Children use their imagination extensively when at play. Through the creation of role-play fantasies, children are able to escape their dependent and limited role as children and venture into a world of fantasy to become free-willed, independent persons owning a sense of societal status and importance. Drawing from examples they observe in books, television, and film, children can escape into fantasy roles to become pioneers, heroes, doctors, nurses, royalty, or any inspiring figure of the past, present, or future. As children advance toward adulthood, however, fantasy role-playing is replaced with more passive forms of escapism, such as reading books or watching MOVIES and TELEVISION.
Theme parks are three-dimensional fantasy settings in which both child and adult are actively immersed into fantasy environments inspired by literature, films, and television. They have their roots in the amusement park, which has long been a center of active play where children and adults alike can divert themselves from their typical daily regimes and involve themselves in direct play, thrill, and challenge. Yet even in amusement parks, where adults and children alike can participate in active play, parents are more likely to participate passively as bystanders, observing their children at play.
The theme park differs from the amusement park in that its form and function embrace the childhood activities of role-playing that appeal to children as well as to the inner child of adults. Thus the concept of the theme park is born, in part, from the universal desire of children and the child within adults to escape into their imaginations and pretend to be a part of a nostalgic, exotic, or fantasy setting.
The term theme park originated with Disneyland, which opened in Anaheim, California, in 1955. As the first and most widely recognized theme park, Disneyland has long reigned as the model of all modern theme parks. Its unique themed settings and attractions created a shift in the design of parks that followed, many of which placed as much emphasis on their themed environments as on park attractions.
The opening of Disneyland coincided with the transition of North America's demographics toward a predominately middle-class society and with a surge in the population known as the BABY BOOM. With the increasing number of young families came a growing need for family-oriented leisure activities.
As a producer of films and television programs that families could enjoy together, Disneyland's founder, Walt DISNEY, was in close touch with what interested the American middle-class family. He was well aware that children and adults alike enjoyed escaping into his films and television programs. He was also conscious of the need for activities that would appeal equally to young and old, and thus began to conceive a new kind of amusement park that would appeal to patrons of all ages; that would engage the typically inactive parents and promote family participation.
Drawing on his background in film and television production, Disney looked for ways to translate the entertainment that was experienced on a movie or television screen into a physical setting that could be experienced completely by patrons. To do this, he turned to the art directors and animators of his film studio for assistance in designing his park.
The Disney artists came up with the concept of organizing attractions within a series of memorable theatrical settings. All elements of these themed environments would work in harmony, including the architecture, landscaping, attractions, costumes, and even sounds. The intent was that patrons could literally step into the scenes and become a part of the show.
When it opened, Disneyland included five distinct themed settings: Main Street, USA; Adventureland; Frontierland; Fantasyland; and Tomorrowland. Children visiting the park for the first time were already familiar with these settings because they were commonly portrayed on television and in film. For adults, the settings functioned as vivid reminders of their own childhoods. Thus visitors to Disneyland found the park environments instantly familiar and comforting.
Disneyland's designers employed techniques similar to those used in the studio, including the film design ideal of the procession through scenes such as scenic transitions and design tricks with scale and perspective that were commonly used to create convincing environments within the tight confines of a studio sound stage. These immersed the visitor in the theme park experience.
To employ the ideals of scene changes in themed settings, for example, key landmarks were sited at the ends of long vistas to lure guests forward and through park environments. Furthermore, themed settings were organized to carefully transition and unfold as park guests traveled from one themed environment and into another.
For children visiting Disneyland, the smaller-than-life scale promoted a sense of importance, making them feel larger in relation to their surroundings and thus able to experience the scale of space as an adult would. Because of its scale, adults visiting the park experienced an instant sense of nostalgia, as if they were returning to a childhood setting and discovering environments that were smaller and more intimate than they remembered.
Disney's new theme park was immediately popular among the American public, and it quickly became well known around the world. In fact, Disneyland soon became a stop that many foreign dignitaries requested when visiting the United States.
Disneyland's popularity led to a surge in the opening of theme parks, which drew from Disney's theme ideals in their own designs. The first to prove a strong success since Disneyland's opening was Six Flags over Texas, which opened in 1961 and incorporated themed settings based on the history of Texas. Following this successful example, other theme parks began to open throughout the United States. The formula for the design of these parks typically consisted of six or seven themed areas, each having attractions, shows, and rides that blended with their surroundings.
The success of the Six Flags park also prompted Six Flags to open a park near Atlanta, Georgia, and another one near Saint Louis, Missouri. Following the lead of the three Six Flags parks, chains of theme parks began to appear across the United States. These were largely developed, owned, and operated by global hospitality and beverage companies such as the international hotelier Marriott and the international beverage company Anheuser-Busch.
In the decades following the opening of the Marriott and Anheuser-Busch parks, several of the world's largest entertainment companies began also to design, build, and operate their own theme parks. Today global film companies such as Universal Studios, Fox, Paramount, Warner Brothers, and of course Disney own and operate the majority of chain theme parks in the United States, Europe, and Asia.
The parks produced by these film studios have much in common with the original Disneyland park in that they also employ well-recognized themed designs, often based on popular films. Their patrons, like Disneyland's, are already familiar with the television programs and films upon which the settings and attractions are based and thus feel an immediate sense of familiarity.
Today the most notable collection of theme parks within one geographic locale can be found at the Walt Disney World resort in central Florida. As the original Disneyland park revolutionized the future of amusement parks, the Walt Disney World Resort has revolutionized leisure-time destinations.
When the success and profitability of Disneyland far surpassed even his expectations, Walt Disney began to conceive an attraction that would be more than just another theme park. He wanted to create an extensive leisure resort complex that would ultimately contain several other theme parks and a prototype residential community, all within the confines of 27,433 acres of land. Disney referred to this plan as EPCOT, which stood for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow.
Today the Walt Disney World resort is a forty-three-square-mile leisure complex that is home to four theme parks as well as numerous resort hotels; leisure, retail, and entertainment complexes; and a planned residential community. The first park developed for Walt Disney World was the Magic Kingdom, which is similar to Disneyland. This was followed by Epcot, which took its name from Disney's original plan, then by the Disney-MGM Studios theme park, and finally by Disney's Animal Kingdom park. In all, the Walt Disney World resort is one of the world's most popular and most highly attended leisure destinations.
Today, themed environments are commonplace, and themeing is found not only in the realm of amusement and theme parks, but also in retail stores, restaurants, hotels, cruises, high-profile architecture, and in many other types of built environments. Since their conception in the mid-1950s, theme parks have become an international brand of entertainment that continuously leads the amusement park industry in attendance and provides opportunities for play and escapism for children and adults around the world.
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STEPHEN J. REBORI