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The Theme Park Renaissance

The Theme Park Renaissance
The Theme Park Renaissance

The past 25 years has seen the introduction of more mobile, streamlined, powerful technology. So, how has this affected the themed entertainment industry?

A Brief History of Theme Parks

The concept of a Theme Park—a place for multitudes of people to come and experience imagination and innovation—dates to the 1800s and the rise of the World Fair.

The World Fair was designed for countries of the world to come together once a year and showcase their achievements. These Expositions were held annually in major cities throughout the world, building immense structures to house each of the nations, their new discoveries, inventions, ideas, and the thousands of people that flocked to the Fair to experience it all.

Images sourced from Wikipedia.com, cited from New York Times library archives.

The World Expos are still active today (the 2017 World Expo will be in Astana, Kazakhstan), over 200 years later. Many people argue that the World Fairs cultivated not only major hubs of discovery, imagination, and technology, but also promoted travel and tourism.

It is this idea of congregating to a particular place to experience something new, unique, and different that sparked the concept of the amusement park —Tivoli Gardens, for example, opened in 1843, and Coney Island opened its first theme park (Steeplechase Park) in 1897 (read more here).

While Theme Parks from the 19th century had rides that more closely resemble fair rides today, the people nonetheless waited in line to experience something new, unique, and different. However, it wasn’t until the 20th century that theming was introduced interestingly coinciding with the rise of film.

Film, a Willing Suspension of Disbelief, and Theming

It was around this time of developing industrialism, technology, and science that people began questioning the world around them, and consequently their reality, which meant that the audience watching the film had to willingly suspend their belief systems and accept the storyline in a fantastical world on the screen to experience the sense of escapism and fully enjoy the film.

While this may seem like an easy task for present-day people who are constantly manipulating their own realities (thank you internet, smartphones, and television), 19th-century people were just recently challenging the thought that witches might not be real, and disease wasn’t punishment from God.

This theory, called the Willing Suspension of Disbelief, is the ability to “believe the unbelievable… to sacrifice realism and logic for the sake of enjoyment.” It’s the act of acknowledging that the experience might not fit with reality but nonetheless accepting the storyline for the sake of enjoyment. The theory itself is applied to many other creative endeavors, such as fiction, art, and (of course) themed entertainment.

Image sourced from Wikipedia.com, cited from www.digitalhistory.uh.edu.

Image sourced from Wikipedia.com, cited from www.digitalhistory.uh.edu.

Despite events like The Great Depression and the World Wars, motion pictures caught on quickly and gained widespread popularity, allowing people an outlet to escape their harsh and unforgiving realities.

Slowly, over the course of the 20th century, the Themed Entertainment Industry saw the opening of major amusement parks like Blackpool Pleasure Beach, Disneyland, and Disneyworld.

What made these places different from their Expo/Fair counterparts? One word: Theming.

The fairgrounds transformed from a temporary meeting place into full-fledged worlds—extending escapism from just the 8 minute Ferris Wheel experience to entering “The Happiest Place on Earth,” for 8 hours.

Image sourced from Time.com, Photograph by Loomis Dean, LIFE Picture Collection

Image sourced from Time.com, Photograph by Loomis Dean, LIFE Picture Collection

What is theming? It’s transforming a space from a plot of land with rides into a cohesive experience; or, more recently, entire worlds. It’s about extending a story into a tangible ride, and then extending the setting of that ride into the themed world it resides in. From retail shops to garbage cans, anything tangible that guests interact with contributes to an immersive experience.

It’s about bringing the magic of the movies to reality and allowing people to participate and interact with the stories that we cherish.

Image sourced from StudioTour.com, Denver Street Set.

Image sourced from StudioTour.com, Denver Street Set.

The themed entertainment industry is inspired by the film industry—the idea of “setting the stage,” expanded from the ride itself into the queues, the preshows, and even in area development—truly allowing audiences to “Ride the Movies.”

Development and Progress: Bigger, Better Rides

As technology developed more rapidly in the 21st century, we’ve seen a resurgence in Theme Parks. Slowly rides are transitioning from indoor tracks and animatronic characters into Augmented and Virtual Reality, and even more recently Mixed Reality. Roller coasters defy gravity and physics, and the dark rides are more immersive than ever before—some parks are even combining elements of the two.

We’ve seen rides become dated in less than 10 years for the simple fact of keeping up with technology. However, Falcon’s Thea-award winning attraction, Curse of Darkastle, debuted in 2005, and is still a fan favorite—LA Times ranked Curse of Darkastle one of the top 25 rides in the world in 2015.

As new technology rolls out, the Themed Entertainment Industry continues to push the limits. Rather than deserting the Theme Parks we’ve created, we’re either refreshing outdated attractions or completely redoing them in the best way possible.

The Renaissance

By definition, “Renaissance” means rebirth or reawakening—and amusement parks are undergoing just that. Within the past 5 years, China and the Middle East have opened over 10 different Amusement Parks, including IMG Worlds of Adventure, Dubai Parks and Resorts, Shanghai Disney, Chimelong Ocean Kingdom, and with plan for even more expansion.

More than the cultural interest, existing theme parks are getting renovations all over the world. Where we used to see themed playgrounds for the kids, now we’re seeing full-on interactive exhibits where kids “become” scientists and interact with dinosaur eggs and genomes. Where we used to watch a motion picture, now rides engage secondary senses like smell and touch. Where we used to wait in line for a ride, now we’re free to look at displays while technology marks our queues for us. Where we used to enjoy a 4-minute immersive experience, now we’re stepping foot into a themed world and spending extensive time interacting with that new world.

Image sourced from National Geographic Ocean Encounter

Image sourced from National Geographic Ocean Encounter

Why? Because we’re slowly but surely immersing ourselves deeper into the experience. Where we previously had the Willing Suspension of Disbelief, now we’re challenging the themed entertainment industry to create these full worlds and push the boundaries of immersive storytelling—and themed entertainment firms are rising to the occasion.

“The new technology is widely beneficial for everyone—we’re not just entertainers, we’re informers. Our Mixed Reality and Media Production is so advanced and realistic that we can create entire Marine Exhibits without tanks, in the middle of New York City,” comments Cecil Magpuri, President and Chief Creative Officer.

We’re reinventing passive amusement park experiences that do not directly serve the sense of escapism people are looking for, and now we’re seeing Augmented, Virtual, and Mixed Reality coming into play in a major way. (For more on AR, VR, and MR, watch Falcon’s Treehouse IT Director Saham Ali discuss the subject here.)

Which Theme Parks have you visited recently with new rides? Which Theme Park do you think has the most immersive experience? We want to know! Comment below and weigh in on the conversation.

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