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The story of amusement parks is the story of America

With all of its sparkle and chipped paint.

Tourists at the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World on July 1, 2021 in Lake Buena Vista, Florida.
| Liao Pan/China News Service via Getty Images

Part of the Leisure Issue of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world.

When fairgoers entered the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, they were dazzled by the White City, a sprawling collection of massive exhibit buildings dedicated to manufacturing, transportation, electricity, and other themes that captured the imagination of a country on the move. Boasting a mixture of architectural influences, the gleaming, almost regal structures were assembled around a large reflecting pond festooned with Corinthian and Ionic columns as well as golden and white allegorical statuary.

It was a giddy time in America as the young, growing country was establishing its prominence, and the fair was its coming-out party. The White City, so named for the alabaster substance made of gypsum and other materials that covered the buildings, was a celebration of progress and a brash ode to capitalism. It reinforced the sense of hope and promise — the swagger even — that Americans carried. Visitors were overcome by the scale, spectacle, and opulence of the buildings and grounds as well as the bustle and merriment of its midway and amusements.

Toward the end of the expo’s five-month run, though, keen-eyed observers noticed something amiss with the exhibit halls: Their exteriors were starting to crumble.

The buildings’ plaster-like coating was never meant to last. It was a cheap facade that could easily and quickly be formed into virtually anything. It was an illusion, emotionally charged but ephemeral. The fair presented an inspiring vision of a utopian city built on American ingenuity but not one that was built to last or that considered urban reality. The Columbian Exposition, like the amusement parks and theme parks it inspired, was about the America for which its people longed, not necessarily the America they encountered. It was about the American stories they told themselves — tales of reassurance and a brighter tomorrow, even if some of the tales were illusory and fragile.

The fair presaged and set the template for parks, fanciful places where thrills abound, and visitors can aspire to greatness as they test their limits, even if they are never in any actual danger. They are carefully controlled environments that engender pleasure and filter out the distracting truths beyond their gates. In all their bombast and bluster, parks embody the American story itself.

An illustration of an event at the Chicago World’s Colombian Exposition, depicting flags from various countries in 1893.
Getty Images

There are about 475 amusement parks and theme parks in the US today, ranging from mega-parks, such as those operated by Disney and Universal, to regional parks that are operated by large companies such as Six Flags and draw customers mostly from the areas in which they are located.

Although their numbers are dwindling, there are smaller parks as well, some of which are family-owned and operated, and a few of which date back many years. All of them feature rides such as carousels and roller coasters, but the larger parks also boast more sophisticated, technology-laden attractions that often hew to a theme. They provide an escape from the mundane and stir emotions, but unlike movies, television, and other forms of entertainment, they require active participation and are best experienced in the company of others.

If there’s any doubt about the preeminence of parks, consider that nearly 160 million people visited the top 20 North American theme parks and amusement parks in 2019. The Disney parks in California and Florida alone accounted for more than half the visitors. 2020 was a different story, of course. The coronavirus pandemic shuttered parks and kept many of them closed for months. Those that did open were hampered by capacity limits, social distancing guidelines, and other restrictions.

As Covid-related constraints loosened, however, people began flocking back to the midways and once again filling in all the available space at attractions. NBCUniversal, for example, reported that its theme park business returned to profitability in the most recent quarter, and that its attendance at Universal Orlando had nearly returned to 2019 pre-pandemic levels. It’s no wonder that fans have been coming back to places like Disneyland with tears in their eyes. Parks are inherently social spaces designed to entertain masses. After the ordeal of sheltering in place and connecting online, people yearn for real, analog contact with crowds of fellow humans.

It’s more than Covid-era longing, however. Above all, people are drawn to parks to join with those whom they cherish and to celebrate life together. That’s appealing, regardless of pandemic lockdowns. In an often-polarized country, parks provide safe havens to seek joy without having to take sides (at least on the surface). For a brief while anyways, they can become the America for which Americans long, not the America that exists beyond the manicured grounds.

“Theme parks are all about us,” says Margaret King, who has studied and written about theme parks throughout her career and is the director of the Center for Cultural Studies and Analysis, a market research institute. “It’s a museum of us, of America. It’s a distillation of the qualities we most value and like about ourselves.” The Disney parks, in particular, reflect the small-town ideals, the innocence, the inventiveness, the strong work ethic, and other characteristics that are part of Americans’ self-image.

We are nostalgic for places that never really were, she says. Disney’s Main Street USA, the thoroughfares themed to the early-20th century that serve as gateways to the rest of Disneyland and Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, are idealized portrayals of a more genteel, if unrealistic America. They are spotlessly clean, impeccably landscaped, and overflowing with cheery optimism (as well as plenty of keepsake merch). Visiting the Disney parks is “like going back to your hometown,” King says. “It’s the hometown that’s shared by everyone in the country.”

Disneyland in Anaheim, California, circa 1955, the year it opened.
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Decades later, masked restaurant workers greet returning guests on Main Street USA during the reopening of Disneyland in April 2021.
Bing Guan/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Of course, parks have not always been shared by all Americans. The reality of racism and the denial of civil rights long clashed with parks’ carefully crafted fantasy. As with nearly everything in the country, the amusement industry has a shameful past that included some segregated parks. In her book, Race, Riots, and Roller Coasters, Victoria W. Wolcott writes that owners of parks such as Belle Isle in Detroit, Idora Park in Ohio, Glen Echo Park in Maryland, and others prohibited Black patrons as late as the 1960s. Some of them were sites of protests, riots, and clashes. Federal courts intervened, and, under order, parks eventually complied and opened to people of color.

Among the parks that exemplify the American devotion to imagination and idealism is Epcot, the second theme park at Florida’s Walt Disney World. When it first opened in 1982, Mickey Mouse and the company’s other established characters were banned from the park, and the tone was mostly serious. But the company learned that you gotta give the people what they want. Today, Epcot has loosened up considerably, and Mickey and his pals cavort with characters from “Frozen” and “Guardians of the Galaxy.”

Walt Disney’s original notion for Epcot was even more high-minded — a White City 2.0. He didn’t want to develop a conventional theme park so much as an actual “experimental prototype community of tomorrow” (hence the acronym). Disney envisioned a thoughtfully planned city in which real people would work, live, and play. It would showcase the latest innovations and ideas in urban planning. Major corporations would have field-tested their technology and cutting-edge concepts while helping to foot the bill for the grand-scale project. Visitors would have been invited to witness the living laboratory in action.

After his death in 1966, Walt Disney’s successors at the company struggled to bring his unrealized dream to life and instead settled on the Epcot that exists today. Modeled after a world’s fair, it offers pavilions devoted to themes such as the land, the sea, and space exploration as well as a variety of nations. Perhaps they couldn’t muster the single-minded vision and passion that Disney had to pull off the wildly ambitious project. Or maybe they realized that bridging the gap between the sanitized, highly controlled, and idealistic contours of a theme park with the more messy and unpredictable parameters of a real live city was a bridge too far.

What the Disney company and other park operators took away from the Columbian Exposition and early iterations of amusement areas is that people enjoy marveling at and experiencing innovation, joining together with others whom they might not otherwise encounter, letting loose and disregarding the social conventions of the day, and engaging in something bigger than themselves and their everyday lives. They also learned that people love the physical sensations of mechanical rides. Visitors couldn’t get enough of the Chicago fair’s Ice Railway, but they especially went bonkers for George Washington Gale Ferris’ wheel.

“America was emerging as a world power, and the Industrial Revolution was at its peak,” explains Jim Futrell, historian for the National Amusement Park Historical Association. “The fair itself celebrated the latest technology.” People clamored to take a ride aboard the 264-foot-tall wheel, an engineering and manufacturing wonder which rivaled the Eiffel Tower. They paid a then-considerable 50-cents fee for a 20-minute revolution.

Coney Island’s Luna Park at the turn of the last century.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
And Coney Island in more recent times. The park is hugely important to New York’s immigrant populations, who have flocked to it over the years.
Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Brooklyn’s Coney Island was another seminal place, largely because of its importance to New York City’s immigrant population. Located nine miles from Manhattan (but seemingly a world away) and about 10 degrees cooler, city dwellers were already drawn to the natural beauty of the remote barrier island. They really began coming in droves once horse-drawn trolleys, steam railroads, steamboats, and the subway established service in the latter part of the 1800s and the early 1900s.

The millions of immigrants who poured into New York at the turn of the century visited Coney Island, ran many of its businesses, and invented and manufactured the rides that lined its boardwalk, according to Charles Denson, author of Coney Island: Lost and Found and executive director of the Coney Island History Project. They also provided the craftsmanship that characterized the rides, such as the intricate hand-carved horses featured on many of the area’s carousels. Coney Island was a workshop and proving ground for the nascent amusement industry, notes Denson.

One of its most significant contributions to the genre was the Gravity Pleasure Switchback Railway, which opened in 1884. It helped popularize roller coasters, which subsequently exploded across the country. Part of their appeal, naturally, was the speed, the forces passengers experienced, and the novelty of the thrill machines. But there was more to the rides’ mystique.

“It was okay to let your guard down,” says Futrell. “I’m not going to scream in public like I scream on a roller coaster.” The coaster remains king of the midway and shrieks of terror and delight reverberate throughout parks today.

Screaming was not the only inhibition that amusement rides shattered. By choice, or more often by design, New York City immigrants largely kept to themselves in their own tenement neighborhoods and conformed to the morals of the old country. But not at Coney Island. “They came here to assimilate,” says Denson. “They came to mix, to learn about freedom. They came to learn how to be an American.”

The environment at Coney Island was meant to keep visitors off balance, sometimes literally, and mix them together, again, sometimes literally. Unlike most modern models, there were no seat dividers on the early roller coasters. As they took sharp corners, passengers slammed into one another. (If slamming into seatmates is your thing, you can still savor the experience on surviving coasters of the era such as Coney Island’s Cyclone or Jack Rabbit at Kennywood outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.)

On Coney Island’s Steeplechase Ride, couples straddled the horse-like vehicles. “You had to put your arms around your girlfriend to keep her on the ride,” Futrell says. “Within that context, it was viewed as socially acceptable.” Just to enter Steeplechase Park, visitors had to navigate a rotating barrel, often tumbling onto each other.

Besides making it de rigueur to scream, parks still encourage patrons to shed other inhibitions. Most folks would probably not don mouse ears or a Gryffindor House robe in their hometown, for example, but it’s perfectly fashionable at the parks. And while parks have elevated their dining considerably, many visitors still opt for the junkiest of otherwise verboten junk foods.

Today, the amusement area at Coney Island is much smaller than during its heyday, although it has recently been expanding amid a flurry of renewed interest and investment. Exuding a palpable sense of history, the boardwalk playground nonetheless remains relevant and abuzz in all its funky, gritty charm.

Coney Island still resonates because it continues to do what it has always done: bring people together. “The appeal of parks is that people can share emotions and share stories with their friends,” says Gregory Beck, architect and experience designer and the former dean of the School of Entertainment Arts at Savannah College of Art and Design. “Often, we go to parks with the biggest posse we can get.”

We also go to parks to dream about the future; they’re often the first places where we experience innovations at scale. That was the appeal of the original Ferris wheel. When Disney introduced them, the monorail and the PeopleMover offered wide-eyed passengers a chance to step aboard the transit systems of tomorrow. Despite its nostalgic allure, the Coney Island Cyclone still packs a potent punch. Thanks to new launch systems and other technological and design breakthroughs, some coasters today tower over it, blasting riders over 400 feet in the air and well beyond 100 mph.

The monorail jets past Spaceship Earth — the iconic geodesic dome — at Walt Disney’s Epcot Center in Florida.
Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Regardless of their intensity, coasters and other thrill rides are aspirational. They give riders a sense of conquest and mastery. It’s part of the reassurance that’s embedded in parks. “The attractions are literally rites of passage,” says Eddie Sotto, a former Disney Imagineer (the creatives who conjure the company’s parks and rides) and president of the attraction design firm, Sotto Studios. (Interestingly, one of Disney’s best attractions is called Avatar Flight of Passage.) “Our job isn’t just to entertain you. We want you to come out not just as a survivor, but someone who thrived in the experience.”

Amusement parks proliferated throughout the early 1900s, then contracted after the Great Depression and World War II. With the opening of Disneyland in 1955, Walt Disney introduced a park that redefined out-of-home entertainment.

Minerva Mendez and Ahmed El take photos in front of Sleeping Beauty’s Castle on reopening day at Disneyland after a lengthy closure for Covid-19. The appeal of amusement parks is emotional — and intangible.
Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Whereas amusement parks typically include a mishmash of design influences and focus on the rides and thrills for the sake of the rides and thrills, Disneyland was developed using deliberate, organizing design principles. Its rides, recast as “attractions,” adhered to and advanced the larger narrative of the lands in which they resided. Guests, as Disney refers to its customers, were no longer merely riding a thrilling roller coaster. They were sliding down an icy mountain in Fantasyland’s rendition of Switzerland. The term “theme park” wasn’t coined until a few years after the park opened, but what Disney and his Imagineers created in California was decidedly different.

“There is an embedded, layered design [at Disneyland] where every piece relates to every other piece,” says King.

“There is a subtext of hope,” adds Sotto. “Theme parks are a unifying demonstration of a world where everybody can get along. People like the escape, because it tells them that everything is going to be all right.”

Today, highly complex attractions, such as The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man at Universal Orlando’s Islands of Adventure, blur the line between virtual and reality. Rather than lands with broad themes such as adventure or fantasy, parks have been developing immersive (a word the attractions cognoscenti love to toss around) and transportive environments devoted to single intellectual properties such as the Harry Potter franchise at the Universal parks and the Star Wars mythology at the Disney parks.

It’s not just fictional stories that we long to share at parks, however. It’s also our own stories. “Parents want to share the parks with their children,” Beck says. “This is what was important in my childhood, and I want you to have that same experience.”

A look at Knott’s Berry Farm in Orange County, California, reveals a thicket of winding coasters and rides. The multi-sensory thrills may be our nation’s very definition of leisure.
Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Parks have long had an egalitarian appeal, though marred by the history of segregation. People from all backgrounds and political camps can come together in a common pursuit of fun. Because of their enormous popularity, however, some parks have been raising prices considerably. Costs may be shutting some people out.

This is especially true at theme park resorts such as Disney World and Universal Orlando. Most of its visitors are from outside the area and must factor in transportation, hotel, dining, and other costs in addition to the admission prices. On the low end, a five-day visit to Disney World, including airfare, lodging, and tickets, could cost about $3,500 for a family of four. And that’s before factoring in food, ground transportation, and souvenirs. Known as destination parks, the resorts provide even more of an escape from the everyday. Visitors literally leave their homes and live at on-property hotels.

In addition to money, parks often require significant investments of time and energy. The more they cost, the more people feel compelled to organize their visits and make sure they get the most value for their dollar. “Planning a [Disney World] trip is like planning an amphibious invasion,” King says, laughing. “You wonder, where’s the leisure here?”

The nonstop action and the multi-sensory assault at parks may be our nation’s very definition of leisure. It’s distinctly American to be on the go, busy, and productive — even during our free time.

There may be a middle ground between the destination parks and day trips to regional parks. Falcon’s Creative Group, an Orlando-based attraction design firm, recently launched a division that has begun building boutique theme parks at locations around the world. According to David Schaefer, chief development officer of Falcon’s Beyond Global, the micro-parks would include high wow-factor attractions tied to intellectual properties. They would feature “rich story, complex types of experiences that you’d expect at the large destination theme parks, but at a smaller scale,” he explains. By requiring less time to visit, the parks could be more accessible. They would probably charge less to visit than the major parks as well and may be easier to get to depending on their locations.

“We think the theme park as a leisure activity is here to stay forever,” says Schaefer. “It’s so ingrained.”

That’s a good thing in a country where people are anxious and divided. We need places where we can encounter one another, share experiences, and enjoy stories together. We need the reassurance, the connection to the past, and the hope for the future that parks provide.

Arthur Levine is a theme park journalist whose work has appeared in publications including USA Today, the Boston Globe, and Thrillist.

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