Do You Know the Difference Between Amusement Parks and Theme Parks?

From the 16th Century European pleasure gardens to modern day theme parks, the evolution of places of amusement we visit to escape our everyday lives, has changed dramatically.

Amusement Park at Night
Amusement Park Ferris Wheel at Night

Amusement Parks vs. Theme Parks

Many people often incorrectly interchange the words “amusement park” and “theme park”. What’s the difference you ask? It’s very simple to remember; all theme parks are amusement parks, but not all amusement parks are theme parks.

Still confused? Let me explain. 

An amusement park is defined as a park that offers visitors various attractions such as rides, games, shows, or other forms of entertainment.

Theme parks can offer all the things that amusement parks offer, but the differentiating factor is theme parks base all of their assets (attractions) around a central, well defined unifying theme that can have multiple sub-themes underneath the guiding principle or ‘theme’ of the park.

While amusement parks may have notions of underlying themes or stories that drive their design, and can be located in beautiful settings, theme parks take those design principles to the extreme where the visitor or guest is immersed into a unifying ‘theme’.

One common element found in amusement parks and theme parks, however, is the range of attractions or offerings they provide that are suitable for multiple age groups.

Amusement parks have been around much longer than theme parks. Amusement parks evolved out of European pleasure gardens, picnic areas, and traveling carnivals and fairs dating back as early as the 12thCentury Middle Ages in Europe.

Luna Park, Coney Island, N.Y. circa 1905
Luna Park. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress circa 1905.

Recommended reading to learn more about theme park history!

A Brief History of Amusement Parks

History tells us the oldest amusement park is ‘Bakken’ in Denmark, which dates back to the 16thCentury. The more ‘modern’ amusement parks are the combinations of stationary fairs, pleasure gardens, and world’s fairs popular in 19thCentury Europe. These were places for large audiences to see attractions that often are associated with traveling circuses, such as menageries, acrobatics, freak shows, etc.

The Industrial Revolution, the introduction of machinery, and the advent of electricity would forever change amusement parks and transform them into the modern iteration as we know them today.

The introduction of new Victorian era technologies and reduced working hours for the working class, allowed for fixed or stationary mechanical rides, such as roller coasters and carousels, to become more prevalent and available in amusement parks.

In the United States, the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition was the catalyst for the modern amusement park in North America. It was at the Columbian Exposition that the birth of the ‘midway’ was born which showcased shooting arcades and games of chance.

Modern Era Amusement Parks

As the 20thCentury came around, and as the world began to heal itself from the first World War, amusement parks evolved with larger attractions, bigger roller coasters, and larger thrills. As the wide range use of electricity began to illuminate cities and extend the operating hours of amusement parks into the evening hours; transforming the feel of these day parks into something even more magical at night.

The Golden Age of amusement parks is often attributed to the 1920’s. As the Great Depression in the 1930’s and World War II in the 1940’s affected the sentiment of the population and ignited a migration of the U.S. population from the city centers to the suburbs, urban amusement parks began to see a decline in attendance.

By the 1950’s and 1960’s many of the urban, Golden Age amusement parks fell into disarray or became victims of mass fires and low attendance.

Maine's Old Orchard Beach Amusement Park
Maine’s Old Orchard Beach Amusement Park. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress circa 1946.

Modern Era Theme Parks

Theme parks, on the other hand, are a relatively new iteration of the old amusement parks. Theme parks, in the United States, have their origins dating back to the 1940’s, with Santa Claus Land, which opened in 1946, being attributed by most as America’s first theme park.

Other, regional family owned theme parks would begin to pop up in the U.S. in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Some with lasting success to the modern day, others succumbing to hard times during economic downturns. 

Disneyland Entry Sign
Image courtesy of the Library of Congress circa 1980

A Farm Boy Named Walt Would Change Everything

The landscape and future of the theme park industry would forever change, however, on July 17, 1955 when Walt Disney opened Disneyland.

Walt created a separate company from his film studio, eventually named Walt Disney Imagineering, that was a storehouse of unique designers and craftsmen that helped bring Disneyland to fruition. Walt’s designers would eventually become to be known as ‘Imagineers’. Disney’s Imagineers created the overarching theme and design that bound Disneyland and the sub-themes or ‘lands’ which all worked within the guiding storyline.

Walt’s vision and advancement of the unified storyline that binds a theme park was inspired by his early visits to Griffith Park in California.

Walt Disney’s vision quickly evolved theme park’s use of technology and storytelling, in a safe and clean environment, to a whole new level. In Walt’s theme parks, Guests were completely whisked away from the ordinary, real world and immersed into multiple storylines that were unified by a clearly defined theme and concept.

Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge Planet Batuu
Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge – Disney Hollywood Studios

Today, amusement parks and theme parks are opening up and continue to operate around the world. With iconic brands such as Six Flags, Sea World, Busch Gardens, Universal Studios, Warner Brothers and Ferrari World; the days of the old pleasure gardens with side show freaks dazzling audiences are seemingly a thing of the past.

Today’s amusement parks and theme parks are multibillion-dollar immersive environments of entertainment that utilize and often create some of the most advanced technology for modern guest experiences.

Related Articles

About the Author

J. Daniel Jenkins, RA, NCARB, LEED AP is a licensed Architect, a published author, a former Walt Disney Imagineer, and former theme park and themed entertainment design consultant with over twenty four years of Commercial + Themed Entertainment design, design management, and A&E subject matter expertise. Jenkins’ themed entertainment experience includes projects in: the Magic Kingdom Fantasyland Expansion, the Disney’s Hollywood Studios Expansion, and Universal’s new Epic Unvierse theme park. Currently, Jenkins is President | Owner of Holihoon Media LLC, and is also the Founder | Chief Editor of who’s goal is to teach individuals about theme park architecture, engineering, and design, how to become theme park architects and designers, and discuss themed entertainment centric topics and travel from an insider’s persepctive.

Scroll to Top