It’s tempting to say that a theme park is an outlet for escapism.
We could certainly use one. Prison lobbyists are increasing the demand for new prisons by paying Congress to extend criminal sentences. Sex offenders in Miami must live under a bridge because it’s the only place in the city that isn’t within 2,500 feet of a school. South Africans are raping babies to “cure” their AIDS.
Please let's go to Disney World.
Except...when we board Kali River Rapids, we're faced with the realities of deforestation.
From 6:00 to 6:36.
Ellen’s Energy Adventure undermines the reliability of alternative energy sources for seven minutes, and ends with a shrug. “I’m sure we’ll think of something, LOL!!”
From 14:39 to 22:07, God help you.
Lights! Motors! Action! Extreme Stunt Show, Presented by Brawny spends more time explaining how car stunts are performed than it does, actually performing the car stunts.
If you could hear what they're saying, you still wouldn't care.
These (admittedly lousy) attractions prove that theme parks don’t always prioritize escapism.
A great attraction, the Carousel of Progress, goes a step further and takes a stand against escapism. It even meta-pranks us into agreeing with it.
In each scene, the characters marvel at how much life has improved since the previous era. When the show ends, we exit, and we laugh at how outdated that last scene is...and we think they really oughta update that last scene...and we marvel at how much our lives have improved since that last scene.
...waitaminute, that sounds familiar...!
Just like that, we’ve joined the Carousel, ourselves! In the future, we’ll marvel at how much our lives have improved since today. How encouraging!
Escapism diverts us from real life. The Carousel of Progress reminds us to celebrate real life, because it's always improving.
So while theme parks feature a lot of escapism, they aren’t ruled by it. The definition is broader, and somewhat bloodless.
A theme park is a collection of immersive environments.
If we watch a Western film, we can see cacti, and we can hear the saloon piano, but that’s it. We can’t smell, feel, taste, or walk around.
But if we enter Frontierland, we can smell pine, feel the grain on the wooden porches, and taste a roasted leg of
It’s an immersive environment. It’s a playground for the imagination. It’s Gesamtkunstwerk, a synthesis of all art forms.
Off the top of my head, here are some of the arts used in theme parks:
By combining these, theme parks create new, unique experiences. When we experience something new and unique, it’s easier to get immersed.
A theme park must strive to be Gesamtkunstwerk. If it settles too much on one art form, it becomes banal. Take Captain EO. (Please!)
It’s a 3D movie, and your chair shakes, and they schpritz you with elephant snot.
Why is this allowed to have real estate? I'd be happy to shake your chair and spit on you while you watch this on Youtube. It won't be much different from watching it in EPCOT, and I’ll charge you waaay less than park admission.
When we adapt a book into a movie, we don't project the text of the book onto a screen. We take the premise of the book, and add actors, music, cinematography, and any other appropriate art form to create a movie.
If a movie isn't adorned with some other art form, then why would we show it in a theme park? If we want to see a movie, we can go to a movie theater. If we want to drive sixty miles an hour, we can get on a highway. If we want to play video games, we can play 'em at home.
If we want an immersive environment, we go to a theme park.
Check out the stretching room in Disneyland's Haunted Mansion for some damnfine Gesamtkunstwerk.
The stretching room is actually an elevator. It lowers us downstairs to the loading dock.
The elevator car has a wooden ledge and gargoyle sculptures instead of a ceiling. The portraits are slowly revealed, which distracts us from feeling the elevator as it descends. The portraits guide our eyes ever-upwards to the Ghost Host’s body, which is at the top of the elevator shaft. While we're looking at the Ghost Host's body, the door to the loading dock opens.
The stretching room is one of the most iconic works in the history of Imagineering. It's an elevator, a wooden ledge, some paintings, and a mannequin.
We get to fill in the rest.