A “Real Theme Park” needs a theme, which is a funny thing to say, but have you ever noticed that a lot of the places we call “theme parks” don’t have much of a theme at all? That’s because a lot of them are not really theme parks, they are just amusement or thrill ride parks with some pretty scenery stuck in between giant iron rides that look like Martian machines from The War of The Worlds. For this discussion, we are going to stick to “Real Theme Parks,” a term which describes Disney, Universal, many of the Busch parks, and certain others such as De Efterling in Holland.
Sometimes you start with a theme, and sometimes you evolve one over time.
For example, at Universal Studios Florida, we started with the theme that we were a working movie studio. Thus, when you arrive at Universal, the first thing you do is walk through the “studio gate.” Now it so happens that the original Universal Studios in Los Angeles never had a studio gate. To get on to the Universal lot, you just drove past a guard shack and waved at a guard named “Scotty.” However, since Scotty passed away, we decided to “borrow” the Paramount Studio main gate for Universal, Florida, and a replica (somewhat improved) of that is what is there today.
The rest of Universal in Florida follows the layout of a standard studio. Once you enter, you are on the “front lot,” which looks like a bunch of sound stages. Some of them are real, and some happen to be rides cloaked in “sound stage themed” (i.e. concrete box) buildings. But if you turn right on to Hollywood Boulevard, like most people do when they enter a theme park, you find yourself on the Back Lot, an area themed to look like the exterior shooting sets of a movie studio. If you walk behind a set, as you often do when you are standing in line for a ride, you’ll see the structure that holds it up-unlike Disneyland-because that’s what you see when you walk behind the façade of a shooting set in Hollywood. It’s all Movie Magic at Universal, and everything in the park flows from that theme.
In other cases, you might end up “finding” your theme after you’ve been in the design stage for awhile. One example of this is Disney’s EPCOT. Walt wanted to build an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, that is, a working city showcasing future technology. But by the time I arrived at Disney in 1979, that theme had morphed into what it is today: a permanent World’s Fair.
It doesn’t matter how you get to the theme. It might evolve, like EPCOT or be someone’s brainchild, but however you get there the theme determines everything else that you do. And why? Because, as our Executive Art Director at Disney, John Hench, used to say, if you are a real theme park, you cannot have “visual contradictions.” What Mr. Hench meant, basically, is that if you are standing on a 19th century Main Street, you can’t have Space Ships landing in front of you, it ruins the experience, and your theme provides you with the guidance to make these kinds of design decisions.
Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule, but we will get to that in our next section, park layout.