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Ferris wheel without visitors

On July 17, 1955, 11,000 exclusive guests were admitted to a small amusement park in Anaheim, California. It contained four specifically themed areas and a total of eight rides and attractions. Within ten weeks, it had become a host to one million visitors, and the ultimate travel destination for anyone from American families to global leaders.

Today, more than 60 years later, Disneyland not only contains a total of 83 attractions that bring in 44,000 people a day, but has a dozen sister parks all over the world. In that time, it inspired the creation and growth of not just most major amusement parks, including Six Flags, Busch Gardens and Sea World, but massive technological innovation, in everything from 3-D technology to vehicle tires. And the changes aren’t over.

Technology is not the only thing that has moved forward since the dawn of amusement parks — the real idea and look of what they are has drastically changed, and continues to do so. How? It is has become incredibly, ridiculously, and perhaps unfortunately more commercial. Let me explain. Our culture revolves largely around movies, television, written works, music and other forms of branded entertainment. It is understandable that our fascination with such things has driven amusement parks like Disney and Universal, which showcase such entertainment, to the forefront of popularity. From today’s viewpoint, the idea of making rides, simulations, and various attractions out of the flood of entertainment we consume is pretty obvious. It’s a clear, genius way to rake in the money. But it differs pretty heavily from what amusement parks used to look like.

Throughout history, fairs and pleasure gardens have been very popular; they are places of small food, live entertainment and small rides. But the idea of a “fixed” amusement park didn’t come until the world’s fairs of the 19th century, mentioned Sarra Sedghi, in an article for Paste magazine. These introduced both the standard idea of amusement parks as we know them today, as well as some of their most famous attractions; the ferris wheel, for one.

As amusement parks increased in popularity and abundance, the rides became more numerous — the carousel, bumper cars, and most popularly, the roller coaster. The coaster drove the majority of the technological advancement for parks, such as the eventual use of steel instead of metal, in order to be big, fast and thrilling. They didn’t have stories, or characters, really — they didn’t need them.

This is all changing. The older way of thinking is gradually being taken over by the idea of parks centered around corporate branding. Current parks are being gradually changed or abandoned, to suit the new, more popular model, and most new parks on the horizon are based around branded entertainment. For instance, King’s Island, a park that for decades consisted of basic steel or wooden roller coasters and classic carnival attractions, eventually gave in, and added in a section centered around the world of “Peanuts,” most likely to try to beat Disney and Universal at their own game.

According to a CNN article and Stefan Zwanger, a theme park expert and enthusiast known as “The Theme Park Guy,” several movie studios have at one time or another planned their own parks. Warner Brothers, MGM, 20th Century Fox and Paramount were all listed.

Upon further research, I learned that they had not gone well. WB built several, but none met much success. After being bought by Disney, Fox remains uncertain as to whether the park will become a reality, due to licensing disagreements. The rest have been scrapped.

There are a couple of conclusions that can be drawn from this. One is that perhaps we have reached the limit of how much we can bare the way pop culture surrounds us, and hints that perhaps we may see a revival of older parks, the way we have of vinyl records and older fashions of clothing. I doubt it. What I see is that our love of branded entertainment and pop culture has raised its expectations, which will only prompt even further mass branding by these companies, which will in turn cause our love of and expectations for their products to rise. It is a cycle that will not end until we are able to step back from the branding and commercialism that surrounds us.

Advertisements and corporate monetization are everywhere. The amusement parks are just one example. Yes, the fact that you can ride a roller coaster with stormtroopers or Harry Potter is awesome, but at a certain point, we begin to lose other things. The relentless stream of marketing and branding in our lives doesn’t give us time to just have something for that something’s sake, and it also prevents the potential for originality and imagination. Some of the coolest parks in the world have no branding whatsoever. In Cancun, Mexico, Xcaret is a massive park celebrating the nature and culture of its country, in a combined zoo, water park and historical site. And there is something to be said, I think, for a roller coaster that just has some great drops, turns and loops, without it being a larger-than-life commercial.