06 Theme Parks & Media Conglomerates

Please, submit your reading response by March 14, 4 pm (24 hrs before class) based on the following readings by Davis and Sorkin:

Davis, Susan G., “Another World: Theme Parks and Nature.” In Spectacular Nature: Corporate Culture and the Sea World Experience, 19-39. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

Sorkin, Michael. “See you in Disneyland.” In Variations on a Theme Park: The New American City and the End of Public Space, 205-232. 1st ed. New York: Hill and Wang, 1992.

This reading is now optional: Frantz, Douglas, and Catherine Collins. “Prologue,” “The Cult of the Mouse, “Back to the Future” and “Citizen Disney.” In Celebration, U.S.A.: Living in Disney’s Brave New Town, 5-81. 1st Owl Books ed. New York: Henry Holt & Co., 2000.

12 responses to “06 Theme Parks & Media Conglomerates

  1. Anish Gonchigar

    As the majority of Sorkin’s piece seemed to relay common academic sentiments about Disney’s theme parks—particularly with respect to the amplification of reality and popular preferences for the Disney duplicate above the original—I found his ideas about architectural symbolism most interesting. Sorkin began by discussing the ubiquitousness that new urbanism (essentially the International Style) had achieved over the course of the 20th century. The author references Le Corbusier, an architect who had intended to counter the grunge of the post-industrial city with his clean lines and unapologetic use of the color white. However, Le Corbusier’s legacy brought his buildings a much different meaning: “Le Corbusier’s vision has become the icon of alienation…reincarnated as faceless urban renewal and bland 1960s downtowns.” (212) Sorkin argues that Disney’s designers sought to compensate for the damage caused by Le Corbusier with their decidedly bright, expressive, ungeometric and irrationalist structures. Celebration, Florida echoes this idea. Though the town is devoid of the same hyperreal imagery of Disneyland, its architecture is a self-conscious statement against the International Style blandness of other US cities.

    Davis’ article brought interesting social considerations to the topic of Seaworld and other ‘nature themed parks’. In today’s culture, the popular fascination with nature has had a massive influence, from entertainment to education. However, Davis argues that the importance and value of such ‘nature entertainment’ varies by class and race. Though I know very little about this topic, and I am not familiar with the quantitative data behind these claims, I find it very interesting that something as seemingly universal as ‘nature’ has been ingrained differently between different sections of society.

  2. Sorkin’s article sets up Disneyland as a place “based upon and dedicated to the ideals, the dreams and the hard facts that have created America” (206). He focuses on the antigeographical space created by Disney which mirrors television. There is an emphasis on movement and transience. Its visitors travel in and out of the park, and shuffle about different miniature worlds within Disneyland. The park is meant to evoke a garden city as an “escape valve or release from the tension and overcrowding of the old city” (212). However, this garden city is accomplished with the use of rails, as “nature is appearance, machine is reality” (223). Disney transforms “The industrial army” into “a vast leisure army, sacrificing nothing in regimentation and discipline as it consumes its Taylorized fun” (223). When other companies bought up the land surrounding Disneyland, Sorkin places equal emphasis on the disappointment of lost capital and of its disorder which “sull[ies Disney’s] vision by a sea of sleaze” (224). Sorkin does not seem to view Disney’s desire to house its workers as an incarnation of greedy company towns meant to steal back pay from the employees, but as a desire for control of his dream. While Sorkin admits that “a man in a mouse costume is a more genial image of dehumination than a prole in chains,” Sorkin believes it is more for the sake of Disney’s dream of cleanliness than a tyrannical leadership. Overall, I think Sorkin give too much credit to Disney and his “dream.”

    On the other hand, Davis is much more cynical than Sorkin. While Sorkin does mention the capitalist reasons for the start of Disneyland, Davis pushes this aspect of theme parks where 90 percent of attendance went to corporately owned chains in 1995. Sea World is an anomaly for its parent company’s “lack of major media holdings and Hollywood connections” (26). Instead, there is a heavy reliance on Shamu, “the trademarked killer whale, which is also a licensed image, park logo, and corporate icon” (27). Nature is a commodity at Sea World and a cultural construction according to Davis, acting as “a common, human currency for representing ideas about that life as society and culture…of the rightness and inevitability of the world as known.” It is even “invoked to justify family structures, sexual orderings, and racial and imperial hierarchies” (31). The “pay-one-price” admission fees and accessibility exclusive to cars “limited the access of the amusement park [to the] younger and poorer audience” (23). Davis attacks “commercial recreation, amusement parks and World’s Fairs” as being “racially segregated,” with displays that “carefully connected leisure to the basic lesson of white superiority and American imperialism” (20). However, there are times when Davis seems to take her cynicism too far. Perhaps I am being stubbornly naïve or too focused on the modern day, but I personally feel that calling zoos “illustrations of racial inferiority and difference” is too exaggerated. I mostly think of the primate house where monkeys and apes from different cultures are contained in one space, opposing Davis’s accusation of zoos being merely a geopolitical map. Again, perhaps it is merely my naivety or maybe I myself am being too sensitive, but to say “Although other theme parks in California use dress codes and profiles to discourage the presence of ‘gang members’ [whereas] the people who run Sea World do not do anything active to keep ethnic minorities out of the park,” Davis appears to be the one making the racist connection herself. Do “white Southern Californians” really view “the presence of minority youths in groups” as indicative of a “gang” (38)? While Davis seems more realistic than Sorkin, I feel she cries wolf a little too much for her article to be fully believable.

  3. Sorkin writes that theme parks contain a sort of spacelessness in them that both obscures and reinforces hierarchies, sidestepping the way a traditional city is “embedded in the ways [its] elements are juxtaposed” (xii). The model for Disneyland is to place the entire complex on a platform, so that the messiness of the infrastructure can be hidden from sight and manipulated from underground. This highly regulated vision of urbanism comes to stand in for the real thing. The Disney Corporation in this way sanitizes the complexities of city life through surveillance, homogenization, and creation of synthetic spectacles. Similarly, in Seaworld, the vast, simulated ocean scenes designed to make visitors feel in touch with nature begin to stand in for the real ocean, both commodifying and replacing the natural world.

    What I found most disturbing in the discussions of Disney and Seaworld is the co-opting of urban public space by corporate conglomerations. Similar to the way that private malls have come to stand in for a democratic public realm, theme parks appropriate a cultural and natural world for their own commercial purposes. Disney, or Anheuser-Busch can structure entertainment and social relations both, producing entertainment in a realm of complete control. Sorkin makes the interesting observation that in such environments, surveillance becomes internalized as visitors, “acquiescent,” (231) police themselves. I wonder whether Sorkin’s rather dire predictions that Disneyland can be a stand in for future models of urban development is a true one. Massive new urban centers throughout the world do to some extent hand over public space to corporate identities, disintegrating public governance. A kind of homogeneity spreads as private enterprises spread globally, making one urban center appear very similar to the next. I agree with Sorkin’s point that “as spatiality ebbs, so does intimacy,” to the extent that the models of development, promoting automobile fueled interactions, parcel off individuals into their car-capsules, eliminating the sort of random street-level human interaction that could add vibrancy and stimulation to city life. The other characteristics Sorkin mentions, such as simulated realities and consumption of the city as a spectacle, however, seem in some ways particular to wealthier nations, who can afford to sweep some of the more complicated parts of urban life under the carpet and out of sight.

  4. anya ventura

    Like Sorkin’s explication of Disneyland, Davis traces the construction of the nature theme park as partly a response to the uglier aspects of urbanization – and like Disneyland, this theme park environment is situated at both a spatial and economic remove from the working class masses of the industrial city. Any sense of disorder (and any hints of the carnivalesque) have been hidden or erased in this controlled environment built for the rising middle class. As Anish mentioned, the emotional appreciation of nature then constitutes a form of social capital, where a privileged experience at Sea World affirms one’s identity as a “caring, sensitive, and educated” person. What I find most troubling about this idea is how Sea World imposes a particular relationship with nature: it defines our way of knowing and encountering nature, and in turn, offers a prescriptive model for engagement. With the “consumption as an expression of civic action” other, perhaps more meaningful, kinds of ecological action are sublimated. As Davis later writes: “Sea World’s spectacle of nature provides more anesthesia than challenges for the serious spectacle and environmental problems of daily life” (75).

  5. Michael Price

    Sorkin describes the architectural logic of Disneyland as being precisely that of the garden city- a radial plan to accomodate foot traffic supplemented by various technological forms of transportation that can also bring pedestrians out to their cars in the ‘sea of parking’ that surrounds the enterprise. He raises a contradiction related to this and to Disneyland’s relationship to LA: As a model of the ‘garden city’ in the tradition of world’s fairs/theme parks as speculative full-scale architectural models, Disneyland presents itself as an alternative to the automobile-centric Los Angeles. But, as Sorkin says “Disneyland less redeems LA than inverts it” (p.218), and I find his examples (only walking to be able to ride, waiting in line as a traffic jam, riding in cars indoors in the center of our garden city) really clever and accurate. I would probably have a hard time accepting Disneyland as a legitimate exploration of an alternative to anything, really, given it’s sort of central and privileged place in culture.

    I also find myself in agreement with Sorkin’s characterization of the “urbanism of Disneyland” as “precisely the urbanism of universal equivalence” (217). As an “intensely serviced node on a modern network of global reach” Disneyland seems to depend on the characterization of travel as the traversal of these nodes, allowing any to become a destination. This supports the inherent logic of juxtaposition that Sorkin ascribes to the theme park as well as the experience of watching television.

    On the other hand, in the context of theming, Davis emphasizes the ‘experiential homogeneity’ stressed by the theme park (p.24). She quotes a theme park designer as saying “in the final analysis everyone views the design of the theme as a complete unit in which all elements, major and minor, work together in a harmonious relationship. This means keeping contradictions to an absolute minimum”. If we can argue that a major theme of Disneyland is motion/circulation/travel then this seems quite applicable. I am really interested in what this means in particular for Sea World- this description of a theme seems to embody the park or corporation as a sort of organism. It seems appropriate that the theming of nature itself would assume such a form and rationale. Perhaps this is one of the factors enabling Sea World in its attempt to “connect with the long tradition of adventurous exposure of the sensitive self to nature” (32)

  6. Ashley Adams

    Sprouting from the substantially examined literature on the use of theming by Disney Corporation, Davis in his article investigates another mega theme park – Sea World. Looking at the corporations theming strategies and exploitation of the human connections with nature, Davis compares and contrasts the financial ambitions of such big-named theme park corporations. Though similar in use of Disney’s basal concept of the “‘themed environment’, the fully designed, highly coordinated ‘land’ with all services, performances, and concessions designed and provided in-house’, Sea World interestingly differs in that here, the corporation lacks a tie in Hollywood and the mass media.
    In Disney it was this “conglomeration” of corporational aspirations with the media – their virtual themed environment – that jump started their fame and mass attendance to its physical themed environment. The carefully controlled, endless streaming of animations and short commercials blended together to create a virtual world of miniature Disney, functioned to give a teasing taster of the “real” physical Disneyland. In recent years, the Disney channel as a themed environment in itself, has grown to become an immense empire of controlled theming via virtual means. Ranging from “family friendly” drama shows such as “Hannah Montannah” and “That’s So Raven”, to “parent approved” singing groups such as the Jonas Brothers and Miley Cyrus, the Disney channel experience is not only full of feel good delusions, but of strictly controlled surveillance aimed to please the authoritative, money-wielding figures – the target consumers for their main physical themed environment named Disneyland. This self-sustained virtual themed environment works independently as well as in combination with the physical themed environment to intensify the mega-theming corporation’s commercial enterprise.
    Thus, it is very interesting to see the immense success of Sea World, and the other Anheuser-Busch company run theme parks, when considering this corporation lacks such augmentation by a virtual themed environment. But as Davis comments in his article, Anheuser-Busch instead “carefully cultivate(s) nature as the theme park”s central story”, and subset themed environment. Sea World, using marketable theming strategies such as caricaturizing a killer whale and fore-fronting “leading” environmental research, successfully creates their interpretation of a secondary, augmenting themed environment that they initially lacked. Though not as secondary as Disney’s virtual themed environment, Sea World’s attempt sets itself as a subset of the overarching themed environment of Sea World. Though barely distinguishable, due to their very close associations and complete transparency toward one another, Sea World still carries both the technology fabricated “amusement” oriented themed environment, traditionally found in other theme park formats, as well as this distinct sub-setting, ideology fabricated “education” oriented themed environment. This is why in Sea World we can find both the technology oriented thrill rides, as well as the more education oriented research centers all in one “land”. Yet, again, this distinction is made non-differentiable with the existence of performances such as the various sea lion, dolphin, and Shamu shows, which all blend together both elements of the “amusement” oriented and “education” oriented themed environment.

  7. Sarah Rovang

    All three of the pieces for this week pick up on a topic that was touched upon during our Coney Island discussion last week – the relation of themed environments to race and class.

    Frantz and Collins’ rather open-minded reading of Celebration uncovers a community that is designed by virtue of the various housing models available to appeal to a range of income brackets. Yet, the intensive lottery process required to acquire a residence in the town and the inflated land and construction prices, along with the host of construction and stylistic strictures regulating the aesthetics of the homes renders “diversity” little more than a formula, calculated real estate costs and paint colors. It might be Furthermore, Celebration seems to function as a kind of social insulation – the residents of Celebration have access to their own designer school outside of the lamentable Florida public school system, their own hospital, even their own set of one-of-a-kind boutique stores. At the core of Celebration’s sanitized diversity (ranging from middle class to upper class) is the belief that the future of the American town is in its past (Frantz & Collins, 64). Is communing with some mutually imagined American past perhaps a marker of class?

    In Davis’ analysis of Seaworld, the author posits that the interaction with nature advertised by the park is a way of shoring up middle class (and particularly white) values – it “revises the quasi-religious nineteenth-century tradition of nature as self-discovery and gives the domination of nature a gentle, civilized face” (Davis 35). Touching dolphins or manta rays becomes a way of reaffirming dominion over animals while at the same time conveying one’s interest in conservation and the environment. It does not seem unreasonable to hypothesize that perhaps “touching the past” performs a similar semantic operation – connecting to a middle class past in Celebration becomes a way of reifying current social status and position. Sorkin’s incisive critique of Disneyland and Disneyworld pays special attention to the ordering properties of these spaces: “In the space of capital, circulation is politics: its foregrounding at places like Disneyland is analogous to the barrierless vision of free trade that sparked the fairs of the nineteenth century” (Sorkin 221). By understanding how we move in spaces like Disneyland, we better comprehend where we fit into a larger social order. When we navigate its multifold times and spaces, from Frontier Town to Mainstreet USA, we learn our place through a process of self-ing and other-ing.

    Another parallel that one might draw between Seaworld and Celebration is that both developments represent the efforts of their parent companies (Anheuser-Busch and Disney) to shift their brand image in another direction. For Anheuser-Busch, Seaworld becomes a way to move away from a corporate image focused on the production of cheap beer and to mitigate public concerns about environmental practices. Seaworld is a kind of redemption. Celebration, by contrast, is not so much about brand changing as it is about brand-expanding – no longer relegated to the temporary escapism afforded by Disneyland and Disneyworld, Disney has through Celebration become a way of life!

    As we begin our discussion this week, I would like us to keep in mind which parties are entitled to the Disney way of life, or to the revisionist theming of Seaworld. Who is implicitly permitted or denied admittance? What new sort of communities are forged by these artificial environments?

  8. Sorkin argues that by visiting the park, that the choice of Disneyland as a destination shows the preference of the themed (fake) environment over the authentic. Like Sorkin describes, “Disneyland is just like the world, only better” (216). In stating this, Sorkin implies that the authentic is no longer valued in comparison to the recreation, which is false. Yes, perhaps people do go to see Disneyland’s Main Street because it is a Utopian rendition of real Main Streets across the nation. However, it is not because the visitors had a craving to visit a main street that they choose to go to Disneyland. The choice to visit Disneyland is for the entertainment and rides, not for satisfying a need to visit an exotic locale; the themed areas are not the purpose of the trip as a substitute, but merely a perk that adds to the experience of entertainment of exploring the space. I find it hard to believe that people actually make a conscious comparison and decision between visiting the real French Quarter or Disneyland, and choose the latter due to convenience or even because they find it to be an improved version. The themed areas of Disneyland are not a substitute for their real-life counterparts, nor are they a replacement; their lack of authenticity already precludes them from that option, as no matter how realistic their Lilliputian cities appear, in the end they remain as false urban landscapes without real residents. Their perfect state renders them only as different interpretation that serve as a secondary factor in the visitors’ decision of attending the park. This applies to all other amusement parks as well: Sea World recreates a controlled version of nature, one that propagates a specific cultural message to its audience. The similarities behind the two parks means the argument remains: people visit the park, but that choice isn’t because they prefer the fake version to the real, but perhaps because it serves as a convenient alternative. Do the attendees still value the real ocean? Do the attendees understand the difference between the sea and the large glass pools in Sea World? Most definitely. That does not mean they would choose to visit the former, and that does not mean that the chosen destination is more valuable.

  9. Sorry, the above comment was from my other WordPress acc. for another class!
    And there is a typo- please disregard the last sentence of my previous post and insert this instead:
    So although they choose to go to Sea World, it is not for an experience they value better than the authentic. Especially with Sea World, perhaps their reasoning follows Davis’ cultural and social arguments for attendance more than any real preference.

  10. I’m fascinated by the internal economy described by Sorkin in his chapter on Disney’s theme parks. At one point, he writes about how Disney World’s toll booths delimit the boundaries between monetary zones: within the park, guests can pay with “Disney Dollars,” which are exchangeable with U.S. dollars one-to-one. Although they don’t confer any advantages, the Disney Dollars “concretize and differentiate the experience of exchange and boost the counterfeit aura of foreign-ness” (Sorkin 223). The function of this currency is therefore to reinforce a fantasy that convinces the customer s/he has entered a separate domain that proves to be better than reality. However, as Sorkin makes clear, Disney World was indeed in many ways its own sovereignty.

    Before he died, Walt Disney negotiated concessions from Florida that assured his park the freedom to organize its own forms of policing, taxation, and administration, and additionally exempted it from environmental controls (Sorkin 225). In other words, Disney World is a virtual city-state. Sorkin invokes the example of Singapore, another city-state, to illustrate the parallels between the two (Sorkin 220). Disney World and Singapore rely on a profound degree of regulation–which some describe as authoritarian–to sustain the efficient and hygienic ideal that both embody and which their “citizens” so enjoy. The driverless people-mover exemplifies this “economic fantasy of perfect self-government,” wherein people learn to control their own behavior. We effectively naturalize surveillance and security measures as a way of life.

    Disneyzone reflected reality in ways beyond sovereignty and regulatory control. It also reproduced a stratified structure of social relations in which visitors retreated to hostelries segmented by class. Davis writes at length about the intersections of class and race in her analysis of Sea World. She perforates the “inevitability” of certain social arrangements organized around established notions of nature, especially in terms of socioeconomic hierarchies. By using the racial distribution of visitors as her entry point (“Anglo” and “non-Anglo”), Davis unpacks race and class within the context of Sea World’s manufacturing of spectacular nature. She writes, “Appreciation of a separate, aesthetic version of nature suppressed awareness of class exploitation and was used to distinguish people from each other and normalize the differences between them” (Davis 31). As Davis explains, this logic justified the expansion of the gentry’s property rights as well as conferred upon the monied classes a degree of cultural capital that further distinguished them from their working class counterparts. Sea World wasn’t merely financially prohibitive. That its visitors were proportionately whiter than those of Disneyland’s or Six Flags’ betrays the sense of entitlement the former had to nature, however contrived. That is, their white privilege.

  11. While Sorkin talks about Disney Land, Davis talks about Sea World. Through different venues, they give an example of artificially modified and controlled theme parks that gained enormous popularity after the Coney Island. Davis gives the Sea World as an example of a “private production of visions of nature(p.19).” Similarly, Sorkin states that Disneyland is a “highly regulated, completely synthetic vision [which] provides a simplified, sanitized experience(208),” he goes on to say that Disneyland offers “a view of alien nature, edited, a better version, a kind of sublime(210).” This section made me wonder what some of the key elements are that go into consideration when simplifying a real place/experience so that it would become even more real than the real experience.
    In Davis’s text “Another World,” he makes several interesting observations about the contemporary theme park and the social characteristic of Sea World. Firstly, he emphasizes the cross-promotional characteristic of Sea World and their relationship with sponsors. The mother company of Sea World, Anheuser-Busch, which produce beer including Budweiser and other snack foods, uses Sea World to create a certain image for their products. He states, “the company uses the theme park as an environment for its messages.(p.29)” This is an interesting aspect of the theme park that we haven’t examined in depth in class yet, and it would be interesting to talk about if other places such as museums, or parks, that we have talked about so far, employ this technique of cross-cultural promotion in the contemporary world. The writer points out that at the Sea World theme parks, “advertising, marketing, and public relations are so thoroughly part of the landscape that they are collapsed into entertainment and recreation, until it is very hard to tell what is publicity and what is “just fun.” In my opinion, this is true in many different parts of advertising in the contemporary world, where publicity often is fun to leave impressions on customers.
    Another interesting question Davis poses is “how does nature work as a commodity in the late twentieth century?(30)” It is intriguing to think about the change in the perception of nature from the late twentieth century in the time we live in now, and what that means for the future of theme parks that have “themed” controlled natural environments. The association between caring for nature and the experience of nature as a chance for self-discovery is also a very curious one, and I wondered if that perception has changed at all in the world we live in today. This is very relevant with what Sorkin says when he states “the reversion to the natural would have a salutary effect on human nature itself.(212)” As essential as nature always seems to have been to people with its psychological effects, it is definitely worthwhile to spend some time thinking about the importance of nature and what the global warming means to us today.
    In Sorkin’s text, “See you in Disneyland,” the idea of Disneyland as a “utopia of transience(231),” is also notable. He places a lot of emphasis on the role of mobility in the theme parks and how that also can be observed as applied in airports. What kind of significance does mobility have on more static places like libraries then? Or parks, where people are expected to perhaps move at a slower place to enjoy nature?

  12. Ned Myerberg

    I found Sorkin’s linking of television and Disneyland really interesting, characterizing both as “anti-geographical space[s]”. Disneyland seems to be one of the first spaces that finds its origins in a two-dimensional medium. Where Coney Island found inspiration in the urban environment, drawing upon the modern metropolis’ power to stimulate and disorient the individual, and intensified it, Disneyland finds its inspiration in a place that never was: the animated fairytale. Rather than have any past or contemporary reality serve as its referent, Disneyland finds its muse in the anti-geographical realm of story, fantasy, and the human imagination. If Coney Island acted as a kind of test-ground for Manhattan, how might the Disney theme park layout influence the American city? Times Square in Manhattan has already been called a “Disneyfied” urban space, but what exactly does this mean? A sanitized, themed consumer environment that sweeps signs of urban ills under the carpet and disguises labor as a kind of “play”? As we see in Sorkin, a place like Disney World is only possible because it rests atop an unseen underground where the instruments of labor (nearly hidden above ground) are visible. By erasing the evidence of the effort put into its construction, the themed environment springs upon its visitor as something that already is, inevitable, almost “natural.” Might this have something to do with the extremely low crime rates have theme parks? If the theme park is so successful in eradicating many of the ills of the urban experience how might these same principles be applied to the city? What are the consequences of the thematization or Disneyfication of the urban space?

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