I am very proud to present this week my all-time favorite amusement park special.
Discovery Channel started making these amusement park specials in the mid- to late-1990s, with each one upping the last in production values (and that certainly is not an exaggeration). Beginning in 1996 or so, these specials were very spotty in the beginning and looked like closed-circuit TV documentaries. The Discovery team eventually hit their stride in the 1999-2002 time period, which is far and away the “golden period” for these types of specials. But before 1999, we see the first specials, the ones that tread the new ground, like “Wild Rides,” or “Top Ten Coasters,” or “Billion Dollar Fun,” or “Funhouse.” These were the channel’s first attempt to explain the weird and wonderful science and art of the amusement park.
And in 1998, right as Discovery Channel was getting the hang of making these specials, there came a landmark catch-all show that perfectly summed up the complex thinking and exuberant enthusiasm written into the DNA of our favorite thrill places. This show was called Amusement Parks: The Pursuit of Fun.
The format of the show is brilliant. After exploring the excitement people have for amusement parks, and why people continue to visit in record numbers year after year, the show states that there are four major elements that make up a great park. The rest of the run time is given to exploring these four elements, with each section given its own explanation and tie-in with an existing amusement park, which gets the equivalent of a sort of mini-episode. The show features the very best of the old and new: Cedar Point, Kennywood, Knoebels, Busch Gardens, and Universal Orlando, each given its own segment tied into the show’s greater themes. It’s a tour-de-force of amusement park enthusiasm. It’s so hard for me to explain how perfect this 45 minutes is. All the major aspects of amusement parks are covered in a very limited time. Extended time is given to our favorite parks, almost like mini-specials. The whole thing is wrapped up in a very easy-to-follow package, and follows an exciting umbrella theme. And the amount of information presented here is mind-boggling. I would ask you, as an experiment, after you’ve seen the show in full, to just rewind to a random part of the show. Familiarize yourself with where you are, then skip ahead, say 30-45 seconds. Then just look at the time you skipped and realize how much information is packed into that 30 seconds. This is literally a show that forces you to watch every second! I wonder if the Discovery Channel team didn’t know how many more of these specials were to be made, and packed as much information into this one as possible. It certainly gives that impression. We see in-depth looks at Cedar Point’s coasters and midways, Kennywood’s groves and old-school rides, Knoebels’s carousels, coasters, and haunted house, Busch Gardens Williamsburg’s landscaping, and Universal’s new high-tech attractions. All in 45 minutes! It’s in some ways the Snow White or Toy Story for the Discovery Channel specials: a thesis statement and blueprint for all others to follow. And you won’t find an amusement park special better to emulate, that’s for sure.
The Pursuit of Fun perfectly sums up the reasons why we visit amusement parks year in, year out, and how the parks draw us in and entice us for more. Amusement parks are ostensively a place for us to enjoy ourselves, and to have fun with friends and family. The amusement park is designed to place us in situations for us to have “optimum fun.” Rides are built and designed with the question of “how can this be the most fun” in mind. These rides are placed apart at just the right distance so they are far enough away from other rides that we don’t get overwhelmed, but not far enough away to force us to walk a long distance, tiring us out. In between, there has strategically been placed areas for our comfort: benches, restaurants, shows, shops, fountains, boats. It’s all to provide the “optimum fun” for each guest. The choices have been laid out and given, it is now up to us to determine our own path to optimum fun.
And once we are out of the gentle walkways and onto the metal machines, how is our experience transformed? It is a great way to let off steam, first of all, and provide a momentary escape from the drudgeries of adult life. They’re certainly an adrenaline rush that cannot commonly be found in our day-to-day lives. But, as the show tells us, these rides also help us push our own boundaries, past what we felt we could experience before. Remember your first ride on a hyper-coaster? Or your first ride on a coaster with inversions? How did that ride feel? Every truly new ride we experience pushes our boundaries just a bit further. They meet our need to constantly be challenged, and to push ourselves into new territory. And best of all, we share this experience communally, with dozens of other screaming passengers on board. For amusement parks are, above all, a communal experience.
And how do these parks entice us to visit, and to ride? Walt’s weenie theory personally encapsulates this. For amusement parks, roller coasters act as a flashing neon sign, billboards towering over the horizon, advertising the fun to be had within, enticing us through the gates. They promise us bigger and better high-tech fun every year.
And why do we keep visiting, once we’ve spent a day? The main reason is certainly because we had so much fun we’d like to do it again. It also could be for nostalgia purposes, to experience the same rides we did back in the day with our kids. But the parks also entice us back with innovation. Whether bigger or better rides appear on the horizon every year, or there is a new technology available, parks invest in creativity and authenticity to bring us new and unique rides for our riding pleasure. These new technologies allow the parks to offer new and exotic rides every year to push our curiosity and entice us back.
The show’s excellent presentation structure delivers an encompassing amusement park experience in four major sections, presented as elements to the theme park experience: first, the hair-raising thrills, second, the wide midways with savory aromas and classic attractions, third, providing ways for us to cool down on a hot summer’s day, and fourth, providing a communal experience for us to share our fun with friends and meet new people. These four elements are an excellent starting place for those looking to understand the allure of amusement park fun. One could do worse than to stick to these simple ABCs when designing rides or entire parks.
The thrill rides portion is dominated by Cedar Point (Magnum and Raptor) and Kennywood (Steel Phantom and Thudnerbolt). In it, the show explains how and why the thrill rides are the main attraction in an amusement park visit, as well as the history of the thrill rides from the original Expos and World’s Fairs to Coney Island, then to Disneyland, then to the parks of today. The emphasis, of course, is not just on thrills but also on innovation. From the invention of the Ferris Wheel to the Magnum, innovation has always been a major part of the thrill landscape, a fact many designers somehow forget nowadays.
The midways of the amusement parks have many purposes. They must be wide and inviting to keep people moving, but also be high energy, with bright lights, kinesthetic motion like a good swing ride, and the coasters abutting the midway and roaring overhead. The midway section is not only packed with the history of Kennywood and Knoebels, but also the explanations of just how many components can be packed onto a midway. There are train rides, swing rides, and coasters. There can be action shows in man-made lagoons, or roving marching bands. Fountains. Carnival games. Woods and trees. Savory aromas and classic foods and treats. Flowers. Bells. Fiber Optics and statues. Old rides can provide kinesthetic amusement, like Kennywood’s Turtle Ride or The Whip. New high-tech thrills can soar over the midway, like the Skycoaster, providing good people-watching. Or, the midway can also provide quiet leisure, a place where people can reconvene after a ride, and where old people can sit on a bench. But the beating heart of the midway arteries, we are told, is the carousel. Knoebels’s famous brass ring carousel provides the example. The sound of a carousel organ is an amusement park staple. People are unconsciously drawn to the carousel, and a park cannot survive without it. It’s telling that, on some amusement park surveys, carousels are more closely identified with amusement parks than the roller coasters.
There is no better place for Discovery Channel to explain the process of cooling people off than Busch Gardens Williamsburg. Amusement parks are open during the hottest times of the year, and they are behooved to allow their guests to cool themselves off for maximum comfort. How many different ways can you think of to cool off at a park? You can grab some ice cream. You could dip your hand in a fountain. There are plenty of rides that get you soaked: log flumes, rapids rides, shoot the chutes, and inevitably some water squirt-gun action in the kids area. But did you think of the experiences that get you out of the heat? How about the Sky Tower? Or the simulators and 3-D movies? There are rides like the swings, the parachute drop, or the skyway that cool you down. And at Busch Gardens, the amazing landscaping provides excellent shade, the gigantic air-conditioned restaurants provide great entertainment, and Escape from Pompeii provides not only air-conditioning but also a giant splashdown. (Too bad this show was created before Islands of Adventure opened. Be careful not to drown this time, kids!)
We sometimes forget one of the best traits of an amusement park is the opportunity to have fun with friends and meet new people. And yes, parks do try to communize the experience as much as possible. After all, it’s a very rare ride that allows only one passenger per car. A typical coaster usually has more than a dozen. And with this experience, parks also have certain ways to get people closer together. The classic example, of course, is the bumper cars. But there are also fun houses, carnival games, dark rides, and haunted houses. These experiences create memories real fast, and can introduce you to some new friends who share in your excitement or sheer terror.
Finally, as if the show hadn’t explored the amusement park world enough, it ties back to the original segment of innovation, surviving danger, and pushing our limits of trauma by diving into Universal Orlando and exploring the techno-rides available there, from T2 to Jurassic Park, and how they tie in all the elements that have been explained so far.
I hope you’ll agree that Amusement Parks: The Pursuit of Fun is a perfect example of what the blueprint of what a good amusement park documentary should be. I usually watch this show every Memorial Day weekend, right as the coaster season begins. I’ve never seen any show that gets me more pumped to visit the parks than this one. Off to ride!
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