How is a new themed attraction generated within the theme park industry?

20 Apr 2012 Dissertations

The Central School of Speech and Drama, London
by Lynsey Brown


My college experience as a scenic constructor within the theatre industry has encouraged me to find out more about the theme park industry within my profession.

I have always been excited and even amazed by theme parks and their attractions because they involve you in an environment that stimulates all your senses to achieve unbelievable experiences.

I chose this area for my enquiry for I believe if you have a passion you should pursue it. It was important to find how my role of a scenic constructor would fit in to the theme park industry at present and in the future.

During this IST term I spoke to and visited professionals within the industry, and through rigorous research into the subject revealed an overall sense of the variety of different methods and their approaches to working in this sector of the theme park industry.

I will be specifically looking at the designer’s input and the construction process and will be comparing these processes to theatre, would this be the same as or different to my experience within the theatre industry?

What is a themed attraction?

It is a common misconception that amusement parks and theme parks are the same, but that is not so. The words amusement and park mean quite literally: a place to be amused. The words theme and park, when used together very literally mean: a place for stories, the theme park uses story telling to move emotions.

A themed attraction can be any type of visitor attraction from small exhibitions within museums, to large budget special effect attractions within theme parks. Researching into themed attractions and designs I have heard the term dark rides used. The first dark rides were the tunnels of love at classic amusement parks. They are called dark rides because they are generally inside a building or within a themed attraction, e.g. Judgement Day in the London Dungeon and Pirates of the Caribbean in Disney. Dark rides are the basis of a theme park because they are story-orientated and have a single theme that runs throughout.

Created themed environments immerse an audience in the atmosphere of an attraction and although you will walk round some, others will have a ride within them to transport you in a sequential manner.

An example of this is Madame Tussauds. It began as and still is a waxwork museum with themed rooms like the Garden Party and Grand Hall. Now they have installed the ‘Spirit of London” ride and various other themed sets, it has become one of Britain’s most popular themed visitor attractions, totaling 2 million visitors a year.

Themes for attractions will range from natural disasters to historical facts like that of the London Dungeon. All of the Dungeons created in Britain have their themes, which are usually based on horror and facts surrounding the town or city in which they are placed.

Themes are chosen initially through market research and subsequently what the public demand through targeted survey groups. This process has resulted in staggering attendance figures of 750,000 visitors a year for the London Dungeon.

The attraction’s ‘theme’ will also depend on its location and when placed in a theme park with a movie style theme, e.g. Earthquake will be created within Universal Studios, Florida that re-enacts a scene from a famous movie.

Brief History and the future

Before theme parks were invented the roots of the industry go back to amusement parks in medieval Europe, featuring live entertainment, fireworks, dancing, games and even primitive rides. The world’s oldest operating amusement park, Bakken, north of Copenhagen opened in 1583 and is still operating today.

In the late 1800’s, the growth of the industry shifted to America; initially they were simple operations consisting of picnic facilities, dance halls, restaurants, games and a few amusement rides.

The amusement park entered its golden era in 1893 with the introduction of the Ferris Wheel and a wide array of rides. This was a huge success and dictated amusement park design for the next sixty years.

The amusement park industry grew tremendously over the next three decades and by 1919 over 1,500 amusement parks were in operation; new innovations provided greater and more intense thrills. Unfortunately this did not last as America entered the Depression and by 1935 only 400 amusements parks still remained.

With the end of the World War II, attendances and revenues grew to new records. A new concept, the Kiddieland, took advantage of the post-war baby boom, introducing a new generation to the joys of the amusement park.

The industry was again in distress in the 1950’s as the public turned to entertainment elsewhere like television. What the industry needed was a new concept and that new concept was Disneyland.

When Disneyland opened in 1955 many people were skeptical that an amusement park without the traditional attractions would succeed, but they offered five distinctive themed areas, providing guests with the fantasy of travel to different lands and times with different stories.

Disneyland was an immediate success, and as a result, the theme park era was born.

Throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s, theme parks were built in many major cities across America; many of the old traditional amusement parks could not keep up with competition and faced closure. In addition they also borrowed ideas from theme parks and introduced new rides and attractions to their existing parks.

Alton Towers became a theme park in 1980 with the Corkscrew ride. In 1990 the Park became part of The Tussauds Group who have opened many of London’s tourist attractions like Madame Tussauds and The Rock Circus. Although other parks have been around a lot longer than Alton Towers, Drayton Manor Family Theme Park is one of the oldest parks in the country. It began in 1949, as an ‘Inland Pleasure Resort’ and is still there to this day introducing themed areas.

Theme parks continued to develop into the 1990’s and on average visitors can stay up to 3-4 days. The average time spent in amusement parks was only 2 hours.

Designers and creators or imagineers as they call themselves in Disney are taking a more theatrical approach, requiring the audience to willingly enter the story, with more emphasis on light, sound, illusion, sets and artistry.

The industry has ever-increasing technology at our disposal to satisfy the ever-increasing sophisticated demands of the industry. There are high tech developments and technological advancements being created now, like the new ride at Islands of Adventure, Spider-Man, which integrates a whole range of new high technology.

Although I have been trained as a scenic constructor in the theatre industry, I do not feel daunted by all of the new technology, but excited that I will hopefully get the opportunity to be involved with it in my career.

Criteria for successful theme parks and attractions

Creating a successful themed attraction demands excellent design and the synchronised use of sound, motion, senses, illusion and a multiplicity of effects and skills coupled with imaginative story telling.

The first step is for the development and management company, like Merlin Attractions or Tussauds Group, to research an area in which they think an attraction would be successful. Through rigorous market research and public surveys an idea concept is established.

Once a yearly visitor figure is estimated this gives the company their budget amount required to spend on the particular attraction. They then approach various theming companies with the idea and state the visitor numbers they need per day and what the dwell-time will be. The theming companies then submit their project plan and the client decides, again through public surveys, whether or not it will be a success.

Return visitors are the key to successful attractions; a single memorable element is an essential ingredient. Success depends on drawing visitors in and recommending friends. If this doesn’t happen the managing company would monitor visitor satisfaction, which helps them to improve visitor attendance.

There has to be a real need to find new methods of enhancing attractions to entice visitors back, no returns means no attraction. This puts a lot of pressure on the theming companies.

There has been a recent 4% fall in visits to UK museums, which is attributable to lack of quality theming and imaginative flair. I believe this proves that theming has had a huge added advantage of being entertaining, inspiring and educational. An example of this is the animatronic dinosaur at the Natural History Museum, which may be the introduction of that imaginative flair that could salvage the recent fall in UK museum attendance.

How does the designer use that information and arrive at solutions when creating an attraction?

When creating an attraction, companies like Merlin Attractions first decide whether it is worthwhile becoming involved in a particular project. The result of their market research shows if the figures will bring in the return and if it does not they will only become involved if they are assisted with the investment.

The client will indicate some themed areas the designers will need to cover and how much space they have and of course the budget – the rest is down to the theming company and discussing requirements with the client.

In order to meet these requirements the designers need a good background knowledge of what entertains the general public, what is technically achievable, safe, and practically operational and have an imagination to deliver good ideas.

There are golden rules before designing an attraction in order to make them successful, aesthetically and technically. Designers need to consider how they want the attraction to succeed. Are they going to use ride systems, is the visitor going to watch sitting down or will they walk through? These are fundamental decisions that are discussed and solved between the client and the theming company.

When designers work with a concept they produce initial ideas about the kind of set, effects, layout and profile they want to create in the particular attraction or ride. These will primarily be a list of imaginative ideas that they will submit to the creative team who tackle the challenge of developing these ideas into a set of plans from which the attraction can be built.

They will need to make fundamental decisions on how they apportion the budget between scenic embellishment, landscaping, special effects and finishes etc.

The ideas are initially sketches for there is no point producing high rendered design if the client is not happy. Once discussions with the makers have occurred they can start to think about producing drafted drawings either from CAD or by hand that will state all measurements.

Progressing to a scaled model helps realise the designs. Final submission of concept will outline all aspects of the idea resolving technical issues, composed music, show programming, lighting, special effects everything from where the power should enter the facility to how the animatronic figures are going to operate, all defined in detail.

Compromises also continue throughout the making and fit up process. They usually occur when discussing materials for a prop or scene. Using different cheaper materials that result in a similar outcome, could free up money for something new without going over budget. This compromise should have a minimum impact on the final appearance.

Now health and safety laws govern us more, many solutions to the design are dependant on rules and regulations that may have to change the design slightly.

Building compromises on site occur for structural reasons; if something is not feasible compromises need to be found to keep the end product to the client’s satisfaction.

On site, during fit ups, especially when there are a collaboration of companies involved, frequent changes happen due to falling behind schedule or adhering to original plans, creating a knock on affect for finishing themed companies.

There is always a set time for projects and the opening date never changes, only the time in which the theming companies have to install the themed set and effects resulting in a compromise of their time.

Staging solutions, materials and effects to meet the designer’s needs

There is a whole range of materials and effects that solve many design challenges, artistically and technically to create spectacular effects within themed attractions.

Designers will solve staging arrangements within the particular attraction from the layout to the theme or transport system, ultimately it is what the creative teams produce that brings it to realisation.

To achieve these themed designs the creative team work with a wide variety of materials and effects that create designers’ initial ideas and turn them into themed environments.

Depending on budget, structural, aesthetic or health and safety reasons these materials will be chosen carefully for they all have different properties.

All companies have very large resource books to source a particular prop or effect, if they can find it they will buy it rather than build it, which invariably works out more expensive.

The effects are quite specialised and need experienced and trained crafters to use the materials and create the best quality finish. The crafters are mainly split into carpenters, sculptors, scenic artists and engineers and branch off from those disciplines to, eg animatronic engineers and structural reinforcing engineers.

Creators usually move between skills, so a sculptor may well be able to paint and vice versa. This is encouraged in the industry partly because it keeps ideas and projects alive and mainly because it keeps people employed.

There are not only making craft materials to choose from but also lighting and sound effects have a huge impact on a themed attraction. The collaboration of all three can create very successful attractions.

How creators enhance the design with the wide range of skills and how systems are used within different companies?

There are many ways in which you can enhance a design even in very early stages when rough ‘fag packet’ designs are created into architectural CAD drawings.

These rough sketches are translated into 3D models on CAD, which helps the sculptors and set-builders to produce their scenery. 3D models are a very useful system that can enhance the design and describe it in ways a 2D drawing could not. Not all companies in the themed industry use model boxes unless they feel it will help the sale of a project. Projects have been known to go terribly wrong as a result of not having a model box.

All the effects mentioned so far are used whilst referring to some kind of reference, whether it is a photo, model or drawing. This helps the creator keep in mind the design source whilst producing it, which in the long run will reflect in the finished piece. There have been cases where lack of reference and supervision has resulted in the end product not reflecting the original design.

In some cases creators have tried to enhance the design on an existing ride but actually found that lack of research and testing of an improvement can lead to more problems.

Depending on the company all these approaches vary and some companies prefer to work with model boxes. Likewise some companies do not design in-house and will contract out to freelance designers; others will take on a project and from the concept idea design and build right through to installation.

It doesn’t necessarily mean they are the better company; it’s the one that submits the most competitive proposal that will win the project. It’s very difficult to find a theming company that is good all round.

Concept to Realisation – How does it differ to theatre?

The development of a themed attraction is in many ways very similar to the approach theatre practitioners have, and I was not surprised when the majority of the professionals I spoke to or read about all came from a theatre background.

Usually the method theatre practitioners from concept to realisation is fairly structured as we already have a story line or script and it is how the designer and director realises that play with their concept.

This is very similar to themed attractions as they are derived from a storyline, not as intense as a play or script. Eg the idea concept for the London Dungeon was based on historical events such as the Great Fire of London, the Plague and many others.

The next step, again, is very similar to theatre in that you cannot have a show unless there is a budget and it is very unlikely that the designers will design any kind of set or effects unless they know how much they have to spend. This also applies in the theme park industry.

Budgets within themed attractions are usually dependant on market research around the area of the site and by working out how many visitors they estimate, timed by the amount they will charge for entry will give them a round figure on how much to spend.

Once the budget is finalised you can start to think about what you can achieve with the materials and tools available. You need to assess all the plans and elevations at which point team discussions commence.

At Scenic Route, a particular company in York, assign Head of Departments from each discipline and they liase with the craftsmen on construction techniques. This is very similar to the process at Central and I believe it is very effective because that appointed person will deal with all aspects of the project, including any problems which may arise.

If there are several companies tendering for the same project they will submit the design proposals to the client who will then refer again to market research to ascertain whether the ideas will attain the desired attendance figures.

Within theatre finalised ideas and concepts will culminate in a model box produced by the designer. In the themed industry the designer does not always produce model boxes because they can be too complex. If required by the client they will be contracted out to a specialist model making company.

Design meetings and brainstorming ideas that follow are very similar in both industries. From these designs detailed drafts of the space and the set are produced very similar to the ground plans and side elevations in theatre.

Production meetings take place with appointed HOD’s throughout the process and when it comes to materials, the build and queries HOD’s will work closely with all craft disciplines to choose materials effectively for the job.

This kind of collaboration is very similar to the experiences I have had as a HOD at Central.

The building process is strictly scheduled particularly for an on-site project when installation of the attraction is required. Site visits are essential in order to communicate with other companies on site installing heating or water supplies etc before theming companies arrive. This prevents possible conflict of structures.

Fortunately when working within a theatre space, whether it is a studio black box or proscenium theatre, we begin with an empty space with all essential supplies installed, so ground plans are unlikely to change.

The fit-up process follows and is very similar to theatre with an appointed project/production manager working on-site controlling all activities. This is a very difficult integration process for many things do go wrong as in theatre.

Once fit up is completed theatre would progress with dress and technical rehearsals. The themed industry has the integration process, which usually allows them to run the attraction and test equipment installed. The director will work with show programmers to make adjustments in show timings to achieve the desired effect, just like any theatre practitioner would when creating a piece of theatre.

The opening night in both cases cannot be compromised. With the themed industry it is not unusual for severe penalties to be imposed on companies in their contracts for late completion.

Comparing company structures, what are the similarities and differences between the themed and theatre industry?

Within the themed industry many companies are used to produce themed attractions. These are contracted by management companies who run a whole chain of attractions like the Tussauds Group that have Madame Tussauds, Rock Circus, Thorpe Park and Chessington etc or Merlin Attractions who have the Dungeons and Sea Life Centres.

Similarly in theatre you have the main theatre company e.g. The Royal Opera House who will contract out various jobs to staging companies like Scott Fleary or Kimpton Walker.

Each of those companies will then specialise in a variety of skills and trades. All theming companies are different and like Scott Fleary, who do not specialise in scenic painting, some theming companies will not specialise in construction.

Sarner International in Shepherds Bush are not actually involved practically in the build of their projects but will advertise that they can design and build. Their main department is design and sound design, any lighting and build would be freelanced out but they will always follow a project through to opening. Their administrative side is fairly structured and they have Managing, Marketing, Technical and Creative Directors and production services who deal with the running of a project.

Space Leisure in Colchester who do own their own workshops deal with all the construction and installation of an attraction, but the design stages are undertaken off-site with regular free lance designers. Their administrative side is not so structured and their Managing Director will deal with all pricing, running and control over a job.

Scenic Route has a very large workshop and involved in the construction and installation process; they do not design in-house but contract out to regular designers. The administrative side is very structured and is split into departments ie buying, sales, marketing, production and project development.

A client company like Merlin Attractions do not design but have their own architects who turn their ideas into drawings. Their main job is in market research and finding new ways and sites to build new attractions.

My perception of the role of a Director within the themed industry is that it is split into many different roles from Creative to Managing. This differs within individual companies and only the company seems to structure that.

The designer’s role within the themed industry from idea concept through to design is very much the same process we use within theatre. They work with an idea concept, creating initial design drawings on the layout of the set and its staging, progressing to final designs either on paper or through a model and working closely with the craftsmen.

Within the themed industry there are more creative roles like sculptors and polystyrene carvers, whereas at Central it would prop makers.

Initially I thought scenic constructors consisted mainly of carpenters and engineers. Through further research I found they have a multitude of skills including animatronics and structural engineers or cabinetmakers and joiners.

Project Managers within themed attractions are very similar to the Production Managers or Stage Managers in theatre and are usually employed from an outside source. They are relied on solely for the running of a project, arranging necessary meetings and schedules etc.

Whether you are working on different theatre shows or different themed attractions the fact that each day is different and a challenge in itself, seems that either industry is very exciting to be involved in.


Referring back to my question ‘How is a new themed attraction generated within the theme park industry’? To generate it does not only rely on the actual making of the attraction but a whole process of steps that I have covered in my paper, from initial marketing research and surveys to designing a concept and the collaboration of crafts and skills to installation and running the attraction and improvements.

Developments within the themed industry are continuously improving, theme park and the theming companies that produce these attractions have to keep abreast of developments to progress and maintain their success.

It is considered that super technology, like that of The Spiderman ride at Islands of Adventure, is the new secret to entertaining visitors within theme parks and their attractions. My opinion is that super technology will provide us with fantastic effects but believe that the same strategies and creative processes that have been used within the industry for the last century will be the backbone for the next.

As a scenic constructor I look forward to working with both creative processes and new technology to improve my knowledge and continue to create themed attractions all over the world.

Written by Lynsey Brown

Theming the Thrills

19 Apr 2012 Dissertations

A study into the use of theming and design as a marketing medium to enhance the visitor experience at theme parks. RJ Cumberworth BA (Hons) Leisure Management Birmingham College of Food, Tourism & Creative Studies

March 2001

Preface & Acknowledgement

The topic of theming and design at theme parks has been chosen due to a very strong interest in the global theme park industry, with possible career implications in the marketing department of a major theme park. The topic, which is very expansive, combines three core aspects of the theme park industry – the need to visit for leisure stimulation, the marketing practices and operational service characteristics and the acts of theming and design themselves.

Working at the National SeaLife Center has allowed great repose to personally relate theories of operation and marketing to the working environment, especially while simultaneously studying a leisure degree.

Academia aside, I would personally like to thank Barry Emery for his continued support throughout this study and for having faith in me when this unusual and potentially disastrous topic was proposed! Also, particular thanks to Nate Naversen, founder of the (USA) and one of the few people in this world with direct experience in the industry, who has given me a lot of ideas to work with in an area, which is very limited in theory.


In relation to the objectives of this study, listed in the methodology section, it is possible to summarize the findings briefly. The concept of theming and design has been related to leisure stimulation, play theories and service marketing and the practice analyzed thoroughly, using relevant and up to date examples.

Therefore, in summary it is possible to state that the themed entertainment industry, and the theme park industry in general terms is developing through organic growth. Much of this is down to technological innovation and advancements and indeed the talent to put such ideas into practice. Ideas are also developing in accordance to marketing practice, with new ways of ensuring customer satisfaction and enhancing the core service product that a theme park offers.

Technology and innovation is allowing the ability to construct higher, faster, longer rides and attractions but when coincided with theming, complete new environments can be produced and with the use of virtual reality, complete false environments are being created. There is a coming move away from the traditional iron ride, although they are by no means in decline, technology and VR is being further developed to create more ambitious ‘dark rides’ where story telling combined with special effects creates visitor immersion, which is also apparent in restaurants, shops and other service orientated aspects.

Thus, in reflection, the future of the industry remains to be seen; yet serious adaptations need to be considered as visitors demand meaningful and often educational entertainment, with particular consideration to the increasing gray market.

Aim & Objectives


To study the use of theming and design as a marketing medium to enhance the visitor experience at theme parks.


Ø To thoroughly analyze the theming and design concept at theme parks in order to develop an understanding of the practice.

Ø To relate the concept of theming and design to marketing theories.

Ø To analyze theme park attractions in accordance to common leisure theories.

Ø To assess the importance of theming and design at theme parks with respect to consumer behavior.

Ø To conclude with justified forecast of the future of the industry. Methodology

Project Overview

This project examines the growing need to improve the leisure ‘product’ at theme parks, both in the UK and overseas. As competition becomes much more extreme, the need to produce bigger, better and more spectacular attractions is becoming much more important. New technology is helping to create the framework for these new physical experiences; however, the business marketers and project designers have the important challenge of creating more than just an iron fairground ride.

Secondary Research

“Secondary research is material that has been gathered by other people before you. It is available through a wide variety of sources such as books, academic and trade journals, company sources, newspapers and magazines.” (Research Methods, semester 1, 2000)

Secondary research is the main source of research used for this project due to the number of industry examples illustrated to define a topic, somewhat limited in business theory. A number of texts have been used, some common such as Kotler (1999) and Dibb (1994) for marketing theory, and some specialist publications such as Swarbrooke (1995) “The Development & Management of Visitor Attractions,” and Torkildsen (1992) “Leisure & Recreation Management” for business and leisure theories, respectively. Other specialist publications include souvenir texts from theme parks such as Port Aventura and Walt Disney World and respective design texts.

Secondary research is of great importance to this project as it enables the ability to set the scene through relevant examples. A number of the texts may however, now be limited through age and may give irrelevant examples, which are not up to date. The use of the Internet, leisure journals and magazines has helped to balance these issues, as they do offer the most up to date industry examples available. Apart from the general possibility of information being out of date, there is always the question of validity and reliability with secondary research, and indeed how this information was found initially. Thorough analysis is thus important to this piece so as to be unbiased in discussion (Research Methods, semester 1, 2000).

“Sometimes researchers seek to understand, rather than to explain or predict behavior. This is the case particularly when an area of enquiry is in its infancy.”  (Marshall, 1997, p.46)

The topic of theming and design is very much described in the statement by Marshall (1997), above. Indeed, research for this project has enabled explanation and a degree of prediction; however the majority of the research has given scope to understand the link between leisure and marketing theories at theme parks and of course theming and design – a growing business area which is arguably still in its infancy. It is fair to say that secondary research and the data triangulation of different visual and published literature, has worked to a great advantage both in theory and industry practice: “The use of multiple methods, or triangulation, reflects an attempt to secure an in-depth understanding of the phenomenon in question.”

(Denzin & Lincoln, 1998)

Primary Research

“Research undertaken in the field using one or several methods to collect data. Some generic sources of collecting primary data are interviews, questionnaires, surveys, focus groups, observation and experiments.” Research Methods, semester 1, 2000)

Primary research has been of great importance to this project because of the limited information available and the general wide spread basis of information, thus making it difficult to specify in which direction to approach for first-hand experience. Questionnaires and surveys seemed unnecessary for the theming and design topic, which can be confused in many ways and indeed, is a generally unknown field of information for the general theme park visitor.

The main basis for primary research therefore was to be an interview with an industry expert. The industry however is limited and those with a good deal of experience are few and far between. As the project explains, the UK is limited in development of its theme parks at present, so America was targeted for an expert, who was found via email over the Internet.

The, an interactive website for theme park designers and enthusiasts was the means to find Mr. Nate Naversen.

An unstructured email questionnaire/interview was arranged and the outcome has proven to be extremely beneficial for this dissertation through identification of further researching opportunities and validation to theories. The unstructured approach was chosen in order to allow the interviewee to talk freely about the subject thus giving further scope for discussion. Also the interview utilized broad open-ended questions: “An open-ended question is one which does not limit the answer to a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ or a range of set alternatives. Participants can answer questions any way they like. An advantage of this kind of question is that it does not threaten to bias the findings by imposing a frame of reference; effectively limiting the way the participant may answer. The main disadvantage is that the completed forms will be difficult to analyze.” (Marshall, 1997, p.39)

This interview however was easy to analyze, as there was only one solitary set of answers due to the lack of scope for further participants. Further email correspondence with Nate, also had benefits through the snowballing effect, as new opportunities were opened as new contacts were supplied: “Snowballing is a sample compiled by starting with a small group and asking the members for referrals to others who may also be prepared to participate.”(Marshall, 1997, p.108)

A full record of the ‘interview’ can be found in the appendices of this piece, however the main outcome to this correspondence was that theming all boils down to entertainment and escapism. Primary research has allowed the most up to date and first hand knowledge to be researched, as in addition to the interview, first hand observation through industry knowledge and personal visits has also been of benefit through many of the discussed examples. Marshall (1997) states that observational methods are: “Better quality data than retrospective interview accounts, are adaptable to many research problems and can tap data which may not be available by survey methods where the participants are relatively inarticulate and not very introspective.”

(Marshall, 1997, p.49)

However, Marshall (1997) also talks of observational findings having low reliability and validity. In reflection, observations where clearly justified with business theory.

Constraints & Limitations

The main constraints and limitations to this dissertation would be the general lack of business theory in relation to the speedily developing industry of theming. The topic, which comprises of three core directives -leisure stimulation, service marketing and theming and design issues, made it very difficult to integrate the three in an academic manner. Clearly, the three directives are integrated however it was important to focus this in writing and create a justified conclusion to the research. The other main limitation was the general unhelpfulness of many venues regarding the project and the inability to find first hand help initially.

The mentioned British parks offered little or no information regarding the topic, whereas there were language constraints imposing on correspondence with other European parks. These constraints did not disrupt the flow of progress, and contacts were discovered and sufficient information was researched by various means in order to coincide with the aim and objectives of the project satisfactorily.

“The themed entertainment industry is growing as corporations all over the World seek their skills out.

.Our industry specializes in story telling.”

(Brian Edwards, President of the Themed Entertainment Association, May 2000)

‘Authenticity vs. Staged experiences’ Christian Engler

19 Apr 2012 Dissertations

MA studies intourism management at the University of Brighton / England

1. Introduction 2. Is there any objective authenticity? 3. Constructed authenticity 4. Giving meaning to the world 5. Why the concept of objective authenticity is still preserved 6. Conclusion

1. Introduction

It is a commonly held view that mass tourism and the commodification of attractions are a threat to the ‘uniqueness’, ‘authenticity’, ‘natural state’ (Galla, 1994) or ‘scholarly credibility’ (Goulding, 2000) of ethnicities, heritage and culture (Wang, 1999). Many people fear that these valuable assets are sacrificed for the sake of entertainment, popularity, and profit (Goulding, 2000; Lancaster County Heritage, 2002) and hence agree that the ’original’ and ‘indigenous’ has to be protected from these ‘evils of late-capitalism’ (Taylor, 2001).

At the same time, in tourism, the binary opposition of ‘authentic’ and ‘inauthentic’ is fundamental in the creation of product value (Taylor, 2001). The label of ‘authenticity’ is used to sell festivals, rituals, cuisine, souvenirs, dresses or accommodation with the meaning of ‘made or enacted by local people’, according to ‘custom’ or ‘tradition’ (Wang, 1999). In ‘authentic’ landscapes the relation between local people and Mother Nature is still in balance (Nishimura, 2005).

In both ways, the term poses as objectivism, holding the power of ‘the truth’ both spatial as temporal (Taylor, 2001). However, the myth of an ‘objective authenticity’ has been disassembled by supporters of constructivist, post-modernist and existentialist thinking (Wang, 1999). This essay will explore different approaches to authenticity and verify their meaning in the context of tourism. The question will be raised if not every tourism offering can be considered a ‘staged experience’ and if not everything, from a museum object to a medieval town to the infamous Disneyland can be seen as equally authentic.

2. Is there any objective authenticity?

Objective authenticity assumes that there is something inherently ‘authentic’. This is a very ‘museum-linked’ way of perception, based on ‘original’ objects, such as an ‘authentic Roman coin’ to which ‘authenticity’ attributes a certain origin in time. However, tourism transfers this concept to people, sites, services, or events and any subsequent modification, transformation or creativity to the ‘original’ idea is negatively seen as inauthentic (Wang, 1999). Towns, regions and countries publish authenticity guidelines to preserve historic structures, culture and tradition. Tourism councils define criteria of authenticity to award tourism businesses with accreditation and logos of ‘official heritage’. The criteria and terminology used are based on an objective understanding of authenticity. Examples are the County of Lancaster’s (2002) ‘Authenticity Guidelines and Criteria’ or the Baltimore City Heritage Area Association’s (2001) ‘Authentic Baltimore Program Guidelines’. Such an understanding of authenticity is rejected by other authors as ‘antiquarian’ and ‘elitist’ (Schoorl, 2005).

One problem of objective authenticity is that nothing is static but in constant change, so there is no absolute point of reference (Wang, 1999). Just as heritage is ‘fabricated’ over time (Schoorl, 2005), so are tradition (Hannabuss, 1999), custom and culture (Wang, 1999). Urry (2002:9) asks what the difference is between an ‘apparently inauthentic staging for the tourist’ and the ‘process of cultural remaking that happens in all cultures anyway’.

Something that initially has been considered ‘inauthentic’ can subsequently with the passage of time even widely be perceived as ‘authentic’ (Wang, 1999). Examples of tourism sites that by the time of their creation could not objectively have been called ‘authentic’ in reference to their time and place, but that are today seen as important heritage monuments are the Grotto de Thetis at Versailles, an ancient Greek underwater world designed in 1665 (Hedin, 2001), or the landscape garden of Stourhead in England from 1745, hosting a Greek temple, a copy of the Roman Pantheon and a gothic cottage (Viau, 2002a). The Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria, a medieval style castle, was accomplished in 1886 ‘in the authentic style of the old German knights’ castles’, as Ludwig II, King of Bavaria wrote in a letter to the composer Richard Wagner (Bavarian Department for State-owned Palaces, 2003). This shows that in the past people were less concerned about ‘authenticity’ than today. Eco (1990) recognizes that the reproduction team of the Getty Museum, faithfully reconstructing an ‘authentic’ Herculaneum villa in Los Angeles, were in fact reproducing an ‘inauthenitic’ copy of a Greek villa, because Herculaneum patricians used to copy Greek buildings in a way far less ‘faithful’ to authenticity than the contemporary reproduction team. Even Disneyland, 50 years after its opening, is nowadays widely recognized as an ‘authentic’ theme park (Wang, 1999). In order to find cultural ‘objective authenticity’ one might have to go back to prehistoric times. However, nostalgia for a wild, prehistoric, hunting-gathering past is not widespread (Young, 1999).

Another problem of objective authenticity is that – even if one accepts that there might be ‘authenticity’ of single objects such as a costume or a building in reference to a certain time or place – the selective portrayal of these components will always be based on the taste and perception of a modern biased society (Goulding, 2000). Hence, the meaning of the ‘authentic’ object gets both disassembled and reassembled in a new context (Hannabuss, 1999).

A third problem is to decide who has the power to decide what can be regarded as objectively authentic and what not. Many historic developments are controversial even amongst academics and scientists and there is no clear evidence to the exact manifestation of many things from the past. So a great portion of portraying the past is merely ‘guesswork’ (Fuller, n.d.).

3. Constructed authenticity

Assuming that there cannot be objective authenticity, why do people ‘believe’ in its existence? Constructivist philosophers assume that there is no real pre-existing world independent of human activity. Nothing is inherently authentic; authenticity is constructed by a society based on points of view, beliefs, perspectives, interpretations or powers. Therefore, what consumers or tourists do is projecting their expectations, preferences, consciousness and stereotyped images onto toured objects and sites and believe them to be authentic when they meet their expectations (Urry, 2002; Wang, 1999). For constructivists, authenticity is elative, negotiable, contextually determined and even ideological (Wang, 1999).

According to Urry (2002), today’s mass media are constructing and sustaining the consumers’ concept of authenticity. In a ‘three-minute-culture’ people ‘gaze’ upon and collect signs and images of many cultures in an extreme form of ‘time-space compression’ or ‘global miniaturisation’. In that way they acquire an extensive reference system of semiotic signs such as ‘timeless romantic Paris’ or ‘real olde England’. Beeck (2003) characterizes this perception as plural, fragmented and decontextualised.

Taylor (2001) describes the observations of MacCannell (1992) how the West’s image of the ‘ideal primitive’ is teaching native ethnicities how to act primitive for tourists. The concept of the ‘performative primitive’ has also been addressed by Desmond (1999), manifested in the way ‘authentic Hawaiian hula dancers’ have to look like in tourism shows and tourism marketing, always featuring a slightly Polynesian black-haired and brown-skinned Sophia Loren look, which has little to do with the ethnic composition of the island being the ‘melting pot’ of the Pacific. Beeck (2003) writes that for tourism purposes, European inner cities get a ‘historical staging’. They are becoming symbolic spaces with little relation to today’s everyday life. They are merely scenery in which tourists would consider heterogeneity as irritating and molesting. All these examples are a blurry mix of ‘objectively authentic’ elements and a big portion of myth (Hannabuss, 1999).

Such a view of the world and the past however is not a product of today’s media consumption. An earlier ‘media mix’ constructing ‘authenticity’ was set up for example by explorers’ reports, ‘missionary diatribes’ (Desmond, 1999), and works by fictional writers and artists such as Mark Twain, Herman Melville, Robert Louis Stevenson, Karl May or E. T. A. Hoffmann whose views were based on different concepts such as colonial expansion, racial discourse (Desmond, 1999), romanticism or classicism. Eighteenth century English gardens introduced ‘the tourist viewpoint’ into park design, displaying miniaturized scenes from other times and places (Beeck, 2003). This is an early form of ‘sampling’, as post-modern artists would call it, which through simplification, reproduction and decontextualization blurs the concepts of ‘real’ and ‘fake’ (Hannabuss, 1999).

Some authors think that today’s consumers are aware of the constructiveness of their ‘authenticity’ (Beeck, 2003; Hannabuss, 1999; Urry, 2002). For instance, tourists know that sitting at the Bellagio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas in the middle of an Italian setting with a view upon an artificial ‘Lago di Como’ does not mean being in Italy. The point is that they do not have any problems with this ‘cultural discrepancy’ (Beeck, 2003). They do not seek ‘authenticity’, but enjoy the staged experiences like playing a game (Urry, 2002; Xie, 2004). The change of the perception of authenticity in media consumption is often illustrated with the anecdote of the first public performances of the Lumière brothers’ film ‘Arrival of the train at La Ciotat’ in 1895, where a terrified audience stampeded the exits seeing the train approaching on the screen (Suttner, 2000).

Supporters of objective authenticity do not accredit tourists the capability to differentiate between ‘fake’ and ‘real’. Kelleher (2004) refers to Bryman (1995) who argues that for tens of millions of people the Disney version of history becomes ‘real’ history. Xie (2004) names a lack of depth of understanding of history and culture as the reason. Mc Kenzie (1996) remembers that when Disney planned to construct a theme park on American history, ‘Disney’s America’, they had to face very strong resistance. The president of the Society of American Historians, David McCullough, began a campaign to stop Disney’s plan with the argument that Disney would provide a ‘synthetic history by destroying real history’. However, other historians credit Disney for having taught more people more history in a memorable way than they have ever learned in school (Kelleher, 2004).

4. Giving meaning to the world

Eco (1990), in his collection of essays ‘Travels in Hyperreality‘, originally published in 1975, goes on a pilgrimage through the USA in search of ‘hyperreality’. The hyperreal world is the world of ‘the Absolute Fake’ where imitations do not only reproduce reality, but try improving it. Wang (1999) gives the example of recorded birds singing at zoos, which makes the visit more ‘authentic’ than the actual birds singing, because the latter cannot guarantee the presence of a bird and a performance for each and every visitor. Today, with the advancement of technology, a reality ‘better than the real’ can be created that even Eco couldn’t have imagined in the seventies. In the world of zoos, Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Florida is the epitome of improved reality and simulated authenticity.

Sanes (2000) writes that Animal Kingdom makes fantasies remarkably lifelike, taking visitors back into a world of innocence where they should save Eden from falling into the ‘realm of death brought by society’. A central symbol of the park is ‘the Tree of Life’ visitors have to pass through, a fabricated fourteen stories high tree with more than 100.000 artificial leaves. Sanes quotes Disney’s promotional materials, comparing its choice of words with a televangelist’s Sunday sermon: ‘It is a tree like none other, rising fourteen graceful stories into the sky, its leafy canopy spreading 160 feet across the landscape, its upraised branches beckon: Come, take a closer look.’ The tree becomes a godlike symbol, the symbol of Mother Nature.

This symbol becomes readable to visitors because social and cultural context provides the ‘correct’ or widely accepted interpretation (Gottdiener, 1997). Postmodernists such as Eco refer to this as the ‘metaphysic of the code’. They say that it is irrelevant whether something is authentic or inauthentic, because in a world of representation, industrial reproduction and simulation there is no original that can serve as a reference (Wang, 1999). Encoded signs, however, have always existed in the history of human culture in the form of texts, images, myths or symbols defining an individual or a society (Beeck, 2003; Gottdiener, 1997). Gottdiener (1997) gives the example of the cave of Lascaux in France. Its wall paintings are symbolic productions projecting a window into the past and giving meaning to every object of nature. The author argues that conceiving the natural world as a meaningful and significant place created the earliest instances of themed environments as they are known today. During prehistoric life, everyday life was fully themed: every stone, tree, place or individual had a connotative symbol attached to it. Also ancient cities such as Athens or Beijing were over-endowed with cosmological and religious themes.

A theme can be anything that provides a symbolic readability. The Latin and Greek origin of the word ‘theme’ is ‘thema’, which literally means ‘something set down’, based on the Greek verb ‘tithenai’, ‘to place, put down’ (Harper, 2001). The same meaning has the French term ‘Mis-en-scene’ used in theatrical language synonymously to staging (Bordwell and Thompson, 1993). Hence the terms ‘themed environment’ and ‘staged environment’ are used synonymously. Today tourism and leisure make extensive use of theming and staging, not only in theme parks, but also in zoos, shopping malls, restaurants, festivals, hotels, tours, video games or virtual reality.

Just as their prehistoric and ancient religious and cosmological predecessors, themed environments make use of ‘the code’ to provide orientation and identity (Gottdiener, 1997). Sanes (2000) states that these ‘symbolic arenas of simulation’ make it possible for participants to act out their fantasies, fears and desires, giving them the illusion of transcendence from time and space, and from the roles they play in society. These roles are larger and more exciting than those of everyday life. Psychoanalytic concepts of Stoller, Freud and Kohut dealing with power, phallic aggression, revenge, sex, love and success can be used to explain the underlying motivation of using simulation. Simulation can also be seen as an integral part of nature in the struggle for survival. Plants and animals manifest deceptive appearances in great profusion and early humans possessed the ability to walk with stealth, to act threatening, to communicate through iconic behaviour – doing something that seems like something else – and to play.

Rousseau used the word ‘authenticity’ to refer to the personal integrity of man being good by nature, a ‘noble savage’. In his opinion, authenticity was destroyed by the desire to have value in the eyes of others (‘Jean-Jacques Rousseau’, 2005). This comes close to the idea of existentialist philosophers such as Kierkegaard, Heidegger and Sartre who see authenticity related to the conscious self and its relation with the world (‘Authenticity [philosophy]’, 2005). For Heidegger, to look for the meaning of authenticity was to ask about the meaning of Being. Freud considered a person to be ‘authentic’ when he or she was in balance between reason and emotion (Wang, 1999).

In the modern world rational factors often over-control non-rational factors (Beeck, 2003; Gottdiener, 1997; Wang, 1999) and tourism activity is expected to activate the ‘authentic self’ (Wang, 1999). People seek to alleviate the anxieties in their lives through a ‘pilgrimage’ to places of self-fulfilment (Young, 1999). For this ‘existentialist authenticity’ the objective authenticity of toured objects becomes irrelevant or less relevant – both an artificial hyperreality and tourism that includes elements of ‘objective authenticity’ serve the same existential needs (Urry, 2002; Wang, 1999; Xie, 2004). Urry (2002) quotes MacCannell (1999) noting that anything is a potential tourist attraction; it just takes one person to point it out as something worth seeing.

Disney designers understand how to make use of symbolism to provide an ‘existentialist authenticity’ that serves middle class Americans (Beeck, 2003). Offering relief from the constraints of everyday life, tourism in general and theme parks in particular, have often been described using religious terminology. Substituting Jerusalem or Mecca, they are new pilgrimage sites that serve utopian ideas selling consumers the myth of a perfect world (Eco, 1990; Gottdiener, 1997; Sanes, 2000; Urry, 2002; Viau, 2002b; Young, 1999). There are many similarities between Thomas More’s (1901) island of Utopia, released in 1516, and modern theme parks. Today‘s ‘Waltopias’ (Viau, 2002b) are often designed and marketed as removed in space and time, such as ‘Universal’s Island of Adventure’, ‘Terra mítica’ or ‘Isla mágica’. At the same time they are bound so that ‘the outside world’ would not ‘leak in’ (Naversen, 2000; Young, 1999). Gottdiener (1997) contributes the point that theme parks provide the illusion of escaping from the demands of economy. Once paid the admission fee, all the rides and attractions are ‘free’. More’s (1901) Utopia – often used as a reference model for socialist fantasies – features a similar egalitarian distribution of goods, and money is abolished. Both theme parks and ‘Utopia’ seem to remove physical and economic barriers to pursuing authenticity. All-inclusive holiday packages are a very similar phenomenon.

However, theme parks and holidays packaged for ‘mass tourism’ are commonly defamed as two examples of absolutely ‘fake’ forms of pleasure-seeking. Urry (2002) observes that there is a growing clientele for ‘real holidays’ instead. ‘Real holiday’ seekers tend to go to places well away from the masses, such as Bolivia or Syria, buy at small ‘delicatessen’ travel agents and educate themselves through books and travel guides. They have an interest in cultural, heritage and ‘green’ tourism. The constructiveness of this ‘authenticity’ and the underlying concept of the search for existential authenticity however are the same, only the fetishes may differ. Wang (1999) gives the example of Daniel (1996), about tourists learning to dance Salsa in Cuba which transforms their reality into near-ecstatic experiences. This ‘authenticity’ can be seen as a constructed romantization of non-western societies, whose people are supposed to be freer, purer, more innocent, more spontaneous and spiritually more authentic than the self-constraint and rational tourist-sending societies (Taylor, 2001; Wang, 1999). In the case of the nostalgic reaction visitors have at heritage sites described by Goulding (1999), the positive orientation towards the past reflects a negative appraisal of the self in the present and feelings of a loss of ‘the golden age’. Also ‘green’ tourists’ ‘obsession with the countryside’ is a highly selective romantic gaze that comes close to a ‘theme’ (Urry, 2002).

5. Why the concept of objective authenticity is still preserved

Assuming that authenticity is only a construct to find existential meaning, why is the myth of objective authenticity still preserved?

The first motif is moral energy. The idea of an existing truth and the Christian concept of guilt are dictating a morality of duty to truth itself to many people (Dworkin, 1996). It is ‘political correctness’ to respect past ‘as it really was’ and failure to do so is not just considered as wrong, but as ‘wicked’ (Fuller, n.d.). This aligns with a ‘fear of pleasure’ that is equally seen as guilt, prohibiting the fusion of the ‘truth of the past’ with ‘the vulgar’ (Urry, 2002).

A second motif is that of social class affiliation. It is especially a habit of the ‘service class’, those with professional managerial jobs, to defame staged experiences as ‘fake’, ‘tastelessness’ or ‘kitsch’ in the sense of modernists such as Dorfles (1968) or Broch (1968) and to associate staged experiences with social classes of lower education (Urry, 2002). The wish to experience something ‘more authentic’ instead, is the wish to be distinct from the masses and to belong to a certain elite (Beeck, 2003; Gottdiener, 1997; Hannabuss, 1999; Urry, 2002; Wang, 1999).

Young (1999) shows a repeating pattern of acceptance and refusal of European gardens, which are commonly regarded the progenitors of theme parks, depending on social class affiliation. First, it was the aristocracy that built early ‘hyperrealities’ for their private pleasure, including grottos, artificial landscaping, foreign and historic buildings and staged performances. In the eighteenth century, the bourgeoisie imitated this lifestyle by having pleasure gardens that were situated out of town to exclude visitors that could not afford to come by carriage. In the nineteenth century, the gardens became popular for the working classes, which were fusing their own tastes with upper-class styles. The wealthy as a consequence avoided their formerly favourite places. Urry (2002) observes that today in ‘rural tourism’, certain kinds of transport and accommodation are necessary to show affiliation to the ‘intellectual’ social group capable of appreciating ‘authentic rural tourism’. A convoy of motorbikes for example would be unacceptable.

The service class’ aversion of themed environments is based on the philosophy of ‘modernism’, that in Europe still is ‘a commonly held set of beliefs’ (Thomas, 2000:54). Modernism and its various subforms, such as futurism and progressivism, proclaimed that all ‘traditional’ forms of art, literature, social organization and daily life had become outdated. For modern creations, all forms of symbolism and the process of codification and decodification were rejected in favour of structure, function, efficiency and abstraction (Beeck, 2003). Modern cities were reduced to basic geometrical shapes (Gottdiener, 1997), where ‘overt theming is not just professionally taboo [for architects]; many ordinary people are likely to have reservations about its more exuberant manifestations’ (Thomas, 2000:54). Modernism is a philosophy of differentiation, between high and low culture, between art and popular pleasures, and between elite and mass forms of consumption (Urry, 2002).

Postmodernists criticize modernists for this ideology as being ‘cut off from the culture of society’ (Gottdiener, 1999) and inhuman (Alexander, 2003). Cities became characterless, ties to home and the familiar got diminished (Corbin, 1999), and societies had to find other ways to acquire meaning in their lives (Gottdiener, 1997). While some people can find this meaning in ‘inauthentic’ experiences, the ‘elite’ still is dominated by the rationalism of modernism, only allowing existential authenticity to be set free with the help of fetishes that they construct into pre-modern times and cultures.

The third motif, tourism marketing, is rather a consequence of the previously mentioned motifs. ‘Malaysia truly Asia’, ‘Tanzania – Authentic Africa’, ‘Bodegas España Auténtica’ – tourism marketing takes advantage and fuels the simple black and white concept of authenticity and inauthenticity, because the ‘authentic’ becomes ‘a stylistic reference’ (Hannabuss, 1999) that gives value to tourism products tailored for its target group (Taylor, 2001). When ‘inauthentic’ experiences such as Disneyland are criticized for having ‘a single authority, a common viewpoint, and homogeneity of experience’ (Corbin, 1999:187), dominated by consumption and profit-seeking (Gottdiener, 1997), the same can be said about ‘authentic’ holidays. The Baltimore City Heritage Area Association’s (2001) webpage clearly states that the city’s strict authenticity program, condemning all kind of tourism activity that is not ‘providing authentic interpretations of local heritage’, has been established with the only purpose of increasing visitor spending and have tourism boost the local economy.

6. Conclusion

Besides the concept of single ‘museum-style’ objects, the whole idea about authenticity in tourism is that of a socially constructed existential authenticity. To reach existential authenticity, it does not matter whether the tourism experience includes objectively authentic elements or not, so Disneyland is as ‘authentic’ or ‘inauthentic’ as Hever Castle.

The morality of guilt and pressure of social group affiliation however preserve the myth of authenticity, which marketing takes advantage of and fuels.

The postmodernist approach is adequate, because it combines a scepticism about and awareness for the ambivalence of provided experiences and at the same time accepts it as natural and inevitable (Hannabuss, 1999). This does not mean the decline of culture, but the exact opposite: as part of a dynamic concept of history it opens the way ‘away from an untouchable pigeon hole’ to a more democratic understanding of the term, giving new combinations of symbolic meaning, sense and identity to the people (Schoorl, 2005:80). It is a way to see authenticity as de-differentiated and anti-elitist, which is particularly suitable for tourism because tourism combines ‘the visual, the aesthetic, the commercial and the popular’ (Urry, 2002:78).

Schoorl (2005:84), responsible for the Netherlands’ policy on World Heritage and member of the UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee is content that ‘the Netherlands in the last few decades has undergone a tremendous paradigm shift in which it freed itself from the illusion of a fixed past with sacrosanct originals to a more socially based, dynamic and integrated approach.’

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