Book Review: Theme Park

[Note: actual quotes from the book are in italics and everything else is my own opinion]

I just finished reading Theme Park by Scott A. Lukas, a very smart book about the amusement industry and the origins of the theme park. “When you are inside a theme park, while you are watching one of its shows or spinning aboard one of its rides, you are thinking about the theme park, not about your humdrum life, relationship problems or issues with the boss at work. The whole idea of going to the theme park is that you can escape the problems of your everyday life and instead play in a virtual reality in which those problems are washed away and replaced with a world of immersion, joy, ecstasy and excitement.”

The book belongs to the Objekt Series whose titles explore a wide range of objects and products that have captured the imagination of designers, builders, makers, and theorists. “Unlike cinema and theater, in which audience members passively watch the action on the screen or stage, and unlike the narratives of television and books, which are static, the theme park uses the immersion of the individual inside an unfolding and evolving drama as the basis of its unique form.”

Theme parks are an interactive form of entertainment that has influenced many other forms of media, architecture, technology, and culture. Each chapter examines the amusement industry from a different angle including the theme ark as an oasis, land, machine, show, brand, and text. “…providing an amusement park with a theme may exploit the already vivid cultural associations present in people’s minds. It can act through architecture more effectively when it has acted on culture.”

The book is a bit wordy, delves a little too deeply into the theory behind the different definitions of theme, and ends up wandering away from actual theme parks toward the end. “The overarching principle of these features is summed up in Thompson’s advice that Luna [Park] was about ‘movement, movement, movement everywhere’. In Thompson’s mind, the eye as it gazed at Luna’s architecture should not be static, and neither should the amusements, shows and moving rides that made up the park’s landscape. Above all, as these elements combined, an order of synaesthetic potential was created.”

The author did his research though, and each chapter is bursting with up-to-date information. Theme parks “allow people to conceptually travel to other places and other time periods, resulting in sensory and mood orientations that contrast with those of everyday life.”

Theme Park contains a handful of very interesting stories about failed amusement parks that I had never even heard of before. If you think Wild West World or Freestyle Music Park was a failure or terrible idea you should definitely pick up this book to read about places such as Freedomland, Ocean Dome, Nara Dreamland, and Hitler’s Cross. “Much like the moral attractions of Dreamland, the failure of Freedomland and the success of Holiday World may in part be contributed to the explicitness of the theming. When theming is too specific, a park may suffer from patrons who are unable or unwilling to grasp the referents involved, and when it is less explicit-when it evokes as opposed to invokes – it may be able to reach more people. In this last sense the theming of parks takes on the concept of mood.”

I also enjoyed reading about the evolution of the show in theme parks. There has always been an emphasis on spectacle at theme parks but back in the day they took it to a whole other level that would never happen in this day an age. Several of these shows included: An elephant was put on a Shoot-the Chutes ride and then was executed and filmed in public; a reenactment with six hundred veterans of the Boer War; Ingorots imported from the Phillipeans; there was even an exhibit with live human babies.

Overall, the book contains fascinating and detailed information about theme parks and their influence on the world. I will admit it is not an easy read but it is definetly worth it to make it through it, you won’t be disappointed.  There are passages in the book which are spot on with my own observations.  If I haven’t convinced you to at least give it a try then maybe these last few quotes will!

“Speaking of Tivoli, its architect George Carstensen offered that “Tivoli will never, so to speak, be finished. Like the flux that characterized the updating of the many amusement parks of Coney Island, Tivoli established the idea that a successful theme park must be continually updated. In fact, years later, Walt Disney stated that ‘Disneyland will never be completed. It will continue to grow as long as there is imagination left in the world.’”

“Like the roller coaster war that sometimes plagues the contemporary amusement industry, the efforts of Reynolds to secure the biggest and the ‘best’ at his park did not necessarily result in patron satisfaction.”

Universal Orlando: “The park’s twister ride, for example, is located within the New York section while the World Expo features a Men in Black Alien Attack ride. What is significant is less the geography of the park than its referencing of major motion pictures, which arguably have become more cognitively etched in the minds of visitors than geographical locations.”

Dollywood: “Many of its rides effectively reference the park’s overall themes, and even when they do not – as in the case of unthemed Ferris wheels, troikas and the like – Dollywood can connect these types of rides to the old-fashioned country tradition of the county fair. Thus even the unthemed is themed.”

“Thompson once wrote of his amusement philosophy that when people visit Coney Island ‘they are not in a serious mood…They have enough seriousness in their every-day lives, and the keynote of the thing they do demand is change. Everything must be different from ordinary experience. What is presented to them must have life, action, motion, sensation, surprise, shock, swiftness, or else comedy.’”

Pick up your copy today!