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.
We’re delighted to be partnering with the Theme Park Studies group at JGU Mainz https://amerikanistik.fb06.uni-mainz.de/theme-park-studies-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.
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.
I 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.
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.
If you were unable to attend this seminar, Florian has kindly agreed to share his powerpoint presentation from the event.
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.
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.