Are the Disney Parks Thematically Cohesive?
In the late part of 2020, I decided to rebrand my already-rebranded Substack blog to be Parks and Contradiction, where I could write my thoughts about the history and design of theme parks, places I spent most of my childhood going to and most of my adulthood obsessing over. I managed to get some work done, then I fell into an uncreative depression, then Substack decided to hire a glut of transphobic writers, so I stopped posting on that platform and, once my SSRIs kicked in, started to write on this one.
Before the end of the year, I managed to write two essays — both of which I’m proud of and think are worth the read. Most recently, I wrote about how my nostalgia for the parks weaves in and out of my depression (content note on that one: it discusses mental illness and suicide). Before that, I asked whether it’s still worth it to visit the Wizarding World of Harry Potter now that JK Rowling has outed herself as a transphobe (no, it isn’t, and yes, I appreciate the irony given where Substack is now). There were a couple other ideas in the pipeline, including:
- Why are they changing Splash Mountain, and how are we talking about it?
- Walt Disney Wasn’t a Nazi, but he Really Hated Unions
- Epcot and the Death of Edutainment
- What Happened to Disney-MGM Studios?
Today we’ll be talking about that last one on the list, which leads to a more important question: should theme parks have themes?
Part one: The Hollywood that never was and always will be
If you have nostalgia for Walt Disney World from the late 80s and early 90s, you’ll remember Disney-MGM Studios (which from here I’ll just abbreviate to MGM) as the more quaint of the three parks on offer: the majority of its entertainment was stage shows, and for a while it only offered two rides. Even so, it was remarkably cohesive: modeled on an idealized Hollywood, focusing on film production, even serving as a studio for some live action and animated Disney productions. Everything was about how movies were made: backlot tours, stunt shows, park areas designed to look like film sets. The restaurants mimicked drive-in movie theaters or 50s sitcoms, the flagship attraction, The Great Movie Ride, took place in a replica of the Chinese Theater and drove guests through iconic scenes of classic Hollywood fare, from Singing in the Rain to Casablanca.
According to Disney mythology, the idea for MGM came about when EPCOT Center was in the midst of an expansion, which would have included a pavilion devoted to filmmaking. Michael Eisner thought that a pavilion was too small to pay tribute to such an important medium (he’d been the president of Paramount before joining Disney), so he asked the Imagineers to build an entire park, complete with a working film studio.
What’s more likely is that Eisner got wind that Universal Studios was planning to build a theme park in Florida, and wanted to beat them at their own game. And it worked, too: MGM opened 13 months prior to Universal Studios Florida, and it would be ten years before Universal would come remotely close to rivaling Disney in Orlando.
My family would stay in the Epcot resort area when we visited Disney World, meaning that we were within walking/ferry distance of MGM. For a while, it was much more of an ambiance park: we would go to eat Cobb salad at the Brown Derby, tour the animation studios, watch the Indiana Jones stunt show. It was also one of the quieter parts of Disney World at the time; the Magic Kingdom was always packed with groups and families, Epcot was our favorite but was sometimes just too big to feel fully relaxed in. Instead, I could go to a bookstore, or watch Muppet Vision 3D, or ride Star Tours, the first attraction that wasn’t about film or film production, but instead took you “inside” the universe of Star Wars, although the façade still very clearly showed that it was a soundstage. In that way, the immersion was less about being convincing as it was about all the elements working and flowing together well.
Things would, as in all parks, change over time: MGM left the partnership, leaving the park’s name in the balance (it would go from the Disney Studios to Disney Studios Florida and, finally, Disney’s Hollywood Studios). More rides were added, though they did stick with the theme of the park: the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror brought you into an episode of the television series, and Rock n Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith wasn’t about the film industry, but it was still about the production of entertainment, with a queue that led through a recording studio and a roller coaster through Los Angeles.
The park never made sense as a production studio — theme parks are loud and sets need to be quiet — so the backstages were defunct, and the backlot was demolished for a new stunt show imported from Disneyland Paris’s own Hollywood Studios. The animation studio was shuttered in 2004. In 2016, the Earffel Tower, a Mickey-shaped water tower that was the park’s icon, was removed to make way for a Toy Story themed land, the next year, The Great Movie Ride, which had become an outdated shell of its former self, was closed, replaced in 2020 by Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway.
And, of course, there’s Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, the real reason the park is so popular now, a 14-acre land that required the demolition of the remaining backlot and the aforementioned stunt show from Paris. All that remains from the opening year is the Indiana Jones Stunt Spectacular, a show that, due to the pandemic and then due to union disputes, has been closed for over a year. The courtyard that once housed the animation studio is now comprised of the Star Wars Launch Bay, a meet and greet area for Star Wars characters outside of Galaxy’s Edge, a Disney Jr. Dance Party, and a retrospective on the career of Walt Disney. Meanwhile, down on Sunset Boulevard, the Tower of Terror looms above it all, the tallest building and therefore the de facto icon of the park.
“It’s not thematically cohesive!” I scream every morning in the shower now, ever since revisiting this essay topic. “It shouldn’t even be called Hollywood Studios anymore, it has nothing to do with the old park! It’s just a hodgepodge!” My mind turns to other hodgepodges in the Disney Park universe: Hollywood Studios Paris. California Adventure. Both second gates built with a low budget, neither able to really uphold their own theme very well. Even my beloved Epcot has begun to muddy its previously clear “we don’t have IP-based attractions” thematic waters — first with Frozen, soon with Ratatouille and Guardians of the Galaxy.
But then I realized something surprising: Disneyland isn’t thematically cohesive, is it?
Part two: What is theme, really
If you were to ask what the theme of the original Disneyland park was, you could easily call it “things that Walt Disney liked.” Here his American idealism were made crystal clear in Main Street, USA, his fascination with the Wild West in Frontierland, nature documentaries in Adventureland, his love of innovation in Tomorrowland, all circumnavigated by a train. You could argue that the theme had to do with Disney movies, but aside from Fantasyland, almost no attractions were based on a specific film. The plaque above the entrance to Disneyland famously calls it “the world of yesterday, tomorrow, and fantasy,” but that’s not really… a theme, is it? But I suppose, while we’re here, we should talk about what a theme is, really.
To start, we need to consider the difference between an amusement park and a theme park. There is substantial overlap: both contain attractions, usually rides and shows, limited shopping and food options, and are geared towards families or younger adults. The difference is that an amusement park simply has those things, a theme park imbues them with purpose: that’s not just a roller coaster, it’s a machine Bruce Banner invented to rid himself of the Hulk (spoiler: it doesn’t work); and it isn’t just sitting alone on an empty lot, it’s on an island of super heroes, surrounded by illustrations of X-Men and the Fantastic Four and two more attractions based on Spider-Man and Dr. Doom. Everything on Marvel Super Hero Island (at Universal’s Islands of Adventure) melds together, is stylistically linked, nothing is off-putting. Sure, it’s not all convincing as a fictional land — the Fantastic Four’s offering is essentially a Sbarro — but you know exactly what the gist is the moment you step into the area.
I mention Islands of Adventure now because it sets up the argument that’s been playing in my brain for a while: that there are three ways to do theme in a theme park. The first I’ll call literal theming, and Universal excels at it.
Literal theming means that you bring whatever you’re translating intact from its source. The best example of this, of course, is the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which I discuss at length in an essay linked above. The Wizarding World is meant to completely recreate the settings in its films, and does so admirably; with the addition of Diagon Alley in 2014 it has become, essentially, its own theme park nestled within both of Universal Orlando’s parks. The purpose of literal theming is to hone as close as possible to the source material, whether to use original designs, the original cast from the film the area is based on, or literal props. To a guest, stepping into a literally themed land is, if done correctly, meant to place them inside the story itself. As I wrote in my previous essay:
You might think this is great, that you get to essentially re-live the movies, but I feel that is missing one key element of immersion: customization. In this Wizarding World you aren’t living your own adventure, you’re stepping (and riding) in the footsteps of Harry Potter. When you ride the Hogwarts Express you don’t look out a window, but onto screens that play out a story for you, with cameos from the protagonists of the film. This isn’t being transported to a different world, it’s stepping onto a movie set.
There’s one other benefit to literal theming: it looks good for the ‘gram. The brief nature of social media requires that posts contain shorthand in order to be recognizable, so instead of, say, the stiff peaks of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, wouldn’t it be more cool to be posed in front of the Hogwarts castle, or the gates of Jurassic Park, or the Millennium Falcon? When your high school acquaintance is scrolling through their feed, will they perk up at seeing you eating in an obscure French bistro, or at the Leaky Cauldron?
Literally themed parks scratch two itches of 20th century media consumption: that pop culture has become mostly self-referential, and that understanding those references is tantamount to cleverness. For whatever reason, we now seek belonging not in recognizing the similarities of our selves, but of our tastes: our communities are fandoms, commonalities are trivia, etc etc. It’s Ready Player One culture, where instead of finding inspiration from the source, the source is simply replicated.
Of course, you can disagree. I completely understand the desire to walk through Hogsmeade or Diagon Alley (well not entirely, since the person who profits the most from that is a bigot), to jump to hyperspace on the Millennium Falcon, to swing through the streets of New York with Spider-Man. Part of loving a story is wanting to relive it, to become the main character.
This brings us to our second method, which I will call expansive theming. Expansively themed parks do not recreate a story in whole cloth, but instead adds to it, building another chapter. This is the Valley of Moara in Animal Kingdom’s Avatar land, which is set decades after the film but retains much of its themes. This is Galaxy’s Edge, which is set on a completely different planet than any in the Star Wars films. You can also see this concept in the pavilions of Epcot’s World Showcase, which each show an idealized version of the country they’re based on in miniature, doing more to sell the idea of France or Germany or China than completely recreating a city or landmark. This is also, interestingly, where I would place the original Disney California Adventure, which was, as perfectly said in a Defunctland video, “a California-themed theme park in the already California-themed California.”
Michael Eisner’s tenure was rife with expansively themed parks: from the “Hollywood that never was and always will be” to the original California Adventure to the (thankfully) never built Disney’s America, which was… well, an America-themed theme park in the already America-themed America. It’s interesting, of course, to see that themed lands within parks fare much better than entire themed parks. The reason for this, I think, is flexibility: a single land or pavilion can sit unchanged for years, but an entire park needs to grow, and doing so while adhering to a single theme is too rigid, especially for the demands of the current era. One deviation from the theme can ruin the whole charade: sure, Guardians of the Galaxy: Mission Breakout is a great ride, but it takes place on a distant planet — why would it be in California? Even when they change its area to the forthcoming Avenger’s Campus, does that make it better? What is Spider-Man, a character who is synonymous with New York City, doing in California Adventure?
Expansively themed lands can be fragile. The Norway pavilion in World Showcase was meant to introduce guests to Norwegian culture and history — can it still do that, when its main attraction is based on the movie Frozen, which is inspired by Scandinavian design, but based in a fictional country? Will riding Frozen Ever After inspire guests to travel to Norway in the same way that watching Impressions de France inspired me to visit the real Paris?
Finally, the core of the theme onion: idealized theming. This is, by the way, what I would call the theme of Disneyland itself. Sure, it’s hard to draw a straight line between the jungle, the frontier, fantasy, or science fiction, but what you can definitely say about all of those lands is that they are the idealized version of their source material, as they are in the Magic Kingdom. An idealized storybook full of fairytales, an idealized West that doesn’t mention genocide or the plunder of the land, a New Orleans without a history of slavery, a Tomorrow without climate change or endless wars. You can see this theme penetrate into every attraction and vista of the park: the afterlife is full of grinning ghosts, pirates are lovable scamps, even Song of the South is defanged into a water ride (thankfully they’re changing that, though). The Magic Kingdom, of course, has this same idea, as do the other castle parks around the globe, on varying scales and with varying cultural needs: Disneyland Paris is delicate and artistic, Shanghai Disneyland is grand and technological, etc. Elsewhere, Tokyo DisneySea evokes the spirit of adventure that the sea itself represents in every corner. Epcot is possibly the most idealist of any park that Disney has created: Future World believes that humanity can be saved by its innovation, World Showcase believes it can be saved by its empathy. It’s cliché, but as someone more or less raised on the Epcot ethos, it’s powerful.
Idealist theming means that, no matter what you do to your park, no matter what attractions you add or remove, the only thing you are beholden to is that ethos. Granted, it’s vague; how can we be sure that, say, Space Mountain belongs in the same place as It’s a Small World? Gone is the shorthand of a cinematic universe or pop culture references; and yet, we still recognize both of those properties as inherently Disneyland — because they are both ideal. Disneyland is clean, it’s escapist. No matter where you go in that park, you are never anywhere else. You could shrug that off as being wholesome or childish or manipulative — and it is all of those things — but it is also genius. Even with the most vague theme, the original lands in Disneyland and in the Magic Kingdom are so beautifully detailed, so rich in their own narratives, that it rivals any of the Harry Potter lands that are decades younger.
The purpose of theme parks is to be transportive, ever since Walt Disney commissioned a berm around his park to keep the world out. You walk under an arch into a world of sights and sounds and smells you’ve never experienced. You look up to see the spires of a castle, or a floating mountain, or a fire-breathing dragon. This isn’t just a place to ride a few roller coasters and eat a turkey leg, this is a place to escape, to absorb a different way of being. At its best, a well-themed park can transform you, even for a day.
So here is our spectrum: on one end, we have the literally themed parks, movie sets come to life. On the other we have the idealized parks, conveying their philosophies. And in the middle we have their child, the fragile and aspirational expansive parks, which yearn to show off their detailed, immersive lands with the fluidity of idealism, straddling and ever-widening gulf.
Part three: Cohesion
By now, you might have noticed that I’ve more or less given a pass to the original gates in their respective resorts: Disneyland, the Magic Kingdom, Tokyo Disneyland, etc. You might be thinking, well, maybe Meg just has something against second gates.
But if you were really paying attention, you’ve noticed that there’s one park I haven’t mentioned yet — and when I realized that, while outlining this essay, I was surprised too.
Am I saying that Disney’s Animal Kingdom is the best park? Of course not. There is no best park, just like there is no best film or best painting or best novel. What Animal Kingdom is, though, at least from my experience, is this: is has the strongest thematic backbone of any park in the world. The only potential competitor might be Tokyo DisneySea, which I have never set foot in. I can hope that it surpasses Animal Kingdom, if only to mean that there’s more than one park that does it this well.
To hear Joe Rohde, the lead Imagineer for Animal Kingdom tell it, the themes of the park are simple: the intrinsic value of nature, the excitement of adventure, the personal call to action. These themes are laced together with an overarching one: the tension between humankind and nature. This is why something like Pandora: The World of Avatar can still fit into Animal Kingdom: hokey as it may be, Avatar was a film about conservation, living in harmony with nature instead of exploiting it, and adventure. Even beyond Pandora’s floating mountains Animal Kingdom is a lush, expansive park, covered in greenery and snaked through with walking trails instead of the clashing lands of Hollywood Studios. Even with the weirdly placed Dinoland, USA, it works together. It all belongs there.
Oh, Hollywood Studios, née MGM. I left you a few thousand words ago, before I even started writing this, lamenting about how you’re not thematically cohesive. You aren’t Animal Kingdom, not even close. It’s a shame.
And yes, one could argue that Hollywood Studios couldn’t possibly be Animal Kingdom, not even logistically: Animal Kingdom is a gigantic park, four times bigger than Hollywood Studios. It has the space to change and develop, to breathe and be itself. Hollywood Studios is easily cramped, small, too many things to try and fit in.
When discussing the theme of Hollywood Studios, it’s worth discussing that, despite the optimism of Michael Eisner, the original theme didn’t work — the “magic of the movies” was not as compelling as actual fantasy. MGM didn’t speak to a higher idealism; sure, you could talk about the beauty of human creativity, the universal appeal of classic films — but are they really universal? And, even if that’s the takeaway, is it as powerful as Disneyland’s original idealism, or Epcot’s appeal to the human spirit, or Animal Kingdom’s reverence for nature?
Through the process of writing this essay, I was sure that I could conclude with a haughty self-assurance: MGM was great, its meaning was destroyed by the Bob Iger era of franchise over-saturation, bring back the animation studio and the backlot tour. And yes, that’s true, Disney gobbling up IPs and turning them into attractions doesn’t really help with maintaining a theme. Sure, Galaxy’s Edge doesn’t fit into “the Hollywood that was and always will be,” but it doesn’t fit into Disneyland either. Franchises like Star Wars or Marvel (at least in their current cinematic forms) are too specific to bend to the theme of an idealized theme park, like a loud kid in a school choir.
But I was wrong about Hollywood Studios. All this time I’ve been thinking that it was a great concept that was ruined — but that’s hardly true. Yes, I loved the animation tour and The Great Movie Ride, and I hope that Muppet Vision 3D is there forever, but did I ever leave the park with a newfound appreciation of filmmaking, the desire to become an actor or a director? When I entered the park, did I enter the world of yesterday, tomorrow, and fantasy? If Hollywood Studios had a theme, it wasn’t strong enough to last, and as a result, it’s become the catchall for attractions that wouldn’t have a place in the three better, stronger parks it shares with Walt Disney World.
And I want to be clear, here: I still have love for Hollywood Studios. I’m going back to Disney World for the first time in years in a few weeks, and my biggest regret in booking such a last-minute trip is that I couldn’t get a park pass for Hollywood Studios, meaning that I won’t be able to go on Rise of the Resistance. I’m buzzing to see Galaxy’s Edge, and excited to go back to Tower of Terror. I understand that the philosophy of Disney parks is that they’re always changing, I know the new attractions are exciting.
I wish that I had a prescription for what to do next, a way to give Hollywood Studios an identity or an ethos. It’s a park with its own beauty, creativity, excitement, and strength. It has some of the best attractions in the entire property. Shouldn’t that be enough? Just to go, have fun, enjoy things? Is there anything more we could want, here in 2021?