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The Ride of Your Life: Theme parks are seamlessly designed to move you, physically and emotionally

You know that feeling at a theme park when you round a corner and stand face-to-face with a roller coaster whose thrilling spirals propel you forward? Or when a smiling cartoon character causes the children around you to stop and squeal with delight?

Miodrag Mitrasinovic
Dr. Miodrag Mitrasinovic studies how theme park design and development shape a visitor’s behavior and experience.

Sure you do, and so do the theme park’s designers. Every aspect of a theme park is carefully planned to shape a visitor’s behavior and experience.

A theme park can in fact be considered a “total landscape,” argues Dr. Miodrag Mitrasinovic in his book, “Total Landscape, Theme Parks, Public Space,” forthcoming from Ashgate Publishing. Environmental conditions are controlled to a level that human behavior follows expected and strictly designed paths. The thrills, the giggles and the pauses in the street are nearly scripted.

Mitrasinovic, assistant professor of design in the College of Fine Arts, took a circuitous route to theme park research. Growing up in Belgrade, he never visited a theme park. There were none in Yugoslavia at the time.

“Initially,” he says, “I was interested in totally controlled environments, environments that exhibit a totalizing degree of control of manifold environmental conditions, from microclimate to social practices, from scale to lighting.”

Theme parks are not the only such environment. Shopping malls, airports and all-inclusive tourist resorts function similarly.

How many times do people enter a mall and come out to discover it has been raining or the sun has set and they didn’t even know it? Inside the mall, almost every aspect of the environment is controlled: the lighting, the temperature, the visuals, the manners of the salespeople, the food, the music. It’s easy to lose track of time and the outside world.

View of roller coaster at Festival Gate amusement complex
The Festival Gate amusement complex housed roller coasters, restaurants and a pro wrestling arena within an eight-story building in urban Osaka, Japan.

“There are many examples where the inner workings and manifestations of total landscapes are obvious, but I found that theme parks were really the most interesting of all,” Mitrasinovic says.

“They combine elements of many of the other examples—they involve shopping, but they’re not only about shopping. They are resorts, but they are not only resorts. They do everything to a completely different degree of elaboration and detail.”

Theme parks draw on military theory and cinematic design to keep people seamlessly moving through the space and emotionally stimulated. Visual anchors such as roundabouts and vistas draw people forward. Environmental buzz created by jugglers and street musicians keeps them busy.

It’s not surprising that entering theme parks feels like entering a different world. They are designed that way, and often their scale itself makes them encompassing. Walt Disney World, for example, is twice the size of the island of Manhattan and employs more than 30,000 people.

The product produced in this world is human experience. And theme parks have their roots in another producer of human experience: the movies. Walt Disney, father of the modern theme park, was a filmmaker. It was the experience of losing oneself in a film for an hour or two that he wanted to mimic in the theme park.

“He asked the questions like, ‘How do you actually create the cinematic experience for an extended period of time? How do you create surprise at every single corner?’” Mitrasinovic says.

Disney also sought out environments he perceived as the best of the best, the ideal, such as the Palace of Versailles. He would then set about discovering what made the environment work.

Amusement park ride

“His ‘Imagineers’ would measure everything—angle, depth, color—and find everything useful from an architectural design standpoint and everything useful from a planning standpoint,” Mitrasinovic says. “Then he started combining this with his experience as a filmmaker.”

Filmmaking is very much about controlling the viewer—where he or she looks, what he or she feels—and the same thing is true of the theme park. While visitors maintain a feeling of control, in reality they are being led by the design of the environment.

Disneyland’s Main Street USA provides a perfect example. Main Street USA is a nostalgic, idealized representation of small, mid-Western towns such as Marceline, Mo., where Disney grew up. It acts as an entry funnel into and out of the park, framing Sleeping Beauty’s Castle with the building facades. However, all is not as it seems in Main Street USA.

Walt Disney World is twice the size of the island of Manhattan, has customarily more than 25 million visitors per year and employs more than 30,000 people.Disney’s designers used cinematic techniques to control the perspective of the street. The width of the street changes in order to force the framing of the distant castle on the way in and to create an illusion of shorter travel on the way out. The facades of the buildings are also scaled. The first-floor facades are built at 90 percent of full size, the second floor at 80 percent and the third floor at nearly 80 percent. This makes the visitor feel larger and as if he or she has more dominance over the landscape.

It’s actually an example of the fabricated landscape’s dominance over the visitor.

“The environment is literally shaped, almost sculpted, so that it allows them to actually design what we experience,” Mitrasinovic says. “There are variations, of course, in how each visitor reacts to specific and cumulative stimuli. But you can say with great certainty that 90 percent of the people will experience the same thing. From there on it’s just a matter of how to achieve it.”

Amusement park ride

Excitement is built on Main Street USA through carefully placed visual stimuli. Store barkers, street bands, an old tram pulled by horses, newspapermen and an ice cream boy are among the performers who keep the visitor entertained. They also produce a cacophony of background sounds that enhance the visual illusions. And they keep visitors moving from one thing to the next.

It’s not just Disney that is designing with an eye toward human response. Regional theme parks are employing similarly sophisticated methods, and they reach nearly as many people as Disney does.

Six Flags Inc. now figures as the second largest theme park company in the country, operating 31 regional theme parks around the country and eight subsidiaries around the world. Six Flags theme parks are within 35 of the 50 largest metropolitan areas in the U.S., and an estimated 90 percent of Americans live within a day’s drive of one of the parks.

All theme parks seek to heighten experience so that they place visitors in a state where they don't think, don't question and don't engage in critical dialogue.Japanese theme parks are also very sophisticated. The Huis Ten Bosch theme park operates as a town with 30,000 inhabitants and more than four million visitors. In an attempt to replicate a 17th century Dutch town, the designers at Huis Tenn Bosch used original building plans of Dutch architectural monuments and copied them to scale.

All theme parks seek to heighten experience so that they place visitors in a state where they don’t think, don’t question and don’t engage in critical dialogue. Mechanical devices direct desirable fragrances like chocolate and cinnamon rolls at visitors while the tempo of the music urges them to move faster or slower.

They are in the park’s hands, which means that they may have the ride of their lives, and they may also spend far more time and money than they had planned.

“In order to successfully move you through the environment, your cognitive ability has to be brought down to a minimum but your emotional involvement has to be up for extended periods of time,” Mitrasinovic explains. “That’s how you move beyond being critical or fighting to suspend your disbelief. Most of the information processing unfolds on the visceral level, and it is processed much later on the intellectual level.”

Europa Blvd. at West Edmonton Mall
Europa Blvd. is one of three “retail theme streets” at West Edmonton Mall, the largest shopping center in the world. The mall has 800 stores, eight theme park-style attractions and spans the equivalent of 48 city blocks in Edmonton, Alberta.

The larger implications of this concern Mitrasinovic. Theme park technology is not limited to theme parks alone. It is finding its way into public spaces of all kinds. When mass-produced, theme park technology holds the possibility of controlling our experience of being in public.

Public and private spaces already overlap. New York City’s Times Square underwent significant revitalizing in the 1990s through an agreement between the city and Disney. And the city’s Bryant’s Park, built over the underground stacks of the New York Public Library, is leased to a non-profit public-private corporation and brings in large revenues each year.

Bryant’s Park is scripted, much like a theme park, with events like the Mercedes Benz Fashion Show and film festivals sponsored by major corporations. It has a Web site, a dress code, a private police force and corporate businesses like Starbucks and Ben and Jerry’s.

“We risk losing true public space, which is about being with others and interacting with others,” Mitrasinovic says. “What we are left with is pure commodified spectatorship.”

Mitrasinovic sees theme park technology expanding into more of the public sector. In the competitive global economy many institutions apply the lessons of the theme park in order to distinguish themselves from the competition and drive profits up. Hospitals are competing within the new area of “competitive hospitality,” where theme park-like technologies play a key role, and universities increasingly standardize their operations to appear more like theme parks.

Roller coaster ride

Which is not to say that Mitrasinovic thinks people shouldn’t go and live it up at their favorite theme park. There is something reassuring in spending time in a place where the people are friendly, the streets are clean and everything operates exactly as expected.

“I don’t want to destroy anyone’s pleasure at visiting a theme park,” he says. “Many people get genuine pleasure from the experience, in searching for confirmation that what they experience in the media has a grounding in the material world.”

And he admits, with a grin, his five-year-old daughter cannot wait to meet Tinkerbell.

BY Vivé Griffith

PHOTO of Dr. Mitrasinovic: Marsha Miller

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  Updated 2005 June 20
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