I’m winding down from a short trip to Orlando, where Andrea and I (along with her daughter) spent the New Years Eve weekend visiting the two halves of the Universal Studios theme park (by the way, we were actually in Islands of Adventure when a small fire broke out on one of the rides), followed by an evening trip to Downtown Disney (in what is now a tradition of fun New Year’s adventures). It’s the first time I’ve been to an amusement park in (quite possibly) twenty years, and the first time since high school that I attended a theme park that is explicitly connected to a movie studio. When visting Orlando (or Universal Studios in general), it’s easy to see why authors might be tempted to embrace Jean Baudrillard’s arguments about simulation: the parks and the city itself seem to be entirely populated with artificial representations. The Harry Potter section of Islands of Adventure almost seamlessly simulates the powerful blend of past and present Britishness found in J.K. Rowling’s novels and in the movies. Artificial snow drapes the rooftops of some of the shops (or shoppes); fake owls hover in one of the restaurants; and street vendors hawk (extremely tasty butter beer). The ride simulations, especially The Mummy and Spider-Man, create the sensation of actually inhabiting the worlds of the movies and graphic novels, allowing riders to feel the effect of swinging from building to building or of descending deeper into the hidden chambers alongside of Brendan Fraser.
It’s also very easy to see how people can criticize these parks and the city as beacons of consumerism. It’s easy to spend hundreds of dollars paying for park admission, parking, food (the meal pass appeared to be a good money saver, but it wasn’t really *that* helpful), and, of course, souvenirs. In addition to the butter beer, one can also buy wizard wands, capes, and other foods related to the Harry Potter franchise. And of course, almost every ride exits through the gift shop (to echo the title of a recent documentary), where you are presented with pictures of you and your family enjoying (or reacting to) the rides, presenting you with (a simulation of?) family enjoyment that you can also purchase. Downtown Disney itself straddles this line. It’s not part of the actual park, but it offers a kind of simulation of the public square where customers can walk along streets or sidewalks watching “street performers” and other activities that you might see in a “real” city.
But I think we lose quite a bit of specificity in viewing these spaces as mere simulations or as ideological ruses designed to lure in tourist dollars, especially the international tourists who filled our hotel to capacity (rather than visting other parts of the world). After visiting the parks, I’m not quite sure I have a good answer to that question. Certainly I enjoyed the rides. The Simpsons ride simulation managed to be both incredibly funny and a thoughtful engagement with the show. and the Terminator 3-D show provided an impressive visual spectacle, one that used 3-D relatively well. Other sections creatively engage our interest in the ways in which cinematic illusions are created. One of these shows, the Horror Makeup Show (in which Andrea “volunteered” to participate in a couple of stunts) demonstrates how some blood and guts effects are produced, providing viewers, participants, or visitors with a small degree of “insider knowledge” while also linking the park to Hollywood’s past (the show’s hosts make reference to Hitchcock and other Golden Age horror filmmakers). Similarly, Disaster invites users to “star” in a disaster movie directed by a hologrammatic auteur played by Christopher Walken. Volunteer “actors” from the crowd of various types are placed in basic costumes and shot in front of a green screen in order to create the effect of being in a disaster movie, allowing you (in the cheery rhetoric of the ride’s web page to make “your big screen debut!” Again, it’s kind of a crash course in Filmmaking 101 and allows for some form of participation in and movement through a motion picture.
These “ride shows” make explicit something that is prevalent in many–though not all–of the rides and shows at Universal, a form of direct address to the consumer-visitor that is not quite as evident in the movies themselves. While waiting for various rides, characters (or actors) will directly address the visitors, alerting them to safety rules and other aspects of park etiquette. In fact, part of what made the Simpsons ride work so well is the fact that these “rules” could be seamlessly integrated with clips from past episodes of the show in which Homer and family visited the Krustyland amusement park, itself a sly parody of Disney World, one that allows Universal to claim a level of “edginess” ostensibly not present in their perpetually cheery rival.
Because I haven’t had a chance to visit them, I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about how theme parks fit within a wider entertainment culture, and after two days visiting Universal parks, I’m now curious to engage even further with the dynamics enacted within the park. Yes, the parks do create some form of illusion. Once the fire broke out, it was clear the spell was broken. Although the fire was quickly contained and no one was hurt, the mere presence of black smoke was enough to drive people toward the park’s exit in a mass exodus. And our ability to know how some effects are produced may not “inoculate” us against other ideologies produced by Hollywood. However, it’s impossible to deny the pleasures of participation and engagement produced by the parks themselves. I never felt like I was in Hogwarts while visiting the Harry Potter section. My reaction was immediately “meta:” they did a good job of creating an illusion (a reaction that most reviews seem to express in one form or another). In this sense, amusement parks extend the story in creative and engaging, if expensive, ways.