Saturday, May 19, 2018

A Brief Treatise: Seriously (Over?)Thinking About Theme Parks

Inspired by current trends in Twitter discourse as usual, I felt compelled to produce a good old fashioned think piece about think pieces.

Fan generated discourse is, in all likelihood, a qualitative good. Not just because it is human interaction. What fan generated/led discourse has done, particularly in the internet era, has made it more acceptable for people entering some sort of artistic endeavour to interact with fans. This interaction then is able to influence the way things are presented or developed, often to the benefit of an even larger audience. It also normalizes fandom and makes it easier for people who start as fans to progress into industry rather than being seen as unnecessarily attached.

I start with that paragraph for a reason; fan generated/led discourse also has the potential for negatives. By overly encumbering the vision of the creatives with the will of the most hardcore fans, it makes for increasingly insular art. Avengers: Infinity War can be used as an example of this. On one hand, it is incredible that a major movie studio had the willingness to build towards a massive event film over a decade via 20+ other films and several series of programmatic television. It has lived up, in many ways, to the desires of the most core audience by staying stunningly authentic to a very, very dense mythology. The success of Avengers also can't be ignored: Infinity War crossed 1.7 billion dollars in global ticket sales this week, and at minimum will be the 4th highest grossing film ever. 3 other films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe exist along with it. The negative in this? Movie attendance in the US fell to record lows in 2018.

While there is a die-hard market for Marvel films that far exceeds the number of people who actually read the comics, the fact of the matter is that the market is still only a small overall fraction of the American public. We can surround ourselves with people much like us who think like we do and by and large agree with us, but ultimately, that's not representative of the movie going, TV watching, or theme park visiting public at large. The tendency then is to focus on when the public agrees with the things we like; They reacted strongly to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which proves that it is good (if not a model for the rest of the industry). They didn't react nearly as strongly to World of Avatar, which makes it just OK. Disneysea succeeded immediately while Disney Studios Paris still struggles: again, evidence that confirms prior beliefs about building expensive themed rides vs. not doing it.

As a result of our seeking likeminded people to link up with in virtual communities, we are used to finding ourselves surrounded with positive feedback to our ideas, and critical feedback being primarily the result of "trolling", or at least easilydismissable as such. We're hard wired to want to be right about our gut instinct, and our desires for reinforcement when matched with the advanced friend-making algorithms of Twitter and Facebook ensures that we should be able to find exactly that reinforcement no matter what. As a result of this, art as a whole online - music, video games, comic books, pro wrestling, and yes, theme parks - gets cut apart and stitched back together by amateur philosophers on an hourly basis. But no matter how many words are written, no matter how many brain cells go into it, how often do people challenge their own beliefs and orthodoxies when writing some new great think piece? It's easy to point at the success of Shanghai Disneyland and state that it is the result of unique attractions; it is another  to look at Universal Studios Osaka overtaking Disneysea in attendance and try to rationalize their B&M Flying Coaster with a supposed demand from the general public for fully realized themed worlds.

There are fundamental, basic, inexorable realities about theme parks:

-What we discuss as being "theme parks" are amusement parks, different only in the expense of developing artificial rocks and training materials. There are no theme parks which exist in this world for any purpose other than recreational entertainment. It is almost certain that none will ever be built, as there is no demand for a facility in which people pay money and leave having had an existential crisis. Yes, I'm including EPCOT; aside from being an expansion of the same strategy and business model already used at Tomorrowland by Disney, you can go back even further into the history books and find correlatives. Luna Park in Coney Island NY once had infant incubators with real live infants in them being saved from death. How many babies did EPCOT save?

-The only theme parks which are not intended to maximize profit for owners and investors are non-profit entities like Arnold's Park in Iowa. Theme park blogs don't go to Arnold's Park because it doesn't have a $100 million dollar dark ride themed to a movie they enjoy (or at least some iteration of the movie before the characters were recast). Everything else since time eternal has looked to make lots of money. They have spent money to make money, but they always were in the business of making money first and foremost.

-Because of the cost of construction and maintenance, theme parks as we know them must appeal to as wide an audience as possible. That means families with small children and senior citizens. Because they must appeal to audiences that are A) incredibly simple cognitively B) disproportionately socially conservative, attractions cannot offer any real insight into the human condition or the future of the world. No one will pay $125 to ride the Nihilist Adventure a second time.

-Theme parks primarily make money by selling souvenirs and food/beverage to patrons. Walt gave away the gate in 1955 specifically to do this. Pay-One-Price being introduced by Six Flags was a way to establish "value" for the same purpose. This is what amusement parks (which theme parks, again, are) do.

-Theme parks are escapism, arguably no different than recreational drugs. Filled with surrealistic/hyper real imagery, parks actively seek to activate our brain's pleasure centers while also reassuring us of our importance by catering to us as individualistically as possible. The desire to create increasingly ornate themed areas and integrate elements of cosplay/LARP may be related to this; chasing the dragon of a greater and greater escapist high while refusing to admit one has a "problem" in the first place.

(This is also why some of the Theme Park Fan Analysis of Westworld is so concerning; the show almost goes out of its way to express to us that the existence of Westworld isn't desirable. It shouldn't be cheered. And yet the wish that it could exist for the purpose of living out sociopathic fantasies like 3D Red Dead Redemption is strong in the community. One might even draw a comparison to technocrats at large on this and whether there is crossover)

This doesn't mean we can't critique parks. This doesn't mean we can't debate what rides are better. This doesn't mean we can't argue over whether or not shows, movies, haunts, restaurants, soft serve ice cream, or literally anything has qualities have positive or negative qualities in contrast to other similar things. There's lots of great debates we could and perhaps should have as fans. What doesn't do us any good is to start pretending that theme parks are something other than what they are. People go to theme parks to escape the real world by (primarily) going on amusement rides, and the ones that most people claim as being "the best" are ones which best generate that sense of escapism where people can safely be separated from their professional or personal fears.

That's what theme parks are. That is all they have ever been. That is all they will ever be. They are not and will never be at the same depth of art as Kurosawa's film or Puccini's operas. The greatest visual artists in history rarely have the capacity to properly express ideas about masculinity, human conflict, or romantic relationships when given 2 hours and miles of celluloid. Someone with 5 minutes and Chuck E Cheese robots has no chance. It is sophistry to suggest that they've somehow been denied the opportunity.

If ratcheting up the illusion is necessary not because it is produces an actively better product for the market, but because as individuals fans-turned-content producers subconsciously seek to escape their problems, then perhaps those problems should be confronted rather than make parks and attractions into behavioral intervention strategies. Animal Kingdom's World of Avatar, Universal's Fast and the Furious Supercharged and Jimmy Fallon attractions, and the slate of upcoming rides and lands for both parks are pushing forward with expensive pre-shows and queue lines. What about the anchor product though - what about the rides? Is spending hundreds of millions of dollars on an illusion that can be shattered by turning one's head to the side inside a theater really an advancement of the art form?

Even Walt himself didn't necessarily seem to share this view. There was no need or desire with, for example, Haunted Mansion, it's a small world, or Matterhorn to have them be surrounded by "immersive worlds." There is no detailed and exhaustive back story with those attractions. There isn't one for Pirates of The Caribbean either, for that matter, because Walt (and his 9 Old Men) knew that the medium of amusement rides was not conducive to storytelling, something quoted repeatedly from them during their lives. In speaking on his behalf, the fans and the designers they've sometimes become have molded reality and the vision of the great imagineers of the past into their own to become exactly the opposite of what was believed. And with that lack of storytelling depth in the art, the consequence of requiring stories people are already familiar with is increasingly leaned on; "intellectual properties". In this way, neither Harry Potter nor Matterhorn reflect "right" or "wrong", simply "different," and both even now can be wildly effective assuming the ride which all is built around is actively memorable.

We shouldn't talk about "resigning ourselves to getting the theme parks we deserve," but rather, look inside ourselves first before we take that tact and ask what it is we want and why. More often than not, the demands of the most critical voices in the community are at odds with not only themselves from a practical perspective, but the desires of the general public. Theme parks can offer us a sense of wonderment, but just because theme parks evoke an emotional response does not connote an endorsement of each of our individual reactions, nor a validation that it is correct and others wrong. There are many ways in which one may enjoy things, but finding something offensive or simply void of enjoyment are definitively not methods.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

The Hidden Rides and Themed Attractions of...South Dakota

One of the least populated states? Check. Proximity to nothing? Check. Biggest annual event is a motorcycle rally? Rural as all get out? Yes and yes. Usually when I do a piece like this, I talk about historic parks that aren't there any more. Stony Point at Lake Kampeska and Ruskin Park fit that bill here (I'm skipping them, but just know they've been gone a long time). But oddly, there's actually a lot in South Dakota; way way more than you'd expect for a state with less than a million residents and no culturally significant cities. Yeah, there's Fargo. You only know that there was a Coen Brothers movie named that though, don't play. There's also Mount Rushmore, which is kinda a big deal (don't forget the Crazy Horse sculpture that's being built down the street). South Dakota is, I suppose, kinda an attraction onto itself - part of the Great American Road Trip, a place of truly wild and where people can feel as though even in a very controlled environment, they are in the deepest of western frontiers.

To that end, the fantasy of the west is seen in multiple themed attractions: Cosmos Mystery Area is a classic Tilt House style attraction in the vein of what Gravity Falls was based around on Disney Channel. It's located on the drive into Mount Rushmore, ensuring a healthy group of bored kids yearning for stimulation screaming at their parents to pull over. Of course there's a bunch of pseudo-supernatural explanations about how their optical illusions work, but you already know "magic" in all forms is fake. 1880 Town in Midland attempts by comparison to traffic in the more "real". It's a living history museum showing frontier life with period buildings and artifacts that are well kept. Living history museums aren't necessarily unique; what is unique are the home made automated displays at the Chester & Hester's Dino-Rama version of 1880 Town known as 1880 Cowboy Town in Sioux Falls. Want to see someone's attempt at making Mr. Lincoln on a shoestring budget? Well, you can.

The fantasy of the American West contrasts with the realities of settler life, crop failure, massacres, and disease; the romaniticism that existed once has been irreparably damaged, and that's OK. There's also straight up heavy duty fantasy here for the children, and that might actually be better for them than having to hear about atrocities and starvation. Rapid City is home to Story Book Island, the first of the two storybook parks in the state. There's a carousel, a "train" ride (not on actual tracks, it rides on pavement), and a bunch of fairytale sets to gawk at. Storybook Land (and the expansion Land of Oz) is located in Aberdeen, and it manages to actually have a few rides, including a kiddie coaster. The Great Plains Zoo of Sioux Falls goes with animals as its overarching theme, but has a bonus carousel for those interested in such things.

Family Entertainment Style attractions are also fairly common in the state given the fact that it's South Dakota. Thunder Road Family Fun Park has three locations: the Sioux Falls one possesses a coaster (Wisdom kiddie) matched up with a Tilt A Whirl, Bumper Boats, Go Karts, and mini golf. Karttrax in Yankton has some truly messed up looking Sprint Car go karts that may be homemade (can't tell). Rush Mountain Adventure Park does the Summer Ski Resort stuff like have a Wiegland Mountain Coaster and ziplining. There's two separate maze attractions (Miner's Maze and Black Hills Maze in Rapid City), and even the fairgrounds get into the action.

South Dakota does have several water parks: Wild Water West is the most significant outdoor facility, and has a few modern plastic slides along with a lazy river, go karts, and mini golf. Evans Plunge is an indoor spot that actually draws from a mineral spring (naturally heated to 87") with a few indoor slides and lots of room to swim. WaTiki is a more traditional indoor water park, with 30,000 square feet of space and lots of kid's water play areas.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Emeril's at CityWalk Orlando to Close

Dewayne Bevil of The Orlando Sentinel reports Emeril's Orlando will be closing July 7th, 2018.

Both of Emeril's Universal locations will close (Emeril's Orlando and the fan favorite Tchoup Chop) with rumors saying the locations chose to shut down instead of Universal not renewing their lease (like with NBA City and NASCAR Grille).

No information is available for the replacement for either location yet. We speculate the replacements will fill the holes in restaurant line ups at Universal: a Chinese/South Pacific fusion restaurant replacing Tchoup Chop and an upscale, Florida inspired restaurant focusing on fish and steaks replacing Emeril's Orlando.

Islands of Adventure Jurassic Park Project 791

Inside Universal forum user MagicMagicMagic has discovered project permits for Project 791 located in Jurassic Park at Islands of Adventure. The permits call for demolition, site clearing, and fence construction. Based on further research the location of the demolition will be the old Triceratops Encounter location, where currently a small portion is used for the Raptor Encounter experience.

Image from MagicMagicMagic on Inside Universal
Rumors have picked up in the recent months on the long suggested Jurassic Park expansion is going to happen late Summer 2018. While information is sparse at this time it is expected to focus on the raptors from the movies and likely open in summer 2020 or later.

Additionally Inside Universal is reporting the Universal Studios Hollywood Jurassic Park River Adventure is going down for a lengthy upgrade:

Inside Universal has learned that the planned closure for Jurassic Park River Adventure at Universal Studios Hollywood is set for Sept 3, 2018, following the Labor Day weekend and will reopen as an all-new attraction in 2019.
The refurbishment is set to overhaul and modernize scenes throughout the existing ride design, and feature all-new animatronic elements, to bring the current Jurassic World story to life.
While not confirmed for Islands of Adventure, yet, it is likely the new attraction will focus on the Jurassic World series of movies, possibly upgrading the land from Jurassic Park to Jurassic World.

Stay tuned to Parkscope and Inside Universal for more information as it develops.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Sunday, May 6, 2018

The Hidden Rides and Themed Attractions of....South Carolina

Deep in Dixie, South Carolina is squarely in the middle of the pack for population size nationally. It's known for being in the south, having southern people, and, uhhh, having coastline. I have family that relocated there in the last few years and they tried to convince my dad to go there too, and he lasted two days before determining it was too close to real life Deliverance to be able to stick around for the rest of his natural life. There's cities in the interior: Greenville, Columbia, Florence - and pretty much nothing of note ever happens there. Along the coast, it's a different story. Charleston is renowned as one of the most charming and architecturally interesting cities in the United States. And then there's Myrtle Beach.

Maybe it's hard to call Myrtle Beach a "hidden" attraction - it is however filled with rides, parks, and attractions that aren't independently advertised, and easily missed if you don't know to look for them. It wasn't until the post-war period that the city truly took off as a tourist magnet, and the amusement side of things can be drawn back to the construction of the Myrtle Beach Pavilion in 1948. In the subsequent years, the city saw a multitude of park projects appear: Sun Fun, Gay Dolphin, Family Kingdom, and more. Hurricanes, insurance, and ultimately real estate speculation left only one permanent park: Family Kingdom. Not incredibly well known is that this is the location of the first Sally shooting dark ride: The Great Pistolero Roundup. There's also an outstanding and well maintained wood coaster here with the Swamp Fox. It's a classic out and back layout with tons of airtime.

But even with the traditional parks mostly historical footnotes, there's still a lot of rides, slides, and wacky stuff here. Pavillion has been reborn in two separate, unrelated, and non-ocean fronting amusement zones. OD Pavillion on Ocean Drive is a collection of portable attractions that gets set up for the summer season, and promptly disappears, not unlike the Summer Funfairs of Europe. Smaller permanent rides are located at Pavilion Park at Broadway At The Beach. For water parks, there's Myrtle Waves, Wild Water and Wheels, and Splashes (located in Family Kingdom). Like Orlando, Branson, and Gatlinburg; there's dinner theaters galore - Pirate's Voyage, Medieval Times, Polynesian Fire Luau, Legends in Concert, they're all here and accounted for. So are Ripley's branded attractions (Odditorium, Laser Haunted Adventure, Moving Theater, Mirror Maze, and Aquarium - the latter has a a glass bottom boat ride over the shark tank), Hollywood Wax Museum (along with its own shooting theater attraction and a mirror maze), and Wonderworks.

But wait: there's more! Myrtle Beach, like any good seaside resort has arcades. Two of them in particular deserve special mention given their unique games. Myrtle Beach Pinball Museum opens in 2018 with a collection of pins from the 70s through the 90s, something the market desperately needed. In addition, there's the Fun Plaza, which has an outstanding collection of classic quarter Skeeball machines plus a wall of Williams Baseball games. These date to 1962 and are the only existing publicly available versions of the games I know of, much less with the sheer volume of them. 28 runs gets you a choice even today. On the outskirts of the city, there's also Brookgreen Gardens. This huge public park space features a sculpture park, history museum, and the Low Country Zoo. Speaking of greenery; mini golf. Myrtle Beach, even more so than Ocean City, MD, is probably the capital of insane mini golf. Mt. Atlanticus, Cancun Lagoon, Shipwreck Island, Rainbow Falls, Jungle Safari, and many many many more.

There are two other locations of permanent coasters outside of the Myrtle Beach Grand Strand in recent memory: One is within city limits at the very, very short lived Hard Rock Park/Freestyle Music Park. The other was a wild mouse coaster located at Pedro Land, a mildly racist amusement zone inside of the sprawling fireworks and crap gift mall known as South of The Border. Everyone here is named "Pedro", there's the Sombrero Tower to ascend, and there's some worn looking rides left. The coaster here rarely operated, and is now in the possession of Reithoffer Shows, one of the largest carnival operators in the US. Don't forget the mini golf!

The options away from Myrtle Beach's orbit are nowhere near as plentiful in terms of big things: a chain of FECs called Frankie's has three locations, many of which with small flat rides, bumper boats, go karts, and the like. Splash Island in Mount Pleasant is "kid friendy" - that's how water parks with no large slide complexes brand themselves in the modern day. The Riverbanks Zoo has a carousel to ride in Columbia, and Simpsonville's Heritage Park has train rides. 

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Parkscope Unprofessional Podcast Hour #147 - G-Force, Steel Vengeance, and Jerome

Alan, Alex, and Joe record two shows in one! Part one we talk about the IX Indoor Amusement Park and the hot spots around Cleveland, Ohio! For part two we review Steel Vengeance, talk about the needs of Cedar Point, and cover the latest news and rumors of the theme park world.