UA-140396414-1Theme Park – Theme Park Architect

Theme Park

What is a Theme Park?

Theme parks can offer all the experiences 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. In short form; all theme parks are amusement parks, but amusement parks are not theme parks. 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’, concept or story.

  • Theme Parks can vary in size and while offering a variety of themed: areas, food and beverage offerings, merchandise stores, etc.
  • Theme Parks typically have one unifying concept or theme that is a guide for all the supporting themes or stories contained within the park.
  • Theme Parks usually offer a variety of attractions and shows that target multiple age brackets and demographics of their Guests.

Understanding Theme Parks

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. 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.

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. 

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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.

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 Terms

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About the Author J. Daniel Jenkins, AIA, NCARB is a licensed Architect, Theme Park Design Consultant, and former Senior Project Design Manager at Walt Disney Imagineering with over twenty years of subject matter expertise and design team leadership experience. Jenkins is the creator of themeparkarchitect.com who's goal is to teach individuals about theme park architecture and design, how to become theme park architects and designers, and discuss themed entertainment industry related topics. For nearly a decade, Mr. Jenkins has worked in the themed entertainment industry on new themed entertainment attractions, theme park lands, and new theme parks. Upon leaving Walt Disney Imagineering, Jenkins started his own Design Management Consulting company where he has consulted with and provided subject matter expertise and project leadership for new, confidential projects for several themed entertainment companies. Mr. Jenkins holds a five-year Master of Architecture degree from the Savannah College of Art and Design and a Virtual Design and Construction Certificate from Stanford University.
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