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Theme parks and the importance of effective transitions from land to land

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Published: March 24, 2014 at 11:32 AM

Theme parks create immersive environments through the developed of well-themed attractions and settings. As fans, we know that. But how parks place those attractions together also affects how we feel about them.

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.

Universal Studios Florida
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.

World Showcase

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.

Readers' Opinions

From Karl Beaudry on March 24, 2014 at 12:09 PM
Excellent post. Call me a purist, but I firmly believe a "theme park" ought to live up to its name and truly immerse guests by the theming of each land. If this is not effective, the result is an "amusement park" and not a theme park - despite the fact that many parks claim to be otherwise. Indeed, I think more solid lines need to be drawn between being referred to as an amusement park, a theme park, or a themed resort. Let's give credit to the companies that put hundreds of millions of dollars into creating a different world for their guests. They are no longer considered amusement parks and should be referenced appropriately.

Is this a crucial opinion? No - just a pet peeve. :)

From 158.120.0.1 on March 24, 2014 at 12:10 PM
"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"

This grouping makes very good sense. First "The American Adventure" was always designed to be the centerpiece of world showcase.

The Imaginers accounted for this by grouping all the Axis powers together Japan, Italy and Germany. With America geographically dividing Japan from Italy. This also is a political division of America literally standing in-between Japan and Germany.

From O T on March 24, 2014 at 12:14 PM
I think Sea World does a great job. It's all one theme!
Second place goes to Epcot's futureworld. It's all old 70's "futuristic" versions of achitecture buildings all the way.

But seriously, once I would have said MK but that park is systematically destroyed the last past 10+ years and with the hub remodelling there is no end to the abuse.
The first place should be AK.

From Gabriel Schroll on March 24, 2014 at 12:27 PM
As for Universal Orlando, I think the new brass is very cognizant of the thematic changes, and though they're pouring money into the parks, there's only so much they can do at one time, both for financial reasons, and because people don't want to see construction all over the place all the time. My feeling is that they will eventually get rid of the Fear Factor set. I mean...who watches that anymore? I really believe it's just a matter of time and Fear Factor will be gone, replaced with something that helps put the original USF back on the map.

And yes, Magic Kingdom does a great job, and I sure would love to see a futuristic Japanese-style makeover to Tomorrowland. I avoid Tomorrowland almost entirely, save the Carousel of Progress, which for some reason, I really enjoy.

From Rob Pastor on March 24, 2014 at 12:31 PM
Animal Kingdom does a good job except for Dinoland. Now if they would have used a Lost Continent themed dinosaur area it would have worked. But the cheap Roadside Dino theme seems completely out of place.
From robert morris on March 24, 2014 at 12:42 PM
While I would love to see Ministry of Magic instead of Fear Factor, it could create a logistical nightmare for HHN. As they did layout Diagon Alley almost perfect for that cash cow not to be impeded.

I think a London Themed Theater hosting the Theme Park version of Wicked could work?

One of my biggest issues in MK is the Speedway being heard in the Circus Portion of Fantasyland...if they are going to keep the Speedway can we go to hybrids and eliminate the sound aspect...or make everyone's dream come true and bring Journey to the Center of the Earth to replace the Speedway.

From 72.238.37.87 on March 24, 2014 at 1:36 PM
Let's not forget, the "theme" of Islands of Adventure is that it is a collection of distinct islands. You walk across a bridge over water to get from island to island. If there's a weak link, it's the barely visible bridge between the Marvel and Toon Lagoon islands (although they need the least transition since both are based on printed comics).

For Universal Studios Florida, you refer to the "faux" studio sets, but they're not "faux" at all. Contrary to popular belief, USF is a fully functional studio that still uses its backlot sets (which also house the park's attractions) for production. Admittedly, they don't use them as much as they used to (most production takes place in the sound stages), but they do still use those sets for production, unlike their neighbor up the interstate.

http://studio.florida.universalstudios.com

From Robert Niles on March 24, 2014 at 2:31 PM
There are plenty of "fake" studio buildings at USF. Many of the early attraction buildings were designed to look like soundstages, though they would never see any production other than their various attractions.
From Anon Mouse on March 24, 2014 at 2:40 PM
I never thought Disney considered the concept of thematic transitions between lands. They did invent the spoke and hub design that every Disneyland has adopted. Once you decided on a land to visit, you're supposed to return to the hub to see another land. This doesn't always happen in reality, but this is as close to practical use of the hub and spoke design.

The original Disneyland does not have lands that "transition" thematically to the next land. They are silos with clear distinction. I recalled looking at the old maps of Disneyland. Each land was color coded to distinguish a land from its neighbor. It was soon clear that as Disneyland expanded and each attraction was at the heels of another land, transitions were put in place. This is not absolutely necessary for all lands.

You have a good idea to bring this up, but it falls apart with the EPCOT example. Each Country stands alone. There is no transition. There is enough space between Countries. People enter into the pathway that takes them to the next country. You don't enter a country from the midpoint, which was how the lands of the Magic Kingdom and other Disneylands are constructed.

From 205.188.117.16 on March 24, 2014 at 11:10 PM
Nice idea, Robert. And it's high time they ditched that Fear Factor show. It's well past it's "best before" date.
From 98.85.77.170 on March 25, 2014 at 12:06 AM
WDW ruined Walt's greatest transition from the real world to fantasy with the huge ugly bus stop right in front of the magic kingdom but at least they are easing the transition by making the hub and main street a giant parking lot.

From Russell Meyer on March 25, 2014 at 6:38 AM
It doesn't exist anymore, but one of the most clever ways create a transition between lands was what Hard Rock Park did with their music. They had different lands themed to different styles of music, and what they did was to have songs playing in the background that seamlessly transitioned between musical styles. You could hear a song like "Back in Black" playing normal, and then as you walked into the country music land, you could hear the same song done bluegrass style, or walk over to the Caribbean-themed beachfront to hear the song played with steel drums---very clever, and really rather surprising that other parks have not gone through the trouble to do something similar using music to make transitions between lands.
From Rob Pastor on March 25, 2014 at 6:58 AM
IOA does a pretty good job of music themed to the lands and the transitions between them.
From Jaiden Cohen on March 25, 2014 at 7:25 AM
I have an idea for transition between MIB and London
Something British
But it has to be a secret agent theme
I suggest buys the rights to...

James Bond

From Joseph Smith on March 25, 2014 at 11:31 AM
Three thoughts:

First, my favorite transition is between the hub at Disneyland and Adventureland. The bridge provides the change, but the highlight is how the ridge of the roof on a single building is themed to a Victorian-era building on one side, and an exotic tropical location on the other.

Second, agree that I don't see any problem in how Epcot's countries work. There doesn't need to be a belabored transition. It's simple enough that you go back to the waterfront and move from one to the next. Frankly, this worked better when all the countries didn't spill out with kiosks and clutter onto the waterfront; you used to need to go into them to experience and be immersed.

Third, love how Hard Rock Park used musical transitions. That's a great idea, and more places should use it.

From 86.129.221.83 on March 25, 2014 at 12:24 PM
Europa park does a pretty good job with all its "countries".
From Anthony Murphy on March 25, 2014 at 4:34 PM
Really? You write about how Universal flows from land to land, but you stop at the worst break in any theme park? What about Harry Potter and Jurassic Park? That is a hard break.

Seriously?

From 98.162.245.45 on March 25, 2014 at 7:18 PM
I'm glad someone brought that up (JP to HP). For the most part now and definitely pre-Harry Potter, IOA had great transitions between lands with the bridges between islands and the changes in music. I believe IOA has the best entry area of any park I've been to just based on the music that plays at the Port of Entry and the overall "adventure-travel" theme of it.

Back to JP though, as much as I don't like it, the bridge is a necessary evil though to make the transition to HP. It pains me every time I visit to see folks trying to take a picture of themselves with the Hogwarts castle on such a narrow bridge that limits the flow of folks walking through to both islands. Robert mentioned making the other entrance like the Forbidden Forest, but maybe that would be a better thing to do for this one, although the forest would also include palm trees (hey, it's all magic!).

On the Studio side, going clockwise, you basically have the following transitions- New York - San Francisco - London - New York (World's Fair, MIB) - Springfield. Kind of weird, but at least the themeing for London will really stand out and provide a separation between San Fran and MIB. What they managed to do with Springfield is amazing. What I imagined was going to be a simple touch-up of an area, turned out to be a unique experience of its own, separate from the ride.

I can't foresee them getting rid of the Fear Factor stage. Where will all the drunks go to watch the mediocre Bill and Ted Show during HHN? The only way I could see the getting rid of it is if the spread HHN to both parks again and use the stage in Toon Lagoon for B&T.

I think one of the more under appreciated and under-used areas of the Studios park is the "California-Los Angeles" area. I saw a documentary about Sunset Strip a while back and was intrigued by all the historic cues that are built into this part of the park that are based on LA from the early part of the last century. With the exception of native Californians, I don't think most of the people walking through the park would notice these nods to the buildings and shops that made early LA.

On the World Showcase at Epcot - I'm okay with the way the countries are set up. I need to pace my drinking a margarita in Mexico before I get my Grey Goose orange slush in France. If they were right next to each other, bad things would happen. I understand the reasoning for placing the U.S. in the world showcase, but I've always slightly felt that as a country we were pandering to ourselves and giving ourselves a pat on the back with the inclusion of this area. I believe that if the Virgina park would have been built, this area at Epcot would not be necessary. Although it is fun to shout out, "the red coats are coming!" whenever passing by the American band playing outside at the showcase.


From TROY DAVIDSON on March 26, 2014 at 6:41 AM
I have to agree with Anthony. The transistion between Jarassic Park and Harry Potter is just not good. You should not be seeing palm trees in front of Hogwarts Castle.
From N B on March 26, 2014 at 5:51 PM
As I stated before, the "dead zone" between Marvel Super Hero Island and Toon Lagoon where the empty show building sits really irks me. That walk past the Simpsons Ride to get to MIB seemed like a hike before. Now there is so much to stop and look at along the way.

USF did a great job with it. I also agree the space between MIB and Potter London could use some work. Those are really the only two areas I have a slight problem with.

From 70.106.31.70 on March 28, 2014 at 12:46 PM
BGW DOES A GREAT JOB ALSO!
From 96.51.210.217 on March 28, 2014 at 1:10 PM
I worked at world showcase so I have plenty of experience going around the lagoon and looking at those pavilions. I have no problem with having each pavilion distinct and have no real transition. I do find, however, that the placement of particular countries interesting. Canada and Mexico are placed at the beginning partially because they were supposed to sandwich the American Adventure when it was placed on the other side of the lagoon, before it got moved to the other side.

As far as the park that does the best transitions. Animal Kingdom is good, but that is almost too easy when the whole park is largely just various jungle and trees.

To me Disneyland is the best. Especially where adventureland, New Orleans Square and Frontierland meet. These lands meld together perfectly in my opinion. Even critter country with its bayou/American south roots works as an extension of both frontierland and New Orleans square.

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