuckert 2007, p201).
A theme is defined as a concept or a metaphor that expresses the meaning of an event and is employed to coherently design all the event elements (Rinallo 2011, p24). As a theme is a way to implement a message, in its development phase it is crucial to maintain consistency with the characteristics of the audience, the organizational culture, and the brand positioning of the firm. This means that creativity must serve the purposes that the company wants to realize rather than be researched just for its own sake. Eyssartel and Rochette in their book present the theme as performing three fundamental tasks:
It grants internal consistency among park’s different lands, worlds and attractions.
It typifies attractions that for their own nature are just standardized.
It attributes the park a specific and recognizable identity through redundancy of messages and universal symbols. Like in Disney’s theme parks, once the visitor crosses the main gate, everything is mobilised to portray a credible and magic never-land.
In their opinions, a theme is primarily a brand designed to bring out the park seriality typical in identical places. Seriality reinforced by the marketing strategy that promotes the internationalization of taste, in order to enable the rotation of customers or products. The specific attraction of a particular place in a set of equivalent spaces becomes the certainty of finding symbols immediately understandable and appropriable by visitors. In this perspective, theming is a projection of desire: the need to control imagination through recognizable illusions (Lukas 2007).
Kemperman suggests that theme parks attempt to create an atmosphere of another place and time, and usually emphasize one dominant theme around which architecture, landscape, rides, shows, food services, costumed personnel, retailing are orchestrated. In this definition, the concept of themes is crucial to the operation of the parks, with rides, entertainment, and food all coordinated to create several different environments. However, theme is not just a matter of architectural and other tangible forms of representation, as also an intangible dimension come into play. At the most immediate level, themes assail visitor’s senses that contribute to create total sensory experiences. Senses result to be more and more stimulated through micro-theming and performative theming. The former consists of an attack to the five senses through subtle and imperceptible stimulation ways to the guest. It can be realized with images, sounds and music, colours, good smells, cold and/or warm feelings on the visitor’ skin, etc… The latter involves the participation of cast members who must be always on stage playing their roles while having customers around. The two create the so called ‘theming complex’ characterized by customers expecting a sense of discovery and sense stimulation than just availability of products and entertainment. An effective use of theming complex results in a successful ambience which entails an integrated use of the senses (Lukas 2007). By engaging all the senses, a themed space can generate a subjective experience in guest’ mind that provide authenticity to the experience itself and enhance its overall value.
Some examples of themes used in present theme parks include fairytales and neverlands, historical periods and events, animals, adventure feats, sea life and futurism. These themes are used to create and sustain a feeling of life involvement in a setting completely removed from daily experience (Kemperman 2000, p14). A peculiar example of theming is Walt Disney Studios, the second park belonging to Disneyland Paris Resort. At this park, the display of behind-the-scenes production works to transform the visitor into the producer, emphasizing multiple and diverse identifications. The studios embrace performativity and encourage spontaneous and continuous interaction among visitors and performers. The movie behind-the-scenes theme let people create stories well-matched with their own personalities. These stories contribute to the production of their selfs as individuals and also the production of their selfs as celebrities. In order to become part and feel the theme, the visitor is supposed to suspend her disbelief and immerse her body and mind in the fantasy world, helped by cast members who are required to deliver a coherent representation of the theme itself (Lukas 2007).
Lukas proposes an alternative definition of theme by assuming that theming is today a form of simulation that operates through the projection of another place, time, world or culture. Like themes, simulations are intended to be copies, reproductions of an original. According to this view, spaces in theme parks seem to take forms, shapes, and meanings from other times and places, so themed spaces result to be simulated spaces. However, in Lukas perspective theme is not necessary a synonym of simulation. Instead, it rather assumes the role of mediator between people, culture and places. In some cases, like in a theme park, it is difficult to distinguish between the real and the simulated, the authentic and inauthentic. Indeed, theming reflects cultural traditions, ideologies, local backgrounds and life styles, but it also produces stereotyped, fake and simulated echoes of people, places and times. Ritzer emphasizes the negative effect of theming on people behaviours in terms of dehumanization, mainly because visitors and staff act following the narratives established by the park itself. He follows, arguing that dehumanization and rationalization lead both workers and visitors to be trapped in an inauthentic world, even if they can choose to or not to visit or work in a theme park. Actually, they do not have any choice as the choices that are offered to them have been deliberately conditioned, both inside and outside the park.
Additionally, theming can be considered as a way to establish and maintain control of the individual in subtle ways and to induce her behaving, acting and buying in a certain way. The same is true for workers inside the park as their term depends on rules and appearance code compliance. They must ‘look the park’ and be credible when on stage to make people believe in the fantasy created through themed spaces. One of the most important feature of theming is its connection to specific cultural values of the society in which it is embedded and at the same time the mirroring of the values of the culture or brand that has created it, creating in turn new values in people and workers.
There are other contrasting positions toward the entertainment aspects generated by theming. The negative critique (Boorstin 1961; Eco 1995; Baudrillard 1975) considers visitors as passive recipients of the message that the theming aims to convey. The negative positions are counterbalanced by entertainment-supporters (Moore 1997; Schmitt 1999) who consider consumers as active and creative players in the theme park arena, laying the foundations for the so called "Ludic Agency" theory (Kozinets, Sherry, Jr., Storm, Duhachek, Nuttavuthisit, Deberry-Spence 2004).
As the importance of the experience economy is increasing in our society, it can be demonstrated that managers have become more aware of its value in defining an effective theming, able not only to convey a specific message, but also to generate a direct and emotional impact on park’s guests. Furthermore, the position of details in the physical realization of a theme is crucial and requires, more and more attention on each step of its realization. These steps can be associated to those of event organization that are summarized in anticipation, arrival, atmosphere, appetite, activities and souvenir moments (Rinallo 2011). Anticipation and arrival are like portals, able to give hints and to introduce respectively the guest to a the parallel world of the event/park. Atmosphere is mainly produced by the venue, staging and décor. The latter includes all those elements able to stimulate the five senses providing a holistic experience (Schmitt 1999) including lighting, audio and sounds, visuals, smells, performances and scenery. Activities should spur different levels of people’s engagement according to the type of feeling requested in the ride (Pine & Gilmore 2011), such as fear, surprise, magic, thrill, happiness, adrenaline, etc…. Appetite and souvenirs are worth being taken into account because they can influence the overall guest’s perception of the park. They must all be consistent with the theming of the specific land in order to make this successful.
According to Silvers, themes should be based on something familiar to the audience, then interpreted and expanded in an unusual way (Silvers 2004). In the development of a theme, for example, it may be useful to make reference to cultural icons, meaning images that are deeply ingrained in culture and that are commonly recognized and understood by a wide audience. Icons are culture-specific and may differ according to the geographic, socioeconomic and educational background of the audience. Different audiences may not recognize the same reference, so it is necessary to pay attention to the language, allusions, and ideas to use in order to communicate with a certain target.
Theming represents a crucial element in the overall park atmosphere creation process as it acts as a main guideline for the subsequent choices to be taken in park’s development. Theming contributes to communicating a specific message and, consequently, to providing a particular entertainment experience also in other industries than theme parks (restaurants, shopping mall, sports stadiums and airports). If well-orchestrated, it may generate a remarkable memory in people’s minds.
I.4 The theme park industry
Theme parks are star players in the tourism industry, and play a special and important role in generating tourism demand. Theme parks are the main motivators for tourism trips to many destinations and core elements of the tourism
product (Kemperman 2000, p1). However, as stated by Guenzi and Valdani, it is hard task to precisely analyse a dynamic and not so well know sector like that of theme parks in which comprehensive and trustworthy statistics measurements are not available. In their opinion, the most important and reliable source of data is the IAAPA association which includes more than 3.200 parks in more than 50 countries.
Before analysing the Disneyland Paris theme park, its experience dimensions and the way customers perceive the theme park experience, I will go more in depth into the examination of the theme parks industry as it provides an introduction to the global entertainment parks context. I will consider the global theme park situation organized per continent and I will later focus on the European and French situation.
I.4.1 A global perspective
The theme park industry is characterized by a high impact of fixed costs and capital intensive structure. The latter establishes high entrance barriers for new operators that need huge investments to start the business. The principal voice of investment is attractions renewal which impacts for the 47% of the total investments, followed by ordinary repairs of entertainment structures (20%), of themed environments (12%), and of restaurant structures (11%). The remaining 10% is for infrastructural investments and extraordinary repairs (Valdani & Guenzi 1998, pp 69-70). The ERA/AECOM report shows estimated data about both revenues and off-site spending for 2011, considering the basic distinction between theme and amusement park: for theme parks attendance is based on ticket issued as they are characterized by the pay-one-price formula; whereas for amusement parks, which apply a pay-as-you-go formula, attendance is estimated by counting visitors manually.
As for revenues, they are generated through admissions tickets and in park spending including food and beverage sales, retail sales, and other types of spending (parking, lockers, games, etc). For parks with a hotel or other forms of accommodation and second-gate attractions, this represents an additional source of visitor revenues. Revenue can also be generated from non-visitor activities such as corporate sponsorship, corporate events, conferencing and other private venue hire (ERA/AECOM 2011). The impact of ticket sales and the percentage of revenues varies as follows according to the different size of theme parks. The Economics Research Associates identifies three main types of theme parks and two types of amusement parks according to their size based on attendance:
Large theme parks: theme parks with over one million visitors.
Medium theme parks: theme parks with between 250,000 and one million visitors.
Small theme parks: theme parks with under 250,000 visitors.
Large amusement parks: parks with a pay-as-you-go pricing structure that attract over 500,000 visitors.
Small amusement parks: parks with a pay-as-you-go pricing structure that attract under 500,000 visitors.
The sample includes 28 theme and amusement parks across 8 countries.
Admission as % of total revenue
Secondary spending as % of total revenue
Non-visitor as % of total revenue
Large theme parks
Medium theme parks
Small theme parks
Large amusement parks
Small amusement parks
Source: Economics Research Associates (ERA) 2011
The focus of this chapter is to analyse the theme park industry, so from now on I am not digging deeply into the amusement parks side.
Besides revenues generated inside a theme park, there is more money spent by visitors in the local area (off-site). These expenditures include hotel and accommodation, food and beverage, petrol and car park, and other transportations (public bus, train, airport shuttle etc…). They can have a significant impact on the theme park surrounding area.
According to the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA), attendance at U.S. amusement parks rose steadily throughout the 1990s and 2000s, and by 2007 a reported 341 million people visited the parks, generating $12.0 billion in revenues. By the end of the twentieth century, there were more than 400 amusement parks in the United States containing about 1.7 billion rides.
The attendance data presented by AECOM and TEA, in their Global Attractions Attendance Report in 2011, show that the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World in Florida was the most visited amusement park in the world in 2011, with an estimated 17.2 million visitors. Disneyland in California was second, with 16.1 million visitors, and Tokyo Disneyland ranked third with an attendance of 13.9 million. Disneyland Park in France and Tokyo Disney Sea rounded out the top five most-attended parks in the world with an attendance of 10.9 and 11.9, respectively. In the United States, Walt Disney was far away the largest amusement park chain, with a total 121.4 million visitors to all sites in 2011. Other top U.S. amusement park chains included Six Flags Inc., Universal Studios Recreation Group, Busch Entertainment, and Cedar Fair Entertainment.
The U.S. amusement park industry suffered from a decline in attendance during the late 2000s due to the down economy. As stated by Ray Braun of AECOM: "Most parks felt the impact of the deepest recession since the Great Depression. The notable exception was the biggest operator, Disney . . . [which] successfully marketed special programs to its resident market base at substantial discounts." By 2011, industry participants were optimistic about a recovery.
According to John Robinett, AECOM’s Senior Vice President: "[…] a pair of outstanding performers in the U.S. (Universal Orlando and SeaWorld San Diego) are a lesson to all operators on how to apply reinvestment to beat the business cycle. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter alone brought in a significant and impressively large chunk of North America’s overall attendance increase. Overall, North America grew 2.9%; subtract Harry Potter and it grew at 1.6%". Brian Sands, AICP Vice President, presents the data for the year 2011 explaining that the 2.9% equates to an increase of 3.6 million visitors, which was close to a 50% greater increase than that recorded for 2010; this was despite continued weakness in the U.S. economy.