Like fashion, food and pretty much everything in life, theme parks go through trends. What was popular a couple of decades ago is no longer the preferred way of doing things. This stretches to all things, from ride systems to general themes that a park is built around. Over the last decade, hyper specific IP-based lands have been en vogue. From Cars Land to Galaxy’s Edge, these enveloping lands have wowed guests by taking them into the movies they’re inspired by. By and large, this concept has worked and there have been some revelatory projects along the way but it has altered the identity of theme parks.
When Disneyland opened in 1955 followed by Magic Kingdom in 1971, theme parks were made up of broadly themed lands. Chances are that you know them since you’re reading a theme park blog – Main Street, Tomorrowland, Fantasyland, Frontierland and Adventureland. These broad themes inhabited all sorts of attractions, some of them relating to existing Disney movies and some being original ideas. More important than anything is that the attraction, restaurant or entertainment matched that of the land it was in. Tomorrowland housed explorations into the future and space. Fantasyland took guests into folk tales and the imagination of the Disney animators. Frontierland was built on the idea of the old west. Adventureland had guests, well… adventuring! But it wasn’t just enough to have attractions that fit into those themes. These broad ideas and dreams had to be somewhat grounded in reality.
While Frontierland was easy to ground since it was conceived with a time and place in mind (the American Wild West, likely in the 1800’s), the other lands are so open ended that a variety of thematic designs could have worked. To narrow it down, Walt Disney seemingly leaned on the places he traveled. Adventureland was given a South Pacific theme, including some South American and Caribbean architecture. Those elements clearly fit in with the long standing Jungle Cruise and the tropical rainforest feeling that envelops guests when they walk into the vegetated land.
Originally, Fantasyland was themed to renaissance fairs to match the castle overhead. That was changed in the 80’s to fit a more traditional European (notably Bavarian) design. In Disneyland, this fits in organically with the beautiful Matterhorn. In Magic Kingdom the transition flows wonderfully from 17th-18th century European architecture to the 18th century colonially designed Liberty Square. Of course, imagination isn’t lost throughout Fantasyland and as the land inches toward Tomorrowland the lines get a little more curvy. While it’s impossible to nail down the future, that futuristic design generally includes domed roofs, wavy lines and bright lights. Tomorrowland may feel the least congruent of the original lands, likely because it’s the one place that isn’t grounded. The future is always changing while 18th century Europe, obviously, isn’t. Even so, the transition from Fantasyland to Tomorrowland is gradual, generally involving water and a (shivers) race track before getting to that futuristic design.
With each land having a semblance of time and place, it gives less pressure to the actual content of the attractions. That may seem counterintuitive but go with me here. Tarzan’s Treehouse easily fits into Adventureland’s South Pacific design despite Tarzan being set in Africa. Why? Because it’s a tree and those are (checks notes) pretty common in rainforests. Not all Fantasyland attractions are actually based in Europe but they have an element of fantasy and the facade of the attraction fits in with the rest of the land’s architecture. That’s not to say that all attractions in castle parks fit in. Tomorrowland is notorious for a few attractions that don’t make sense within the land but, by and large, castle parks have attractions, shows and restaurants that fit into a broad theme and the outside design fits the time and place the land is grounded in.
It’s this attention to detail within a broad theme that has allowed Disneyland and Magic Kingdom to add more specific lands successfully. Magic Kingdom opened with the beautiful Liberty Square, which is narrow in time frame. But it acts as a perfect transition between Fantasyland and Frontierland, while adding substance. The same could be said for Disneyland’s New Orleans Square, which is obviously specific but is such pure transition from Adventureland to both Frontierland and Critter Country. Even Galaxy’s Edge succeeds in Disneyland because of the long transitions in between lands and the surprising diverse architecture throughout the new land.
Ultimately, these broad castle parks themes may give hints as to why most other theme park designs pale in comparison. When the movie studios idea for theme parks became popular, especially in the 80’s and 90’s, it was based on that idea that we started this post with – that people wanted to be inside of the entertainment business that they adore. Overtime that has transitioned from seeing the backlot of a studio to seeing the movie itself come to life but it’s still the same concept. Over the past few years, Disney’s Hollywood Studios has become a dumping ground for movie franchises. This has led to some amazing additions to the park and made it much better overall but there is still this disorienting feeling at times. I think that feeling comes from lands with no time or place mixed with hyper-specific lands.
Going into the worlds of Toy Story and Star Wars has mass appeal. But the transition between the two is jarring and takes guests out of the moment for just a second. There other areas within DHS like Echo Lake and Grand Avenue that is simply a lake or street where nearly any attraction can be plopped down.
California Adventure fits in that narrow park theme, not unlike a Studios inspired park. Having a whole park that can only be based on things that are in California is setting a place up for an identity crisis. Sure enough, that park is in the midst of a second loss in identity. It’s not that DCA isn’t a good amount of fun or doesn’t have some remarkable lands, it definitely does. It’s just that new lands don’t seem to fit and that also affects the existing lands.
On the other hand, the non-castle parks that seem to really flow from a thematic standpoint take their cues from that original design. Animal Kingdom is built around broad lands like Africa and Asia. Those lands end up being a little more specific than the original castle park’s but a number of things can fit in them. Even better is DisneySea, the mecca of theme design. All of the ports-of-calls are inspired by a time and place that is either large enough to fit a number of attractions and shows or have a specificity that is completely embraced. In other words, it’s the Disneyland model.
I know that everyone has their own favorite theme parks and, frankly, they should. Without some discussion then websites like this wouldn’t exist and other exciting ideas for theme parks wouldn’t be tried out. Not even Disneyland is perfect, although it’s pretty dang close. With theme parks growing in popularity and IP inspired lands becoming all the rage, hopefully there is some caution involved in remembering what has worked best along the way.
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