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Theme Park History: 10 top movies or TV shows filmed in theme parks

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Published: November 16, 2013 at 5:43 PM

Theme parks have been in the movies ever since their inception. Imagery, action, people, the utopian/dystopian setting… all are great storytelling devices that lend themselves well to the screen, and theme parks have them all. New movies such as "Escape from Tomorrow" and the upcoming "Saving Mr. Banks" were filmed at Disney theme parks, but over the years, many other parks have made appearances in films and TV shows. Some have provided a side scene for a few minutes, while others have served as center stage for the entire movie. Here's a list of 10 theme park movies and TV shows to watch.

Strike Me Pink (1936)


The Pike at Long Beach was the setting for many films and TV shows over the years before its eventual demise. One of the first was this musical about a weakling who becomes an amusement park manager and is forced to confront a mob of racketeers. Eddie Pink eventually finds some courage along the way and takes them on, setting the scene for a memorable chase through the park and onboard the legendary Cyclone Racer. Pretty neat stuff, considering this was the 1930s and CGI/special effects just didn't exist.

Little Fugitive (1953)


This tale of a little boy who thought he killed his brother and ran away to Coney Island gathered acclaim for its stylized camera work and the use of non-actors in lead roles. Little Fugitive was nominated for two Academy Awards and selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in 1997. Viewers get a good look at 1950's Coney, past its prime by then but still bringing the crowds. The decline would begin just a few years later.

The Brady Bunch-The Cincinnati Kids (1973)


The Brady Bunch was produced by Paramount Studios, who was a major shareholder in Taft Broadcasting. Perhaps in an effort to give Taft a little boost, they produced "The Cincinnati Kids." This episode aired in season five and showcased Taft's shiny new park Kings Island to a national audience. It's essentially a commercial for the park, as early every inch of it is covered in 30 minutes as the Brady family searches for an elusive set of dad's lost blueprints. This was the second TV show filmed at the new park in only a year of existence. The Partridge Family was there in similar fashion six months before.

Rollercoaster (1977)


Disaster movies were all the rage in the 1970s. After the success of films like Earthquake and The Towering Inferno, Universal released Rollercoaster in the summer of 1977. The film did well, considering it was up against Star Wars. This yarn about a ride inspector trying to stop a mad amusement park bomber is a bit farfetched with a little extra 70s cheese, but still a lot of fun. The movie has its share of star power, including George Segal, Henry Fonda, Timothy Bottoms, and a very young Helen Hunt. For park fans though, the stars of the show also seem to be the rides and the parks themselves. Kings Dominion, Magic Mountain, and the defunct Ocean View Park in Norfolk Virginia were all featured extensively. Part of the neat factor in watching this movie now is seeing Kings Dominion and Magic Mountain up close in their infancy, and getting a ride on the Rebel Yell and the brand new Revolution before the effects of time and trim brakes.

Kiss Meets The Phantom Of The Park (1978)


The painted rockers are at Magic Mountain for a few concerts, and find themselves in a battle with a mad scientist bent on destroying the park that fired him. Along the way they use their superpowers to fight baddie robots, help a damsel in distress, and save the park from a riot incited by their evil clones. This pile of cheese, made-for-TV movie turned cult classic was an attempt to capitalize on the band's fame in the late 70's. Someone apparently forgot to mention in the preproduction meetings that these guys weren't actors. Some years later bassist Gene Simmons said in an interview, "It was a classic movie…a classic movie if you're on drugs." In the end the band hated it, the fans didn't like it, and Magic Mountain got plenty of free advertisement for a national TV audience.

Big (1988)


The critically acclaimed blockbuster that earned two Academy Award nominations and launched Tom Hanks' already blossoming career into the stratosphere was filmed in New York. Ironically enough, Josh makes his wish to be big after he's turned away for not meeting the ride height requirements. The now 86 year old Rye Playland (known in the movie as Sea Point Park) was the setting for Josh's big date with Susan and again at the end when he locates the elusive Zoltar machine. The coaster featured in the movie is the 1929 Dragon Coaster.

Beverly Hills Cop III (1994)


Great America in Santa Clara, California was the scene for Axel Foley's battle against a gang of bad guys posing as a theme park security force. Also making an appearance in the final act is Universal Studio's Earthquake ride (with Cylons from the old Battlestar Galactica show). Filmmaker John Landis hired the Sherman Brothers of "It's a Small World" fame to spoof their own classic and create another annoying theme park anthem…which they accomplished in splendid fashion I might add. Watch for the George Lucas sighting.

3 Ninjas-High Noon At Mega Mountain (1998)


Nobody ever said that all movies were instant cinema classics…and this one certainly proves it. Starring a wig wearing Hulk Hogan, Jim Varney (otherwise known as Ernest), Loni Anderson, and three kids who know karate, this pile of crap follows the adventures of Hulk and the ninjas as they try to thwart Medusa the criminal mastermind from sabotaging the park's rides and stealing 10 million dollars. The newly opened Elitch Gardens in downtown Denver got a makeover for this one. This one is good for a laugh, but for all the wrong reasons. Perhaps it might serve as some device for a drinking game.

Adventureland (2009)


Backed by a strong, youthful cast and a killer soundtrack, this comedy looks at the wacky world of working at the amusement park. Those who have had this experience undoubtedly have a chuckle at the barrage of absurdities, clichés, and characters that seem strangely familiar. Filmed at Kennywood in Pittsburgh, and co-starring a pre-"Twilight" Kristen Stewart, this one is a full on workplace comedy with all the youthful angst trimmings… kind of like "The Office" and "Dazed And Confused" had a kid during their summer fling while working together at the ring toss.

And the king of all theme park movies…

National Lampoon's Vacation (1983)


No list of theme park cinema would be complete without this all-time classic. The Griswold's bumbling cross-country trek to Wally World (Magic Mountain) was the stuff of legend. There are many memorable images in this one…getting lost in the ghetto, being stuck with crazy then dead Aunt Edna, wandering through the Grand Canyon, John Candy trying not to throw up on Colossus, and the image of the busted ass Wagon Queen Family Truckster limping down the highway and finally pulling up to an empty parking lot. This one wasn't just about the park, it was about getting there, and this film will forever be in the minds of those who brave long family road trips.

There are plenty of other films to choose from. Feel free to share your favorites in the comments.

Readers' Opinions

From Tracy Bates on November 16, 2013 at 5:56 PM
There was an episode of Revolution last season that was filmed in the closed Hard Rock Park in Myrtle Beach, SC.
From Robert Niles on November 16, 2013 at 5:56 PM
A few more:

Forty Pounds of Trouble (1952)


One of the few movies shot in early Disneyland, starring Tony Curtis and Suzanne Pleshette, this is a Universal movie, to boot!

Jaws 3D (1983)


Set at SeaWorld Orlando, though some scenes were filmed in San Diego. The clip is in Spanish, which makes it even more hilariously over the top for me. Dubbing bad movies is the best.
From Robert Niles on November 16, 2013 at 6:07 PM
Oh, and also...

House on Haunted Hill (1999)


Starring Geoffrey Rush, this bit might be the best use of a roller coaster in a movie scene, ever. This elevator gag is classic, but the derailing stunt car that follows (I couldn't find a full clip), tops it. This would have been a great advertisement for the new Islands of Adventure park, too, had anyone actually seen this movie.
From James Rao on November 16, 2013 at 7:13 PM
Great stuff, Derek, yet again!

ZOMBIELAND with Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, and Emma Stone had is climatic scene in a Hollywood-modified version of Herschend's Wild Adventures Park in Valdosta, GA. Sadly, this underrated movie is far superior to the kiddie park in which it was set.

Never forget the key rules: Cardio, Double Tap, Beware of Bathrooms, and Always Wear Seat Belts!

From Mike Gallagher on November 16, 2013 at 7:49 PM
Great stuff! Where's The Funhouse? Final Destination 3?

I don't know if anyone here has read a very good short novel by Stephen King called Joyland. I'm sure that will become a movie/TV event at some point (doesn't that happen with pretty much everything the man writes?) King does a great job of capturing the feel of working at a park and the carny life, so I'd expect any adaptation to do the same.

From 71.163.130.222 on November 16, 2013 at 7:57 PM
I don't know what the park was, but one of the "Final Destination" movies had a roller coaster, right?

And there was a Clint Eastwood movie :Sudden Impact" that climaxed at some theme park, with the killer on a roller coaster and a fun house, right?

From David L. on November 16, 2013 at 8:21 PM
Zombieland for the win!
From 46.233.70.207 on November 16, 2013 at 9:34 PM
The end of final destination 4 a scene was filmed at universal studios orlando
Outside and inside the coffee shop
From 82.132.225.232 on November 17, 2013 at 2:52 AM
The brilliant Sam Rockwell-starring "The Way Way Back" (2013) is filmed in Water Whizz, a water park in East Wareham, Massachusetts. Also appeared in the film "Grown Ups".
From 98.30.139.130 on November 17, 2013 at 5:25 AM
I was at Kings Island when they were filming one of the shows (can't remember if it was Partridge Family or Brady Bunch). Somehow I managed to not run into any of the actors or filming the whole day I was there- don't know if I'm lucky or disappointed. It was fun to see all those old rides, some of which are still there. I know the roller coaster and flume ride are still running, and lots of the background buildings are still there. I think that the site of the lake where the canoes were was drained and The Beast was built there- Derek, and I correct?
From Andy Milito on November 17, 2013 at 6:47 AM
Ah yes, how could you forget Zombieland? The finale was filmed at Wild Adventures in Valdosta, GA. I've been there so many times, I knew it as soon as I saw it.

Escape From Tomorrow did a great job of being filmed in the Disney parks, and I can't wait to see how they handle early Disneyland in Saving Mr. Banks.

From N B on November 17, 2013 at 9:45 AM
A couple more for the list.

Breaking All The Rules - (1985)

Encino Man - (1992)

From N B on November 17, 2013 at 7:34 AM
I watched the Brady clip with the pop up video... I remember this episode like it was yesterday. I noticed the multiple references about the people waiting in the regular lines being furious about the Brady Bunch cast being able to cut to the front....

That seems to be the norm these days.

From Thomas Caselli on November 17, 2013 at 9:10 AM
I have seen the Brady Bunch episodes at Kings Island many times. Who hasn't? Though I did not realize that The Partridge Family had filmed there too.
From 108.13.149.27 on November 17, 2013 at 9:56 AM
Sudden Impact (aka Dirty Harry 4) was filmed at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. I couldn't find any clips but there are definitely some scenes on the Big Dipper.

Lost Boys was also filmed at Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, but if I remember correctly there are just some fly over scenes.

I might have to look for House on Haunted Hill to see some early IOA shots!

Thanks for a great article.

From 141.0.9.44 on November 17, 2013 at 10:55 AM
Space Cowboys 2000
Baby Geniuses 1999
Riding the Bullet 2004
The Wiz 1978
not a movie but Mariah Carey Fantasy music video 1995
From Daniel Smith on November 17, 2013 at 3:35 PM
I remember Woody Harrelson and the cast of Cheers making a film about Disneyland. Going back maybe 20 years, but as a kid, I was mesmerised!! Anyone remember this or know what it was called? It was released as a theatrical film overseas. I saw it in the cinema.
From steve lee on November 17, 2013 at 4:31 PM
I humbly submit:

True Romance - Discussion of a drug deal takes place while riding Viper at Six Flags Magic Mountain. One of the characters, played by Bronson Pinchot (Cousin Balki!) doesn't handle the ride too well (kids, get your parent's permission before watching this film, as its script by Quentin Tarantino contains a few expletives).

Fear - a forgettable 1996 film with Mark Wahlberg and Reese Witherspoon contains a not so forgettable scene on the Wooden Roller Coaster at Playland Amusement Park (kids, get your parent's permission before watching this film, as Marky Mark does something awfully naughty to Reese while they're riding).

From Mike Gallagher on November 17, 2013 at 4:47 PM
Daniel: Would this be what you're thinking of? Most of the Cheers cast is featured, among many other TV stars of the time.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0221395/fullcredits?ref_=tt_cl_sm#cast

From Mike Gallagher on November 17, 2013 at 5:01 PM
Steve, I never saw Fear. But I just found the clip of that scene on YouTube. Brought back some good memories, if you catch my drift...
From James Koehl on November 17, 2013 at 8:34 PM
Robert, sorry to be a stickler for accuracy, but "Forty Pounds of Trouble" could not have been released in 1952 since Disneyland didn't open until 1955.
From TH Creative on November 18, 2013 at 1:55 AM
From Brent Moody on November 18, 2013 at 6:25 AM
Please do not ask me how I know this but the straight to video movie Bring It On: In it to Win It was filmed all over Universal Orlando. I think they used IOA, Universal Studios, City Walk and the pool from the Hard Rock Hotel. It is a pretty terrible movie but it was cool to watch and see which part of the park they would be at next.
From 71.126.244.230 on November 18, 2013 at 7:41 AM
An episode of Sabrina the Teenage witch was filmed in AKL. Also wasn't there an episode of full house filmed in Magic Kingdom where Scott Weinger "Steve" DJ's boyfriend and the voice of Aladdin actually played Aladdin in the park.
From Anon Mouse on November 18, 2013 at 11:36 AM
An episode of ManCaves was filmed in Knott's Berry Farm.

Cable channnels have plenty of reality shows filmed in the theme parks especially for the mega roller coaster countdowns or water park countdowns.

Disneyland and WDW has plenty of episodes filmed there especially the HGTV and Food Channels.

Although I never watch them, ABC Family or ABC Kids or other Disney channels have the tween shows filmed in the Disney theme parks. I am sure Miley Cyrus went there as Hanna Montana.

From Bryce McGibeny on November 18, 2013 at 1:15 PM
I was at IOA when they were filming that Bring It On movie or whatever it was. I remember seeing them filming right in front of the Dueling Dragons entrance.
From 173.162.139.169 on November 18, 2013 at 1:42 PM
That thing you do!

From Tony Duda on November 18, 2013 at 5:21 PM
Roseanne did episodes at Walt Disney World. I remember Dan getting a yard of ale at the Epcot UK pavilion and saying he went to heaven. Too bad, they stopped selling yards.

Full House has WDW episodes too. They did a DJ scene in the fish tank at the Coral Reef Restaurant.

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