Monday, November 11, 2019

THEME PARK BOOK CORNER: The American Amusement Park Industry… by Judith A. Adams

I opened the blog up with a review of the first history told of the Amusement industry from William Mangels, and this, the second review, is essentially of the spiritual successor. Released in 1991, Adams book is still the closest thing we have to a contemporary analysis of the industry over 20 years onward. The timing of her book was fortuitous: arriving at the death of many traditional parks and at the point in which the regional themers were becoming entrenched and maturing, she writes of an industry much different from that seen in the 50s. Also, because her book is more recent, it is easier to point out flaws or inconsistencies, something that Mangels’ text and its near biblical importance to future researchers doesn’t have.

Adams’ preface describes the book’s three most formative themes: the importance of the 1893 Columbian Expo in Chicago, the reliance on the “future utopian” ideal, and the effect of societal change on the industry. Theme one and two are effectively tied at the hip given the “White City” of the Columbian Expo. The third part, while it is touched on at times, does not get to heavily leaned on. If anything, Adams is more open to looking at social critique rather than change either enacted by or affecting amusements.

Like Mangels’ book, Adams looks at the early history of European amusements. In fact, the information is largely the same as what you’d have read in Mangels’ book, probably because their source material was identical. Adams does diverge a little and spends significant time with the Bartholomew Fair, considering it a predecessor to the future pleasure gardens like Vauxhall. She’s also a little more in-depth than Mangels’ surface reading of the history, offering price lists and talking on the mechanized “animatronic” like creatures of the long since wiped out London tea garden “Jenny’s Whim.” She also briefly explores the history of two attraction styles that have ultimately gathered the most admirers and club followers – the roller coaster and the carousel.
This leads into her exploration of the 1893 World’s Fair, which turns out to be largely critical. The Columbian Exposition brought the world the concept of the midway, birthed the first truly great Ferris Wheel, featured monumental structures, and left the world a small lake and the Museum of Science and Industry. There were great negatives too; Adams spends significant time with detractors of the event. Everyone from early socialist Edward Bellamy to Frederick Douglass is trotted out with their critiques of the event, most of which being entirely valid. There are inconsistencies though. Adams presents Rob W. Rydell’s idea that the Midway Plaisance was designed in such a way that “less developed” cultures were positioned further away from the “White City” main exhibitions than European ones, however a cursory look at the event map proves this untrue. Still pointing at details like that does not entirely invalidate what is stated, and this proves to be more a setup for later chapters than anything.
We move forward to Coney and the idea of the close gated park, and this returns to being very similar to Mangels’ history of Coney Island detailed in the 1950s. Given that the book was written in 1991, we move forward into the then present, with Coney becoming a shell of itself, a fact she ascribes to subways carting in millions of guests anticipating amusements at low prices. This level of social commentary simply doesn’t do much analyzing, so she throws in demographic numbers showing a significant increase in the overall number of people living in both Brooklyn and New York City during Coney’s precipitous decline. Population increase seems a strange rationale behind why an amusement sector would start to have problems, and it comes to little surprise that demographics on race or income weren’t included.
From Coney, the author moves to an array of traditional amusement parks, most in the trolley park vein, and reviews the overall decline of the genre. As with the Coney chapter, a puzzling demographic set shows decreasing work hours and increased earnings over the time period where it is argued that the regional parks were in decline over…well…something. A number of things are described as changing with the fortunes of the parks early photos show gentile classes wearing their Sunday best aboard the side friction figure 8s of the day, for example. That camera equipment was limited and people looking their best were likely to be used for promo shots or postcards isn’t considered, at least in text. Also, an interesting note – many parks were apparently seriously reliant on income from games and brutally hurt by prohibition, though it is stated earlier in the same chapter that trolley parks prohibited alcohol and games of chance.
Almost nothing is said of wide-spread segregation, racism, or white flight to the suburbs in why the traditional parks died. Olympic Park, one of her examples, saw 40% of revenue come from games which were subsequently banned in the 1950s. That was also the same time period where the park was integrated. It closed in 1965. Riverview in Chicago has no mention of racial politics in the pages written on it except that “gang violence” led to the park’s rapid decline and closure. The lack of a public transport line once the 68 Trolley was cut from Kennywood is presented as a reason why it survived, and Crystal Beach’s racial riots during integration are ignored in her eulogy of the park. She does at least blame poor management for not reinvesting in the park. So where does she save her vitriol?
Ah, we arrive at Chapters 5 and 7 – Disneyland and Walt Disney World. So important, they get separated. The author opens with a short bio of Walt, followed by a description of Disneyland’s conception and what is honestly a bit of a loving, though tough, tribute to the park. Adams notes that Disney chose to glorify ordinary, common citizens vs. the 1893 Columbian Expo’s attempt to create a realm for aristocracy as well as giving people a chance to immerse themselves in the world they once only observed on televisions. Quoting John Hench, Disney sold reassurance. They engineered through control to promote optimism and counter act what she called “increasing doubt regarding faith in American ideals and with moral decay.” She does attempt to be even handed by noting that Main Street has no church and no school – civic rule and commercialism are in control, and growth (spiritual, mental, whatever) aren’t necessarily encouraged.
Disney World is hit much, much harder. Much time is spend describing the expense of constructing the project and the ways in which it was put together along with the design changes offered. Main Street USA in Orlando was built at full scale rather than 2/3s, with Gothic design rather than true Victorian, and with fiberglass, a fact that Adams decries strongly. She considers it overbearing and oppressive, and remarks that touching the buildings destroys the illusion. Further complaints for the Magic Kingdom include Space and Thunder Mountain existing (“not part of Walt’s vision”) and that Hall of Presidents is “too passive” and that visitors are seated too far for the robots to be effective.
EPCOT takes even more of a beating. Adams believes that the core issue with EPCOT is that while it surpasses any other World’s Fair at approaching technology socially, the attractions de-contextualize both history and technology, instead reducing both to nostalgia and magic respectively. World Showcase is a descendant of the 1893 Midway Plaisance, with the nations acting in similar “freakshow” fashion to the Streets of Cairo almost 90 years prior. Virtually every holy cow of the Disney blogosphere is slaughtered as she presents her concluding idea. Disney World, Adams states, is the Mecca of Consumerism. Reassurance is sold wholesale direct from the corporations to you.
Adams does also spend time on the regional theme park scene and does an overview/postscript at the end of the book that discusses future international theme park ventures. She concludes with assessment of demographic changes forthcoming to the US, suggests a future glutted with studio parks and indoor facilities (similar to the Family Entertainment Center idea of today), and looks back at Frank Wells’ predictions. Wells forecasted the growth of what he called “soft adventure” travel, shorter and more frequent vacations, and that 2nd tier cities in tourism would see growth like Cincinnati, Kansas City, Reno, and Charlotte. Yeah, Reno, KC, and Cinci didn’t really blow up, but he pretty much nailed the rest of that, didn’t he?
How does it read?: Adams is an actual academic and can write to save her life. She wrote things after this too. This book became a tome since the alternatives were terrible.
Will I learn anything?: Yes. You will undoubtedly learn things. I think Mangels’ book is cool, but if I wanted to look for a starting space to see critical analysis of amusement rides at some point, I’d go here and not to him. There’s some great background about the regional theme park industry circa late 1980s to read here and it can at least point you to more coherent Disney criticism, should you desire it.
Did you take anything away from this?:  You also think critically about the book and what she says, and that’s why you should read lots and lots of things if you really want to approach this subject. I don’t wholly agree with her conclusions, and I think some of the rationale is poor even when I do. I don’t think there’s an argument that Disney World isn’t a Mecca for consumerist activity, but I also think her conception of Disney World as some wholly different intended thing than Disneyland is completely off base and weakly supported. It comes across as emotional rather than rational and that hurts her overall point.
I think the one really good point that she makes in this book is about the comparison of Disney and the traditional park attractions of yore. Disney offered the exotic without the “sensuality and chaos” the old traditional parks did. One thing we’ve seen from Disney in the last decade or so is more of a push for things of a tactile nature; interactive queues are a great example. The classic Disney stuff saw the illusion carry through right up until touch occurred, and that’s where the older parks really shined. Stuff like fun houses are all about touch and feel. Disney is also relaxing some of the dress code stuff, which cuts into Richard Schickel’s criticism that they had a “maniacal desire to keep the eccentricities of individual expression…away from it’s door.” Perhaps that also describes the enduring popularity of Jungle Cruise, where individual expression makes the experience.

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