Finding the Hope in a Flicker of Joy

October 14, 2020, 6:59 PM · Can theme parks create joy?

"What a weird question," I can hear some of you thinking. Theme parks are usually some of the world's most joyful places — filled with happy, laughing guests. But I did not ask if theme parks could elicit joy from their visitors. I asked if theme parks could create that joy for them to feel.

That's a vital distinction — and especially so in 2020, a year that is sucking the joy from so many of our lives. Do you have to bring at least a flicker of joy to a theme park in order to have a good time there? Because that's getting tougher and tougher for a lot of people to do these days.

And even if you're still feeling some joy in this most difficult of years for so many people, do you wish to entrust that to a theme park right now?

The challenge of selling people on a theme park visit in 2020 (and — let's face it — in 2021, too, at this point) goes far beyond convincing people that they the park has taken extra steps to help keep them safe from the pandemic while they visit. As I have written before, if people were concerned only about their safety, they would just stay home.

A safety pitch is just the start. From there, a theme park — or any entertainment destination that's open right now — must be able to make a case that people will feel comfortable visiting, as well. And only then, when people feel safe and comfortable, might visitors be open to the joy that ultimately is the theme park industry's greatest product.

Comfort is a weird issue in theme parks right now. Many fans cannot imagine that having to spend the day wearing a mask could be comfortable. But the idea of spending the day with just a small fraction of the number of people who typically crowd a park appeals. Being able to walk around with six feet between you and other families while inside a park and its attractions was a fantasy for most of us a year ago. Cleaner bathrooms and restaurants, too? Oh, heck yes! In some ways, what parks have done in response to this pandemic have helped make them more comfortable than they were before anyone had heard of Covid-19.

But every Plexiglas barrier and physical distancing marker reminds people that this pandemic continues and that a visit to a theme park provides no escape. Their presence helps promote safety, but they undermine comfort for some — perhaps many — guests. That is enough to keep many theme park fans home right now.

Thousands of fans have returned to theme parks this summer and felt amazing moments of joy when visiting. But others have reported that their trips this year simply did not feel as magical, as wonderful and certainly not as carefree as their visits in the past. They just did not find the same joy.

Right now, theme parks around the world are simply trying to get through this pandemic. They are laying off thousands of employees, canceling new projects, and cutting every expense that they can without jeopardizing the safety that they must provide to have any hope of being able to stay in business. There's no joy in running a theme park right now.

A mentor once told me, saying that he was quoting George Burns, "the most important thing in life is authenticity. And if you can fake that, you've got it made."

This industry never before has needed to fake some authentic joy more than it does right now.

So long as people remain alive, I believe that they carry at least some flicker of joy within them. Perhaps they need to remain at home, or in someone's care, to protect that gleam when it feels endangered. And so they should.

But joy remains, even then. By that, so does hope for the theme park industry.

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Replies (4)

October 14, 2020 at 9:38 PM

Thank you for this. I do want theme parks to get back to how they were, it's going to be a long way off but they can still offer an experience no other place can.

October 15, 2020 at 12:30 AM

I remember when Tokyo Disneyland reopened after the devastating tsunami of 2011. It was such a comfort and joy for so many in the midst of such a horrendous disaster. Even with the plexiglass and all, we’re anxiously awaiting the reopening of Disneyland and DCA for some much needed escape, comfort and joy.

October 15, 2020 at 6:24 AM

Been to theme parks when I was outright clinical depressive. That works quite well. Other holiday types are more difficult in that regard because they are either too challenging or encourage too much inactivity. Don't think breaking the escapism with distance markers a bit would be that bad either.

The biggest problem for me would be to stay attentive for other people, since odds are there will be a non-trivial minority that is really careless.

October 16, 2020 at 10:20 AM

"...even if you're still feeling some joy in this most difficult of years" -- I envy the people who can still feel joy right now. Between the virus and political turmoil like we've not seen since the 1860s, it's hard to even remember what joy feels like.

There was a reason for the berm at Disneyland. It was to keep the "outside world" out. But these days, there IS no keeping the outside world out.

It's not unprecedented. Disneyland closed early the day JFK was assassinated. Walt Disney World has had to close for hurricanes on multiple occasions. There are some parts of the "outside world" that CANNOT be kept out, no matter what Disney does to mitigate the affect on guests.

COVID-19 is one of those things that just cannot be kept out of the parks (they can have all the precautions in place, trying to keep the virus and its spread out of the parks, it requires acknowledging that the virus exists, so the "real world" still enters into it).

Disney is doing an AMAZING job. But between the face coverings, social distancing, and other restrictions, it's still a taste of the magic (full disclosure: I have not been to Walt Disney World since they reopened, but I have close family who have -- I couldn't get the time off from work -- they said it was the strangest visit to Walt Disney World that they've ever experienced, but still a good experience -- and I think from what I've read and from what family told me about enforcement of the guidelines, that Walt Disney World is a safer place than my workplace).

I want to go. I am closer to Disneyland (I'm in Nevada), so that will probably be the first resort I visit when they are open (though I likely won't visit until I see that they are at least as successful as Walt Disney World at mitigating all of this).

But for now, I'm fortunate enough to have visited often in my youth, and then being a Disneyland cast member, so I have a LOT of memories to relive in my head. I have a LOT of Disney parks sound files on my iPod and phone (I REALLY enjoy listening to those, because I can visualize being there while hearing the soundtrack to my memories).

I get that this is a weird time. Disney is doing their best under extraordinary circumstances. CA's Governor is doing what he thinks is right under extraordinary circumstances. I know the CA theme park business is a HUGE part of California's budget. And I respect putting people over budget. I also know that 28,000 cast members are being laid off.

It's just a weird situation. But we've had the Great Depression. We've had war years. And now we have 2020, which has been the ultimate "Murphy's Law" sort of year. Numerous massive wildfires, hurricanes, a pandemic, and political unrest. 2020 may go down as "the year everything was just terrible."

We're all trying our best (except those who just refuse to wear masks). And it hasn't been good enough, due to circumstances that are beyond our control.

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