Guest Post by Danielle K. Kelly
In today’s haze of banks too big to fail and the record store as an endangered species, there is something to be said about the economic impact of the recession on another industry: amusement parks. Whether witnessing the closure of Wild Rivers in Irvine, CA or the closure of Astroland at Brooklyn’s Coney Island, one is left to ponder: Where have the holy grails of thrill-seeking gone? In asking this question, we should know that recent economic and cultural shifts have posed ever-changing hurdles for the historic amusement industry. Yes, historic. Parks have been around for nearly five centuries, withstanding the industrial revolution, both world wars and the Great Depression, so it’s hard to imagine the extinction of this enterprise. The first amusement park was created in 1583 in a town called Bakken, just north of Copenhagen, and for centuries thereafter societies indulged in the permanent fair that amusement parks have provided.
Fun Without a Name
However, the past two centuries have given us a split in the genre: that of the amusement park versus the theme park. While a theme park is distinguished by having various ‘lands,’ each devoted to telling a particular story, an amusement park is a less structured collection of attractions.
This divide between amusement and theme parks began to grow in the mid-1800’s. Britain’s scenic, curiosity-themed Blackgang Chine park on the Isle of Wight opened in 1843, while our own country’s Coney Island launched the nautically themed Sea Lion Park in 1895. It was the inception of Anahiem’s Disneyland theme park in the 1950’s, though, that caused the new format to explode and become more profitable than its amusement-centric predecessor. Though Santa Claus Town in Indiana and Knott’s Berry Farm in southern California preceded the mouse house, Walt Disney’s budding hegemony defined the modern financial approach to amusement parks.
Cash for Coasters
As in any industry, amusement parks are highly reliant on cash flow, and not just from the wallets of the masses. The current model for amusement and theme park production is based on funding from corporations — for example, after two years of hanging in the balance, Universal Studios has finally greenlit its new Korean theme park and resort with the help of additional investment from Lotte, a major conglomerate based in Korea and Japan.
The corporate route is not the sole model for creating a park; however, it is the most lucrative one. Family-owned theme parks have become rare and more of a novelty, thriving in specific hotbeds like the northeastern United States (especially Pennsylvania). Without the lunchboxes, movies, action figures and other franchise hooks in the water, these smaller parks are at a material disadvantage – not just in terms of dollars, but also in terms of fans.
The Brand Name Game
Yet, the creativity of these family-owned underdogs has not been compromised, as shown by the United Kingdom’s especially successful franchise, Gulliver’s Kingdom Trilogy. This family-owned entity has expanded its brand into two other parks, Gulliver’s World and Gulliver’s Land, and it continues to develop new innovative elements its flagship park.
The Gulliver chain and its corporate counterparts are thus seeking out new themes and developments to make their own. In attempts to keep up with new parks like Incheon, Korea’s new Robot Land, park owners are in the race to evolve with the market and create innovative, kitschy, or resort features to better distinguish themselves. Whether it be Gulliver’s recently established Eco-Park, Disney’s addition of California Adventure or the U.K.’s Wildwood’s grant for the Endangered Species Centre, changing names and building out is now the game.
Although household names like Disney and Six Flags are a part of America’s DNA, the stage for amusement has grown gone global. Last year, international conglomerates dominated the U.S. parks market, while American companies kept their sights abroad. Disney is building a new park in Shanghai, and Universal’s Korean super park and resort — equipped with movie theme park, water park, resort, golf course and condominiums — will begin construction in Seoul.
On U.S. soil, Village Roadshow, an Australian franchise, opened one of the only new American parks last year: the Wet ‘n’ Wild water bonanza in Phoenix, Arizona. In another sign of the reverse flow of new parks, the transformation of Cypress Gardens in Florida to Legoland resulted from a takeover of the park by the U.K.’s Merlin Entertainment. Meanwhile, places like Coney Island have become dilapidated meccas of a once-flourishing public amusement culture – in 2009 we also bade farewell to Chicago’s Kiddieland and Seattle’s Fun Forest Amusement Park.
So what has become of Walley World, anyway? It’s likely that Marty Moose has been unplugged during construction while Walley is abroad expanding the park franchise. Please visit again soon!
Credits: Information for this article was taken from Leisure Management, Amusement Today, Attractions Management, The Korea Herald, and wikipedia.org. Additional thanks to the editor, James Boo, and Jeremy Ross for these references and insightful conversation.