"We all wonder what it would be like to fly, to have power, to journey to another world. We wish, hope, dream...then we come to realize wonder can be real after all."
In one commercial, Universal Studios hits every beat why the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, and fantasy properties in general, are so in vogue in theme parks in 2016. Entertainment as escapism isn't a new trait peddled to reach millennials — no, but it's something that has come back into popularity in recent years following, well, if you've been alive the past 20 years, you know exactly what it's following.
The second beat in that voiceover, given by a young girl as we soar through the clouds, hits me the most. "To have power," she says, hopefully, wistfully. She's not hoping for the power Lord Voldemort sought — power to enslave the world and reach the pinnacle of wizardkind. No, what this girl, what we want is to feel we can, in some way, control our own situations.
We feel powerless. Weak. Hopeless. A political system that doesn't represent us, a Presidential election that has long gone off the rails, and this follows endless war in the Middle East we peddle as a means to protect ourselves. We are Americans, but identifying with the land of the Free (if you're a straight, white man) and the home of the Brave (unless you're in Congress) has never felt so tarnished.
Long gone are the science-fiction tales of Star Trek, and the attractions that used to proclaim the optimism of Disneyland now take us away from our inevitable, glorious future and into a world that is unlike ours as possible. Even attractions such as Jurassic Park: The Ride can at least, through some lens, be seen as a hopeful, if cautious, look towards our own future. Now we eschew glorious science for something a little less real — magic.
That's not a criticism; it's an explanation. Magic long has been the bread-and-butter word of the theme park industry, but at no other time has it felt like the only life-blood the industry has needed. "To journey to another world," she says next. Yes, send us away — send us anywhere, please, something unlike the dark, cynical world we're trapped in.
Up goes The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, here comes Star Wars Land and look out for Avatar Land on the horizon. Hogwarts, Hoth, Pandora. We want — no, we need an escape. Theme parks ready themselves to provide it to us. They know what franchises we want and they're prepared to bring them in all their might and glory.
The Hunger Games, a book/movie series based on a severely dystopian society set in a world no human would want to visit, is getting its own themed land. If it weren't for pre-negotiated theme park rights, you can bet the all-powerful heroes from Marvel's new set of franchises would be bearing down on us faster than Mystique slips from one disguise to another. That you know Mystique isn't associated with Disney's Marvel universe and were on your way to the comments to correct me only cements the impact these not-so-new worlds are having on the world in 2016.
It's not so much our new-found love affair with comic books that makes this true as it is the kind of stories we're looking to be told. Take a look at Sam Raimi's first Spider-Man film. The stakes are almost painfully low. Spider-Man has to stop the Green Goblin, otherwise he's...going to do some pretty bad stuff to his aunt, his romantic interest and a bus filled with kids — I'm not trying to make light of the murder of seniors, but compare that to what we're getting this summer.
In X-Men: Apocalypse, mutants are facing off against a mutant powerful enough to destroy the entire planet. His name is literally the thing we most fear — our own destruction. Heck, want a more direct comparison? Try watching Tim Burton's first "Batman" film and compare it with the mouth-full-of-tar monsterpiece "Batman vs. Superman" delivered by hater of heroes and humans alike, Zack Snyder.
Both films provide a release for our existential angst in different ways. While franchises like X-Men and The Hunger Games give us a channel to destroy our anxiety, "Batman vs. Superman" forces us to confront it, to live it and to absolutely consume it. We take our medicine because deep down it makes us feel good to confront our biggest fears through a different medium.
"We wish, hope, dream...then we come to realize wonder can be real after all," the young girl concludes as Hedwig's Theme jingles over the sky, revealing Hogwarts to us. Universal Studios sucks us in by revealing our hopes and dreams of escape to us in all of 10 seconds of commercial time. Then, like any good snake-oil salesman, gives us the cure to our ailment: Reserve your tickets now.
You Might Also Like:
The escapism offered in Potter/comic book movies/Star Wars is a welcome relief to this, so the idea of an "immersive" environment is very attractive. Also the technology is there now to present this reality in fantastic detail, whether on the big screen or in a theme park.
I wonder if part of batman v Superman's failure at the box office (other than it being a truly bad film IMHO) is that it's bleak depiction of superheroes doesn't offer us the escapism or heroes we want.
To criticize a theme park for attempting to sell their product on the promise of escapism is beating a dead horse. This is exactly what theme parks have been doing since Walt opened up Disneyland (and even before then, with Knott opening up his theme park a few miles away and a few years eariler).
The criticism of fantasy as "pure escapism" is ill-informed and baseless, perpetrated by the post-modernist mindset and deconstructionist ideals of Derrida. "Now we eschew glorious science for something a little less real — magic." Wow. Glorious science! How dare we eschew glorious science! I think what we have here is a rather dangerous and snobbish idea that fantasy is somehow less important due to it's 'escapist' nature. After all, the science of tomorrow is simply the magic of today. Now I am not here saying that science is an ignoble pursuit (it's not), only that it can't tell us anything about nobility to begin with. The very idea of science itself rests upon the idea of progress towards 'something'; a teleology which science itself can not provide us with. The phrase, "I believe only that which I see in my test tube," is a rather unscientific and contradictory phrase itself resting upon the idea that this phrase can be put in a test tube firstly and implying that whatever is in the test tube is worth analyzing to begin with (Lord help us if what a scientist found in his test tube was something akin to an angel or fairy or demon).
To quote Chesterton..."Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon. Exactly what the fairy tale does is this: it accustoms him for a series of clear pictures to the idea that these limitless terrors had a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear."
And this is why fantasy (and science fiction for that matter) hold such a grip on our collective and societal conscience. It is not an escape from reality which people want. Indeed, no child wants to be trapped in a dungeon with a dragon (or chased by dementors), to suggest otherwise is really rather childish. What children want, what people want, is to experience fear and hope, who, married from the onset of the world, produce children full of bravery, wonder, and conviction. Children and people love fantasy because they tell us that Voldemort can be defeated. Or that Sauron, the all powerful, all-seeing, lidless eye, can be bested by even the most humble of heroes. People see in these stories a reflection of the reality which exists around them. The villains in these stories are indeed more real than the villains people meet in life, and that is because the villains are not merely villains any more than a television is a window to reality. Both the villain and the television reflect what is most real. That is, there is such a thing as evil and selfishness and despair and suffering. And when our heroes overcome these villains, these real things, we also overcome them and we also learn to overcome them. A wizard-boy defeating the most powerful evil sorcerer is really no different than a terminally ill child overcoming a serious illness. A small and weak hobbit defeating a primal and omniscient demon is really no different than a small and weak child standing up to a bully, or conquering his fears.
Now this is all a roundabout way to say that to criticize the teleological end of a theme parks aims is rather like burning a book, or smashing a television. We may seem like we are freeing ourselves from the childlike escapism of fantasy when what we've really done is feed a greater dragon with the flames of our own dreams, and such a dragon may not be defeated if there is no brave hobbits or wizard-boys to defeat them.
As Lewis once said, "We make men without chests and expect of them honor and fruitful. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find knives in our backs. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful."
And all of this is said in defense of fantasy that is, by this humble observer's prospective, rather pedantic and elementary. What we should really be doing is elevating the truly great stories above the standard Campbellian heroic arc. The Book of the New Sun should be read instead of Harry Potter. The Foundation Series in place of Star Wars. The Lord of the Rings will and should always supplant Game of Thrones. And Brave New World should be of much bigger concern than the Hunger Games.
We shouldn't be shrinking from fantasy. We should be embracing and expanding fantasy.
As a side note, the author wrote, " identifying with the land of the Free (if you're a straight, white man)". Can we keep the meme's and pop-political mantras off a theme park website please? Not only is this statistically true and can produce no fruitful discussion to the aims of the website.
I am especially intrigued by your late paragraph which calls for an elevation of fantasy, either in general or in theme parks in particular. I'd love to hear more from you about this.
Let us bring the conversation back around to WWOHP, where we started. You might say that a shallow reading of Universal's Potter lands reduces them to mere locations. This interpretation means that to visit the world of Potter, the world of Star Wars, the world of Avatar, is to simply switch aesthetics and color palettes. They're merely interesting fictional settings, based on simplistic (interchangeable) Campbellian stories.
But WWOHP deepens its fantasy by allowing the visitor to participate. Wear a robe, wield a wand, become a player in a popular fiction. Maybe Disneyland circa 1955 was similar, where a child could explore Frontierland dressed as a (generic?) cowboy, creating her own adventures upon a glorious playground.
But could this immersive participation, this high-tech LARPing, be done even better by theme parks? After all, theme parks are an artistic medium as much as film or novels or paintings, and carry as much potential. I would urge anyone reading to read Blake's own Realms of Imagination park idea in the TPI forums (last year's Theme Park Apprentice 6.1), which realizes something perhaps like his idealized version of theme park fantasy. (I don't want to speak for Blake, but I see a lot of the theories he's put forth in this thread realized practically in his Realms.)
Can Blake's park, or parks in general, engage fantasy (as a specific genre, or a broad concept) more fully, more deeply? Can guests be engaged beyond the basic hero's quest, into greater questions of Courage, Heroism, Good vs. Evil? (Concepts which have been with mankind ever since storytelling began.) I'll go this one further, and ask if theme parks can genuinely engage in the other great concepts, like God, Morality, Self, Art, Philosophy...
In other words, can parks treat fantasy, or even the broader, more ancient aspects of humanity, in the way that EPCOT Center (not Epcot) treated science and futurism? That Disneyland treats the American Dream? I of course do not have an answer for that! But it does make me hopeful that upcoming destinations like Star Wars Land can, hypothetically, do more than simply present us with simulcra.
Another beer please, bartender!
And as someone who is a huge lover of fiction and storytelling, I kinda want to expand on what he's said. Over the last couple years something I've picked up on is that all sci-fi and fantasy stories, while certainly providing the escapism we all crave, are made to reflect real-life situations.
These can be smaller, more personal things that a lot of people can relate to; like Beauty and the Beast. If you went through your middle school/high school years as one of the...less attractive guys, than you know how soul-crushing it is when you fall hopelessly in love with a girl that is way out of your league.
And Harry Potter, as well! Sure, on the surface, it seems like the story about a boy who's trying to save the world from an evil wizard who's in desperate need of a nosejob (and a manicure). But when you look at it more closely and really analyze it, you discover that it's really about a boy who's growing up. Aside from the fact that we see him going through a lot of the same stuff that most teenage boys go through: having crushes, trying to pass all his classes and all that jazz, all of the villains and monsters he faces (Voldemort, the Dimentors, etc.) are all physical representations of Harry's own personal fears and demons. It's really fascinating!
But they can also represent situations on a much larger scale! Of course you have the X-men, who have always represented people who were discriminated against like racial minorities and homosexuals (speaking of which, I can assure you that being a "straight, white male" doesn't mean that you never have feelings of being powerless); but I think the best example of this is Star Trek. Every episode of the show deals with some sort of social or political issue. One of my personal favorites is this one episode where the Enterprise crew lands on a planet that has been at war with another planet over the past few millennia. At first, Kirk and the others are quite suspicious because despite the planet being "at war" there seems to be no damage whatsoever. In fact, the planet seems pretty prosperous! What they eventually discover is that, in order to avoid any massive destruction, both planets have agreed to use a very different style of warfare. Instead of actually physically fighting each other, every day (or was it once every few weeks? Gonna have to find that episode and rewatch it...) each planet selects a handful of people on the other planet that they have to execute. If either one of the planets fails to execute all of the chosen people, than the other one has to open fire. And then they go to into this whole thing of why the more traditional style of warfare, that is blowing each other up, is actually more effective. Yes it's more barbaric and unethical, but it's unethical-ness is what makes it so much more ethical! Yeah, I know that sounds confusing, but trust me, they explain it really well!
So, in conclusion, while fantasy does provide nice escapism, it also provides great commentary on our real world as well.
Wow, I knew you liked fantasy, but I didn't realize your commitment was this strong! Nice! Good for you! Honestly, imagine believing that the inherent privilege enjoyed by straight, white men is a "pop-political mantra" — now that's a fantasy story that puts anything Rowling wrote to shame.
And now, dear readers, we see how far down the rabbit hole the SJW movement and memes have come. Here, on the lonely island of the internet which lies solitary and stoic in its dedication to the coverage and news of the theme park industry, we have finally come at last to political infusion into the coverage of themed design. I will resist turning this into a political debate because, again, the aim of this website is dedicated to theme park news and industry which has virtually NO political stance attached to it. But congratulations, you've followed your yellow journalistic brainwashing which I can see your professors taught you well. Be proud.
In fact, despite whatever perception media might create, there has been a net reduction in all forms of violence. For example all Western cities are dramatically safer than they were 30 years ago. Meanwhile spousal abuse is less prevalent than it ever was, child abuse, etc.
Escapee has always been a big seller. It's not that's there are really all that many more problems today, on the whole, than there were any number of decades ago.
- Robert Ruffo
Jacob, if you disagree with Blake, try using a little logic to your argument. Your original post was extremely negative, and you did yourself no credit when you replied to Blake's criticism with flippancy.
As someone who's been on this site for a long time, I can't think of a time when someone with conservative values started an argument in the articles or the discussion thread unless it was in response to a provocative statement from a liberal. Unfortunately, liberals just can't seem to mind their manners and keep their political and social comments in the right forums. Theme parks and politics and social commentary just don't mix.
I feel like my initial post may been a little too dialectical in nature. In regards to elevating fantasy (or fiction in general), I only hope that the general population channels the wonder and joy they experience through popular YA and SFF as a catalyst to exploring literature with more penetrating themes. As great as HP or SW may be for children (or adults for that manner), they serve only as an intellectual and emotional springboard to more complex works (or at least they should, IMO). The core problem I see, and the one point I think Jacob got right, was that people often use these stories as an emotional crutch without bothering to penetrate into the more complex themes and issues which other works of art explore more completely. There does seem to be a sort of erosion of the arts in general from something which should elevate the mind to something which serves as a sort of pornographic fetish wherein a reader or viewer may "identify" with a character or story. That's not to say that there is anything wrong with "identifying" with a character. Indeed, this is how people operate in reality. We tend to surround ourselves with people who share some of our same core beliefs or views. Yet I think where this becomes an issue is that it shoehorns an audience to view fiction as something which should only serve to satisfy their emotional desires. My rant about villains and fairy tales has to do with the mere fact that great stories force a reader to come to grips with uncomfortable situations and unfamiliar emotions. Now the popular franchises we've been discussing are indeed popular, but they aren't necessarily uncomfortable. We know that Harry will eventually defeat Voldemort, or that the Light side will prevail, because we've been conditioned to accept this as the standard emotional narrative arc (we're back to the Campbellian arc we discussed before). Again, this isn't so much a critique of the stories or franchises itself as it is the educational system which allows these things to flourish. Flannery O'Connor, writing about how best to educate people about literature, held the stance that, like all disciplines, Literature has a history. Books are made out of other books, as McCarthy once said. Without a proper framework and education in the history of Literature, the student is not readily equipped to understand what separates mere emotional pornography from artistic creation In her words, “And if the student finds that this is not to his taste? Well, that is regrettable. Most regrettable. His taste should not be consulted; it is being formed.”
But I digress. In regards to themed design, the immersive aspect is one which may serve as a way to channel a guests inherent qualities in an 'artificial setting'. And this, I think, makes for a very interesting idea, because, as discussed earlier, it may offer guests an opportunity to themselves actualize very real virtues, not through the eyes of a separate character, but from their very own abilities. In this sense, the themed land may serve as a sort of 'training ground' for emotional and intellectual growth. Utilizing the familiarity of a place like Hogwart's as something which is both comfortable and strange, a themed designer may have the opportunity to force the guest into situations which they may otherwise not enter into in the 'real world'. This is very much already in-line with Walt's initial vision, and is really nothing more than the natural progression of the art medium. I am reminded of Snow White's Scary Adventures, which, as a child, forced the rider to assume the role of Snow White, in constant peril of being killed by the evil witch. What a terrifying and wonderful experience that was and it still impresses on my memory! The kind of immersion we are discussing is really a full realization of this same type of experience, wherein the guest is now "in control" of the outcome rather than bound to the whims of a ride track.
I think the original EPCOT center was the closest anyone has come to seeing the 'next advancement' of themed design we are discussing here, and it's a shame that so much of its original vision has been gutted in favor of more streamlined 'canned' experiences.
Now, in regards to Realms of Imagination, it was not my initial intent to utilize the immersive aspects as emotional and intellectual development tools, but the questions you raise have got my noggin spinning. It has the potential to present guests with morally and philosophically complex situations in a real-world setting. The classic "people on a forking train track" dilemma springs to mind. What if a guest was forced to save just one person, with the other facing certain doom? Who would they choose and why? And can the child really be blamed for letting the other face death? Now this is all pretty weighty stuff to ask of small children, but it's situations like this which serve as an example of what the medium could be capable of. A theme park is in many respects similar to a video game (or at least open-world video games) in that it gives the audience an illusion of freedom and adventure which doesn't necessarily exist. This is why both themed design and video games have yet to see their mediums respective magnum opus. There is no Moby-Dick or 5th Symphony, or Starry Night, because so much of the artistic narrative is sacrificed for freedom (whether physical, or, in the case of video games, digital).
I think I've went on long enough, but your questions do intrigue me, and maybe in some near or distant future, we will see a different type of theme park, aimed not at mere entertainment, but edification as well.
Oh, and for what it's worth, there have been attempts to engage complex themes in themed design. I'm currently working on a small thesis which explores PotC as heavily influenced by Dante's La Divina Commedia, whose aim is to present the idea of sin and redemption in an incredibly nuanced way. The Haunted Mansion is a brilliant work of subversion of the urban legend of a haunted house. It's aim is to diminish fear of death. That death is a joke, essentially. When I finish, I'll let you know.
Embrace your guilt and turn over control of your life and your worldly possessions to the all-knowing and all-compassionate graduates of journalism schools because they are much smarter than you and know how to run your life better than you can!
It was I who originally asked to keep the political discussion out of the website. Jacob kept it going when he just HAD to respond and tell me how my worldview was more fantastic than anything J.K. Rowling wrote. Out of my whole long response to his article, THAT was the thing he decided to pull out of it. I can't speak for the other posters outside of the fact that they are having a little fun, admittedly at Jacob's expense.
Now if you need an example of what I'm talking when I made a comment about theme parks and politics not mixing take a look at the Woman in Hijab thread on the Discussion Board. The comments there from a couple of our regulars are really classy.
This article seemed unnecessary. A bunch of words just so the author can rant about how off the rails he thinks the US has gone. On a web site dedicated to the love of freaking theme parks. Millennials are the worst. I should know...I am one.
This whole article was unnecessary. All written so someone can rant about how off the rails he thinks the US has gone. On a site dedicated to the love of freaking theme parks. Millennials are the worst. I should know...I am one.
As for me, my position was twofold. Firstly, that fantasy is not merely an escape from reality anymore than a emergency exit is an escape from a danger. In the case of both, they offer doors to a world which may seem a little safer, but is still permeated with the harsh realities of life. Secondly, that the criticism of theme parks as places of pure escapism is baseless and unnecessary. It's really very similar to criticizing movie theaters for daring to show anything that isn't a documentary or the nightly news ('real life' stuff--according to Jacob).
At the end of the day, the article serves, at its core, as an attempt to critique the capitalist system which is our economy, likening theme park moguls with snake-oil salesmen preying on the collective fears of an ignorant and fearful public. This is insulting, not only to theme parks and the public, but to the snake-oil salesmen as well, because at least the snake-oil salesmen knows he's a swindler.
This article has been archived and is no longer accepting comments.
You could argue, as Baudrillard did early in Disneyland's life, that all of these modes have elements of fantasy. Main Street U.S.A. depicts a small town America which never actually existed, though we like to pretend that it did. Historical accuracy would demand it show poverty, discrimination and outdated values, which we like to imagine didn't exist in a ideal past. This historical mode continues on, seen in most of DCA's upgrades.
So why all the recent overt fantasy? I cannot agree with the author's apparent conclusion that it's because our word is more apocalyptic than ever. Trump and Iraq are awful, sure, but so were Nixon and Vietnam, to say nothing of WWII - which immediately preceded the post-war optimism which created Disneyland. Standards of living are their highest in human history, despite a crappy Batman/Superman movie. Baudrillard called Disneyland a hyperreality, whose greatest trick was convincing America that it wasn't itself an equally wild fantasy. Rather, I'd say our lives are now a greater fantasy than ever, and increased obvious fantasy in the parks is a way to distract us from our own fantasies.
Or maybe it's just easier for lazy CEOs to license IPs than create something new. ;)