So what, exactly, is a theme park, anyway?

August 20, 2019, 10:48 PM · Let's tackle what might be the most frequently asked question around here: Just what, exactly, is a "theme park" anyway?

This isn't just a question about theme versus amusement parks, though that's certainly one issue within the debate. The term "theme park" also gets thrown around whenever someone wants to dismiss a place as artificial or simplistic. But is that fair? Can the themed entertainment industry better protect the reputation of its core product by providing the term "theme park" with a more precise definition?

Ultimately, that's for the public to decide, but I think we should have a go at crafting that better definition, nevertheless.

Starting broadly, a theme park needs to be, well, a park. It's got to be a defined space. Not only that, a theme park is a defined space with some form of controlled access. A part of a city, another destination, or an event can feel or look like a theme park, but to actually be one it needs to be a permanently defined space with controlled access.

I love the business district in The Netherlands' Maastricht and get definite Epcot World Showcase vibes there, for example, but that ain't a theme park. It's a city.

Maastricht

A themed park also is a designed space. Theme parks are a form of entertainment and as such represent the work of creative professionals. They're not accidental or the product of natural evolution, though they can be influenced by that. But being designed work never should be taken as a knock on theme parks. Broadway shows, music concerts, movies, and books are all creative works, too, and no one smack-talks them because people created those. Just because theme parks are creative works in physical space should not be used to imply that they are inherently inferior to other, non-designed physical spaces (or to other creative works, for that matter). Those are lazy arguments from people who do not respect the work of themed entertainment designers among other creative artists.

Now you can find plenty of well-defined, creatively designed spaces with controlled access in this world — malls, museums, stadia, and theaters all fit that definition. So what makes one of these spaces a theme park? This is where the word "theme" in "theme park" comes into play. A theme park is a defined, designed space whose design reflects a unifying theme or collection of themes. Those themes can draw from fiction or other forms of storytelling, from history, or even just from other locations around the world.

Still, this definition doesn't get us all the way there. I can recall examples of defined, designed and themed spaces that I would not call a "theme park," including some shopping malls and even gated residential communities. We are not there yet because it would be naive to define "theme park" using only linguistics.

The term's history flows from that of amusement parks, which provide an indivisible part of theme parks' identity. To me, theme parks represent a subset of amusement parks and therefore must include a collection of distinct attractions, including rides, as amusement parks do.

Without rides and other attractions such as shows and walk-through experiences, a defined, designed and themed space that is devoted primarily to entertainment rather than commerce might still represent themed entertainment, but it is not a "theme park."

I would assign role-playing installations such as Evermore and some Ren fairs into this space, as well as some zoos and aquariums, brand experiences, and themed museums, especially those that serve educational rather than entertainment purposes.

An amusement parks that does not reflect a collection of themes is not a "theme park," either. The conflation of theme and amusement parks happened when theme parks such as Disneyland, Universal Studios, SeaWorld, and Busch Gardens grew more popular than the traditional amusement parks that inspired their design (both positively and negatively). That helped to make "theme park" the more popular — and therefore more universal — term in the public's mind, even though, logically, "theme park" should be a subset of "amusement park."

If you want a rough analogy here, consider how a large percentage of visitors call the Magic Kingdom "Disney World," even though the MK is just one park in the larger Walt Disney World Resort.

The distinction between theme and amusement park also is not helped by the gradual devolution of some parks that were founded as unmistakably themed parks into what today ought to be considered non-themed amusement parks, such as the original Six Flags parks as well as Kings Island and the former Paramount parks. So there's understandable confusion to cut through here.

As fans and as industry insiders, I think we can help protect the public image of theme parks by pushing back against attempts to expand their definition to include other spaces, especially when the term is used as attack. This should not be to limit the creativity of themed entertainment designers or to stop the expansion of themed entertainment design into other areas of public accommodation.

Elements of and lessons learned from theme parks should be influencing the development of museums, zoos, malls, brand experiences, art installations, theaters, stadia, housing developments, neighborhoods, and cities. But "theme parks" should remain a distinct and well-defined subset of both amusement parks and themed entertainment, in recognition of the unique skills required to create and maintain these spaces.

To be a "theme park" is to be something special and well respected — it never should be accepted as a dismissal, a slur, or an insult.

What do you think?

Update: The TL;DR — a theme park is a defined, designed space that features themed rides and attractions. Theme parks are a subset of amusement parks, and they have inspired the development of themed entertainment design within other public spaces, including museums, zoos, theaters, and shopping districts. People who use the term "theme park" to belittle public spaces that are not actually theme parks are nitwits.

Replies (10)

August 21, 2019 at 12:01 AM

Agree with most of this overall definition of what constitutes a "theme park," though I believe the importance of story telling needs to be emphasized in this. A narrative is a key ingredient, whether that storyline is for the overall venue or if it involves multiple, different stories told in individual components of the park as a whole- the attractions, shows, retail and food outlets. Have to define both words or what some refer to as "theme" can apply to something that is merely "styled" but has no narrative. True theme park attractions are at their core the products of a story telling medium. Also not convinced that "theme parks" are a subset of 'amusement parks" though they are certainly descended from amusement parks, as they are an evolution of their forebears. There are related venues within the genre that fall into a grey area, such as Puy du Fou and Song Cheng, which are based on elaborate shows based on a specific, detailed narrative, as well as Evermore, which certainly is based on specific, detailed narrative. While they do not boast rides, they do involve multiple component parts that serve as attractions and they are certainly gated environments with a specific story to immerse guests in. Then there's the more involved concept of the theme park resort destination, which involves a larger resort complex centered on one or more gated theme parks and includes on-site accommodations and additional leisure facilities that often are also part of the overall narrative of the destination and have attributes of story telling of their own. Example of what constitutes a true theme park destination resort as opposed to what Asian real estate developers refer to as an "integrated resort complex"- Walt Disney World Resort. Overall, the entire development is intended as "the vacation kingdom of the world" though each of its major components has a distinct, official "brand identity" that all of the various narratives are supposed to reinforce. Magic Kingdom's is Fantasy; Epcot is Discovery; Disney's Hollywood Studios is Show Business(morphing into Entertainment); Animal Kingdom is Adventure and the non theme park entities within the overall Resort have brand identites as well: Disney Springs has "Indulgence " while the resort hotels share "Magical Homecoming. " These brand identities are intended to ensure that all the stories told in this self contained environment are consistent with their assigned category whether it's an entire themed area, a pool area or a restaurant or a kiosk or a special event or a night time show.

August 21, 2019 at 7:22 AM

Oh no - not this!! I guess we haven't heard from TH in a while, so something had to be done to get him to crawl out from backstage.

August 21, 2019 at 9:46 AM

I love the point of "controlled access" being a prerequisite for the label of "theme park." My question is, back when Disneyland required tickets for individual attractions and not the park as a whole (I think that's correct? I'm afraid that was a few years before my time), it may not have met that requirement. Yet, it was responsible for ushering in the era of the theme park. Perhaps that's a light requirement? I do agree with it, of course, I just wonder how we'd address that use case.

August 21, 2019 at 9:47 AM

IMHO a theme park should have unique rides that can't be found on a fair. The exterior should fit the ride and the narrative. As should be food, drinks and merchandise.
Nowadays I have the feeling that the rides at Disney play second fiddle to the theme so there is a need for balance between the theme and the quality of the ride. In the end the ride should be the most important aspect of the theme park.

August 21, 2019 at 10:11 AM

Clayton, Disneyland always had controlled access to the actual theme park, as did Magic Kingdom, when both had the individual attractions ticket media (A through E tickets), so would certainly fit the definition of the term invented to describe itself:)

August 21, 2019 at 10:15 AM

Clayton, when WDW opened, you bought a general admission ticket for a couple of bucks (you also got a transportation ticket as at the time the train and the monorail belonged to WED or Retlaw or whoever - that changed not too long after). Most folks bought those as part of a ticket book that also included attraction tickets (the famous A-E tickets). I assume Disneyland worked similarly at the time.

August 21, 2019 at 10:27 AM

Ah, welp, I need to brush up on my Disney parks history. Sheesh! Carry on folks! :-)

August 21, 2019 at 11:07 AM

Robert, presume the recent round of media regarding "overtourism" in some of the world's popular tourist destinations that included a few intellectual snobs asserting that visitors treat their towns and landmarks "like theme parks" inspired this thread? Coupled with what some newcomers to the industry, especially in our soon-to-be largest single market, China,tend to practice lumping all visitor attractions of every type together as "cultural tourism," calling every FEC, water park, etc "theme parks"?

August 21, 2019 at 8:38 PM

I'm afraid that the definition of a theme park is changing. With Galaxy's Edge, it means immersiveness to the point of hyper reality. The traditional design of Disneyland was themed lands with different themed attractions, like Snow White next to Peter Pan in Fantasyland. I think this allowed for more flexibility and a fuller experience.

For Star Wars, it could have been Jabba's palace next to an Endor Speeder Bike attraction. In Galaxy's Edge, the insistence that it be a 'real' place conflicts with the fantasy of the rest of Disneyland, and it limits what you can do. It may work with Harry Potter, but Wizarding World was at least inviting and based on the original characters and places that people knew and loved.

August 21, 2019 at 3:52 PM

Question.

The term “rides and attractions”, are we defining this as a single group (things that are rides or attractions” or are we saying this is two groups (ie theme parks must have both things that are rides AND things that are attractions).

If it’s the former, does the Tower of London therefore qualify as a theme park. It has attractions such as the armoury, the Crown Jewels, the ravens, etc.

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