I have a problem. A theme park problem. A Disney theme park problem, to put an increasingly fine point on it. Over the course of my adult life I have attempted to indulge, rationalize and even outright deny this bizarre compulsion without any hope of reaching peace. When all else failed, I descended into the abyss of academia with the feeble hope that at the very least I could understand my ailment and potentially earn a meager living from doing so. This, of course left me with the question of how exactly I was to meet my fate. While generations of scholars have studied Disney’s media empire and representatives from every industry have emulated its design and management techniques, it struck me that looking through lens of infrastructure might illuminate both the parks themselves and, by (several) extension(s), theming as a contemporary cultural practice.
Why theme parks?
While the Walt Disney Company can not in good conscience be credited with the invention of the theme park, one would be justified in saying that it has done more to shape the modern industry than any other single organization. Attendance figures, earnings statements and comparisons of mass are well known, but for my purposes the more interesting description is a qualitative one. The terms “Disney” and “theme park” are nearly synonymous in the American public imagination, and as the company continues to set the de facto standards for design and management it is not unreasonable to consider the Mouse to be more or less representative of theme park industry. Before beginning our dissection, however, it is worth taking a step back to consider the appeal and importance (there, I said it) of theme parks in our historical moment.
As indicated by Scott A. Lukas et al in The Themed Space, and by Alan Bryman in The Disneyization of Society, theming is by no means limited to entertainment applications. While parks, dining and specialty retail are among the most visible instances of this practice, they are far from alone. Operating alongside these flagship examples are a host of other venues (transportation, small urban centers and cultural institutions, to name a few) which are far more numerous, yet tend to keep a much lower profile. Any investigation into theme parks is, from this perspective, an investigation into a principle around which many contemporary societies (not to mention economies) are organized.
Woefully unqualified as I am for such a discussion, however, my own interest in the topic is considerably more modest. As current scholarship on theme parks is dominated by social science and business inquiries, this project’s broader goal is to consider this material from the perspective of Media Studies. I see this approach as being particularly valuable given the interest in convergence and fan studies on the part of media scholars, as the Disney parks are known to foster engagement across a variety of media formats, which helps to facilitate robust fan communities. Investigating theme parks through an infrastructural lens will, I hope, complement the two dominant modes of inquiry by providing a critical space in which the consideration of human interactions coexists with that of the economic and industrial forces with which they are entangled. When applied to the material and communicative foundations that allow these myriad entities to interact, methods of analysis common in Media Studies will render in gory detail the steaming innards of the hyper-convergent consumption fest that is a typical Disney Parks visit.
Forgettable as it may seem at first glance, infrastructure contributes quite actively to any theme park experience (though it is often unclear exactly how intentional this contribution may be). While this topic goes far beyond the scope of a humble research blog, we can at least begin to orient ourselves by looking at the Walt Disney Company’s enduring relationship to infrastructure. It would be an understatement to say that the designers, fabricators and day-to-day personnel at the various Disney properties are interested in the subject. From the number and variety of transportation systems given feature roles in attractions (among them: Autopia, the Disneyland/World Railroads, the Rivers of America, the PeopleMover . . . the list goes on), to the massive urban design and planning initiative that guided the development of EPCOT, infrastructure has been both an explicit and implicit concern at every Disney resort since its inception. Not to be left out, the individuals and organizations that interact with Disney have also made the subject a matter of concern. If the ever-growing collection of behind-the-scenes and advisory programming (from both official and unofficial sources) is anything to go by, Disney Parks infrastructure assumes the enviably slippery form of a black box with fuzzy edges whose lid never quite closes. This series of will begin to parse this complex identity by exploring three topics: boundaries, attraction design and crowd control. While specific research questions will be posed in the introduction of each post, at the moment it is sufficient to say that all will attempt to use infrastructure to illuminate aspects of Disney resort operations that are less directly visible, and to offer some explanation for how this shapes (and is shaped by) both convergence and fan activities.
Sources and Methods (How am I going to pull off this stunt?)
This is a research blog. Come on. My methods and sources for this project are (appropriately) fairly informal and somewhat unconventional. While traditional scholarly sources will of course inform my research, and those will be dealt with accordingly as various posts are spun off into more substantial projects, this series will for the most part concern itself with material collected -and intended to facilitate operations- at the parks (it may be helpful to think of this as something of a field guide). Analysis will be structured around firsthand observations from site visits too numerous to list here (to start with: a combined 6 visits to both US resorts within the last 16 months). These observations will be supplemented by productions from various Disney Parks fan communities (in the form of fan websites and b/vlogs), as this content provides an interesting balance between onsite documentation and after-the-fact commentary. A different, though no less informative, perspective will be provided by the official and semi-official communications produced or sanctioned by the Disney company, a category which includes visitor documents (resort websites, brochures, etc) and outside media coverage (both traditional journalism and entertainment-oriented documentary content).
This lovely mess of a series will serve as the foundation for what will, I hope, be a rather nice ongoing research project. With the Disney resorts as a model, later installments will use a similar approach to make inferences about other major theme park brands, the industry as a whole, and (very) eventually the societies in which they are embedded.
Bryman, Alan. The Disneyization of Society. London: Sage Publications, 2004.
Lukas, Scott A. ed. The Themed Space: Locating Culture, Nation, and Self. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2007.