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Protecting a Theme Park's Proverbial "Berm"
We Should Always Work to Preserve the Escape Inside the Experiences We Design
One of the first recorded “theme parks” opened as The Bartholomew Fair in 1133. Apparently, King Henry I was still grieving the death of his son and so agreed to a celebration proposed by his court jester in the hopes it would cheer him up.
As Stephen Silverman’s history book The Amusement Park puts it, “Over time, the annual three-day religious festival…transitioned into a two-week carnival, and then, at its peak, during the reign of Charles II, a three-week, seventeenth-century Coachella.”
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Sadly, in the 19th Century, it was the intrusion of the real world in the form of crime and riots that finally doomed this ancient theme park when in 1840 the local government officials “outlawed all shows, along with swings, roundabouts, and other mechanical rides.”
But not to worry, people are always looking for an escape—especially from the dirty and stinky streets of 19th Century Europe. And what better way to escape “The Great Stink” of Paris than a walk through a beautiful garden where you can smell the flowers.
And so, Tivoli was born with three different versions in Paris full of fun rides, slides, lights and even what one historian called a “naughty labyrinth” where guests could celebrate naked.
Eventually, the real world intruded upon these garden theme parks. First, it was the Terrors of the French Revolution that cost its first owner his head. Then it was soldiers from Napoleon’s army that trampled all the flower beds. By the middle of the 19th Century, it was closed for good.
Inspired by what he saw in Paris, a young press baron proposed to another European king the creation of gardens that would provide the residents of Copenhagen a place to flee the “violence and boisterousness of the town and relax in a sea of tranquility.”
Over its long history of 179 years, Tivoli has always fulfilled this original vision to be an escape from the travails of this world. In fact, Denmark’s Tivoli helped transform the theme park industry when in 1951 it hosted a visit by an American movie mogul by the name of Walt Disney. Those with Walt that day described him furiously taking notes as he strolled its walled grounds. When asked what he was doing, Walt replied: “I’m making notes of something I’ve always dreamed of…”
This dream became a reality in 1955 when the original Disneyland opened in Anaheim, California. And like the gardens of Tivoli, Walt intended to make his theme park an escape. “I don’t want the public to see the world they live in while they’re in the Park. I want them to feel they’re in another world.” To help create this world, Disney built a dirt mound about 5 meters tall around his new theme park. Today, we simply call it “The Berm.”
The berm, of course, is the term used in our industry to describe the physical and sometimes imaginary barrier we create between the outside world and the magical one we strive create inside our experiences. Why is the berm so important? Well, here’s how one Disney super fan described the impact of the berm for Inside the Magic:
“When people ask me why I continue to vacation at Disney, I often mention all of the things that the parks give me, all that I get out of them, and all of the memories made, but what can be even more meaningful is not what I gain, but what I shed. Fears, stress, insecurities. All of these can be left outside the berm.”
In 2022, we believe it is becoming increasingly difficult for theme parks to leave today’s world outside The Berm. Of course, technology can breach the berm through social media and the phones we each carry in our pockets. Today, we can’t even design an attraction or exhibit without talking about how it will look on Instagram. An editor at The Washington Post wrote a scathing review of the impact of Instagram on the experience inside museums. “What isn’t apparent on Instagram,” Emily Codik wrote about those taking pictures, “is the crush of humanity that results when everyone points their phone at a single object.”
These smart phones have also allowed theme parks to chip away at the berm by introducing the class system that exists in the real world into Fantasyland. In other words, if you have more money, you can pay hundreds of dollars so you don’t have to wait in line while visiting Batuu to fly the Millennium Falcon. A guest buying a Universal Express Pass recently posted a video on TikTok featuring her middle finger extended as she passed those poor unfortunate souls stuck in a long line:
“Hide the money y’all, there’s poor people around.”
So much for Walt’s berm!
One of the biggest news of the year in our industry is swirling around the Walt Disney Corporation and a new law in Florida. However, this controversary is simply the culmination of a long simmering cultural debate over the role of entertainment in politics and culture. Since May 2020, the NBA, Major League Baseball, NFL, Oscars and other big sports and entertainment programming have seen volatile ratings with big drops and tepid recoveries. The NFL has rebounded the most, but the ratings for its 2022 draft were down. And did you see its commissioner booed at the draft by fans? Even despite the famous “slap” this year, the Oscar ratings have seen the biggest declines. This is how The Hollywood Reporter put it:
“Despite the year-to-year improvements [from 2021 to 2022], though, Sunday’s Oscars will go down as the second-least-watched since Nielsen began tracking total viewers in the mid-1970s. Prior to last year, the audience had never fallen below 20 million viewers.”
To put those numbers in perspective, in 2020 before the pandemic, 23.6 million people watched the show. And in 1998 when Titanic won Best Picture, 55.3 million watched. Experts have given all kinds of reasons why the ratings are lower, but perhaps the comedian and actor Ricky Gervais got it right when he hosted the Golden Globes in January 2020 and said this:
“So if you do win an award tonight, don’t use it as a platform to make a political speech. You’re in no position to lecture the public about anything. You know nothing about the real world. Most of you spent less time in school than Greta Thunberg. So if you win, come up, accept your little award, thank your agent, and your God and #$@!%, OK?”
And while we are on the subject of the Oscars, there’s a new experience in Los Angeles called the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. I haven’t been yet, but loved this review in The Wrap by critic Benjamin Svetkey. Going into the museum, he was worried. You see, Benjamin loves movies. He’s a fan. But he worried that this new experience would become, as he wrote in an industry magazine that’s anything but conservative, “a shrine to white liberal guilt.” However, once inside, he was thrilled to find an experience about the Oscars that is actually about the movies.
“Nobody goes to a movie museum to have their consciousness raised. You go to see the animatronic shark that ate Robert Shaw in Steven Spielberg’s Jaws.”
And he saw the shark!
The professionals in our industry must take a stand to protect the berm from those who would inject too much technology and too much of the real world’s faults and politics into those places where we look to find an escape. It’s a rare attraction, such as the Sistine Chapel, that can ban phones, but we can do better. And Walt Disney really did want his theme park to be the happiest place on earth for every guest—not just the ones who can afford the $80 for Genie + and another $20 for the Lightning Lane pass.
And of course, we must serve every guest no matter who they voted for in the last election. That means that it’s okay to get caught up in the politics at the Ministry of Magic while on a visit to Universal Studios and debate the ethics and values of Slytherin vs. Gryffindor. But inside Diagon Alley, guests do not want to be sucked into debates over real world politics. In other words, theme parks could suffer the same declines as other entertainment if we don’t remember to protect the berm from those who would breach its protection.
Any experience intended to offer an escape from the real world can suffer when the real world is allowed to intrude.
Of course, all of us work on experiences where the point is to bring politics into the experience. When I worked on the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, we talked about slavery and civil rights. When we worked on Temple Square in Salt Lake City, we talked about faith. And when we worked on the Texas Rangers Museum & Hall of Fame, we talked about the law.
In the end, it’s about the story we are trying to tell, our clients mission and the intended audience. When the berm is threatened and people want to bring the real world into an experience, just ask yourself these two questions: “Does is serve the story? And does it deliver what that story is promising to our audience?”
While my first job in the theme park industry was as a 14-year-old “clean-up boy” at Lagoon Amusement Park, my first big break in the industry came in 1995 when I interviewed for a job as a creative writer at Cincinnati’s JRA. At the time, Jack Rouse was still running the business and one of the first things he taught us was the importance of knowing your audience. “Don’t let your ego or agenda get between the audience and the story,” he bellowed with a few colorful adjectives thrown in for good measure.
However, Jack is not alone in sharing this advice.
After a tour through all of the amazing quote engines on the Internet, it’s clear this respect for the audience in one of the fundamental laws of entertainment. If there is a duet on some stage in the afterlife with Prince and Johnny Cash, I think they’ll be playing to the audience. ‘When you don't talk down to your audience,” Prince said, “then they can grow with you.” While the man in black said, “You've got to make them think that you're one of them sitting out there with them too.” Since these quote engines haven’t purged our canceled stars yet, you can even find a quote from Ellen DeGeneres talking about why she connects with people: “My audience is filled with every kind of person you can imagine, and I love that.”
I love that too!
Whether it’s a bus from the parking lot of the Ark Encounter in Kentucky or the tram making its way up to The Getty in Los Angeles, the experience industry serves everyone. This means we have a responsibility to treat the audience with respect and deliver what our attractions promise.
Today, most of the world’s best attractions promise things like “magic,” “thrills” or even “one-of-a-kind immersion.” One popular destination calls it “WOAH!” When I was a teenager working as a train engineer, we promised guests that they would “have fun” every time they stepped on a ride.
Certainly, many theme parks and experiences promise a an escape. A celebration. And good old fashioned fun.
This is what the audience is paying for.
This is what we have a responsibility to deliver.
This article is condensed from a presentation Geoff Thatcher gave with Yael Coifman at the European SATE Conference of the Themed Entertainment Association in Gothenburg, Sweden in May 2022.
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