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.