"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 15 August 2000. Updated every WEEKDAY.
Whee! The People



Like their signature attraction, roller coasters, amusement parks have years that serve as high points and other years that are definite lows. The hope is that momentum gained makes time pass quickly during the lows. And some years, like this one, the ride spins madly in a circle, forcing even the most careful observer to pause before stating with confidence where amusement parks stand. Are May congressional hearings resulting from last year's horror show of ride deaths a potential, unwelcome financial impediment for an industry operating on a thin margin of profitability, or are they a welcome federal intrusion into a confusing miasma of state regulations that allow certain lower-end businesses to give the entire industry a black eye? Should amusement park lovers celebrate the purchase of the Millennium Dome by a group wanting to turn it into a theme park, or disparage the billion-dollar failure the London skyline eyesore has been to date? Are positive reviews for the theme park formerly known as Euro-Disney the result of lowered expectations or savvy corporate re-tooling? By the time the questions are answered, the ride is over, and the next group of the approximately 500 million who visit amusement-type parks every year climbs on. One final question — with crowds like that, does anyone care?

The most significant moment of the year-to-date in amusement parks was entirely symbolic. The death of magician Doug Henning on 7 February cost the industry its patron saint of undeveloped properties. After a career helming hit Broadway pseudo-musicals, staging elaborately cheesy television specials, and providing Martin Short his easiest and most obvious target, Henning committed the vast majority of his last 15 years to a project that would daunt the third quarter hour of any televised biography: the development of Maharishi Veda Land, an amusement park devoted to the wisdom and learnings of Henning's personal choice of enlightened master. For the suburban children who grew up on Henning's muppet-like demeanor, the performer's fade from the showbiz spotlight combined the unsettling religious undertones of Cat Stevens with the entrepreneurial unctuousness of Ray Stevens. The occasional press release from Michael Jackson and Peter Gabriel aside, Henning's death makes it seem that much harder to see amusement parks as a unique creative outlet. If he had embraced the concept of Dougiewood, and targeted bus tours, Henning might have passed away in the confines of his own park.



As anyone unfortunate enough to make a formal study of pop culture surely learned, the history of amusment parks in the United States is the history of 20th century leisure. Drawn from the centuries-old European model of pleasure gardens, amusement parks got their American kickstart with the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, which introduced the Ferris Wheel. This combination of senses-altering thrill ride and picnic space was a proto-demographic dream team, appealing equally to urban and rural customers. The concept spread throughout the country in the first decades of the new century, with its greatest spawning ground in Pennsylvania and its crown jewel on Coney Island.

With humble beginnings as an attraction designed to draw business onto trolleys during the weekend, Coney Island's sprawling collection of parks and rides was example number one in the amusements industry's relationship with American modes of travel. What trolleys were to local parks, cars and airplanes became to the theme parks of the 20th Century's second half. Disneyland owed much of its early success to honeymoons and extended vacations in southern California made possible by cheaper air travel. The continuing growth of the interstate highway system made for the rise of regional parks — smaller than Disney, bigger than "Ted's Adventureland," as one's Main street now extended four or five hours in every direction. As anyone who ever walked the parking lot of a Disney World hotel can attest, drawing vacationing families to sweltering Florida during summer school breaks worked on a principle similar to the trolley park's hoped-for increase in off-day traffic. Although family trips to Disney parks would famously be compared to religious pilgrimages, these Meccas were more the creation of road projects and cheap airfare than of any commanding impulse.



Today amusement parks have the oppposite problem. When airline commercials extol the virtues of hopping an airplane to attend continuing education classes, people drive an hour and fifty minutes to work, and our living places are shrines to at-home leisure activity, amusement parks begin to lose their appeal as infrequent or even once in a lifetime events. Americans who portray themselves as leisure gourmets are more likely to view amusement parks as one item on the menu. Thus the importance of attractive theme and specific language and standards by which to judge new and improved thrill rides: the industry's "chef's specials." The good news is that amusement parks have a ten-decade, billion dollar headstart. They have no intention of relinquishing control over their portion of collective leisure time. Amusement parks continue to demand network television shares in a digital cable world.

To that end, amusement parks shamefully and straighfacedly mine nostalgia, the perpetual motion machine of American culture. Some overtly cater to the fan's sense of nostalgia on a ride by ride basis, offering old-style wooden track rollercoasters such as Kings Island's Racer in an overt attempt to duplicate the authenticity of the Coney Island experience. The smaller parks, the sad mini-midways that stand near water slides and go-kart tracks, add significant numbers to the industry's bottom line, offering thrills exactly the same as those experienced by one's grandfather, except for the terrifying creaks of the now-worn equipment. As long as it helps sell tickets, amusement parks will let you wallow in sentiment from your door to theirs: from the father who wants to replicate his childhood trip to Disney World complete with purple-faced screaming jag near Kentucky's Mammoth cave, to the slightly intoxicated teenager tearfully sauntering down the main strip at Cedar Point wishing he could exchange the crushing burdens of the post-puberty world for some imagined bliss of the eight-year-old. Add to that an industry that has decades of experience coming up with new ways to throw bodies around with relatively few necks broken, and the better parks should hold their audiences for years. The trick may be in keeping the smaller ones alive. If it hasn't happened already, expect those kinds of parks to be termed "alternative" by the same authenticity-seeking local scenesters who invaded supper clubs five years ago in search of a better martini.



Amusement parks adapt well to most strategies, such as nostalgia, because of the concept's mutability. As Edo McCullough pointed out in his seminal history Good Old Coney Island, its heyday was marked by the confluence of three parks and the nearby presence of barely-related entertainment venues, from horse racing to circus sideshows. If his book hadn't been written in 1957, McCullough could be describing Disney World's addition of theme parks and venues. Some, like Epcot, were a completion of Walt Disney's original plan and give the park its romantic center — the final project of a creative genius — and families a second reason to visit. But others, like the adult-oriented Pleasure Island, come from a savvy recognition of growing target audiences. The amusement parks industry is healthier for its failures and its second attempts. Where the bizarre indoor theme park Old Chicago failed as that city's culture transformed itself in the 1980s, Dixieland just might tap an audience down south — that is, depending on the quality of the rides.

The thought that with enough money one could turn swampland into an ongoing world's fair, or a Chicago warehouse into a symbol of its host city as it existed decades earlier, is as American a conception of space as has ever been given form. How American becomes obvious as the idea is exported and the eventual backwash influences other areas of public life. Disneyland Paris' comeback has more to do with bending assumed cultural expectations — such as the availability of wine — in a space that hasn't aged enough to earn them than with some inherent resentment towards the entertainment conglomerate. More tellingly, the heated resistance in Las Vegas by adults to the intrusion of amusement park elements in Sin City has as much to do with an unfortunate marriage of space as difficulties in indulging in evil behavior with kids around. Amusement parks disperse crowds to their offered pleasures, such as Disney World's anti-bottleneck paragon of boredom, Main Street USA, while casinos trap people near theirs, with lookalike hallways and obscured exits. Modern attractions such as San Francisco's Metreon should choose their model very carefully, not only because of the fire hazard but because of the exhaustion caused when you're trapped in the same room with that much packaged fun.

It is that conception of space, rather than corporate aggression or the cultural implications of replacing homegrown business with international brand-names, that is the key to understanding the much-criticized, unsettling, gaudy revitalization of city centers from New York to Indianapolis to Denver. As soon as one begins to see downtown as a focus for leisure activities rather than a place to do business, the better-presented rides start to replace the sideshow attractions. With big-name business shoved into industrial parks far away from downtown, the all but faceless work still downtown becomes as mysterious as the back hallways of Disneyworld. Lacking signs that say "Betsey Johnson" or "Niketown," buildings may not even visually register past the third or fourth floor. Every night ends in fireworks, historical displays from fish markets to plastic cattle embody industries that no longer exist, and at least one major city has voted on a big-time monorail. In the end, it's not the rollercoaster ride that gets to you, it's the exhaustion from all the hidden factors, the walking, the standing in line, that makes you less resistant to what comes next.

courtesy of 40th Street Black
picturesTerry Colon

40th Street Black