Lindsey Beckley: I’m Lindsey Beckley and we are here for giving voice with Dr. Margaret King, who is the director of the Center for Cultural Studies and Analysis. She also wrote the seminal article on the theme park as an art form for the Journal of Popular Culture. Thank you so much for coming and being willing to talk with us, Dr. King.
Dr. Margaret King: My pleasure Lindsey.
Beckley: So I’m sure all of our listeners have already listened to our Santa Claus, Indiana episode. So playing off of that we wanted to just talk more about theme parks in general and their place in popular culture. And I thought a really good starting place for that conversation might be just at the basics. Why do we build theme parks here, or, or anywhere in the world?
King: Well, the reason we build theme parks, and the reason we call them theme parks, it goes back to Disneyland in 1955, July, which is when the theme park revolution began, and really was the beginning of a re-appreciation of just how profitable public space could be, if you built the right things in there. And in the case of Disneyland in that, that’s still the gold standard for theme park design. And of course, we know that theme parks are all over the place and a lot of amusement parks are now calling themselves theme parks, the Six Flags, theme parks, big amusement parks, I call them because I think they’re much more in that tradition. And I’ll make that distinction in a minute between amusement and theme. We, before theme parks started to be built and before Disney, we had amusement parks, and they were anything from the portable carnival that would set up you know, around the state fairs for example. And we had you know, traveling rides basically a set of rides. And then we had the roller coaster and the games and the arcades and, and all of those things that we associate with the older style. Those are amusement parks and their purpose is physical. They are about challenging physical limits, hitting targets, putting yourself in mortal danger on a on a roller coaster, on a swing, the carousel that’s all part of the amusement park what Disney did was to translate that and take some of those things, but not all and design it more like a movie. So, his theme parked at Disneyland in Anaheim California was the re-creation of that form. And it was began to be called theme park to distinguish itself from the county fairs setups and the, you know, the traveling fairs and Cedar Point and the Six Flags although Six Flags came out of the theme park tradition, so you have to be a little cautious or aware I guess of the difference between amusement and theme. And amusement basically, the term amusement means to distract or divert or to give – to give your mind something else to work on. And theming comes under entertainment and entertainment is engagement. So they almost they have an opposite meaning amuse, to amuse is to distract or divert. And to entertain is to engage as in to entertain an idea. And there was very opposite things. I did this research – I know because I did this research for for Walt Disney Imagineering with with whom I worked for a long time on this – and one of the Imagineers one day said, What does entertainment mean? And I thought let’s find out. So I did and enter entertainment is engagement.
Beckley: That is an interesting distinction that I guess I hadn’t really even contemplated before now.
King: Most people haven’t.
Beckley: I guess looking back I have probably use those terms interchangeably.
King: Yeah. They mean the opposite.
Beckley: Yeah. I’m wondering, you kind of point to Disneyland as the first theme park. In many of the secondary sources I was reading they – about Santa Claus land, and before that Santa Claus Town which started in 1935 – they can they kind of claim the first moniker for themselves.
King: I saw that . . .
Beckley: Do you think that the distinction there? Yeah. Do you think there’s things in there is like, first, we always say, you know, being first isn’t necessarily being . . . I don’t want to say important because obviously, especially locally, these parks are very important. But Disneyland obviously had a national impact and inspired a wave of theme parks, whereas perhaps a smaller park like Santa Claus land had a local impact, but not so much of the national impact. Do you think that’s kind of the distinction?
King: Yea, the scope. Scope is part of this. And also remember that once theme parks took off, and they were actually Disneyland was predicted by, by everybody in the bit in with anything to do with the business, including the bankers, who were part of the financing of it, they all said, “No amusement parks are on the way out.” They didn’t understand the distinction. They didn’t know what Disney was trying to do. Even his own people didn’t I mean, he really had this idea in his head. And it’s remarkable it got built. But once it was built, and paid for itself in the first two years, which was astonishing, for any business, because of the initial expense was just gargantuan. Once that happened, and everybody said, oh, sure what, you know, anybody could see that. But it’s not true, that we was predicted to fail. And so then the term theme park, began to get retro actively applied to everything. So because I was so successful, and I would say Colonial Williamsburg has a good has a good claim, not to being first, perhaps, but it is a historic area in Greenfield Village as well, in Michigan, there, those places were, were built for the same reason Disney built Disneyland, which was to distill what people loved about their country about them and the world loved about America. And to distill that, and that’s very much the spirit of Colonial Williamsburg for the colonial period. And for Greenfield Village, as well, you know, for the, to revitalize history, which with all of the building of sub developments looked like it was going out the door. And it was, and that’s what historic preservation is all about is, here’s what we have, but people didn’t see their own Main Streets as worth saving. They thought they were clunky and old style and auto repair, which most of them were, but Disney’s Main Street USA got people to see what they already had. And I think that’s true in Indiana, the think the Santa Claus people instead of the statue and the giant candy confection which is sort of what it was famous for before. And suddenly they saw this as as really worthwhile. And that is what artists do. They get us to look at the world in a new way. And that’s what Disney did. I think it’s it’s just the most important artwork, Disneyland, I think, in getting people to look at their own Main Street, getting them to look at their own attractions in a different way hat was very appreciative. And the National Main Street project came out of didn’t come out of Williamsburg, it came out of Disneyland. That was all of these ladies around the country, and some men who suddenly, you know, saw this as something that was worth keeping. So, you know, there’s, there’s something very, very powerful about a theme park in that whatever it contains, tends to grow in our head, you know, we see the main street, we see frontier land, we see the future in front of us concrete. Now there’s a difference, I think you you asked me this question in the in the prelude to this. You asked about the differences between you know, the local, the sorts of historic or commemorative monumental building and theme parks and theme parks, of course, are just there was nothing in in Central Florida, that this place could be anywhere. It’s not tied into Florida history or anything like that or local history. But the advantage that you have with especially the historic house, and the older main streets and even gardens, botanical gardens that are typical of the area is they’re tied into place and they’re tied to time and place. So there, there’s you are in when you go there and you’re a visitor, you are actually taking part in the history of the place where it stands. It’s not an artwork, it’s actually part of the authenticity, the authenticity of Historic Places. That is not true a theme parks, they are abstractions, but they’re very powerful once they’re not fake anything. They are artistic distillations and that’s an important – I think that’s an important distinction here because one of the critiques it’s made of theme parks is they’re, they’re not authentic. That’s not a real Mainstreet. No, but in your head, we know how to think human beings are very motivated by symbolism. By, not the real thing exactly. More like a Greenfield Village. But not the real thing, but something even more real, the symbol of the thing is, is in a way more real to us than the thing itself. And that’s what Disney recognized as an artist, and that’s what he did. But there is a power also the authenticity, power is what these local venues have, and what they can draw on. And I think they don’t do that enough. They probably think they do, but I’m not trying to gore anyone’s ox. But I think I think there’s a lot of power in symbolism that doesn’t get recognized until it’s you know, we see it in front of us. And we like the the 22 foot statue. Is that, is that accurate? Or? Yes?
Beckley: Yes. 22 feet.
King: That the Santa Claus statues very powerful. Well, that’s not Santa Claus, anybody can see that. That’s not Santa. That would be grotesque. It would be a horror movie. But it’s like bigger than life makes it bigger than life. And that’s what they did with the candy house and the Santa. And he’s very much the center of that now, I think. Yeah.
Beckley: Yeah, so I’m wondering, you’ve kind of talked about the interplay with history and interplay with, like culture. I’m wondering if we could talk a little bit more about how amusement parks and theme parks reflect our culture?
King: Yes. How they reflect our culture? Well, the theme park is, as I keep saying distillation is it’s a way of getting to the core of things, getting to the core meaning and deriving that from lots and lots and lots and lots of information. Our minds can’t take in that much. We just aren’t built that way. We need to know what does this place mean? What does Mainstreet mean, or what is what’s the essence of the frontier? So it’s getting to essences, I think, and amusement parks, of course, are not about that at all. They, the Six Flags are an interesting example of that, because they tried to do I think both things, the original one was in Texas, and it was a way of looking at Texas history under these different flags the Confederacy, you know, Spain, and, of course, the US and, and Mexico. And that was a way of pointing that history out. But it’s not a History Park. By any stretch of the mind. It’s not it doesn’t function as a History Park. It just that’s in the title of it. And then they have the flag display. So in a way that’s kind of using the symbol in a, in a, in a way that Disney would use the symbol and but it’s not a recreation of anything. It’s an amusement park, and that’s, that’s fine. It’s just, you know, we have to make that distinction. Is it about the rides? Is that about or is it about the essence of our history who we are actually and people tear up I mean, they get very emotional about and very invested emotionally through the heart about Disney, and the Smithsonian is putting on a an exhibit any day now, when this pandemics, you know, winds down, it’ll be there. And that’s something I was involved in. In construing is the idea of what’s the relationship between the national spirit, you know, the national character, and Disney, and he’s very much he’s very embedded for us. So that’s Disney. Now, I think the way these historic things work is also, you know, speaks to who we are is just, they’re not on a national scale. It’s the scale, as you pointed out, rightly, that makes that different. But people are very, very much invested in, in those symbols. And that’s, that’s the proof of that, I think is the way theme parks handle the symbolic part of it. And what I was going to say about the Six Flags chain, is that they there’s, you know, there’s sort of pasted on theme, thematic there’s, there’s a roller coaster, this Batman themed but it’s, it’s, you know, you’ve got the gates of Gotham at the bottom of it. And, but that’s, it’s just a single reference doesn’t play out over the ride, you’re not seeing the whole history of Batman on this ride, you are just holding in your head, the idea, oh, this is batman. It’s like saying, remember that got remember, Batman will this is his ride. And that’s, that’s a very loose form of theming, or very sort of surface kind of theming that a lot of places end up doing, because they don’t know how to carry that theme out in a concentrated way. They’ll put this in front of them and exhibit in a museum and say, Well, we’re doing, you know, Black History Month, or we’re doing, you know, women’s rights or whatever. But the whole, the whole exhibit has to reflect it’s got to be fractal. It has to be, you’re seeing it again and again. And again. It’s an embedded pattern. And that’s what Disney does so, so artfully, is every aspect of the trashcans, you know, the lighting fixtures, everything is part of that theme, whatever he’s theming, whatever theming is going on. You can’t just put a sign at the front that says, when you walk through here, remember the Revolutionary War, you know, it has to really reflect that all the way through.
Beckley: I keep on thinking about when you brought up Six Flags, there’s Six Flags relatively near here in Ohio. And I’ve been I’ve been there several times. But of course, we get their commercials. And when you see their commercials, it’s very much, you know, at least when I was watching those commercials in the late 90s and 2000s It was very quick cuts of people on rides, and having fun and . . .
King: Yea, it’s ride. It’s coasters.
Beckley: It’s like boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, and then and then it’s over. And then if you see advertisement for something like Disney, it’s much more about the experience and about being there on the grounds experiencing it with your family. I you can even it’s interesting now that you have pointed out the distinction, that you can even see it through their advertising and through you know, how you would experience it and every thing.
King: Yea, building memories and the magic and the memories that’s the Disney mantra. And it’s true. I mean, you can experience a ride is no place to experience family solidarity. You just you can’t even speak to another person on a ride. Well, I’m screaming the whole way as my fellow riders will tell you, when I was on Space Mountain, which is a speedy ride. It is a roller coaster. Let’s take that, for example. But if you’re going through outer space, you’re not you’re not just you know, going on, up and down a coaster, you’re actually seeing stars and, and planets and meteors, comets, and the whole you know, it’s a ride through outer space, which is a very different thing in your head than just you know, you’re looking out over the trees
Beckley: Or this ride happens to be called the Batman ride.
King: Remember that? Well think about it when you’re on this ride. Yes, so you’re right, the advertising is a really good way to look at what people value because those things are based on umpteen, you know, audience, crowdsourcing interviews, they . . . people, the speed is very arresting. It’s dynamic by nature. So, Disney’s not like that. And my colleague Jamie O’Boyle, who’s also written a lot on this and spoken a lot about it. He says, you know that an amusement park of theme park, you can go through a theme park and never go on a ride, you’re going on these dark, right? They’re called dark rides, but they’re really just kind of people mover through. And what’s interesting about them is the surrounding not the ride itself, but where the ride is going and what you’re seeing above and below you. But an amusement park without rides would be a parking lot with popcorn. That’s kind of the way that that works, I think is quite different if you consider what could you take away from this environment and still have that experience? And the family experience is really interesting, because it is such a complex environment when you look at it, and the numbers of attractions, which are in the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, and how are you going to coordinate all these people before cellphones? Now? This is mid 50s? How are you going to coordinate where everybody is? Where are you going to meet up? It’s a logistical problem. It is a real logistical deployment problem, almost like when one writer said, it’s like, looking at amphibious landing, you know, like, like D Day, it’s like, how are you going to coordinate all these people. And just the act of doing that really involves people with each other in a way that they’re not involved quite as much at home, and it’s dynamic, and you’re getting rewards, after everything you do is a reward if you stand on the line, and there are lines. It’s a switchback line, which Disney pioneered you’ll see it in your local bank, the switchback line that was that started at the theme parks, or was successfully deployed there. And you get that that solidarity of being a team, you know, working as a team, which a lot of things don’t give us that. At home, we’re kind of fragmented from each other, we’ve got our own activities to pursue, we have our own careers to pursue. In this one, you’re all working on one common project. And that is to go and help all of these various experiences and then recounted you recount them to each other at lunch. You know, that’s, that’s what you’ll hear people talking about. So it’s it – really all these attractions are trying to be Disneyland. They’re trying to be as detailed, you know, as fractal as they can, which means repeating pattern, patterns within patterns. They’re trying to do all the things Disney did and be successful at it. And what they’re doing, basically, is without understanding that it’s a whole experience, it’s very integrated. They’re taking pieces of it, and they may or may not work on the ground, you know, in another in Ohio, or Indiana. So, understanding how this all works together, it’s a system. It’s a complex compound system, it’s very hard to predict how things will happen. But that’s part of it’s not going to be bad it’s going to be, it’s reassuring. We have all this chaos, sometimes you have heavy rain, it can be blisteringly hot in Florida. It’s something that you’re just going to work with. And you’re all going to come out of it with your own experience, your individual experience. But because you’ve all been in the same place, at the same time, you will have, there’s a overall common family experience that this is the touchstone there, everyone can relate to it. And that’s a whole topic in itself is how people do experience these things? Mostly in groups. They’re few people go on their own, but it’s it’s mostly a group experience. What does that do to the group – create memories and magic for years to come?
Beckley: Yeah, and I – something that jumped out at me when you were kind of going through all of this is just how much work it is to create these environments, where we can just go and automatically know where we are as soon as we walk. I’ve never been to Disney, but I have been to Universals Harry Potter World. And the moment you walk in there, there is no mistaking where you are, and there is nowhere else you could be. So I think it’s I think it’s really interesting to think about how much work goes into there for us to have such an effortless express.
King: Yes, that’s a really great point. It does seem like it effortless and that is the outcome of Imagineering. That’s because the people who design these places really understand how, through experience – hard won experience, because not everything there, you know, there are things that no longer exists that just didn’t work, they didn’t work because . . . The volumes of people went up, the volumes of visitation went up and you couldn’t you have to be able to call it loading, you have to be able to cycle people through these things very fast and efficiently. It is not going to work to have a 45-minute line outside. Well, you know, if so, processing people processing is part of that. And also yet, you you’ve just reminded me of something. When you’re when your mind . . . your mind is geared to wherever you are in the present moment. So we can have thoughts of other places, but it always comes back to where am I now? What is my experience here? What are my expectations of my experience? What am I supposed to do here? And, what part of me just this channel, then the charm of the theme park experience is you are channeling your inner frontier person or your inner Mainstreet person it’s a channel I call channeling device. Because that’s what it’s doing is channeling who you might have been in who you might be in the future. You know, in in Tomorrowland, all these places are touchstones, they all evoke a different personality basically. So all of these personalities that we all have inside us. And it just gives us permission to be that person and act out our own movie, act out our own personalities. Very powerful. Because place does set the mental agenda. Always we have to be very we’re where we are, and what we’re supposed to be doing there. And what we’re supposed to be getting out of being there.
Beckley: Yeah, and I think part of being at a theme park is it sets up very clearly, it’s clear from the moment you walk in what you’re supposed to be doing, the experience you’re supposed to be having you don’t . . . there’s not many places in the world where you can just enter and be like, This is what I am expecting. I am getting it and I know how to how to conduct myself here. It is it makes everything so easy.
King: Yeah. And of course with the Harry Potter, and this is what Disney was doing. He was reenacting his movies at the beginning. And then that became more generalized, but he looked at a place like Tom Sawyer island that has fort wilderness. I mean, that’s a that very few of us have lived in a, you know, military structure, a military fort in the wilderness. But that place is so evocative. And it’s, it’s a cemetery, we don’t know who’s in the cemetery. We suspect there might be people we are related to, unless we’re a more recent immigrant. But people from other countries also resonate to these things. They’re, they’re very strong, and you know what you’re supposed to do. In the Harry Potter case, this was Rowling’s, you know, vision. And she was involved in the, in the design of it. This was Rowling’s sufficient for from her books. And that’s very much what Disney does. And that’s why universal does that because they everybody learned it, you know, that you could do this from Disney. And it’s very evocative and, and very charming. And you know where you are, because you’ve, you’ve read it. You’ve been there in the books.
Beckley: Absolutely. Yeah. And I think that that is a great place to end our conversation. It’s been a wonderful conversation today. Thank you so much again, for coming on.
King: This has been great. You’re you’re you’re perceptive about this stuff. You’ve thought about it.
Beckley: I had a little bit. Yeah, so thank you so much.
King: You’re welcome.
Beckley: I want to give you a chance here at the end to plug any upcoming work you have or to tell listeners where they can find more of your work if they’re interested in this topic. Well,
King: I have a website, culturalanalysis.com, and that will give you a good idea of what we’re working on. A lot of people now are working on diversity. And I would just like to make the note that Disney, if you remember back to 1994 and few people outside my generation do, but Disney was going to build the American Park he was going to he was going to augment frontier land and Mainstreet USA and do immigration and do American history. And the thing just, it just fell over. It really did. And that was not because people every history teacher in America wanted that park. It was going to be in in Virginia. And the politics of Northern Virginia just overcame that project. But it was a very, I think ambitious thing that still might get done. That’s what I hear from the Imagineers. It might still get done, but I was the cultural analyst for that project. And I would love everybody would love to see it happen is just the politics of actually the roads. How do you get people in and out of an attraction like that? That’s what so you run into logistics very quickly. And logistics are part of the Euro Disneyland, the Disneyland, Paris, same thing, you know, how they’ve already got traffic. How do you how do you set these things down on the earth? And that’s, that gets very political and logistical so that that would be my parting shot there.
Beckley: All right. Well, thank you so much.
King: Thank you, Lindsey.