Themed Entertainment is an art. In my opinion it is the greatest, most challenging of human art forms for two reasons:
First, it is the one form of communication that has the capacity to embrace all the other art forms – painting, sculpture, film & video, architecture, music, dance, writing, acting – all of these and all the rest. It presents them in glorious, harmonious concert where each one inspires and supports the rest to tell a unified story.
And second, its ultimate expression exists solely within the personal experience of the audience. The result of the craft of theme is the physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual changes it creates within the observer – or, more accurately, the participant. The Audience is the Medium.
The Themed Environment is a synthesis of elements that has a specific effect on the guest. As such it has always existed in its primitive form. Historically speaking, while no one before Disney may have had the particular idea of sculpting a themed show, there have always been merchants and visionaries who have, for their own purpose, created presentations with a specific focus; that focus would lead them to carve out the nascent themed environment.
In the early 1900s visitors to the three major attractions of Coney Island, New York witnessed the perfect, living example of the evolution of ‘theme park’. First came ‘Steeplechase’, an amusement park which featured many ingenious mechanical rides; purely physical experiences.
‘Luna Park’ came next; Luna being shorthand for ‘lunacy’. Here, the individual ride often told a particular story, like the ‘Chicago Fire’ or ‘A Trip to the Moon’. The rides may have been themed individually, but the park as a whole was a mish-mash without a unifying atmosphere. Guests were slammed from one new reality to the next. Lunacy, indeed.
Finally, Dreamland was created. Here the rides and shows with their individual stories were united in an architectural setting straight out of the Arabian Nights. Though it was a cacophony of towers, monuments and extreme gingerbread the whole of Dreamland was a perfect unified setting for all these varied stories and adventures.
Walt Disney’s genius was his drive to improve and refine whatever he touched. Even his very early personal artwork reflects this. The young Walter had two styles of drawing, a highly caricatured style which reflected the contemporary art he would have seen, and a more photographic style, one that almost presages the use of rotoscope in his own later films. The young artist was striving to capture life in his art and thus couldn’t be pinned down to just one style.
Whether it was in animated shorts or features or nature documentaries or travelogues or popular film or sound reproduction or amusement parks, every field Walt turned his hand to was improved by his influence and the contributions made by artists and technicians under his leadership.
Walt’s ability to build a better – and more family-friendly – amusement place was most influenced by the fact that the people he used were storytellers. And since Walt and Company were most adept at telling stories through film and animation they created environments that were, quite naturally, themed.
Their work since the fifties has revolutionized the amusement field and – if not actually invented – defined and perfected the themed environment. That’s the good news.
The not-so-good news is that – as a result of its close association with the Disney style – the Art of Theme has for decades been synonymous with childish entertainment and simplistic storytelling.
Not to say that what Disney has created has been solely childish and simplistic. The Disney Company has brought to their parks a level of technical sophistication and artistic accomplishment unmatched in history.
But the image of the theme park as a Disneyfied construct has (until recently) stifled the further evolution of the form. The attractions at Coney Island were based on current events and the great literature of the time. Disney attractions (with exceptions) are based on Disney films. Is it any wonder that the casual observer thinks of Disneyland as a place to take the kids?
But salvation is at hand. Many of the Imagineers who have worked within the Disney Company for the past 50+ years have now struck out on their own to explore the form on their terms. They have carried on the revolution that Walt started in 1955, even as they continue to admire and study the creations of the contemporary Disney Imagineers. And Disney itself continues to put its toe in the water, testing and exploring new ways to push the envelope as far as they dare within their own corporate style.
The Art of Themed Entertainment is just beginning to evolve. It is an exciting time to be wearing a nametag.