Theme parks and the importance of effective transitions from land to land
Published: March 24, 2014 at 11:32 AM
Weird juxtapositions of attractions just feel funny, and kill the illusion of inhabiting a different place or time. Walt Disney famously bought thousands of acres of land in Central Florida so that there'd be none of the visual imposition of surrounding developing on his Walt Disney World theme park that visitors were seeing at the original Disneyland in California. But blocking the outside world only creates a blank template upon which park designers can work. To make the most of a theme park, designers should work to create effective transitions between the attractions they create within.
Let's consider some of the parks that do this well, as well as examples where transitions don't quite work. With its recent Springfield development, Universal Studios Florida has created a better thematic transition along the east side of its central lagoon, one that helps elevate the park from a collection of faux studio sets to a collection of truly immersive themed environments.
An aerial view of the eastern side of Universal Studios Florida, from last year. Photo from TH Creative.
Let's start next door to Springfield, in the park's KidZone. While the KidZone includes ET, Animal Actors and Barney, much of the land features animated characters, which makes the KidZone a nice companion to the newly expanded cartoon-driven, Simpsons-themed Springfield area next door. The Springfield expansion eliminated the International Film Festival, the last remnant of the thematically weak International Expo land that offered all the romance of an office park.
While Springfield features the animated characters from the Simpsons, those characters appeal more to adults than to kids, ensuring that Springfield feels distinct from the KidZone, even as common focus on animation makes the two lands feel compatible. And that is what park designers should be working toward when placing attractions and lands next to one another. They should feel different enough to represent distinct experiences, but compatible enough to feel right when placed next to each other.
With the addition of the Kang 'n Kodos spinner, Springfield now offers a better transition to the aliens of the Men in Black pavilion on the other side of the Simpsons' land, by facing it with The Simpsons' most well-known Sci-Fi element. Unfortunately, that's where the smooth transitions stop, as the Fear Factor theater just kills any hope for thematic cohesion between Men in Black and the new London Embankment of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley.
But what possibly could tie those franchises together? Let's think about that. You've got a big-city bureaucratic agency, with an other-worldly twist, in the Men in Black headquarters on one side, and the London waterfront on the other. But let's remember that the Harry Potter series has a big-city bureaucratic agency with an other-worldly twist of its own. What if Universal extended the London waterfront into the current Fear Factor theater space and made it the home of the Ministry of Magic? Wouldn't the Ministry of Magic and the Men in Black headquarters satisfy our requirement of two attractions that are different enough to represent distinct experiences, but compatible enough to feel right when placed next to each other?
With a Ministry of Magic expansion in place, Universal Studios Florida would have a smooth thematic transition across more than half the park, from KidZone to Springfield to Men in Black to Harry Potter. I suppose that the urban-set Disaster sort of fits with the urban-themed London Embankment, but the smooth transition breaks down there, as the New York area next to the San Francisco-themed Disaster is redundant to the New York-set Men in Black on the opposite side of the lagoon. Even as Universal Studios Florida improves its thematic transitions, the park still has work to do with that.
But while we're dreaming of new Harry Potter projects that might improve thematic transitions within their parks, let's consider Islands of Adventure. Instead of the remnants of the Lost Continent bridging the original Wizarding World and Seuss Island, wouldn't a Forbidden Forest in that space make a better transition, with the magical beasts of the Forbidden Forest complementing the fanciful "beasts" of Dr. Seuss? Just something to dream about....
Let's not leave Disney out of this discussion. Disney's biggest missed opportunity in thematic placement might be Epcot's World Showcase. The construction of the Swan and Dolphin hotels many years ago intruded upon the visuals on that half of the park, but World Showcase never offered a sensible transition from pavilion to pavilion.
Over on the west side, the progression starts well enough, going from Canada to former colonial overlord, the United Kingdom, to the UK's nearest neighbor on the European continent, France. Having the former French colony of Morocco next door works well, too, but things start to fall apart as we jump halfway across the world to Japan before completing our journey around the globe in America. Even more unfortunately, we're only halfway around World Showcase.
From there, we return to Europe for Italy and Germany, before proceeding through an Africa-themed outdoor merchandise stand that Disney put up after years of embarrassing signs promising new national pavilions that never arrived. After that, it's a bounce around the world from China, to Norway, to Mexico.
Disney can do better. And has, over at Walt Disney World's oldest park, the Magic Kingdom. Let's think about the lands we find there.
Main Street provides a nostalgic entry to the park that's becoming more self-referential in its nostalgia with each passing generation. (Who alive still remembers the turn of the 20th century?) Let's take it from there, clockwise around the lands of the park. We start in the South Pacific with Adventureland, with nods to Asia and Africa in the Jungle Cruise before thematically crossing the Atlantic and turning into the northern hemisphere as we approach Caribbean Plaza.
From there, we head into the Deep South of Splash Mountain before approaching the Mississippi and the Rivers of America. If we follow the rivers one way (up the Missouri?) we head out to the Rocky Mountains of Big Thunder. If we go the other way (up the Mississippi and Ohio?) we pass through the old frontier before heading back northeast to New England and Liberty Square.
From there, we head back across the north Atlantic, this time, to the Europe of Fantasyland. The seamless geographic transition falls apart a bit with the Circus section, but what if Disney were to rip out the Circus in favor of building Frozen's Arendelle? That franchise would fit perfectly on "Europe"'s northern edge in Fantasyland. (Of course, Disney would never get rid of Dumbo, so that would open the question of where to place it.)
Our thematic trip around the world ends now in Tomorrowland, when the Magic Kingdom's transition ceases being one of geography and instead becomes one of time. But a reskin of Tomorrowland to give it the suggestion of a high-tech Japanese vibe would complete the geographic transition around the park perfectly.
There are reasons why visitors reach favorably, or unfavorably, to theme parks on a gut, subconscious level. The effective use of thematic transitions from land to land and attraction to attraction is one of the factors that drive that subconscious feeling of comfort within a park. Disney pretty much nailed that with the Magic Kingdom, which is one of the reasons why that park endures as the world's most popular.
What other theme parks do a great job of thematic transitions? Let's keep the conversation going in the comments.