Theme Park Design: Balancing Nostalgia vs. Innovation

Remember that time we…..

As July 4thapproaches, it’s not difficult to feel patriotic and a little bit nostalgic as we, here in the United States, celebrate our 243rdbirthday. Recently, I find myself feeling even more nostalgic as a result of several recent events. 

Recommended reading about theme park design and history.

My impetus of nostalgic thoughts started recently on a business trip, with my wife, back to California. On this trip we did many things, however we were able to visit Disneyland and the new Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge land. It’s not difficult feeling nostalgic when you walk down Main Street USA at Disneyland. That feeling of ‘Walt walked here’ always finds its way into my thoughts whenever I return to Disneyland.

Dreaming Tree Barn – Marceline, MO

The second wave of nostalgia also surfaced in California when my wife and I were reminiscing about our travels out West back in 2017. During that adventure, in 2017, we made our way through and spent some time in Marceline, Missouri. While in Marceline, we visited the Walt Disney Hometown Museum, Walt’s boyhood home and Dreaming Tree Barn, and Marceline’s real-life “Main Street USA” that inspired Walt Disney. All a must-see for true Disney fans. 

Walt Disney Hometown Museum – Marceline, MO

The third wave of nostalgic thoughts evolved after our return from California when my brother, my sister-in-law, and my niece visited the Kings Island Amusement Park, near Cincinnati, Ohio. Kings Island was a stomping ground for my brother and I during our childhood prior to our family moving to Florida in the 1980’s. My brother’s family trip to Kings Island was a first for my niece and I couldn’t help reminiscing about my childhood memories upon hearing about my niece riding their core (nostalgic) attractions such as ‘The Beast’ roller coaster for the first time.

The final wave of nostalgic memories rose to the surface as a byproduct of the first three waves when I remembered that my first trip to Walt Disney World was in the summer of the bi-centennial year 1976, near the Fourth of July timeframe. This of course, set off a whole wave of memories of visiting Walt Disney World during my childhood, my young adult years, and ending in my later years being a Walt Disney Imagineer. 

For me, having this many nostalgic thoughts at once is not common. I’m the type of individual that’s forward thinking and always contemplating how future design, including theme park design, can be improved. While I believe we should remember and respect the past and use it as a guide to improve the future; I personally embrace change and do not want to live in the past.

A Nostalgic Foundation

As a result of all this reminiscing, the question that entered my mind is how can ‘nostalgia’ and ‘innovation’ as design elements coexist in theme park design? I believe each should be a part of an existing theme park’s design. The question going forward: what is the right balance of these two elements that should be included in the recipe to make theme park design successful? 

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines ‘nostalgia’ as: wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition.So, what does ‘nostalgia’ mean exactly with respect to theme parks? 

In my opinion, nostalgia embodies the memories created as children (or for first time adult visitors) while visiting theme parks. Like myself, these are the childhood or past memories of your favorite moments riding or experiencing attractions, shows, time spent at the hotel pool, etc. These are memories of the sights, the smells, the food, the people from other places you encounter, and maybe even a specific weather event encountered during memorable visits to theme parks.

Mr. Toads Wild Ride – Magic Kingdom

When I think of nostalgia in theme park design, I tend to focus on either year one attractions or Guest experiences built in the first decade of a theme park’s timeline. These are the early, core attractions and shows that are iconic and specific to a theme park, i.e. ‘The Beast’ roller coaster at Kings Island or ‘Peter Pan’s Flight’ at the Magic Kingdom. These are attractions that have been experienced by multiple generations of Guests due to their pedigree.

So, why are nostalgic elements important to successful theme park design? I believe iconic (nostalgic) attractions and shows in theme parks are the basis and foundation for the making of a good theme park. These are tried and tested Guest experiences that are beloved, are experienced countless number of times by multiple generations of families. Like a favorite movie, these are the go-to elements that never seem to get old regardless of how many times they have been viewed. These are the ingredients in the theme park recipe upon which all the other new ‘flavorful’ elements are built upon and mixed. 

Without the iconic base elements, the overall theme park recipe would not stand up to years of scrutiny, enjoyment, improvement, and the addition of new ingredients. The iconic attractions and shows are those which many adults experienced as a child and later in life found joy in bringing their children back to experience, as did my brother with my niece at Kings Island. These are the elements within theme parks in which horrid childhood pictures of us are taken, then laughed at later in life as adults. Iconic and nostalgic theme park design elements are the backdrop of millions of people’s childhood memories that should be maintained and mildly, but carefully, approved upon over the decades. 

An Innovative Future

The new technology that has been infused into theme park’s design over the past two decades is incredible. The technological backbone, research and development, and capital expenditure it takes to create fantastical and successful three-minute experiences is mind boggling. Using Orlando theme parks as an example, let’s reflect a moment on the advancement of attractions starting in 1999 with The Amazing Adventures of Spiderman attraction at Universal Orlando and ending with Disney’s Pandora-The World of Avatar. The Spiderman attraction, in 1999, was a leap in themed Guest experiences that created a wave of advancements in theme park attraction technology and increase of Guest expectations that over time Disney and others had to embrace, challenge, and build upon to be competitive.

Universal Studios Orlando

As a Theme Park Architect, it’s important to keep tabs on how innovation is shaping the future of theme park design. Why? Because Theme Park Architects will be required, as they have in the past, to coordinate and integrate new technology with known building systems to support and bring to fruition new shows and attractions. They are required to manage the integration and coordination of all the design disciplines it takes – often more than a hundred different design disciplines – to create successful and lasting theme park attractions and shows.

A successful Theme Park Architect should not only be distinctly familiar with iconic and nostalgic Guest experiences, and understand what special sauce they have that makes them timeless; but, theme park Architects should also have their hand on the pulse of innovation and an understanding of new technology that is flooding into the themed entertainment and theme park industry. Theme Park Architects, the plethora of engineers they will hire, and the numerous other design disciplines they need to manage will be required to understand how to marry new technology and with the new storylines being created.

Mr. Nostalgia Meet Mrs. Innovation

So, how do theme park operators, theme park designers and Theme Park Architects balance the mix of nostalgic attractions with new highly technological, innovative attractions? What is the secret recipe of classic vs. new Guest experiences that make for a successful theme park? In my opinion, I would say no one person or company has that answer. If I had the Colonel’s secret eleven ingredient recipe to this question, I would be a very wealthy man.

I’m of the opinion that each theme park and each theme park operator should evaluate this question on a park-by-park basis. I don’t agree what works in one park will easily transfer (cut and paste) into another park. For example, having a classic vs. new attraction mix at the Magic Kingdom isn’t going to work at the Animal Kingdom. Every theme park, regardless of the owner and operator, has its own focus, its own overarching theme that drives the park’s design and storyline, and its own personality that Guests are quite in tune with.

Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge

This question ultimately gets down to one thing; managing Guest expectations. Guests, for example, that visit Disneyland with their children expect to have the classic attractions they enjoyed when they were children, however, the same parents expect to have new attractions and shows using contemporary IP (intellectual property) their children are enjoying every afternoon on TV or that is playing on a screen in the headrest during a car ride going to the grocery store. 

The secondary point this topic reinforces is successful theme parks are really for the enjoyment for all ages, not just children. Walt Disney said, “Everybody in the world is once a child. We grow up, our personalities change. But in every one of us, something remains from our childhood.” 

Theme Park Architects and designers should not lose sight of this when designing new theme parks or expanding existing theme parks. They should remember that theme parks, at the end of the day, are experiences that should have a mix of the classic (a.k.a. nostalgic) and the new (a.k.a. innovative) that speak to and enthuse the child in all of us. I believe a great, new example of this (on both the micro and macro level) is the Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge (SW:GE) addition to both Disneyland and Disney’s Hollywood Studios. 

Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge – Disneyland

At the micro level, within the SW:GE land you have the successful mix of both the iconic, nostalgic Star Wars elements fans enjoyed as a child back in the 1970’s and 80’s. Features such as the Millennium Falcon, the Cantina with shady characters and Chewbacca running around coexist with new storylines and the new attraction technology as seen in the Millennium Falcon: Smuggler’s Run attraction. 

At the macro level, Disneyland (and soon Disney’s Hollywood Studios) has a mix of the classic Disney theme park elements, i.e. Main Street USA, the Tiki Room, and Pirates of the Caribbean attractions with the new, technologically advanced Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge land. 

This blend of nostalgic and innovative Guest experiences gives Guests of all ages something that is not only contemporary to their personal history but is a mix of attractions and shows that will be the foundation for new memories created by the next generation of Guests. 

Is Disneyland’s, and soon Disney’s Hollywood Studios, mix of nostalgic and new attractions the right blend that will make these theme parks successful in the years to come? I believe it is. Theme Park Architects and Disney Imagineers have amazing crystal balls and other tools to assist in predicting this outcome, but at the end of the day the Guests will truly have the final word.

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.
Scroll to Top