Discovering Theme Parks: New Media Literacy in Three Dimensions
By Carissa Baker
One accepted principle of pedagogy is that multimedia usage in the classroom is beneficial to student success. Students have distinct learning styles, multiple intelligences, or different interests. When thinking of the concept of multiple mediums, presumably what comes to mind is combining textual, visual, and aural inputs to create multi-sensory lessons. Using the theme park as a model text in the classroom may not be the first association with multimodality, but theme parks are paragons of multimedia and act as cultural expressions that involve many disciplines. They are new media combined with old and narrative combined with space. In this article, I argue that theme parks should be used as subjects in the classroom at many levels and in several disciplines, that theme parks embody media literacy principles, that they can function as classrooms themselves, and that design principles for the parks, especially a powerful brand of storytelling, can be utilized in educational settings.
Dr. Carissa Baker is an Assistant Professor of Theme Park and Attraction Management at the University of Central Florida (UCF). She attained her Ph.D. in Texts and Technology from UCF. Her scholarship focuses primarily on narratives in the theme park space, drawing on her BA and MA in Literature. Dr. Baker taught in China and was a visiting scholar at Breda University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands. She presents at academic conferences or themed entertainment industry events and publishes interdisciplinary work on theme parks.
Theme Parks are a Complex Art
Though traditionally construed in academic work as merely commercial and corporate, theme parks have emerged to be unique art forms as expressed in scholarly literature and the significant output of industry professionals or fans. Like with work on video games, comic books, genre fiction, or other types of popular culture, scholars have begun to reject establishment criticism in favor of more nuanced analysis that recognizes the fascinating and distinct qualities of theme parks as an artistic form, objects of fandom, and cultural touchstones.
Theme parks are multimedia, multimodal, transmedial texts. They tell stories with space, with performance, and with a synthesis of arts including architecture, landscaping, music, painting, sculpture, lighting, oral storytelling, dance, and others. They might tell original stories that resonate with audiences. These original stories may become part of larger franchises as the 1967 Pirates of the Caribbean ride did. They may also become nodes in transmedia story webs and vast narratives like Star Wars or Harry Potter. They physicalize these storyworlds and allow fans to walk inside of and live these stories.
Themed spaces are deeply associated with culture. They represent the fantasies of many decades of creators and audiences. They reflect the vital stories of the culture from histories to legends. Entire parks may be built to represent and transmit cultural values, for instance the Songcheng and Fantawild Oriental Heritage properties. Many parks in Europe include fairy tales and folk tales in their content conveyed through static scenes, boat rides, stage shows, or entire lands (often called Märchenwald, or fairy tale forest). Decades of cultural criticism and scholarship reveal that the Disney parks and American culture have had some reciprocal influences. Things like the “Great American Vacation” or cultural pilgrimage have been impacted by the fantastical spaces of Walt Disney World in particular (Jackson, 1993; Kottak, 1994).
Though some might argue theme parks are not art because of commerciality or their status as communally created work, scholars and practitioners alike have come to view theme parks as art. They are a kind a “total-sensory-engaging environmental art form” (King, 2002, p. 3) and referred to as “the most challenging of art forms,” perhaps recognizing the attribute of being a fusion of forms (Schneider, 2012, p. 251). Like other art forms, theme park attractions can be silly or dramatic, shallow or lofty. Theme parks can heighten our sense of existence. As the late, legendary designer Hench (2009) noted, the best examples of theme parks are “meaningful experiences” that help people “transcend their everyday experience” (p. 9).
Learning Through Spatial Storytelling
The late Imagineer Marty Sklar (2015) referred to what he called the “new medium of storytelling that Walt Disney created with Disneyland” (p. 3). Disneyland was not the first park with storytelling or narrative dark rides and shows. However, it did meaningfully construct stories that guests loved and that connected with them on emotional levels. The park utilized synergy in a potent way that sparked the park’s success. Stories that guests loved on the silver screen would be translated to the television screen (with the 1954 Disneyland TV show and its successors); then these stories would be created in the dimensional environments of the Disneyland theme park. Guests would take home merchandise from the park, creating tangible memories of the visit that connected back to the original story that attracted them to begin with.
Spatial storytelling holds the key to some of the most powerful experiences in theme parks including those early Disneyland rides. Hench (2009) determined that storytelling became more powerful when “translated” from two to three dimensions and found Disneyland’s opening year (1955) ride Peter Pan’s Flight so significant because of its “three-dimensional staging.” For him, this meant that it represented the film, it enacted flying and symbolized the meaning of that theme, and it delivered sensory information to riders who got to fly over London and hear the music from the movie. Even early dark rides allowed guests to viscerally experience a story, immediately making them more engaging. Instead of being told a story, one is surrounded by, and in the case of interactive stories (seen in things like Knott’s Berry Farm’s Ghost Town Alive!, apps like Star Wars: Datapad, or Evermore Park), one can actually live the story.
Theme park narratives are created through complex forms of worldbuilding. This includes environmental storytelling, or crafting spaces through elements like architecture, sound, lighting, and props. Jenkins (2004) explained this concept in the video game context:
Environmental storytelling creates the preconditions for an immersive narrative experience in at least one of four ways: spatial stories can evoke pre-existing narrative associations; they can provide a staging ground where narrative events are enacted; they may embed narrative information within their mise-en-scene; or they provide resources for emergent narratives. (p. 123)
Theme parks similarly refer back to beloved stories, permit stages for narrative enactment, have narrative features embedded in the environment, and allow for narratives uncovered through guest interactions with multi-layered spaces. Similar to this game context, Maschio (2017) described the possibility in virtual reality experiences of going beyond storytelling to “storyliving.” While in many cases a great video game has even more compelling storylines and characters than in the shorter theme park experiences, the theme park medium has intricate environments to traverse physically. It is even easier to imagine oneself in a role-playing capacity and being the main character in the elaborate and hyperdetailed show.
The theme park is thus a story-centric medium. Stories are told in physical walkthroughs, dark rides, films, simulators, stage shows, parades, nighttime spectaculars, interactive quests, augmented reality games, and many other methods. Storytelling is the “distinguishing factor” of the medium as compared to amusement parks (Younger, 2016). While amusement parks had storytelling in some attractions, the theme park would revolve around story, with the entire park, each land, and most attractions being driven by a central narrative. Even many of the fan behaviors in a park are connected to storytelling (“embodied transmedia,” with guests materially involved in a park narrative), and the parks’ status as “spatial transmedia” makes them fascinating sites of fan participation (Williams, 2020). The concept of “narrative transportation” (Green & Brock, 2000), wherein a person is brought into another world due to a really engaging story, is particularly possible in a theme park, where the physically constructed world all around will help with the cognitive and emotional journey of the story itself.
Advancing Media Literacy Through Theme Park Study
In 1987, the Ontario Association of Media Literacy drafted several principles of media literacy. Theme parks illustrate these principles effectively. They are “carefully crafted constructions” (Pungente, 2005), created by many, for many. History, culture, design philosophies, technologies, and the evolving considerations of audience impact the development of theme parks. Though theme parks are meant to be a separate world from reality, theme parks construct a reality that then influences visitors in their beliefs. Communication of technological utopianism, relationships with nature, and peace through organized design are all present in these spaces, with Hench referring to the dominant message of parks as “reassurance” rather than “escapism” (as cited in Haas, 1978). Though designers create spaces with particular objectives, messages, and stories in mind, audiences “negotiate the meaning” and interpret as they please (Pungente, 2005). Whole discourses exist on the meanings of parks with scholars, industry professionals, and fandoms interpreting regularly. There is no doubt that theme parks are generally for-profit spaces and are thus “influenced by commercial considerations” (Pungente, 2005). This can be witnessed through the kinds of stories told (popular intellectual properties, for instance) or even the ways the stories are told (with cost being a factor in presentation).
As noted, scholarship on theme parks has examined their values and ideologies. Theme parks reflect the “ideologies of the day” and even roller coasters connect to “psychological needs” and “basic values” (Lukas, 2008). American theme parks might reflect the “values and norms of the contemporary American” (Hobbs, 2015, p. 22). Efteling, a Dutch theme park, was a response to industrialization and urbanization, a need to go back to nature and foundational fairy tales (Hover, 2013). Some Chinese theme parks, such as Splendid China, were meant to express nationalism and to “spread the Chinese traditional culture” (Zhang and Shan, 2016, p. 2). Parks around the world are influenced by the values of their creators and their guests and in turn influence those values. The fairy tale continues to be prized in multiple theme parks, for example, because parks have sent a message of their worth for decades. Over the years, it has been a complicated negotiation when theme parks are replicated in new regions, for instance the very different reception to Tokyo Disneyland versus Disneyland Paris, indicating the inextricable tie that theme parks have with culture.
There are political and social implications of theme parks, moreso than most media, as they are built in physical space within existing communities. Walt Disney World’s opening sparked “one of the biggest regional changes in history” (Emerson, 2010). Its wild success permanently changed the social, cultural, political, economic, and environmental climate of Florida. Everything from the primary industry to the kinds of communities found in Florida and Orlando were impacted by becoming the “theme park capital of the world.” Efteling became “a part of the Netherlands’ cultural heritage,” changing the leisure culture in the nation, something Walt Disney World similarly did in the United States (Clavé, 2007). In Shenzhen, China, the large Overseas Chinese Town (OCT) project impacted the region’s economy but altered the character of the population. Previously, this area was a farming town, but this changed as “theme parks and other tourist facilities now dominate much of the community” (Liang & Bao, 2015). Examples abound of changes that the development of a theme park can bring to a community, with some being generally perceived positively (economic contribution and innovation) and others negatively (transforming cultures or land). As in other media, “form and content are closely related,” with the theme park as a highly narrative form that “codifies reality” (Pungente, 2005). Theme parks use specific forms and tell stories in ways that are unique to parks. The medium has “its own grammar” (Pungente, 2005), and there are industry practitioner and scholarly discourses of many decades that classify and formalize this grammar.
Though the theme park is sometimes seen as an amalgam of multiple forms, it is also its own discrete medium with distinct ways of communicating ideas to visitors. Theme parks have their own literacies to be aware of. They are fascinating texts, simultaneously art, business ventures, culture, engineering marvels, narratives, performance spaces, technologies, and tourism sites. They are created from many disciplines and studied from several perspectives in academia. In previous work (Baker, 2018a), I designated six characteristics of the theme park as a narrative medium:
They are dimensional places, with their spatial character crucial to their success.
They have enormous cost and scale compared with many other mediums.
They are communally produced and created for large, multi-generational groups to enjoy.
They have stories and experiences with a brief and condensed nature.
They are examples of convergence, with many forms combined into one.
They have a reiterative nature, where experiences can be added, subtracted, or cloned and still be considered the same narrative container.
Being literate in the theme park medium can lend depth to one’s understanding of mass media. Whether looking at theme parks from a particular disciplinary perspective or exploring their medium affordances, theme parks are worthy subjects of inquiry. They are effective tools for students to understand multiple facets of society and the process of creation.
Despite them being an older art form, theme parks exemplify principles of contemporary media. They are immersive, they utilize transmedia storytelling, they are convergent spaces, and they are frequent sites of participatory culture (Baker, 2018b). Some of the traits of new media found in Jenkins (2006) may fit theme parks, as they are again convergent and likewise innovative, appropriative of cultural elements (and intertextual, if not fitting of remix culture), networked in some cases, global, generational, and unequal because of disparate access based on class. Gee (2003) demonstrated in great detail that “when people learn to play video games, they are learning a new literacy” (p. 13). He asserted, in similar ways to when scholars extended the notion of “text,” that literacies should be expanded to consider nontraditional forms like video games. Gee compiled dozens of learning principles that could apply to the often informal and interactive education available to those who become truly literate in video games. Theme parks have multi-layered stories, intricate details, multi-sensory design, and fascinating social and ideological considerations. They too mark a new kind of literacy, one that draws on other literacies but adds inherently spatial and social dimensions.
Theme Parks in the Classroom
Within the classroom, the theme park is a complex text that can be taught from many angles including art, business, cultural studies, design, engineering, sociology, and technology. In my classes, students have learned subjects like theme park history, how theme parks are designed and planned, how to manage the guest experience, how to manage the employee experience, sociocultural impacts, the many cultures found within parks, and theme park fandom. Assignments range from analyzing a single attraction or park to creating a new guest or employee experience. Recently, I examined ways in which collaborative applied assignments are used with theme park topics at the university from the fields of theme park and entertainment management, theatre, and entertainment technology (Baker, 2020).
Theme parks inspire projects in the K-12 classroom as well. One work (DiBlasi & Boeckman, 2018) suggests dozens of lessons that connect to Disney’s Magic Kingdom theme park. Another book (Pollock, 2015) proposes a way to design classrooms based on Disney’s Epcot and the life of Walt Disney. Joshua Baker (my husband) and his colleagues have used principles of theme park design and management in their middle school classes, with the multi-week Create A Theme Park project. Teachers have used similar ideas with genres from video games to themed entertainment, everything from creating augmented reality game quests in the hallways of a school to constructing entire escape rooms to teach a subject. Theme parks are imaginative entertainment spaces, so they act as catalysts for out-of-the-box thinking from students in middle school through university.
Theme parks can also function as classrooms themselves. I have taken students to both Disney and Universal parks for understanding concepts ranging from themed entertainment design practices to industrial engineering. Other professors at institutions in the United States and internationally utilize theme parks as spaces for living classrooms. Walking through the park is an ideal way to explore the power of storytelling in space. It can also assist with understanding and applying theories and multiple literacies (Thevenin & Parkin, this volume). In these cases, the subject of study becomes the classroom itself, highlighting both the breadth and depth potentials of these spaces.
Themed Education Design
The principles that theme parks are created with can be utilized by schools to improve learning. Themed education design as a device for encouraging learning works because kids and adults alike typically harbor positive feelings towards their experiences in parks (nostalgia, joy, wonder, etc.). Replicating theme park experiences both consciously and subconsciously can be an asset to a learning environment. I presented at two 2019 conferences led by Dr. Martin Rayala and colleagues:
Gamechangers: Media and Design Education Institute and Storytelling = Education. At these events, I suggested the following ten principles to consider. These are briefly outlined here with accompanying representative images. Several suggestions for how to enact these principles in a classroom are listed, many taken directly from the latter conference’s brainstorming session with educators.
Comfort: Build a comfortable space, one that emphasizes safety and provides crannies of exploration. To facilitate learning or wonderment, a place should be comfortable and safe. Children’s Fairyland, a fairy tale park in Oakland, CA that inspired Walt Disney, has a small library called Alice’s Reading Room. It is cozy and child sized. Disneyland Paris has side paths of its bustling Main Street, U.S.A. Modelled on the arcades of Paris, these indoor streets are quieter and full of little surprises. At Holiday World in Indiana, the Gobbler Getaway dark ride is a peaceful and whimsical ride. It exemplifies the pleasant, family-focused atmosphere of the park. Click each photo below for a full view.
Suggestions for comfort in the classroom include creating an inviting atmosphere, playing music (to relax, excite, and enhance the space), adding familiarity to the space, comfortable furniture types, flexible seating, using natural lighting instead of only artificial light, setting a correct temperature in the room, and having carpet for earlier grades.
Beauty: Design a space that follows aesthetic values, including color, texture, and details, that increases engagement. Human beings are naturally drawn to beauty in their spaces, and theme parks around the world provide opportunities to view grand environments both simulated and natural. These can be intimate settings with natural beauty like the Manta Aquarium at SeaWorld Orlando. It can be the beauty found in impressive architecture, such as the famous Nimb Hotel at Tivoli, one of the oldest amusement parks in the world. It can even be beyond beautiful to the sublime, inspirational landscape of Pandora: The World of Avatar in Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Click each photo below for a full view.
Suggestions for beauty in the classroom include prioritizing aesthetics with fabric, inviting paint colors, whiteboard walls that can be decorated, using student work around the classroom, having classroom themes, allowing students to adorn the space with personal items, and including small areas of greenery in the classroom with plants (real or artificial).
Storytelling: Utilize the powerful tool of storytelling; tell old and new stories, use culturally important tales, and tell stories in a variety of ways. Storytelling is one of the practices that make us human, and our brains are wired to find pattern and meaning in stories. Theme parks tell stories in many ways, whether explicit or implicit, traditional or innovative. Stories in theme parks take advantage of the use of space. This can be when a person walks through it to learn the story, such as the Sleeping Beauty Castle Walkthrough at Disneyland, which tells the familiar fairy tale. Or it can be a ride vehicle traversing space, such as Sindbad’s Storybook Voyage at Tokyo DisneySea, a dark ride through some of the tales of One Thousand and One Nights. Stage shows can be powerful storytellers as well, which Battle of Fei River at Hefei Sunac Land, a show that recreates a great battle with many performers and effects, attests to. Click each photo below for a full view.
Suggestions for storytelling in the classroom include demonstrating story arcs, teaching familiar stories and motivations people have for telling stories (creating, searching, expressing emotions, journeying, sacrificing), using storyboard assignments, illustrating storytelling across time and culture, and students choosing stories to tell in class so they make connections to the content.
Media: Take advantage of the interconnections of media by using transmedia storytelling, popular intellectual properties, and a synthesis of media types. With the proliferation of media, people are now used to enjoying stories in multiple forms of media, with universes spread across platforms with different affordances: books (verbal depth), films (visual acuity), video games (interactivity), fan engagements (emotional depth), and theme parks (immersion in physical space). Some examples of worlds we can walk in: childhood stories at Seuss Landing in Universal’s Islands of Adventures, the movie Cars with Radiator Springs Racers at Disney California Adventure, and the Star Wars franchise, with the cutting-edge Rise of the Resistance at Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Disneyland. Click each photo below for a full view.
Suggestions for media in the classroom include using music and sound design, assigning visual media like comics and graphic models, comparing old and new videos, connecting to multiple senses in instruction, and incorporating favorite characters and stories from popular media (novels, films, TV shows, video games) into lessons.
Technology: Leverage old and new technologies that help to tell great stories; create spaces with hybrid physical/virtual elements. From roller coasters to simulators, theme parks have long been associated with technology, and technologies will continue to play a role in post-pandemic educational environments. Technology can enhance the show, as it does in Universal Orlando’s Bourne Stuntacular, where live actors interact with a massive, high-resolution LED screen. It can provide for interactive experiences, as it does with the augmented reality game Battle for Cedar Point. It can even reproduce and make well-known works of art come to life, as the Riverside Scene (replicating a Song-era painting by Zhang Zeduan) does at Hangzhou Songcheng. Click each photo below for a full view.
Suggestions for technology in the classroom include using the best tool for the activity (whether high- or low-tech), employing technology to enhance experience but not overtake story, utilizing augmented reality, and working with technology implementations like design software, drawing pads, Nearpod, and course management systems to extend the class into virtual space.
Interactivity: Use the power of the human connection and invest in a space’s interactive capabilities; use technology to assist with captivating experiences. Whether a theme park or educational space, audiences want to engage. They want to uncover clues and interact with people and storylines. Theme parks have begun to grasp this in important ways, with traditional quests like Leonardo’s Challenge at Tokyo DisneySea and interactive quests using technologies like the World Showcase Adventure games at Epcot over the years. Importantly, they have entered the world of interactive, immersive theatre with experiences like Ghost Town Alive!, a multi-layered and dynamic branching narrative with audience agency at Knott’s Berry Farm. Click each photo below for a full view.
Suggestions for interactivity in the classroom include reward systems with points (like in Harry Potter), students giving feedback on peer presentations, interactive learning quests or scavenger hunts inside the classroom or around school, building collaboration and team activities into daily lessons, and gamifying elements like video game creation or interactive surveys.
Role-playing: Change the role of visitors in the story and construct elaborate, interactive quests where they can explore new identities. Beyond just interacting with stories, many people want roles in those stories. Whether roles in educational settings, elaborate video games, or theme park quests, audiences yearn to participate. A particularly elaborate version of role-playing is found in MagiQuest, a set of multiple layered games that can be played at Great Wolf Lodge Resorts or at a standalone location in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. At multiple Universal parks, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter allows fans to play as wizards in a magical setting. Evermore Park is a theme park built totally around notions of joining guilds and role-playing in stories. Click each photo below for a full view.
Suggestions for role-playing in the classroom include presentations where students dress as the person they researched, reader’s theatre activities, students creating their own characters to participate, reading from scripts, producing videos where students act out particular characters, and assigning particular project roles to students based on the class.
Experience: Create memorable, positive experiences; go beyond products or places by staging experiences. Businesses in Pine and Gilmore’s (1999) conception create staged experiences to increase engagement, with theme parks being the paragon for doing so. By using environmental storytelling especially, worthwhile experiences can be created and lead to repeat visitation. A hotel can become an ancient place with thematic experience, such as Hotel Colosseo does at Europa-Park. A restaurant is elevated to a playful and whimsical space that connects to a greater storyline, such as Polle’s Kitchen at Efteling. A roller coaster can be enriched with a storyline and placemaking for a complete experience, such as Cobra’s Curse at Busch Gardens Tampa. Click each photo below for a full view.
Suggestions for experience in the classroom include getting to know students so the teacher can build on their experiences, providing different kinds of experiences (in various environments: natural, built, simulated, augmented, virtual), work- and project-based learning, client-driven projects, and experiential learning such as designing and constructing a school garden.
Immersion: Saturate the visitor in the storyworld; recognize and cultivate levels of engagement. There are multiple levels of engagement: physical, sensory, cognitive, and emotional (adapted from Wolf, 2012). A person can feel that they are surrounded in many ways by the story and the fictional place, increasing authenticity and engagement. In Craftman’s Valley at Dollywood, guests are transported to an older time in the Smoky Mountains cultural space using landscaping, sets, and craftspeople. In the Be Our Guest restaurant at Magic Kingdom, guests are surrounded by the sights, sounds, and culinary creations of the Beauty and the Beast (1991) film. In Klugheim at Phantasialand, architecture, texture, color, and music create a captivating landscape for thrill. Click each photo below for a full view.
Suggestions for immersion in the classroom include virtual reality field trips, multi-sensory designs (music, scents, lighting), outdoor education, visits to museums and cultural institutions that then influence school projects, turning the classroom into a theme from a story or historical period, and having students design and create their ideal learning environment.
Edutainment: Make learning fun and engaging; overlay new layers on top of existing space. It is worthwhile to make learning enjoyable and to make engaging spaces educational. Kennedy Space Center, for instance, uses immersive experiences to place guests into exciting scenarios including Apollo 8 and the Firing Room. Numerous exhibits at the Columbus Zoo involve fun and environmental storytelling including the Polar Frontier area that allows for hands-on and informative experiences. Het Spoorwegmuseum, the national railway museum of The Netherlands, includes theme park-style rides but also a fascinating walking and audio tour called The Great Discovery, where visitors are led through intricate sets and hear the story of the first train in the country. Click each photo below for a full view.
Suggestions for edutainment in the classroom include staging a room for various types of activities, using ambient sounds and music that reflect the theme of the lesson, using class concepts to engage in fun projects (create a theme park, redesign the school), and making fun spaces that teach lessons (e.g., escape game, augmented reality game, interactive quests).
Though theme parks only occasionally have strictly educational characteristics, they are designed with the guest experience in mind. They are built so that visitors want to stay there for a day, develop brand loyalty, and come back again. Great theme parks encourage visitation over the generations, with a family history that becomes tied to the place itself. These same values can be transferred to some educational settings. No doubt, schools at most levels do not possess the capital of most theme parks, but when broken down to the basics, these principles are applicable with little or occasionally no expenditure. Like theme park designers, educational professionals can create engaging spaces that encourage students to both learn and enter worlds of wonder.
All photos © Carissa & Joshua Baker.
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