Theme Parks as Art: Misunderstanding Idealized Fictions

Is Disneyland itself art? The architecture and design are often discussed, but the inherent art of the park as a holistic entity is often overlooked.

The role of the theme park in contemporary culture strikes strikes me as nothing if not incredibly confused. Certainly our childhood memories of trips to Disneyland or Walt Disney World are important and strong, but the huge numbers of adults visiting these parks attest to the fact that simple childhood amusement is no answer. Theme parks are certainly vehicles for amusement and escapism, but this is no different from literature, film, or other artistic mediums. However, distinct from these art forms is the fact that theme parks are experiential constructs, and something about this makes it difficult for theme parks to cross the great divide of social importance (see also: video games). Theme parks are seldom seen to raise important questions, and raising important questions is something that respected art does. Asking when the 3:00 parade starts or deciding between getting a Fastpass for Space Mountain or Indiana Jones probably don’t count as important questions, therefore proving that your trip to Disneyland was ultimately frivolous and shallow. 

Of course, that’s hogwash.

Those who delve deeper realize that theme parks have many layers, and their design goes far deeper than surface amusements. Disneyland is as much a collection of visceral amusements as it is a prototypical encapsulation of American ideals and childhood desires. Walt Disney’s Tomorrowland seemed to guide the future as much as it fantasized it, with children of the 1960s still wondering why they aren’t taking monorails and peoplemovers to work on space exploration. That kind of instilled cultural expectation is certainly something that can’t be dismissed as mindless amusement, certainly the work of that nebulous expression we hold high and refer to as “art”.

Explorations of theme parks in this particular context of artistic and cultural importance are unfortunately few and far between, but you can find them if you dig. A primary example is Dreamlands, an exhibit at the Centre Pompidou in Paris back in 2010 exploring the role of World’s Fairs, international exhibitions, and theme parks in influencing societal ideas on cities and how they are constructed. In their words:

“The dreamlands of the leisure society have shaped the imagination, nourishing both utopian dreams and artistic productions. But they have also become realities : the pastiche, the copy, the artificial and the fictive have become facts of the environment in which real life is led, and they serve as models for understanding and planning the urban fabric and its social life, blurring the boundaries between imagination and reality.”

This idea of a blur between what is real and what is fantasy is the essential excitement of a theme park, the only medium that interweaves this confluence in a physical, experiential context. However, the very means by which a theme park provides excitement over the real world, its fictions, also seem to be the source of the theme parks low status in the artistic landscape. The idea that much of a theme park is essentially constructed and thus “fake” creates a tension not present in most artistic works which we happily accept as fictional, purposeful constructs. That the characters in the novels we read never actually existed is just fine with us, as is the idea that aliens did not in fact invade earth and Jeff Goldblum did not in fact defeat them with a computer virus. It’s okay, because this is art and art is allowed to construct it’s own reality. In contrast, the idea that Epcot’s China Pavilion is not in fact the real China is incredibly problematic for some. Why visit a fake when you can visit the real China, the one full of actual history? 

The China Pavilion at EPCOT is decidely not the real China, but does that even matter?

Disney’s EPCOT Center was a turning point for theme park design in many ways, but it’s arguably most important for being a blatant declaration of the theme park as social guidance rather than simple amusement, a declaration of just what, exactly, theme parks could contribute to the artistic landscape. On the park’s front end is Future World: a targeted celebration of urban utopianism and the potential of tomorrow. The park’s back end is World Showcase, a celebration of the nations and cultures of the world, summarizing their essence in idealized vignettes. This latter bit was always intended as an appetizer for these nations, a summarized sketch pointing to each nation’s beauty and strength, a functional bridge between one form of tourism and another. However, at its worst, World Showcase can be interpreted as an unapologetic, inferior facsimile of the rest of the world, a means by which Americans can dip their toes in faux-internationalism without ever actually needing to do it. This latter interpretation represents a fundamental misunderstanding of what a theme park is attempting to do, but I can’t fault the average person for coming to this conclusion. In all honesty, it’s our own fault.

I don’t think the idea of a theme park as an idealized sketch, as a conveniently encapsulated social role-play, has ever been made clear. EPCOT’s World Showcase is interesting exactly because the countries depicted are not presented as simple recreations. Instead, these countries are presented as distilled, idealized sketches that communicate something very real, but also something very unique and distinct from the the physical locations and cultures that inspired them. In World Showcase, authenticity is necessary in spirit, not in the finalized product, which is free to be a hybrid of the summarized, idealized, and unique. At the end of the day World Showcase pavilions are defined as much by their fictions as their authenticity. 

The value of theme parks is measured in the success of their fictions, and valuing fiction in physical experience is not something we’ve been culturally trained to do. The film the Game was essentially an exploration of fictionalized realities, about fictionalizing not the words on a page or images on a screen, but your actual physical reality. While most of us are not running around Epcot trying to avoid being killed like Michael Douglas, we are still engaging in a constructed reality while we visit. Theme parks are essentially playgrounds of constructed realities, the settings from books and films where we fulfill the role of the protagonist, using the landscape to write our own stories. That physical locations can be of interest and importance devoid of a “true” historical context is an uncommon concept. Imagine taking an international vacation where you have to avoid all historical points of interest. For many, this would be a total reconceptualizing of what it means to travel and explore. Seeking out not authenticity and historical curiosity but dense, conceptual fictions is not a simple concept, and both theme park purveyors and commentators (lets assume we’re all in that latter category), don’t do a very good job of making this clear. It’s not about falsified realities, it’s about idealized fictions. This is theme parks 101, but in over 55 years the general public often has trouble discerning the difference between the two.

Ideals are often the language of theme parks, but they have the power to explore even more complicated concepts. In my book Tokyo DisneySea in Photographs I primarily attempted to paint Tokyo DisneySea as a place of idealized beauty, but also attempted to showcase how the park’s idealized, historical and cultural fictions work together to explore the complicated relationship between mankind and Mother Nature. This latter point is subtle, and one likely more latent in the park’s design than explicit, but it’s also something could not be expressed in quite the same way in any form other than the experiential theme park medium. Tokyo DisneySea is unique as a theme park in that it romanticizes progress while never arriving at any identifiable ideal. There is no utopia, no hypothesis of perfection, with the centerpiece of the park essentially highlighting chaos and turmoil. This flies in the face of the idea of the theme park as a simple utopian exercise as Dreamlands posits, planting the first seeds of postmodernism in theme park design. 

Tokyo DisneySea exhibits elements of postmodernism in theme park design, arguably focusing as much on conflict as idealization.

This frame of reference, the theme park as a cultural guide and vehicle for social commentary, is one that constantly fights for survival. Back in 1982 EPCOT was practically blatant in guiding the populous as to what a theme park’s role in the social and artistic landscape. However, 20 years later, Epcot is struggling to maintain purpose, guiding less and less and focusing on amusement more and more. Something didn’t connect, and I think it may have been as simple as a lack of communication. There needs to more guidance and discourse bridging the islands of amusement and art. The art within theme parks is often discussed, be it the graphic design of poster art or even something as complex as architecture, but the art of a theme park as a whole is mostly neglected. Theme parks remain one of society’s best guiding lights, encapsulations of our ideals, hopes, and more recently, our concerns. This role is made even more important by realizing just how many people theme parks touch, people who may never step foot into an art gallery or crack an architecture book. It’s time to stop assuming the lowest common denominator and believing in the promise of not only the future, but of the present. If we don’t take theme parks seriously as vehicles for social commentary and emotional expresson, as art, the rest of the world never will.

This is not a zero-sum game: we can have our fictional ideals and ride our roller coasters too.