Theme Parks

A Memorable Experience

When Disneyland was built in 1955, it solidified the development of what we now understand as the “theme park,” a type of space that works to transport visitors to a different world. Some of this happens through the rides themselves, but what differentiates a theme park from a traveling carnival or even an amusement park is the effort to take the very space around those rides and make it part of the experience. Walt Disney imagined theme parks as a world unto themselves, and in the over sixty years since the theme park has evolved into a complex space of cultural production and human interaction.

About this Course

This class is designed to think about the mediation of the theme park as an environment, considering theoretical and critical frameworks for analyzing the industrial and cultural development of the theme park into the twenty-first century. Throughout the class, we will think about the way the spaces of theme parks work to construct meaning, whether through the construction of the spaces themselves, marketing and promotion, or through the complex intersection of forms of communication embedded within the most magical places on earth. Working together, students will gain a new understanding of how the contemporary theme park came to be, the intersections of media that create the experiences found within, and critical insight into the ongoing development of these spaces.


Historical Land Analysis

This assignment asks you to research and distill information about one of the “Lands” in the Magic Kingdom in Disneyland or Walt Disney World into a narrative, to be generated as either a 1250-word article, an 8-10 minute podcast, or a 5-7 minute video essay. You will focus on the evolution of a particular “Land,” drawing on popular sources in order to analyze the changing appeals and shifts in design and strategy within the parks. More information will be available in a separate assignment sheet.

Busch Gardens Field Report

In order to think about the theme park as a practical space, you will be responsible for generating a field report based on your trip to Busch Gardens: Williamsburg. This can either involve the construction of an Instagram/Snapchat story documenting your observations along with a reflection paper, or a more formal field report. More information will be available in a separate assignment sheet.

In Class Presentation

There are three presentation days to select from over the course of the semester. You will be responsible for presenting a 15-minute case study of a particular ride at the Theme Park(s) that are being analyzed within that presentation day, which will be a larger discussion period overseen by a graduate student taking the class. Your goal is to curate materials and contextualize the ride within the larger park, and demonstrate why it is representative of that park’s take on theme park spaces. More information is available in a separate assignment sheet.

In Class Participation

Participation is crucial to this class, and can best be understood as your personal contribution to the learning environment of the class. This can include participating in classroom discussions, discussing class material with me during office hours, or even sending examples relevant to class discussion via email. Attending class is important, but engaging with the class provides the best learning environment for all of us. You will want to participate an average of three times a week to earn a B or better.

Theme Park Project

Over the course of the semester, we will work in teams to design our own theme park, implementing the topics and lessons from throughout the class. This will include contributions to an ongoing Project Portfolio, group discussions, a final group presentation, and individual projects building on components of the “Land” within the park that each team will be responsible for designing. More information is available in a separate assignment sheet.

Theme Park Project

This class is not designed to provide you with the technical skills required to design theme parks, and there are no expectations that you come to the class with the creative instincts that Disney’s Imagineers bring to their daily work inventing and reinventing the modern theme park environment. However, in order to better understand the cultural and industrial dynamics of the modern theme park, the central project at the heart of the class will ask you to take everything we learn within the class and channel it into the design of our own theme park, which will serve as a space of reflection and contemplation for the discoveries made over the course of the semester.

Each project meeting will begin with a larger group conversation and occasional—scheduling permitting—guest speakers, before leading to break-out sessions for the teams to work and plan for the next component of the project.



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