Sunday, January 13, 2019

As Good As It Gets

"Opinion is really the lowest form of human knowledge. It requires no accountability, no understanding." - Bill Bullard

Theme park discussion on the internet is primarily centered around the relationship of Disney fans to Disney parks or those parks which are geographically adjacent to Disney parks. There is then a natural myopia that results from this - with such a limited frame of reference, fans burn out and confuse their familiarity with the Disney product with enormous declines in the industry as a whole. More often than not on spaces like Twitter, I find myself engaging with people who are upset with the state of the theme park industry. The parks are too heavily reliant on intellectual property, too reliant on screens, pricing out the middle class, too many festivals or festivals that bring out the "bad crowd", and on and on and on.

I'm going to say something that has been said before by others, but needs be said again - this is the best time in history to be a fan of outdoor amusements. Yes, including theme parks.

This isn't a conclusion I've come to lightly. I'm not pretending there aren't issues with Walt Disney World's monorails. I'm not telling you that the Jimmy Fallon ride is a classic - I haven't even been on it. But what I am not going to do is pretend to you that Disney's American parks (and their direct competition) are the whole of the theme park industry and that they (the parks) and it (the industry) peaked specifically at the same exact time that its loudest detractors conveniently were children making their first trips.

Let's start with Disney - Disneyland's Pixar Pier redo basically got negative marks across the board. Fair enough. Their upcoming Marvel stuff seems to have the problem of not being better than Universal's Marvel stuff, so naturally Disney fans are going to have to be mad about that (Why? Good question. Ask them). Star Wars? Oh, it's going to be terrible because people will want to go there. It's just gonna be too good and unnaturally occupy space in the park, and not at all because the parks are intended to resemble specifically what they were when the commentors first went, but because of some kind of quote asserted to come from Walt through Tony Baxter or something like that. It's never about what Star Wars will be in 5 or 10 years to the parks or the industry, just about what it will be opening week.

But I digress: this isn't just a thread about Disney parks. Ultimately, I can't change anyone's perception of them. If you haven't gotten over Horizons and World of Motion by now, you never will. No, this is about the industry. You want to know what things are happening in the industry?

Unprecedented construction of indoor themed attractions are happening. You want high tech dark rides? We're getting those with Sally's Justice League rides, with 6 opened in the US. You want auteur stuff? Meow Wolf's retheme of a dark ride at Elitch Gardens is a real thing and actually happening for 2019, producing the first thing that approaches "high art" in the genre. "Flying Theaters" a la Soarin' are proliferating like mad, whether its as standalone attractions in Vancouver, Seattle, San Francisco, or Minneapolis, or in the Merlin theme parks. Where Disneyquest failed, others are succeeding: Legoland Discovery Centers are all over the US and Canada, each with 4D movies, shooting dark rides, and spinners. Lionsgate will soon join the fray in New York City, and that's not even mentioning the explosion of escape games and LARP (Live Action Role Play) with places like Evermore Park in Utah. A whole year round theme park new facility will open in New Jersey (Nickelodeon Universe at American Dream in the Meadowlands).

Too much of an American focus? Then feast your eyes on the likes of Symbolica or the new shooting dark ride going into Walibi Belgium. Check out Derren Brown's Ghost Train or Can-Can Coaster at Europa Park. Oh, and then there's new parks. Literally hundreds of them, from Ireland to the Middle East and of course China. Not just the two latest Disney parks, but entire theme park chains like Chimelong and Magic Valley with giant theming pieces and expensive dark rides. Batman, the first "Strong Arm" attraction to open outside a Universal Park, just opened at WB Movie World in Abu Dhabi. Land of Legends in Turkey had Cirque founder Franco Dragone involved; Cirque Du Soliel has a theme park of it's own coming on-line in 2020 in Mexico. Speaking of Mexico, XCaret got the Applause Award for overall excellence in the industry; they've got a whole pile of facilities south of Cancun to explore.

And then there's roller coasters. You know - possibly the most fundamental building block and anchor of theme parks. They are better now than ever. Wood coasters invert with regularity. Steel coasters offer incredible and exciting forces while being smoother than ever. There are multiple coasters exceeding 100 MPH top speeds; coasters with 14 inversion, coasters that spin both freely and powered. Car designs like never before. Layouts that were once only the creations of teenagers on programs like NoLimits are being translated into real life. Not since the early-early 20th century (like 1900-1914) has there been growth like this in amusements.


Like any other fandom, being a pessimist or highly critical is something that people will find makes them look different or exceedingly intelligent. The way in which we interact on the internet also places a real value on the ability to generate web traffic. Getting "clicks" becomes a goal in and of itself; constructive thought isn't necessary. Rhetoric and emotional appeals matter a lot when it comes to media, and constant negative energy seems to be great at pulling in return visitors ready to feast on a buffet of depression and rage. In the world of theme parks, nothing generates traffic to begin with like Disney, with Universal well behind. This isn't inside baseball: there's probably as many Disney sites and Facebook groups as there are dedicated to all the regional parks combined. That's the power of that brand. Anyone who doesn't cover them primarily is going to have a serious challenge covering server costs, much less garnering a paycheck from theme park content.

Why am I saying all this? Because talking about how terrible and bad things are is encouraged by the way that we reward people on the internet with attention and money. Spend any amount of time on Youtube looking at things that interest people under the age of 50, and you'll invariably be directed to watch Ben Shapiro "destroying" some debate opposition, or the Angry Video Game Nerd playing crappy video games with special effects backing it. We enjoy watching someone else get dunked on, and the social media age provides the opportunity for anyone to dunk on anything without any barriers to entry. Paralyzed by a lack of meaning in any other facet of their lives, the cottage industry of hating but intaking mass media seems to grow endlessly with ever louder and more intense takes being required to take market share.

The volume of this expansion is unprecedented, and it is unlikely to ever occur again in the lifetimes of any living people due to demography. It isn't hiding: it is incredibly obvious and well documented by global theme park fans. In this world - the Disney park fandom - to admit that there is a world outside Disney and a universe of things to explore is to admit that the basis of its exceptionalism for where the negativity is derived is a lie. After all, to say that this is the low point is to say that we've descended significantly from a peak; this appeal to exceptionalism is an argument for tradition and nostalgia. Without that exceptionalism being reinforced, the would-be champions of righteousness would likely lose large segments of the audience that validates them entirely.

It is of the utmost important to never, ever suggest to the audience that what they are doing is inherently a waste of time. The audience wants reinforcement: "tough love" is OK, "no/less love" is unacceptable. Since the audience sources the critics in this instance, many are true believers themselves unwilling to self-examine their relationship to the parks. Doubling down on a lie is often easier than admission of the truth both from the perspective of what generates viewership as well as what makes their own lives easier. It is ultimately up to the audience itself to expand their awareness and seek out new and better media.

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