Theme Park

June 4, 2009

The 20th-century leisure phenomenon that is the theme park industry owes its development to many influences, including fairground-ride technology, architectural practice and the history of leisure and entertainment. By 1919, there were more than 1,500 amusement parks operating in the US, with the Coney Island complex arguably the most famous - and notorious.

The standard historical account of their development is that they have their roots in the network of leisure patterns that existed in pre-industrial Europe, when pleasure gardens began to spring up on the outskirts of major European cities. Vauxhall Gardens in London and Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen featured theatre shows, firework displays, dancing and drinking booths, plus circus-style entertainments. Such was their success that both names became generic terms for other pleasure gardens in Europe and North America.

Late 19th-century expositions and World's Fairs have been cited as part of the evolutionary process, too, with the 1893 Chicago World's Fair seen as the proto-theme park.

However, for Scott Lukas, the author of this intriguing and beautifully styled book, the true genesis of the modern theme park is not in standard entertainment history, but instead "in the form of historical whispers, thematic shouts in the night and rhizomatic influences of direction and misdirection".

In the opening sections of his treatise on the entertainments and physical landscape of these 20th-century parks, Lukas ignores or disregards any linear development that links them to earlier entertainment complexes, such as expositions or pleasure gardens.

Instead, he argues that the earliest traces of the theme park are based on an "architectural construction of the artificial-real", which began in the prehistoric caves of Lascaux. This reading is not surprising considering Lukas' work as a cultural anthropologist, and his emphasis is on cultural remaking rather than historical development.

So the book's focus is cultural, not historical, and although Lukas discounts the importance of European pleasure gardens such as Vauxhall (founded in the mid-17th century, not the 19th century, as Lukas writes), he still weaves their history into the text.

However, the thematic spatial approach he favours is difficult to navigate via the six sections of the book - including the theme park as land, as brand and as machine - which are presented like coloured zones in a modern park, and can be repetitive and confusing.

Despite this, the examples presented of modern theme-park practice make for compelling reading. Theme parks enable international travel without the worry of jet lag; pilgrims can journey to the Holy Land Experience in Orlando, where the visitor is greeted with a welcoming "Shalom" instead of checkpoints for potential suicide bombers.

Both historically and in contemporary practice, the theme park uses architecture as its narrator; it is the vehicle through which the parks present their particular world view and it allows them to transcend or perhaps steal other cultural identities.

From the Bavarian-inspired turrets of Cinderella's castle in Disneyland to the miniature versions of famous landmarks in Window of the World in Shenzhen, China, where visitors can see Stonehenge, the Eiffel Tower, the Temples of Babylon and other recognisable buildings, the iconography is familiar.

To Lukas, the world is rapidly becoming a reflection of the theme park, with its emphasis on sanitation and order. To others, the theme park is a manifestation of the Americanisation of modern society, a homogenised uniform branding machine that will eventually subvert or trample over individual quirkiness and creativity. Whatever your view of such attractions, he presents a compelling, if flawed, narrative of their importance and influence.

Theme Park

By Scott A. Lukas. Reaktion Books, 2pp, £16.95. ISBN 9781861893949. Published 22 October 2008

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