on the art and narrative design of theme parks

Something that has come up in recent discussions is the artistic qualities of theme parks. This may sound more general than I actually mean it to. For we can probably all agree on the artistic merit of the architectural and visual elements of ride construction and theme park design. What I am more interested in for this post and future ones on this specific subject is the narrative presented by the ride separately and the park collectively.

It is possible that a theme park may be the best Aristotelian imitatio. But to achieve this best something has to change in the way this narrative is told; it can no longer be stagnant. For this narrative to achieve the level of imitation I am only beginning to conceive, a theme park would have to recognize to different levels of narrative development that would both have to evolve over time as well as connect the collaboration of the guests with the vision of the authors. So what are we really talking about here? A narrative woven into the development of each ride as each ride changes over time. So the guest that comes back later will see more of the story, nothing will conclude.

This is possibly an extreme that we neither have the technology nor the desire to create today but the fundamental idea already exists and was pioneered by Walt himself. I truly believe there is a narrative behind these rides that should be looked at and analyized from a critical view. Even more I want to see it looked at comparatively; how do the narratives combine to create the narrative of the park as a whole?

As a quick aside: I do not mean to discuss the story of the park as in which rides were developed when and what news happened where. Rather what I am discussing is the fictional narrative presented by the theme of the park and the story of the rides.

This is only the beginning of what I envision to be a large critical experiment.


11 responses to “on the art and narrative design of theme parks

  1. Do we still get to put our hands up when we go down Splash Mountain?

  2. Only if it contributes to the fictional narrative

  3. This sounds alot like taking the amusement out of the amusement park, can’t we save this sort of critical theory approach for things like TV shows and pop music and leave vacation sites out of the analysis?

  4. If the world desired to exist in such a dichotomy as to have vacation and amusement so separate from art and critical analysis then we would not have writers such as Adorno or Greenberg who sought to explore why we create that exact difference in our minds. Personally I see the existence of that difference as a hindrance.

    Critically Amused!

  5. The practical issues are daunting, but the idea is sweet. It is art. It envelopes the observer (customer) and stimulates emotional responses. What heaven.

  6. The hindrance here is with the critics and their endless train of students who simply do not see that certain human activites have simple motivations and effects, like drinking ice cold water on a hot day, or a stiff drink after a long day or a thrill ride on a vacation. The need to imbue everything with some sort of narrative when none might be present distorts the experience and distances the experience from the participant.

  7. Are you sure of that? Does a narrative study really distance the experience from the participant? Or perhaps it distances one kind of experience from the participant while highlighting another. We’re at an age after deconstruction I believe at this point it is safe to say that there is no right way to experience something, especially a theme park attraction. And if there is no right way then how is it possible to distance oneself from all ways by simply looking at the narrative? That seems to give this narratological study too much power don’t you think?

  8. No, I disagree. By speaking of or looking for or inventing a “narrative” one now has three where before there were only two and as we all know three is a crowd. In the old days, before critical theory, there was the ride and the rider, now there is the rider, the ride, and the “narrative” and it is this insertion of a narrative or the need to define a narrative that creates the seperation. I now feel so sorry for all of these theme park denizons wandering through WDW trying to follow or find the narrative when instead they could be just enjoying the stomach churning effects of “Summit Plummit’ or “Spash Mountain”.


  9. The narrative did not come recently, it was always there. What changed is the hierarchy by which guests ranked the importance of various experiences. Following critical theory and deconstruction on the academic side, the idea of such a hierarchy was dismantled and the reader/viewer/listener/guest/ride goer was now the creator and could choose how he or she wanted to experience the attraction. I have recently started looking more closely at the narrative and thus have seen more of the ride than before. Imagine watching a film and only looking at the cinematography, there is a narrative taking place that should be evaluated as well.

    If you see it as an either or situation between churning effects and a narrative focus then perhaps you shouldn’t look for a narrative, and just enjoy the ride the way you want to. But for me I like expanding the ways something can be interpreted.

  10. Expanding the ways something can be interpreted beyond the ways they exist is dangerous. We may well live in a 12 dimensional world with 9 of those dimensions so infintesimally small and wrapped around themselves that they can never be percieved or “experienced”. Thus describing reality by using a 12 dimensional equation does not enhance our understanding of the rate at which an apple falls to the ground on Earth. Similarly understanding all of the minute ways in which my body is reacting to the ice cold beer I am now quaffing in no way contributes to my enjoyment of the experience. In short what bothers me about literary theory applied to things or events beyond literature is that, like the uncertainty principal applied to the social scinces, it quickly loses its relevance and obscures more naturalistic explanations. Invent all the “narratives” you want but also accept that sometimes a thrill is just a thrill and not some cog in a meta-narrative.

    This notion of the narrative always being there sounds spookily like god or truth, some platonic form that has an independent existence. Of course, being the good post-modernist that you are, this “narrative” is also independent of the author’s or the Imagineer’s intent making it exist in some sort of “narrative” ether waiting to adhere to a theme park ride. Have you studied narrative adherence; this might be a whole new arena for critical theory to develop in?


  11. I’m rather surprised at the way both of you have been associating postmodernism with “narratives.” Huysmans has probably read more postmodern theory than I have, but most of the explicitly postmodern writing I’ve encountered has positioned narrative as the enemy. In particular, Jacques Lyotard defined postmodernism as “incredulity towards metanarrative.” Metanarrative, of course, is a special case – it refers in particular to the “grand narratives” that we apply to our lives, such as the belief in a deity or in a particular model of family – but the incredulity of the postmodernists extends to a lot of other types of narrative as well. Nearly any example of postmodern fiction you can find will subvert the notion of narrative in some way. Take John Barth or Thomas Pynchon, especially in _The_Crying_of_Lot_49_, his ‘anti-novel.’

    In my mind, the flaw in postmodernism (and I, personally, do find it flawed) is not the tendency to impose narrative in places where it doesn’t belong, but the refusal to impose it where it does. The problem is still based in a lack of consideration of what the audience wants, but what’s really not being considered is that, however unsteady language is from a philosophical perspective, it does work pretty well and most people are content to leave it at that. When Bertrand Russell and Kurt Gödel spotted the cracks in the foundation of mathematical logic, all that we had built on it did not suddenly crumble, and likewise it is still possible to write and read a straightforward novel. I am a historicist, and I do not think that literature exists independent of its context and in particular its time, but it’s events like World War II and 9/11 that really matter, not take-it-or-leave-it ideas like deconstruction. The ‘age of deconstruction’ only exists (or existed) in the heads of a small group of people. Deconstruction has its place, as does experimental fiction, but these techniques did not ultimately change much in the world. I think a major fallacy of postmodernism is the failure to account for the relatively minor part that academic discourse plays in society.

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