Everybody knows pretty much everything about Disneyland—how it got started, how the Imagineers do their thing, and so on. But nobody ever talks about the parks that most of us across the country enjoy far more often. The regional theme parks, different from amusement parks, owe their existence to the magical land Walt built in Anaheim. There were a few false starts, but in 1961 Angus Wynne opened Six Flags Over Texas, triggering a tidal wave of Disneyland-lites over the next twenty years.
Imagineering an American Dreamscape, a new book I’m finishing up for release this summer, tells the story of the regionals and the strong-willed visionaries behind them—where they came from, how they got started, and how they’ve changed over the decades. Some of the stories you may have heard. Most you probably haven’t, and it’s a fascinating tale to tell. While researching the book, I’ve found some really interesting bits and pieces such as vintage ads, concept art, and so on that I’ll be sharing from time to time.
Grab a free preview chapter and email updates with these extra park goodies by signing up at the link below. Join the conversation—let me know your thoughts and share your memories as we explore the various stories. Can’t wait to share it with you. https://www.rivershorecreative.com/themeparkbooksignup
What, you want more now? Well okay, here’s the Introduction from the book:
There was something magical about walking up to a Southern antebellum mansion to buy your ticket, then strolling through the breezeway to search for your county inscribed on the plaza bricks. Head on over the bridge as the narrow gauge passenger train hissed and clacked underneath on its journey around the park. The themed lands represented local culture, past and present, such as Pirate Island, Contemporary Carolina, Plantation Square, Country Crossroads, and more. Though obviously inspired by its famous predecessor, the park had a local identity that made it, well, different from Disneyland. It was our park. It was personal, even. Oh sure, some things had nothing at all to do with the Carolinas, like the majestic sternwheeler that plied the small waterway around the tiny central island. But what an icon! And the sleek monorail that provided such a grand tour of the park before winding its way over long rows of parked cars, past the empty site where a once-planned resort hotel would have accommodated eager park guests, then silently gliding across the entryway pond back toward the station. Disneyland–lite? You bet, but it was our brand of magic—local, accessible, and a part of us.
The 1960s and 70s were the golden age of the regional theme park. Once Disneyland opened in 1955, forever changing the landscape of outdoor amusements, everybody wanted one in their own yard. A few ambitious entrepreneurs rose up to lead the evolution of taking Walt’s grand ideas, scaling them down to a more budget-friendly level, and making them relevant for their particular location. After a few false starts, designers quickly gained their footing and built scores of parks around the country over the next twenty or so years. Many of these were steeped in local culture, creating a unique bond and identity with guests who grew up with each particular park—their park.
As time passed, however, changes of ownership brought in people who weren’t versed, or even interested, in the ways of themed design. Few of these parks had the heritage and a built-in fairy-dust factory like Disney Imagineering to keep the magic alive. Original designs, backstories, and theming guidelines were tossed aside and forgotten as random layers of paint and corporate intellectual property took over. Many, but not all, of these parks have lost their identity, most likely forever. Of course, millions of guests visit them each year, largely oblivious to the changes, happy to buy their tickets for the latest rides, slides, and shows. What you don’t know can’t hurt you, I suppose, so no harm, no foul. We’re certainly not going to set up a picket line out front with signs warning folks “Story is King!” “Bring Back the Theme!” or the ever-effective “Beware of the Evil Corporate IP!”
There must be something, however, that even the most casual visitor can sense when experiencing a park rich in theme, culture, and story. After all, the concept of theme has begun permeating all aspects of society in recent years. Restaurants, shops, museums, and even airports are getting into the act. This is what experts call the experience economy, where we don’t merely want good food. We want to enjoy the entire dining experience from the moment we walk up to the building until the check is paid. Immersive activities, including interactive entertainment, cosplay, and virtual reality are all the rage. People don’t want to sit back and watch—they want to be part of the action. Surely the idea of a physical, themed, immersive environment where people can live inside the story would fly these days, right? Well of course—just look at Disneyland, which is more popular (and crowded) than ever. Harry Potter at Universal Studios re-energized the whole notion of living the movies, with Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge taking it to the next frontier. So what about those regional parks who lost their soul so many years ago? Hope springs eternal…there are glimmers here and there of bringing back the concept of story, placemaking, and local history. It’ll take time and the right type of management to make this stick. We can hope the trend is true. And in the meantime, maybe you should polish your picket signs just in case.
This is the story of the genesis, evolution, and yes, even redemption of the American regional theme park. Its roots extend farther back than you might think. And telling the complete story requires getting to know some of the larger-than-life personalities who made it happen, individuals who have remained largely obscure through the years and deserve to have their day in the spotlight. Their vision and plain hard work brought a new brand of creativity and ingenuity to the task of building the modern theme park—the Imagineering of American Dreamscapes.
This project is being produced by Rivershore Creative in collaboration with ThemedAttraction.com.