Are We Having Fun Yet?
Amusement parks, crowd control, and load-balancing
Pay for play
The news that Disneyland Paris is now selling Fast Passes — a skip-the-line ticket — for about $10 per person per ride has theme park watchers debating whether this is the destiny of all Disney parks and, if so, what it means for the future of theme parks.
You may not care about this, but the creation, maintenance, and operation of immersive built environments is an old art form with enormous cultural significance and few practitioners. The curious pleasures of an immersive built environment go back at least as far as the Sun King’s palace at Versailles and the winding path of built environments from elite follies to mass entertainment runs in parallel to the changing currents in populism, commodification, and participation.
The urge to immerse yourself in a virtual world is as old as the first tale told before the first fire. Today it finds itself expressed in a myriad of ways, from LARPs (live-action role-plays) to escape rooms and virtual-reality worlds to multiplayer games, but the Disney theme parks (and their most ambitious competitors, including Holland’s Efteling Park and the global Universal Studios parks) are literally the most concrete expression of this deep human desire.
An escape from the fun factory
The usual Disney theme park origin story starts with Walt Disney sitting on the bench beside the Griffith Park merry-go-round, bored out of his mind while his young daughters went around and around. At that moment, Walt was struck by a bolt of inspiration: Why not create a public amusement place where kids and parents could share experiences?
This story is probably true, but it’s the wrong entry point to the tale, decades too late to understand the origins of Disneyland. For that, you need to understand Walt’s own journey from overnight success to abject failure, from redemption to brooding prisoner of his own success.
Walt Disney was a genuine animation pioneer. After messing around with live-action and animation hybrids, Walt had his first animated success in Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, a Mickey-esque character whose popularity triggered a land grab by Disney’s distributor…