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.
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.Tweet
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