Theme Park Design: Using Nostalgia as a Theme

Quite possibly on of the most influential and powerful themes used in theme park design, nostalgia affects everyone but in different ways. One’s personal interpretation of nostalgia will vary greatly from Guest-to-Guest while visiting theme parks.

How then can theme park designers and theme park architects harness the emotional power of nostalgia in their designs for new theme parks? 

Let’s further explore the power of nostalgia and why it should be used carefully and strategically in theme park design.

Mr. Toad's Wild Ride at the Magic Kingdom Theme Park
Old Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride at the Magic Kingdom Theme Park – Walt Disney World

Using Nostalgia in Theme Park Design

Nostalgia Definition

The word ‘nostalgia’ is formed out of two Greek words, nostos – meaning return home, and algia – meaning longing. Per the author Svetlana Boym, in their book The Future of Nostalgia, nostalgia is “a longing for a home that no longer exists or has never existed. Nostalgia is a sentiment of loss and displacement, but it is also a romance with one’s own fantasy.” 

In essence, nostalgia is a psychological duality most humans experience, each to a different degree of intensity. Nostalgia is a ‘double exposure’ as Boym states, two different concepts that should never be mixed into a singular frame, i.e., past and present, home and abroad, and dream and everyday life. To combine the dual nature of nostalgia would in essence destroy the meaning of both. Rather, each is an important factor in the psychological pairing of two states.

It’s been stated nostalgia can have negative implications if used unwittingly in that nostalgia is “history without guilt” as Michael Kammen has stated. In this context, nostalgia is devoid of personal responsibility of the past, an idealized maybe even utopian view of the past where one only remembers or choses to feel only the positive or best of the past.

On the contrary, nostalgia as it relates to the present or future, can be conveyed as progress, or a progression, advancement, or improvement upon the past. Thus, the paradox of nostalgia, it is both the celebration of the familiar (past) while concurrently the longing for or can inform a better present or future. Per Boym:

Nostalgia is not always about the past; it can be retrospective but also prospective. Fantasies of the past determined by needs of the present have a direct impact on the realities of the future. Consideration of the future makes us take responsibility for our nostalgic tales.”

Nostalgia Theme: Case Study

Disneyland Main Street, USA Victorian Architecture

There are many examples of the use of nostalgia as a theme, or in many cases a sub-theme, in theme park design. The most notable example of this is prevalent in many of Disney’s ‘castle parks’ – Main Street, U.S.A. 

Per Disneyland’s website Main Street, U.S.A is a place to “Explore a Charming World Brimming with Turn-of-the Century Nostalgia.” Main Street is an idealized themed area designed to resemble – via varying styles of 19th and 20th Century Architecture – safe, bustling, and vibrant small towns across America much like that of Marceline, Missouri where Walt Disney spent several years of his youth and the place that inspired the placement of Main Street, U.S.A into many of Disney’s theme parks. In this example, Disney quite literally describes on its website the use of nostalgia they want their Guests to feel as they are entering several of their ‘castle parks’. Disney wants its Guests to feel and experience a happy and familiar recreation of the past that informs the Guest’s future day spent in their parks.

Main Street, U.S.A, like the concept of the nostalgia theme itself, is an idyllic representation of the past void of any grit, grime, and socio-political misgivings of times past. The nostalgic feeling being conveyed on Main Street is one where Guests experience an Americana rooted in simpler times, where the food is flavorful and effervescent, the candy extra sweet, the ‘townspeople’ are courteous and helpful, the music is fun and enlightening, the retail stores are bustling with unique merchandise, and the architecture is colorful, well maintained, highly detailed and indicative of the era.

The nostalgia of Main Street, the first themed area Guests experience upon entering the park’s gates, establishes the feeling and sets the stage for the remainder of the park. In this example, the nostalgia and the iconic greatness of the past informs and mentally prepares the Guests for a positive experience they will – by design – have in the remainder of the park’s themed lands. The nostalgia of Main Street is a portal that transforms the Guests from the mundane everyday world just beyond the entry gates into and – hopefully longing for – the world of make believe that lies beyond the end of Main Street, U.S.A.

Nostalgia Theme: Informing the Architectural Design

Main Street Marceline, Missouri
Plaque on Main Street Building in Marceline, Missouri

Using the case study of Disney’s Main Street, U.S.A, the timeframe of the architectural styles Disney’s Imagineers utilized is a unique era of American Architecture post-Civil War to pre-World War I. In American History, this is a period of reconstruction, rebuilding, the onset of the American Industrial Revolution, the age of new inventions – such as the electrification of towns and buildings – and the turn of the 20th Century where Victorian Architecture (Queen Anne, Gothic Revival, and Second Empire) was giving way to the early Arts and Crafts Era (Bungalow, Colonial Revival, Mission, Tudor Revival, Prairie, and Craftsmen). 

Click Here to Learn about the use of Discovery in Theme Park Design!

The heavy use of Victorian Architectural styles on Disney’s Main Street speaks to that style’s response to the universal desire for a new bold, highly detailed, and vigorous urban architecture inspired by great European cities such as Paris, that would give the young American cities a sense of place, belonging, rigidity, symmetrical balance and order, and a perceived sense of established history that was meant to transform the country and its citizens out of the past and war-torn history of the Civil War some thirty plus years prior.

Based on this, with respect to nostalgia, the idyllic and ‘best parts’ of the turn of the 20th Century Architecture (the past) is setting the stage for the Guests for the remainder of the theme park they are about to experience. 

Nostalgia Theme: Use In Other Theme Parks and Amusement Parks

Universal Orlando Daigon Alley Street Scene
Daigon Alley at Universal Studios Florida

Another example of nostalgia in theme park design can be seen in Universal Studios Hollywood, which has a section called “The Wizarding World of Harry Potter” which allows the visitors to immerse themselves into the magical world of Harry Potter, recreating the sets and experiences from the movies. Visitors can explore the village of Hogsmeade, visit Hogwarts castle, and even attend a wizarding class. The park’s use of nostalgia in the Harry Potter theme is a major draw for visitors, as it allows them to relive their favorite moments from the books and movies.

Nostalgia is a powerful theme in many of the world’s amusement parks and theme parks, particularly those that have been around for decades. For example, Knott’s Berry Farm in California, which opened in 1940, has a section called “Ghost Town” which is a recreation of a western town from the 1800s, complete with authentic western architecture and live action shows. The section evokes feelings of nostalgia by recreating a bygone era, and visitors can experience what it was like to live in the American West during the 1800s. The section also features live action shows, including a gunfight and a stagecoach ride, that adds to the immersive experience and allows visitors to feel like they have stepped back in time.

Peanuts Character at Knott's Berry Farm
Peanuts Charlie Brown and Snoopy Characters at Knott’s Berry Farm

Similarly, Six Flags Magic Mountain in California, which opened in 1971, has a section called “DC Universe” which is a recreation of the world of DC Comics, complete with rides and attractions based on popular DC characters such as Batman and Superman. The section is designed to evoke feelings of nostalgia by recreating the world of beloved comic book characters, and visitors can experience the thrill of their favorite superheroes. The section also features live action shows and interactive experiences, such as a 4D motion simulated ride that allows visitors to feel like they are flying alongside Superman.

These examples show how theme parks are using nostalgia as a theme to create an immersive and memorable experience for visitors. By recreating a bygone era or beloved characters, they tap into people’s nostalgia and allow them to relive fond memories or experience something new. Additionally, by adding interactive experiences and live action shows, theme parks can enhance the immersive experience and make it more memorable for visitors.

Nostalgia Theme: Conclusion

In conclusion, nostalgia is a powerful and popular theme in theme park design. It allows visitors to relive fond memories of their childhood, or to experience a simpler, more carefree era. Whether it’s the nostalgia of Main Street USA at Disneyland, the magic of Harry Potter at Universal Studios Hollywood, or the western frontier at Knott’s Berry Farm, theme parks are using nostalgia to create an immersive and memorable experience for visitors.

Related Articles:

Scroll to Top