Theme Park Design: Using Discovery as a Theme

I propose the second most influential themes used in theme park design is discovery. From singular attractions to entire theme parks, discovery is used as a guiding theme and guiding principle across multiple themed entertainment and ‘edutainment’ guest experience.

How then can theme park designers and theme park architects harness the innate human trait and power of ‘discovery’ in their designs for new theme parks? 

The concept of ‘discovery’ has long been a prominent theme in storytelling, with its roots stretching back to ancient myths and legends. The theme of discovery revolves around the journey of characters as they encounter new knowledge, unexplored territories, or hidden truths. This theme adds depth and excitement to narratives, captivating audiences by igniting their sense of curiosity and wonder.

We will further explore the use and effectiveness of ‘discovery’ and why and how it can be used effectively in theme park designs.

Table of Contents

  • Discovery Definition
  • Discovery Theme: Cast Studies
  • Discovery Theme: Informing the Architectural Design
  • Discovery Theme: Use in Theme Parks and Amusement Parks
  • Discovery Theme: Conclusion
Epcot Japan Area Development
Japan Pavilion – World Showcase, Epcot

Discovery as a Theme in Theme Park Design

Discovery Definition

When ‘discovery’ is used as a theme in storytelling, it refers to the central idea or concept around which the narrative revolves. In this context, ‘discovery’ represents the act or process of uncovering something previously unknown, hidden, or unexplored. It involves characters embarking on a journey of exploration, encountering new knowledge, or unraveling hidden truths, which often leads to personal growth or a shift in their understanding of themselves or the world around them.

As a theme, ‘discovery’ adds depth and intrigue to a story, capturing the audience’s attention and fueling their sense of curiosity. It can manifest in various forms, such as physical exploration of new places, the discovery of inner strengths and weaknesses, or the unveiling of secrets or mysteries.

Discovery often involves a sense of wonder, excitement, and anticipation as characters navigate unfamiliar territories, encounter unexpected challenges, or make transformative realizations. It can introduce tension, conflict, and a desire for knowledge, driving the narrative forward and creating a dynamic and engaging storyline.

The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

While not explicitly about storytelling, this quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson emphasizes the idea of discovery and purpose in life. Stories often revolve around characters finding their purpose, making a difference, and leaving a lasting impact, embodying the essence of discovery in their journeys.

Morocco Pavilion – World Showcase, Epcot

Discovery Theme: Case Studies

Here are some notable examples in famous literary works noting their use of ‘discovery’ as a theme in storytelling. It is self-evident that several of these original literary works have been turned into theme park attractions.

“Robinson Crusoe” by Daniel Defoe

Published in 1719, “Robinson Crusoe” is a classic novel that epitomizes the theme of discovery. The story follows the titular character, who becomes stranded on a remote island after a shipwreck. As Crusoe learns to survive and adapt to his surroundings, the narrative explores the themes of self-discovery, exploration, and the triumph of the human spirit in the face of adversity.

In “Robinson Crusoe,” the theme of discovery is intricately woven into the protagonist’s physical and emotional journey. The narrative highlights the transformative power of exploration and self-reliance, ultimately emphasizing the significance of personal discovery as a means of growth and survival.

“Jurassic Park” by Michael Crichton

First published in 1990, “Jurassic Park” takes readers on a thrilling adventure where the theme of discovery intersects with the perils of scientific experimentation. The story revolves around a theme park filled with genetically resurrected dinosaurs, showcasing both the wonder and dangers that arise from humanity’s pursuit of knowledge and control.

“Jurassic Park” explores the consequences of mankind’s desire for discovery and the ethical implications of pushing boundaries. The narrative delves into the concept of scientific discovery gone awry, prompting readers to question the limits of human intervention and the potential repercussions of uncovering hidden knowledge.

“Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” by Lewis Carroll

Lewis Carroll’s timeless masterpiece, published in 1865, takes readers on a whimsical journey through a world of surrealism and absurdity. Through Alice’s encounters with eccentric characters and bizarre situations, the story delves into the theme of self-discovery and the exploration of one’s identity.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” serves as a prime example of how the theme of discovery can be used to examine personal growth and self-realization. Alice’s journey through Wonderland symbolizes her search for meaning and understanding, ultimately leading her to discover the strength and resilience within herself.

“The Odyssey” by Homer

Considered one of the greatest epic poems of ancient Greece, “The Odyssey” narrates the decade-long odyssey of the Greek hero Odysseus as he attempts to return home after the Trojan War. The theme of discovery is prevalent throughout the poem, as Odysseus encounters mythical creatures, navigates treacherous waters, and overcomes numerous challenges.

“The Odyssey” showcases the transformative power of discovery, both in terms of external exploration and internal self-discovery. Odysseus’ journey allows him to develop resilience, wisdom, and a deeper understanding of his own identity, highlighting the profound impact that the theme of discovery can have on a character’s development.

The theme of discovery has been a significant and compelling aspect of storytelling throughout history. From classic novels to contemporary works, narratives that explore the concept of discovery offer audiences a profound and engaging journey. These stories not only entertain but also provide insights into the human condition, the pursuit of knowledge, and the transformative power of self-discovery.

Neuschwanstein Castle in scenic German mountains
Neuschwanstein Castle, Germany

Discovery Theme: Informing the Architectural Design

The use of the theme ‘discovery’ in storytelling is a powerful tool that adds depth, excitement, and emotional resonance to narratives. Here are a few additional aspects to consider:

  1. Arc of Transformation: The theme of ‘discovery’ often aligns with a character’s or a themed building’s story arc of transformation. Through their journey of exploration and self-discovery, characters undergo personal growth or themed environments can convey advancement, and evolve as individuals or as a themed narrative. This transformation can range from overcoming fears and limitations to embracing newfound strengths and perspectives. In the built environment the design aids in the arc of the story’s transformation they intend the Guest experiencing the environment to have.
  2. Narrative Tension: ‘Discovery’ introduces narrative tension by creating a sense of anticipation and suspense. As characters or theme park Guests embark on quests for knowledge or encounter unexpected revelations, readers or viewers become emotionally invested in the story. The desire to uncover secrets, solve mysteries, or witness characters’ personal revelations drives the plot forward, sustaining engagement and curiosity.
  3. External and Internal Discovery: ‘Discovery’ can occur on multiple levels. External discovery involves Guests exploring new places, unearthing hidden or new facts, or venturing into unknown territories. Internal discovery, on the other hand, focuses on characters uncovering deeper truths about themselves, their identities, or their relationships. The interplay between these two forms of discovery can provide rich layers of storytelling.
  4. Themes of Curiosity and Wonder: ‘Discovery’ is closely intertwined with curiosity and wonder, fueling the sense of awe and fascination in storytelling. Curiosity drives characters to question the world around them, leading to unexpected revelations and driving the narrative forward. This theme encourages audiences to reflect on their own sense of wonder and the endless possibilities of the unknown.
  5. Uncovering Universal Truths: ‘Discovery’ in storytelling often serves as a vehicle for exploring universal truths about human nature, society, or the human condition. As characters navigate their journeys of discovery, they confront dilemmas, moral choices, or philosophical questions that resonate with readers or viewers. The theme can provoke introspection, offer insights, or challenge preconceived notions, fostering a deeper connection between the audience and the story.
  6. Metaphorical and Symbolic Representations: ‘Discovery’ can be represented metaphorically or symbolically in storytelling. It may take the form of a physical journey, symbolizing an inner exploration or a quest for knowledge. For example, characters navigating a maze or embarking on a mythical voyage may parallel their internal search for truth or personal understanding.

Suggested reading on books about theme park design.

Epcot Spaceship Earth Attraction Exterior at sunset
Spaceship Earth Geosphere, Epcot

Discovery Theme: Use In Theme Parks and Amusement Parks

I believe the best use of Discovery as a theme in theme parks is Epcot. Discovery is the ultimate, overarching theme guiding the various supporting stories that binds the park together.

At Epcot, the theme of discovery comes in many forms and many sub-narratives. There is discovery experienced by learning about the past history of humans and how technology plays a role in future innovations.

There is discovery in the form of human culture, where Guests can discovery new human narratives told and shared through art, music, language, rituals, food, etc. from countries around the world. While all of these characteristics vary greatly across multiple cultures, it asks Guests to think about how similar we are regardless of our cultural differences.

Epcot incorporates a broad use of the theme of discovery as the guiding storyline for the park. Like most great theme parks, they take one concept, one theme, and broadcast it across multiple forms and in places Guests may not initially realize. From tertiary features as discovery through various foods and beverage, to how one ‘discovers’ new things throughout even the various types of merchandise, shows, entertainment offerings, festivals, and so on.

Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood.”
Daniel H. Burnham

The architectural design of discovery as the guiding principle of Epcot reinforces this theme and acts as a solidified backdrop to the story. From innovative and challenging futuristic architecture that challenges conventional structural confines, as with the Geosphere, or the highly detailed and culturally significant temple in the Japan pavilion. Each ‘style’ of architecture utilized reinforces, in a static manner that buildings and placemaking can, their version of ‘discovery’ as it relates to the sub-story at each venue’s location.

Epcot’s architectural design, and placemaking in between, successfully informs the Guests about the theme of Epcot. In three-dimensional form, the discovery narrative utilized at Epcot is arguably one of the most successful of any theme park in the world. Highly detailed and high innovative architecture is provided to reinforce that venue’s version of ‘discovery’.

One cannot imagine, for example, how unsuccessful a theme park would be if they are telling the story of discovery as it relates to Morocco, if the architecture was a metal box with a mere sign on the outside. The story and themeing would fall apart before the first Guest entered the building. Even worse, can you imagine convey the angle of innovation and technology as a means of discovery if the icon of the theme park at first glance did not embody this narrative? These are the fine details that separate theme parks from amusement parks and why I’m passionate about the proper use of the two different terms that mistakenly get crossed utilized in the mainstream media.

Discovery Theme: Conclusion

In summary, the theme of ‘discovery’ in storytelling is a multifaceted element that drives character development, narrative tension, and thematic exploration. It evokes curiosity, wonder, and emotional engagement, allowing audiences to vicariously experience the joy, challenges, and transformative power of exploration and self-discovery. Whether through external or internal journeys, ‘discovery’ in storytelling captivates readers or viewers, resonating with their own yearning for knowledge and personal growth.

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