Tuesday, October 31, 2017

YouTube Tuesday #17: The Secret World of Amusement Parks

The Secret World of Amusement Parks is another 1997-era manifesto from TLC that seeks to explore the fascinating underpinnings of the silly fun park world (TLC and Discovery really loved talking about amusement parks around 1997). However, much like many of the pre-1998 shows (I’m not sure what happened in 1998 to suddenly turn these specials more enjoyable) the show is astonishingly shallow compared to what it promises. Instead of the “secret world of amusement parks,” we get “the secret world of Morgan Manufacturing, amusement park history, community college physics departments, and turning walkways into loops.”

The show suffers from a massive lack of cohesion. In fact, for a show that purports to be about amusement parks, over 40 minutes (two-thirds) of the show is instead about roller coasters. And the only “behind the scenes” we get at the amusement park (which, by the way, is promised in the opening) is a quick chat with a facilities manager and a couple of ride operators. Seriously. That’s it.

In fact, it is very odd (to me at least) that TLC would call this show The Secret World of Amusement Parks in the first place. It is very obviously a show about rides, and roller coasters specifically. Why not just admit the main purpose of the show is to showcase amusement park rides and coasters? Did they really think it would lose viewers?

If you’ve been following our video postings for the last few months, I’m sure you’ve noticed by now that there is a definite presentation pattern to these sorts of roller coaster specials (and make no mistake, this is a roller coaster special). I will give this one a pass, since it was created at the beginning of the amusement park documentary craze, and thus is probably one of the Cro-Magnon forerunners that was copied by uncountable number of specials since. But the same style and presentation format that you’ve seen countless times exists here.

There’s the ubiquitous mention of amusement park history, especially Coney Island in the 1920s and Disneyland. There’s the history of roller coasters, and that means mentioning Russian ice slides and switchback railways and the Flying Turns (not sure exactly why that one came up. One of the experts is really obsessed with that one). We see the standardized explanation of G-Forces and how engineers have to blah blah blah and interview the maintenance manager who says how they have to inspect the ride each day and yadda yadda yadda. And of course we get the whole thing about the coaster wars in the mid-1990s, and how cool hypers and inverted coasters and stand-up coasters are, and how coasters bring in money to the park, etc. You know how you can tell this show is really about roller coasters, and not amusement parks? The show talks more about the Matterhorn being the first tubular steel coaster than Disneyland itself.

The Matterhorn segment though leads to a semi-interesting section going behind-the-scenes with Morgan Manufacturing, who discuss and demonstrate the roller coaster design process in more detail than most other shows. For some reason they also seem to be obsessed with break zones. We also get a nice segment on the early days of S&S, when ol’ Mormon Grunkle Stan reveals the two loves of his life: the Space Shot and the Turbo Drop.

This is a legitimate historical find for theme park documentary aficionados. After this point, half of Stan’s interview time during his segments would be concerned with the upcoming Thrust Air 2000 (which of course became Hypersonic XLC). But here, we get a very interesting discussion as to what led Stan to create S&S in the first place (his love for bungee jumping and the desire to create a “reverse bungee jump” to catapult people into the air). This led to the creation of the Space Shot, which is discussed here in loving detail, and then later the Turbo Drop. The highlight of this segment for me is to see the ORIGINAL Turbo Drop rides in action, pre-Power Tower. For the first year or so of Turbo Drop’s existence, it had that funky kiddy carnival-style logo of a smiley face dropping downwards and the unique color scheme.

We then get some almost interesting discussions of how ride designers look to lure guests in the parks to the coasters (unfortunately, only the “it’s big and cool and loud” and “we try to place them over walkways” discussions are had, nothing new here) before we get into the “we’ve-seen-this-a-million-times” segment of some community college physics professor teaching his class how roller coaster physics work (you can get an idea how cringe-inducing it is when the phrase “that’s right kids, that’s called inertia!” is actually used here). We then get the standard trip to Magic Mountain to ride Superman and float things in the air. It was cool the first thousand times. (BUT, to be fair, the kid on this trip hilariously throws the orange up instead of letting it float and completely whiffs catching it, sending it on a 400-foot vertical death spiral. Probably the highlight of the show).

The only genuinely interesting segment for me starts at around 41:35, where we meet the minds behind the Duell Corporation, the spatial master planners of over 40 theme parks worldwide. In this all-too-short segment (which actually should have at least been the beginning of the program, if not the longest segment, since this is really what the show should be about), Randy Duell and his associates discuss the thought that goes into the spatial design of the benches, bathrooms, food stops, water fountains, etc. of the parks and why certain designs are the way they are. Duell is famous for the “Duell Loop” formation of park walkways, which encompasses a half mile to a mile of walkways and is usually covered in 6-8 hours, which also happens to be the average time for guests to spend at a park. There is also a short trip to Magic Mountain to show the effect of plazas, curves and bends in the walkways, and the specific placement of trees and foliage. Honestly, WAY more time should have been spent showcasing these folks.

And finally, since this is a park special, at the end that means we get a glimpse into THE FUTURE OF THEME PARKS. And of course, since this is the mid-1990s, the future of theme parks is VR, video games, arcades (RIP DQ), and simulators. What’s nice is we get to see some attractions not seen in other park specials, such as the giant XS New York arcade (a precursor to DQ) and the New York Skyride simulator at the Empire State Building. We can’t wait for the future of fun!

Overall, as I stated before I give this special a pass because it’s obviously one of the earlier examples in the canon, and a lot of the shows following can be accused of somewhat plagiarizing the material and the presentation format. But still, for a show that pretends to be about “the secret world of amusement parks,” it tells us a lot about coaster wars and very little about amusement parks. But still, some good stuff if you know where to look. I feel like this could have been a great multi-part miniseries if given the chance.

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