Immersive Design
Controversial Topics

Are some themes out of bounds, or should we push the limits of design, context and content? Should we assume that guests want clear-cut and simple attractions, or ask if they want to be challenged? Scott A Lukas investigates

By Scott A Lukas | Published in Attractions Management 2015 issue 4


Designers and operators are known for paying attention to the most minute details in themed and immersive spaces – whether theme parks, casinos, cruise ships, museums or other spaces. They use the most evocative sensory approaches and the most powerful ways of storytelling. The themes, topics and contexts used in immersive storytelling in contemporary spaces vary, but they tend to follow memorable patterns and reflect common elements.

These common elements of themed and immersive spaces include branding, good versus evil, freedom, conflict, sexual appeal, positive history and nostalgia, optimism, myth, progress, the future, happiness and (clean) death.

In contrast, other patterns and elements tend to be considered either not at all in popular spaces or only in certain ones – notably, the museum and interpretive centre which, as we shall see, often ask the guest to deal with dark and depressing issues.

Uncommon elements of themed and immersive space include harrowing cultural topics (slavery), dark historical issues, explicit and gruesome death, explicit politics, explicit sexuality, social “isms” (racism, sexism, classism), religion, pessimism, anti-authoritarian themes, depression and struggle and existential issues.

One reason we see certain topics predominant in themed and immersive spaces is their archetypal quality. Mythologist and scholar Joseph Campbell offered the idea that certain stories resonate with us because they are retellings of classic folktales and myths – the hero’s quest, the struggle of good and evil – which have become powerful traditions or canons within the industry and within the popular culture world of fiction, video games, TV and film.

Another reason for the predominance of certain themes is to do with the nature of the space itself. Certain spaces rely on specific themes or contexts for their stories because of the main purpose of their venues. Theme parks, as an example, commonly offer guests the idea that the theme park is an escape from their everyday reality and thus topics that might remind guests of their non-theme park lives should be avoided.

Mood refers to the emotional and subjective feelings of guests as they interact with a space. Dark topics, like those of tragic periods in history, will likely create negative or depressing moods in guests’ minds. Cultural critics have noted that Disney’s Hall of Presidents makes fleeting and subdued references to disturbing periods in US history, such as the Vietnam War, but the designer of such an attraction would argue that including more explicit points of reference would impact the mood planned for that themed space.

Yet, the question remains, should such topics, themes and contexts play a larger role in more spaces of popular amusement?

A Tradition of Dark Topics
There was a time when controversial, dark and depressing topics were represented in popular amusements. The amusement parks of Coney Island – including Sea Lion Park, Steeplechase Park, Luna Park, and Dreamland – included forms of entertainment, rides and attractions that covered topics ranging from the Boer War and the Galveston Flood to the Fall of Pompeii and the gates of hell, and offered oddities like “midget” worlds (Lilliputia), fire-fighting demonstrations and premature baby incubators.

Many of these attractions also opened in world’s fair midways, generating much of the popularity of late 19th and early 20th-century outdoor amusement spaces. Simultaneously, carnivals and circuses supplemented these themes with “freak” shows and other public displays of the grotesque and the tawdry.

During the period that followed and culminated with Disneyland and Six Flags Over Texas, popular amusements changed. Many designers were influenced by Walt Disney and Angus Wynne Jr, who believed that popular amusements needed to be cleaned up, and thus a trend developed in which the previous displays of dark, unsavoury, controversial and grotesque topics would become much less common. Some designers and operators felt that while one could present a topic like the Boer War, the dark nature of it could be off-putting to guests.

The wholesome outdoor entertainment of Disney, Six Flags and other themed spaces may be the norm, but it’s very possible to imagine new spaces that will revive the dark and creative traditions of Coney Island past. New trends on the horizon will, perhaps, impact the ways in which leisure designers approach the themes, topics and contexts of their spaces.

Influences from Popular Culture
Themed and immersive spaces do not exist in a vacuum. The changes in the design, content and thematic aspects of these contemporary spaces can be linked to significant developments in the worlds of consumer and popular culture.

1. Anti-Heroes and Bad Characters:
Popular TV dramas like The Wire, Breaking Bad, Luther and Dexter point to a trend in which audiences root for the bad guy or come to terms with the fact that the protagonist of the drama is flawed, often deeply. In Breaking Bad, the show’s anti-hero, Walter White, is constantly making questionable decisions that end up affecting, often killing, numerous people. In themed and immersive spaces, the anti-hero has the potential to disrupt the tendency in which rides and attractions feature stereotypical good guys who defeat the stereotypical bad guys. In place of such storytelling is a potentially more potent and disturbing storyline in which audiences are presented with morally complex characters and dilemmas – all of which suggest a moral relativity that could impact the world of popular amusements.

2. The Blurring of Media:
In recent years, popular storytelling has become more complex. Forms of media convergence and transmedia – in which fans of popular culture play a greater role in the stories and in which the stories themselves stretch across multiple media forms and platforms – have impacted the ways stories are told in themed and immersive spaces. Mobile technology and approaches that extend the narratives of rides and attractions beyond the immediate spaces in which they are presented to the guest offer many possibilities for telling different and more complex stories. At the same time, there is a blurring of themed and immersive spaces in which it is becoming increasingly more difficult to state the differences between a museum and a theme park, a cruise ship and a themed casino. In such a world, the opportunities for exploring deeper, darker and more complex stories and characters abound.

3. Extreme and Experimental Tourism:
More and more, guests are desirous of different attractions, rides, experiences and forms of tourism that take them into new, unexplored and even dangerous worlds. Extreme tourism, where a guest might descend into a volcano or swim at the top of a high waterfall, and experimental tourism, where a guest might approach a traditional tourist experience in a new, surreal or unexpected way, offer numerous opportunities for designers and operators of leisure spaces. The key is the desire to experience things in a new way and thus designers may consider new approaches, topics, themes and contexts where a desire for the unexpected may be better met.

4. Historical Reenactment and LARPs:
Across the world, people participate in immersive and engaging dramas that span the historical, cultural and imaginative realms of society. Historical reenactment (in which participants recreate a time period like the Civil War) and LARPs (or live action role play) are examples of evocative settings that allow those involved to more fully experience the sights, smells, sounds and experiences of another world, regardless of its specific origins. Such forms of creativity have also drawn attention to the depth of consideration that may be applied to the creation of and participation in an immersive or themed world. In the case of historical reenactment, deep and disturbing aspects of history may be relived in order to gain a new appreciation of troubling and tragic aspects of human history. Such deep realism may be applied to the many contemporary leisure spaces that could benefit from a more nuanced and sometimes disturbing look at history, culture and imagination.

5. Conceptual Spaces:
Conceptual spaces challenge the traditional understandings, uses and constructions of themed and immersive spaces. Such spaces are “type breakers” as they suggest new ways of understanding traditional spaces and, indeed, point us in new directions. As conceptual spaces they get us to think about themed and immersive spaces in the deepest senses possible. The Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City, California, is an example. One could call it a museum, but this misses the point of the space, which is to challenge our perceptions of what a museum is. An exhibit of a bat suspended mid-flight in a piece of solid lead – it is said to have got stuck while using its unique technique of travelling through solid objects – asks the guest to reflect on the idea of museums themselves, what is true and untrue.

A second example is Dennis Severs’ House in London. Like the Museum of Jurassic Technology, Dennis Severs’ House challenges the visitor’s perceptions of a museum or interpretive centre. The exhibitions are offered in fanciful ways that seem to “wink” at the guest, as if playing a joke on him or her. An evocative use of sensory design suggests a much different approach to the staid museum. Applying principles of conceptual spaces to other themed and immersive spaces – including theme parks – would likely result in an expansion of the immersive potential of the space as well as an ability to include topics and themes that may be more impactful when considered through the modalities of spaces like the Museum of Jurassic Technology and Dennis Severs’ House.

The effects of these trends will likely be felt in future embodiments of themed and immersive spaces. We may reflect on some examples of spaces that have, in various ways, pushed the limits of traditional themeing and immersive world design.

Controversial Spaces
The many controversial themed and immersive spaces of the last few years vary greatly in the contexts, approaches and stories that are used to give meaning to their environs. Themed restaurants may use a unique theme – like toilets or hospitals – as a way of distinguishing themselves from other competitors.

Examples of Controversial Spaces
• Heart Attack Grill (Las Vegas, Nevada) – a hospital-themed restaurant that is known for its 9,982 calorie Quadruple Bypass Burger, scantily clad waitresses dressed as nurses and a policy that allows any customer over 350 pounds to eat free

• Magic Restroom Café (City of Industry, California) – a toilet-themed restaurant that features dining seats fashioned as toilets and curries and soft-serve ice cream that are served in toilet serving plates and made to resemble excrement (closed in 2014)

• BonBon Land (Holme Olstrup, Denmark) – a theme park known for its bawdy attractions, themed like vomiting or defecating animals, including the “dog fart roller coaster”

These spaces suggest it’s possible to push the limits of design and operation of leisure complexes, but such effort does not preclude controversy.

A classic example of a space that attempted to push the limits but which met with considerable controversy and ultimately was never built was Disney’s America theme park. The park would have included historical reconstructions of a Native American-themed area, a Civil War-era theme land (complete with a Coney Island like Monitor and Merrimac battle reconstruction) and other themed lands.

The controversy stems from references to the Civil War. For some historians, Disney’s efforts to represent the Civil War in a theme park space was blasphemous. For such critics the form of the themed space – what could be loosely called its “genre” – dictates the types of topics that may be considered as well as the manner of their presentation to the guest. For many, the topic of the Civil War belongs in a museum or a historical reenactment, not in a theme park. It’s the sense that a harrowing topic like the Civil War should only be considered in such serious spaces because the topic must be understood in an educational, not entertainment, context.

Unfortunately, such views are limited by their traditionalism. As more and more blurring occurs in the outdoor entertainment industries, we will likely see museums adopting principles of theme parks and theme parks appropriating the approaches of museums. Industry conferences, like those of the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA), reflect more and more dialogue between designers and operators of themed and immersive spaces that have in the past seemed worlds apart in terms of their contexts, themes, designs and approaches. As well, education and entertainment need not be seen as being in competition with one another. More and more, designers realise the immersive potentials of entertainment and the pedagogical potentials of education may go hand in hand in a themed space.

Why the Limits May Be Pushed
As design approaches and guest interests continue to evolve, themed and immersive spaces have unique opportunities to push the limits of the stories that are told in their spaces. New spaces offer the ability to retell a story in new ways.

Disney’s America would have allowed a new interpretation of the Civil War and many other spaces may be inspired by the retelling to create amusement venues that push beyond the limits of traditional themeing and immersive design. We discover that many themed and immersive spaces follow the same design and narrative lines, resulting in ritualistic, stereotypical and traditional spaces that look very similar to all the other spaces.

Thus, designers may look to new topics and approach themeing by emphasising new perspectives. Underground Adventure at the Field Museum in Chicago uses the perspective of insects to give visitors the illusion that they are 1/100th of their size. The unique telling of the story of the soil and its organisms illustrates how attraction design may push the limits through not only the topic being told but how it is told.

There are many important reasons why theme parks, interpretive centres, cruise ships and numerous other themed and immersive spaces should push the limits of their design elements, the contexts and content of their displays and attractions, and the expectations of the guests within their spaces. One reason is to be more inclusive and to speak to the diverse needs of guests in terms of their backgrounds and life interests.

Addressing Existential Needs
A family theme park excludes LGBTQ guests if the attraction only addresses the heterosexual family. Likewise, spaces may reflect the tendencies of social change that are found outside of their confines. As societies change, themed and immersive spaces have an opportunity – some would say a responsibility – to reflect such change. The values of multiculturalism, for example, have begun to play a greater role in many contemporary leisure spaces.

Awareness of the guest does not end at his or her consumer needs. Guests have existential needs and it’s important that designers consider these in the development of their attractions. Museums like the Museum of Jurassic Technology and Dennis Severs’ House challenge the assumption that guests want simple, cut-and-dry attractions requiring the least cognitive ability. These and other spaces grant the guest their intelligence, as attractions designed for complexity and depth, to intellectually and conceptually challenge. Spaces may also place greater emphasis on the guest by stressing values of reflexivity and complicity. Team Earth on Celebrity cruise ships asks guests to examine their complicity in environmental issues. The Museum of Tolerance and other Holocaust and genocide museums ask guests to confront their own prejudices.

The industry should lead the way in incorporating these new approaches that challenge the limits of their spaces. New topics that focus on dark cultural issues, controversial subjects and disturbing aspects of history should also be explored as they allow us to not only to entertain guests, but to teach them important social, cultural and historical lessons.

The risks of including such topics in future themed and immersive spaces are numerous. The guest could be alienated, turned off or outright offended, and the ultimate outcome could be lost revenues – making mute any conceptual gains that might be made with greater inclusion of dark and controversial contexts. No doubt the future of themed and immersive spaces will reflect this tricky compromise.




 

Scott A Lukas
 

Scott A Lukas is an author and researcher who specialises in immersive worlds and cultural remaking. He studies theme parks and themed spaces, film, video games, gender and crime.


Breaking Bad’s anti-hero Walter White Credit: PHOTO: Ben Leuner/AMC
Disaster spectacles – like Fighting the Flames at Dreamland, Coney Island – realistically recreated terrifying events
Dennis Severs’ House in London uses evocative sensory design to create a “still-life drama” telling the story of a family of Huguenot silk weavers Credit: PHOTO: ROELOF BAKKER
A hospital-themed restaurant plays with ideas of overeating, obesity and premature death Credit: PHOTO: Wong Chee Yen | Dreamstime.com
A ride at Bonbon Land, a Danish theme park that’s based on wacky ideas and toilet humour
Historical reanactment is an increasingly popular immersive activity Credit: PHOTO: © Steve Estvanik | Dreamstime.com
 


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SELECTED ISSUE
Attractions Management
2015 issue 4

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Leisure Management - Controversial Topics

Immersive Design

Controversial Topics


Are some themes out of bounds, or should we push the limits of design, context and content? Should we assume that guests want clear-cut and simple attractions, or ask if they want to be challenged? Scott A Lukas investigates

Scott A Lukas
Disney’s Hall of Presidents refers to disturbing events in history in a theme park environment.
Breaking Bad’s anti-hero Walter White PHOTO: Ben Leuner/AMC
Disaster spectacles – like Fighting the Flames at Dreamland, Coney Island – realistically recreated terrifying events
Dennis Severs’ House in London uses evocative sensory design to create a “still-life drama” telling the story of a family of Huguenot silk weavers PHOTO: ROELOF BAKKER
A hospital-themed restaurant plays with ideas of overeating, obesity and premature death PHOTO: Wong Chee Yen | Dreamstime.com
A ride at Bonbon Land, a Danish theme park that’s based on wacky ideas and toilet humour
Historical reanactment is an increasingly popular immersive activity PHOTO: © Steve Estvanik | Dreamstime.com

Designers and operators are known for paying attention to the most minute details in themed and immersive spaces – whether theme parks, casinos, cruise ships, museums or other spaces. They use the most evocative sensory approaches and the most powerful ways of storytelling. The themes, topics and contexts used in immersive storytelling in contemporary spaces vary, but they tend to follow memorable patterns and reflect common elements.

These common elements of themed and immersive spaces include branding, good versus evil, freedom, conflict, sexual appeal, positive history and nostalgia, optimism, myth, progress, the future, happiness and (clean) death.

In contrast, other patterns and elements tend to be considered either not at all in popular spaces or only in certain ones – notably, the museum and interpretive centre which, as we shall see, often ask the guest to deal with dark and depressing issues.

Uncommon elements of themed and immersive space include harrowing cultural topics (slavery), dark historical issues, explicit and gruesome death, explicit politics, explicit sexuality, social “isms” (racism, sexism, classism), religion, pessimism, anti-authoritarian themes, depression and struggle and existential issues.

One reason we see certain topics predominant in themed and immersive spaces is their archetypal quality. Mythologist and scholar Joseph Campbell offered the idea that certain stories resonate with us because they are retellings of classic folktales and myths – the hero’s quest, the struggle of good and evil – which have become powerful traditions or canons within the industry and within the popular culture world of fiction, video games, TV and film.

Another reason for the predominance of certain themes is to do with the nature of the space itself. Certain spaces rely on specific themes or contexts for their stories because of the main purpose of their venues. Theme parks, as an example, commonly offer guests the idea that the theme park is an escape from their everyday reality and thus topics that might remind guests of their non-theme park lives should be avoided.

Mood refers to the emotional and subjective feelings of guests as they interact with a space. Dark topics, like those of tragic periods in history, will likely create negative or depressing moods in guests’ minds. Cultural critics have noted that Disney’s Hall of Presidents makes fleeting and subdued references to disturbing periods in US history, such as the Vietnam War, but the designer of such an attraction would argue that including more explicit points of reference would impact the mood planned for that themed space.

Yet, the question remains, should such topics, themes and contexts play a larger role in more spaces of popular amusement?

A Tradition of Dark Topics
There was a time when controversial, dark and depressing topics were represented in popular amusements. The amusement parks of Coney Island – including Sea Lion Park, Steeplechase Park, Luna Park, and Dreamland – included forms of entertainment, rides and attractions that covered topics ranging from the Boer War and the Galveston Flood to the Fall of Pompeii and the gates of hell, and offered oddities like “midget” worlds (Lilliputia), fire-fighting demonstrations and premature baby incubators.

Many of these attractions also opened in world’s fair midways, generating much of the popularity of late 19th and early 20th-century outdoor amusement spaces. Simultaneously, carnivals and circuses supplemented these themes with “freak” shows and other public displays of the grotesque and the tawdry.

During the period that followed and culminated with Disneyland and Six Flags Over Texas, popular amusements changed. Many designers were influenced by Walt Disney and Angus Wynne Jr, who believed that popular amusements needed to be cleaned up, and thus a trend developed in which the previous displays of dark, unsavoury, controversial and grotesque topics would become much less common. Some designers and operators felt that while one could present a topic like the Boer War, the dark nature of it could be off-putting to guests.

The wholesome outdoor entertainment of Disney, Six Flags and other themed spaces may be the norm, but it’s very possible to imagine new spaces that will revive the dark and creative traditions of Coney Island past. New trends on the horizon will, perhaps, impact the ways in which leisure designers approach the themes, topics and contexts of their spaces.

Influences from Popular Culture
Themed and immersive spaces do not exist in a vacuum. The changes in the design, content and thematic aspects of these contemporary spaces can be linked to significant developments in the worlds of consumer and popular culture.

1. Anti-Heroes and Bad Characters:
Popular TV dramas like The Wire, Breaking Bad, Luther and Dexter point to a trend in which audiences root for the bad guy or come to terms with the fact that the protagonist of the drama is flawed, often deeply. In Breaking Bad, the show’s anti-hero, Walter White, is constantly making questionable decisions that end up affecting, often killing, numerous people. In themed and immersive spaces, the anti-hero has the potential to disrupt the tendency in which rides and attractions feature stereotypical good guys who defeat the stereotypical bad guys. In place of such storytelling is a potentially more potent and disturbing storyline in which audiences are presented with morally complex characters and dilemmas – all of which suggest a moral relativity that could impact the world of popular amusements.

2. The Blurring of Media:
In recent years, popular storytelling has become more complex. Forms of media convergence and transmedia – in which fans of popular culture play a greater role in the stories and in which the stories themselves stretch across multiple media forms and platforms – have impacted the ways stories are told in themed and immersive spaces. Mobile technology and approaches that extend the narratives of rides and attractions beyond the immediate spaces in which they are presented to the guest offer many possibilities for telling different and more complex stories. At the same time, there is a blurring of themed and immersive spaces in which it is becoming increasingly more difficult to state the differences between a museum and a theme park, a cruise ship and a themed casino. In such a world, the opportunities for exploring deeper, darker and more complex stories and characters abound.

3. Extreme and Experimental Tourism:
More and more, guests are desirous of different attractions, rides, experiences and forms of tourism that take them into new, unexplored and even dangerous worlds. Extreme tourism, where a guest might descend into a volcano or swim at the top of a high waterfall, and experimental tourism, where a guest might approach a traditional tourist experience in a new, surreal or unexpected way, offer numerous opportunities for designers and operators of leisure spaces. The key is the desire to experience things in a new way and thus designers may consider new approaches, topics, themes and contexts where a desire for the unexpected may be better met.

4. Historical Reenactment and LARPs:
Across the world, people participate in immersive and engaging dramas that span the historical, cultural and imaginative realms of society. Historical reenactment (in which participants recreate a time period like the Civil War) and LARPs (or live action role play) are examples of evocative settings that allow those involved to more fully experience the sights, smells, sounds and experiences of another world, regardless of its specific origins. Such forms of creativity have also drawn attention to the depth of consideration that may be applied to the creation of and participation in an immersive or themed world. In the case of historical reenactment, deep and disturbing aspects of history may be relived in order to gain a new appreciation of troubling and tragic aspects of human history. Such deep realism may be applied to the many contemporary leisure spaces that could benefit from a more nuanced and sometimes disturbing look at history, culture and imagination.

5. Conceptual Spaces:
Conceptual spaces challenge the traditional understandings, uses and constructions of themed and immersive spaces. Such spaces are “type breakers” as they suggest new ways of understanding traditional spaces and, indeed, point us in new directions. As conceptual spaces they get us to think about themed and immersive spaces in the deepest senses possible. The Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City, California, is an example. One could call it a museum, but this misses the point of the space, which is to challenge our perceptions of what a museum is. An exhibit of a bat suspended mid-flight in a piece of solid lead – it is said to have got stuck while using its unique technique of travelling through solid objects – asks the guest to reflect on the idea of museums themselves, what is true and untrue.

A second example is Dennis Severs’ House in London. Like the Museum of Jurassic Technology, Dennis Severs’ House challenges the visitor’s perceptions of a museum or interpretive centre. The exhibitions are offered in fanciful ways that seem to “wink” at the guest, as if playing a joke on him or her. An evocative use of sensory design suggests a much different approach to the staid museum. Applying principles of conceptual spaces to other themed and immersive spaces – including theme parks – would likely result in an expansion of the immersive potential of the space as well as an ability to include topics and themes that may be more impactful when considered through the modalities of spaces like the Museum of Jurassic Technology and Dennis Severs’ House.

The effects of these trends will likely be felt in future embodiments of themed and immersive spaces. We may reflect on some examples of spaces that have, in various ways, pushed the limits of traditional themeing and immersive world design.

Controversial Spaces
The many controversial themed and immersive spaces of the last few years vary greatly in the contexts, approaches and stories that are used to give meaning to their environs. Themed restaurants may use a unique theme – like toilets or hospitals – as a way of distinguishing themselves from other competitors.

Examples of Controversial Spaces
• Heart Attack Grill (Las Vegas, Nevada) – a hospital-themed restaurant that is known for its 9,982 calorie Quadruple Bypass Burger, scantily clad waitresses dressed as nurses and a policy that allows any customer over 350 pounds to eat free

• Magic Restroom Café (City of Industry, California) – a toilet-themed restaurant that features dining seats fashioned as toilets and curries and soft-serve ice cream that are served in toilet serving plates and made to resemble excrement (closed in 2014)

• BonBon Land (Holme Olstrup, Denmark) – a theme park known for its bawdy attractions, themed like vomiting or defecating animals, including the “dog fart roller coaster”

These spaces suggest it’s possible to push the limits of design and operation of leisure complexes, but such effort does not preclude controversy.

A classic example of a space that attempted to push the limits but which met with considerable controversy and ultimately was never built was Disney’s America theme park. The park would have included historical reconstructions of a Native American-themed area, a Civil War-era theme land (complete with a Coney Island like Monitor and Merrimac battle reconstruction) and other themed lands.

The controversy stems from references to the Civil War. For some historians, Disney’s efforts to represent the Civil War in a theme park space was blasphemous. For such critics the form of the themed space – what could be loosely called its “genre” – dictates the types of topics that may be considered as well as the manner of their presentation to the guest. For many, the topic of the Civil War belongs in a museum or a historical reenactment, not in a theme park. It’s the sense that a harrowing topic like the Civil War should only be considered in such serious spaces because the topic must be understood in an educational, not entertainment, context.

Unfortunately, such views are limited by their traditionalism. As more and more blurring occurs in the outdoor entertainment industries, we will likely see museums adopting principles of theme parks and theme parks appropriating the approaches of museums. Industry conferences, like those of the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA), reflect more and more dialogue between designers and operators of themed and immersive spaces that have in the past seemed worlds apart in terms of their contexts, themes, designs and approaches. As well, education and entertainment need not be seen as being in competition with one another. More and more, designers realise the immersive potentials of entertainment and the pedagogical potentials of education may go hand in hand in a themed space.

Why the Limits May Be Pushed
As design approaches and guest interests continue to evolve, themed and immersive spaces have unique opportunities to push the limits of the stories that are told in their spaces. New spaces offer the ability to retell a story in new ways.

Disney’s America would have allowed a new interpretation of the Civil War and many other spaces may be inspired by the retelling to create amusement venues that push beyond the limits of traditional themeing and immersive design. We discover that many themed and immersive spaces follow the same design and narrative lines, resulting in ritualistic, stereotypical and traditional spaces that look very similar to all the other spaces.

Thus, designers may look to new topics and approach themeing by emphasising new perspectives. Underground Adventure at the Field Museum in Chicago uses the perspective of insects to give visitors the illusion that they are 1/100th of their size. The unique telling of the story of the soil and its organisms illustrates how attraction design may push the limits through not only the topic being told but how it is told.

There are many important reasons why theme parks, interpretive centres, cruise ships and numerous other themed and immersive spaces should push the limits of their design elements, the contexts and content of their displays and attractions, and the expectations of the guests within their spaces. One reason is to be more inclusive and to speak to the diverse needs of guests in terms of their backgrounds and life interests.

Addressing Existential Needs
A family theme park excludes LGBTQ guests if the attraction only addresses the heterosexual family. Likewise, spaces may reflect the tendencies of social change that are found outside of their confines. As societies change, themed and immersive spaces have an opportunity – some would say a responsibility – to reflect such change. The values of multiculturalism, for example, have begun to play a greater role in many contemporary leisure spaces.

Awareness of the guest does not end at his or her consumer needs. Guests have existential needs and it’s important that designers consider these in the development of their attractions. Museums like the Museum of Jurassic Technology and Dennis Severs’ House challenge the assumption that guests want simple, cut-and-dry attractions requiring the least cognitive ability. These and other spaces grant the guest their intelligence, as attractions designed for complexity and depth, to intellectually and conceptually challenge. Spaces may also place greater emphasis on the guest by stressing values of reflexivity and complicity. Team Earth on Celebrity cruise ships asks guests to examine their complicity in environmental issues. The Museum of Tolerance and other Holocaust and genocide museums ask guests to confront their own prejudices.

The industry should lead the way in incorporating these new approaches that challenge the limits of their spaces. New topics that focus on dark cultural issues, controversial subjects and disturbing aspects of history should also be explored as they allow us to not only to entertain guests, but to teach them important social, cultural and historical lessons.

The risks of including such topics in future themed and immersive spaces are numerous. The guest could be alienated, turned off or outright offended, and the ultimate outcome could be lost revenues – making mute any conceptual gains that might be made with greater inclusion of dark and controversial contexts. No doubt the future of themed and immersive spaces will reflect this tricky compromise.




 

Scott A Lukas
 

Scott A Lukas is an author and researcher who specialises in immersive worlds and cultural remaking. He studies theme parks and themed spaces, film, video games, gender and crime.



Originally published in Attractions Management 2015 issue 4

Published by Leisure Media Tel: +44 (0)1462 431385 | Contact us | About us | © Cybertrek Ltd