Theme Parks and COVID-19: The Return of Metatourism

Florian Freitag (Duisburg-Essen)

The impact of COVID-19 on tourism in general and on theme parks in particular has been immense. While we may not yet be able to assess and understand the full economic implications of the pandemic for the global theme park industry, its cultural impact e.g. on how visitors interact with theme park landscapes and on the ways theme parks present themselves in so-called paratexts (from Greek pará-, “beside, adjacent to,” and “beyond, or distinct from, but analogous to”; texts that accompany literary or other medial texts; see Genette and Gray) has already become readily apparent. With respect to the former issue, for instance, Europa-Park (Rust, Germany) has introduced new features on its website and app that allow visitors to schedule park visits and time slots for specific rides. Partly mandatory (park tickets must be booked in advance for a specific date), these features have markedly increased not only the amount of “Spaß-Arbeit” (fun work; see Legnaro, p. 293) or “Erlebnisarbeit” (experience work; see Kagelmann, p. 175) that visitors need to invest in their park visit but also the general relevance of theme park paratexts – i.e., medial representations of the theme park or its parts that are produced by the park itself and that serve as a medial interface between the park landscape and the visitors, providing the latter with “frames and filters” or “scripts” on how to experience the park.

At the same time, the example of Europa-Park also illustrates the impact of the pandemic on yet another genre of theme park, namely, advertisements. Seeking to mitigate the disastrous effects of forced park closures and pandemic-related travel bans on park attendance, posters and social media posts in the context of Europa-Park’s Summer 2020 ad campaign have highlighted the “metatouristic” potential of the site, thus indicating a renewed emphasis on a theming strategy that had been particularly popular during the 1980s and 1990s. Though it is the large, multimedia conglomerate-owned parks which are best known for drawing on established media franchises as the source of their theming – for instance, the use of the Harry Potter franchise in Universal Studios parks – regional and family-owned parks like Europa-Park have also adapted established media franchises into themed areas, for instance in the “Arthur”-themed area, based on the Arthur et les Minimoys-movie trilogy, which opened in 2014. Rather than advertising the site as a destination for film or, more generally, fictional media tourism, however, Europa-Park’s 2020 “Urlaub in Europa” (holiday in Europe) campaign has returned to foregrounding the park’s “metatouristic” appeal (Köck,  p. 14). For instance, “Urlaub in Europa” billboards e.g. at train stations in southern Germany show postcards – yet another theme park paratext – that combine close-ups of a replica of a famous tourist sight in one of the park’s themed sections (an Andalusian cityscape, the Colosseum, a Scandinavian fishing village, or a Greek temple) with a shot of a family enjoying a dinner or a group of people taking a guided tour or a picture of a hotel room ready for occupation. The postcards are framed by the Spanish, Italian, Norwegian, or Greek national flags respectively, and are held by a hand so that they perfectly align with larger, blurred versions of the “tourist sight” shots in the background – no doubt in order to authenticate the tourist’s presence at the actual sites. It is only upon closer inspection, however, that passersby realize that far from inviting them to travel to Spain, Italy, Norway, or Greece – which due to Coronavirus and related travel restrictions would not be advisable or even possible anyways – the billboards rather seek to entice them to visit the “replicas” of these and other countries at Europa-Park.

Online, the campaign employs a similar strategy: posting pictures of its themed areas on its Instagram profile, for instance, Europa-Park asks its followers “Are you in [the Netherlands] or in the Dutch themed area at #EuropaPark?” and invites them to “Tag a friend who wants to visit Spain! Maybe you can convince them to come to South-Germany instead [winking emoji]”.

To be sure, over the course of its 45-year history (the park was opened on 12 July 1975), Europa-Park’s promotional campaigns have frequently advertised visits to the site as a cheaper and more convenient alternative to journeys to the actual places referred to in the park. For instance, in 1994 – and thus a year before the Schengen Agreement became effective and passport controls at most borders between (Western) European countries were abolished – the park adopted the slogan “Spaß ohne Grenzen” (“limitless fun” or “fun without borders”). With the COVID-19 pandemic not merely subjecting tourists to border checks, but making leisure travel to many European tourist destinations actually impossible during the early summer, however, the “Urlaub in Europa” campaign has more explicitly and seriously than ever before marketed Europa-Park as a site of metatourism – i.e., as a surrogate destination, a place where you (physically) travel in order to (imaginatively) travel somewhere else, and where “the tourist experience of another culture has become a tourist experience in itself” (Carson, p. 232).

Metatouristic theming had become particularly popular among theme parks during the 1980s and 1990s. The year 1982, for instance, saw the opening of EPCOT Center (later renamed Epcot) at Walt Disney World Resort with its “World Showcase,” each of whose nine “pavilions” is dedicated to a North American, European, Asian, and African country. The very same year, Europa-Park opened the first of its now altogether 15 sections themed to European countries, namely, Italy, which was soon followed by the Netherlands (1984), Switzerland (1985), England (1988), and France (1989). During the early 1990s, an entire series of so-called “gaikoku mura” (“foreign country villages”) opened in Japan, all of which referred to a specific (mostly European or North American) country. Examples include Oranda Mura (dedicated to the Netherlands and opened in Sasebo in 1983), Glückskönigreich (Germany, Obihiro, 1989), Niigata Russian Village (Russia, Agano, 1993), and Parque Espana (Spain, Shima, 1994; see Raz, p. 148-53; Hendry). And while metatouristic theming soon gave way to IP-based thematic sources, that is, sources such as movie franchises, it would return with the pandemic, at least in Europa-Park’s advertising campaign.

New Fieldwork Photo Gallery

Check out the new gallery of photographs taken by members of the group in theme parks, amusement parks, and immersive spaces around the world. They are arranged under working project titles, and the first set look are a growing collection of photographs of scenic theming items used to represent continents outside Europe and North America.

Stationary figure by “Scorpion Express”, rollercoaster in “Chessington World of Adventures”, UK

Partnering with Theme Park Studies at JGU Mainz

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We’re delighted to be partnering with the Theme Park Studies group at JGU Mainz . They’re a long-established group of scholars, based in the American Studies department at Johannes Gutenberg Universität Mainz. We’ll be collaborating with them on a number of exciting projects over the next year broadening out theme park and immersive entertainment studies in Europe.

The Theme Park as Text

Florian Freitag (JGU Mainz)

There are many ways to look at and study theme parks. One way is to focus on the people in the theme park – the visitors, but also the employees – and to examine how they interact with the place as well as with each other, for example by observing or conducting interviews with them. Another option is to take a historical approach and to use old photographs, visitor guidemaps, and other material to find out how a particular park has developed over time. And yet another possibility – one that has been particularly popular with theme park scholars from the Humanities in the past – is to “read” the theme park as a text. That is to say, like a literary scholar studying a text (say, a poem, a short story, or a novel) and trying to find out how its individual words, sentences, and paragraphs produce meaning, a theme park scholar may look at the individual elements of a park to find out how exactly they work together to create a certain image, a specific story, or any other kind of signifying structure.

Main Street, Disneyland, Anaheim CA. Creative Commons: Fastily

Take Main Street, for instance, the entrance section to Disneyland in Anaheim, CA, and perhaps one of the most famous themed spaces in the world. Main Street offers all the surface architectural features of an ordinary street – rows of buildings with numbers, sidewalks, lampposts and street signs, benches, even mailboxes. But of course, Main Street is not an ordinary street, it is a private, highly controlled space, where access is restricted to those who have paid the entrance fee and where such basic democratic rights as the right to demonstrate or the right to free speech are seriously curtailed. Simply put, Main Street is not a street – it merely borrows the architectural forms and signs of the public realm to simulate urbanity and to thus produce the image or idea of a public street (and quite successfully so – many cities and towns in the U.S. have used Main Street as a model for their main streets).

Of course, the textual approach intentionally disregards several vital aspects of the park in order to get a clearer picture. For instance, its goal is not to find out what the park actually means to the various people who come there either for work or for pleasure; rather, it seeks to explain what different kinds of meanings the theme park potentially conveys. Moreover, this particular way of studying theme parks considers the sites as stable and static, ignoring the many ways in which theme parks constantly change, whether intentionally (e.g., by replacing old rides, restaurants, or shops with new ones) or not (e.g., by showing signs of wear and tear). Nevertheless, the method of reading theme parks as texts can be illuminating precisely because it reveals underlying structures that may not be readily apparent to either the visitors, the employees, or even the creators of the parks themselves.

This is at least partly because the textual approach makes available to the researcher all the tools, concepts, and theories that literary criticism has developed. For example, in literary criticism the concept of “intertextuality” refers to the notion of how texts – both during the process of their creation and in terms of the subsequent readerly and critical response to them – encompass and respond to other texts. According to this concept, then, all texts are embedded in a dense network of references and links to other texts, with – in Western literature, at least – the Bible constituting one central node of the intertextual web. With respect to theme parks, Disneyland in particular and the Disney’s “castle parks” in general may be regarded as central nodes of the intertextual network that exists between theme parks. Many parks around the world – from Europa-Park in Rust, Germany, which has an entrance area that is not entirely unlike Disneyland’s Main Street, to Fantawild Dreamland in Zhuzhou, China, which at its center features a castle that strongly resembles Disneyland Paris’s Sleeping Beauty Castle – refer to the layout, themes, and particular architectural or other elements of the Disney parks.

Theme parks not only encompass, respond and refer to each other, however, but also to many other kinds of “texts” – including movies, TV shows, video games, and even literary works. Theme park spaces based on movies have become particularly popular in recent times, with, for instance, Avatar (2009) and the Star Wars franchise (1977-) having been adapted as theme park rides and lands.

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Universal Orlando Resort. CC: Rstoplabe14

When these movies themselves refer to other texts, as in the case of the Harry Potter series of films (2001-2011; adapted in the various Universal theme parks from 2010 to 2016), the intertextual network becomes even more complex. And, of course, theme parks not only refer to other texts, they are also referred to by other texts: the popular Pirates of the Caribbean movie franchise (2003-), for example, responds to the eponymous theme park attraction at several Disney parks. Even if it does not capture all the aspects of the sites, the textual approach to theme parks allows researchers to observe, analyze, and describe these and other phenomena with much precision.

American Adventure, Shijingshan Amusement Park, Beijing: The ride that changed my life

Charlotte Kelly

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESI visited Shijingshan Amusement Park whilst learning Mandarin on a summer program in Beijing. I wandered aimlessly into the American Adventure ride, boarded a rickety vehicle under the eye of a painted elephant on the wall, rode a loosely Wild-West themed shooting dark ride in which static mannequins appeared to be drinking at saloon bars or being cowboy and none of the ride car guns worked, and walked out with a revelation. What I had just experienced was not simply children’s fun. It was an object of anthropological site of enquiry, which raised questions about cultural borrowing, and the design choices of ride designers using a theme of the Wild West which had little local cultural resonance.

The first question: why was a ride about America housed in a green castle-style building, with clear crenellations and turrets? This style of architecture is of course European- the most famous castles in the US are to be found in Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World and Disneyland. Was this a reference to such castles, though Shijingshan has a castle of its own which bears a striking resemblance to Sleeping Beauty Castle, Disneyland? Or was this simply a reverse example of the essentialising and confusing of cultures which happens so often in American and European theme parks: ‘castles are European and historical, the Wild West is a period in US history, Europe and the US are both the other- does it matter if they are represented together?’

The second question: the elephant.SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

As you begin the ride, painted on the wall of the first turn, there is an elephant. I don’t know why. I tried in faltering Mandarin to ask the ride attendant, pointing at the elephant and flicking through my dictionary for the Mandarin for ‘elephant’,  but he was bemused either by the poor standard or my Mandarin or the peculiarity of the question. It is difficult to discern a link between the elephant and life in the 19th century Western United States. But perhaps again that is to ask the wrong question. Maybe the elephant was a joke by one of the workers. Despite our familiarity from Disney and universal Studios parks with the incredible corporate control exercised over every element of the visitor experience, smaller out-of-the-way parks often have a less centralised control.

Or perhaps the elephant was simply a symbol of adventure, the excitement about to come for the ride guest? There is an expectation in Euro-American large theme parks that a central part of the immersion for the guests is that no element not true to the theme is allowed to intrude, and hence fan criticism that one ride doesn’t “fit” into the broader themed land. But if perhaps the designers’ intention is that the theme should mean that average ride guest feels like they are on an adventure to somewhere foreign, and foreignness in the minds of the riders covers countries where elephants roam as well as the Wild West, then the theming is intact.

Shijingshan park has previously been the subject of some controversy over its unlicensed use of Disney’s intellectual property, and the fairly blatant copies of Disney’s intellectual property in its merchandise and figures available to meet in the park. The park may have promised in 2007 to remove such items, but in 2014, copies of Disney Princess and Minion merchandise were available for sale. It would be easy to dismiss Shijingshan as a bad and amusing copy of a Disney park. Certainly there are some elements of it so bizarre or decrepit or incongruous that I stifled a giggle. But the park is also a cultural artefact, a text in which we can see examples of borrowing, but also reinterpretation, of adaptation of a trope of the Wild West.

Agree? Disagree? Have I missed something? Please do comment below.

Full video of Scott Lukas’ Lecture on Theme Park Imaginaries

This is the first, hopefully of many, videos of seminar recordings. The voices off screen asking the questions are Oxford University students and academics attending the seminar.

Scott raises a great number of fascinating issues and areas for further research and thought, so please do comment below with your thoughts and opinions.

Scott Lukas: “Theme Park Imaginaries”

Many thanks to Scott Lukas for a riveting talk on Wednesday about the evolution of his own research in theme parks and immersive spaces and the difficulty convention criticism has had in engaging with immersive spaces. He spoke about how theme parks, particularly Disney theme parks, have often been treated on a superficial level by sociologists of culture as simply a site of consumerism, with the sociologist acting as critic and so removed from the experience.

Looking at the critiques which have arisen of theme parks Lukas writes in A_Reader_In_Themed_and_Immersive_Spaces: “The critiques that have been offered of themed and immersive spaces are varied, though for the purposes of argument, we may simplify them and consider that the foundation they all share is the notion that themed and immersive spaces are inauthentic, fabricated, faux, and simulated and that (in terms of their effects on workers, guests, and society at large) such spaces result in the negative cultural, political, and economic effects of hegemony, consumerism, hedonism, and conformity.”(p.261)

Lukas proposed study at a more emic level where the anthropologist adopts the position of the guest when viewing the theme park.

A video recording of the seminar will shortly be available. In the meantime, here is the handout. 


Looking at theme parks and amusement parks in a new way

Amusement parks and theme parks are usually dismissed as frivolous or children’s entertainment and, unlike films or art, have received scant academic interest. They are a highly popular form of leisure but pose a challenge to scholars in how to analyse what is a multimedia experiential phenomenon.

This project , drawing from multiple disciplines, seeks to establish possible methodologies for analysing theme parks. Graduates and academics from the University of Oxford, Syracuse University, Lake Tahoe Community College and the University of Mainz have come together to bring our own varied experiences of themed spaces to try to understand how we can analyse theme parks and integrate them into popular culture studies.

We are very keen to hear from other people, whether academic, professional or enthusiasts, so please do get in contact so we can build a network.