A Short History of How the Cinema Shaped Theme Parks (part 1)

Posted in Theme Parks on Thursday, January 12, 2017
Author: Ryan L. Terry

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Ever since the late 19th and early 20th centuries, audiences from around the world have been drawn to the temple of the height of the visual and performing arts, the cinema. In many ways, the early days regarded the cinema as an attraction, an amusement. In fact, many of the first silent films were shown in carnivals. Nickelodeons dotted the landscape in drug stores and clubs. Elaborate and ornate movie palaces housed some of the first big screens, and orchestras played along with the narrative. Over the last century, cinema has gone from existing in sideshows to achieving a dominant presence in our society that has evolved into the very rollercoaster to which many critics and lay people compare it; and, not only metaphorically.

From starting in carnivals to now being the inspiration for the most visited theme parks in the world, cinema has gone full circle and is now instrumental in an unparalleled synergy with themed entertainment. Over the decades, there has been a strong convergence between cinema and theme parks. Studio executives, filmmakers, and theme park designers are working together in ways that serve to support both the movies and the parks that have rides based on the movies. More than ever, filmmakers and attraction designers need to know what the cinema patron and park guest both want in order to create a synergistic and dynamic entertainment experience based on a single narrative.

Two of the greatest forces in media and entertainment are the cinema and theme parks; and for the latter part of the 20th Century and continuing strong into the 21st, the convergence between the cinema and theme park is becoming clear. Additionally, within the last several years, theme park attractions have inspired movies (e.g. Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean and The Haunted Mansion). The relationship between the movies and theme parks is a strong one, but why is that so? Can one exist without the other? Or, is it a co-dependent relationship that benefits both entities? Perhaps it is all of the above. But, not every successful movie makes an equally successful theme park attraction. Often times, it is the horror, adventure, action, and fantasy genres that are used as the inspiration for successful attractions (e.g. Pirates of the Caribbean, Toy Story, The E.T. Adventure, Jurassic Park, The Bates House and Motel, and Hitchcock: The Art of Making Movies). As technology advances, the cinema and theme parks have adapted and evolved over the years to include the technology to both impress audiences and save money. Still building off the success of the cinema, theme parks have evolved their rides and attractions to go from the magic behind the movies to immersing the audience or guests into the movie itself. Likewise, studios and production companies are producing movies that act as attractions themselves.

Understanding the synergy or convergence that exists between the cinema and theme parks requires looking to the history of the relationship between the two entertainment giants. Before Disney’s Hollywood Studios (formerly Disney-MGM Studios), Universal Studios Florida, and more than 40 years before Disneyland was opened, the founder of Universal Studios (studio) German immigrant Carl Laemmle, opened his 250-acre-movie-making ranch, just north of Los Angeles, to the public for a mere $0.25. More than side income for the trailblazing studio, most well-known for its pioneering of the horror film, the original studio tour began on the outdoor backlot in March 1915. Laemmle desired to immerse the “people out there in the dark,” as famously referred to by Norma Desmond in the timeless classic Sunset Boulevard, into the magic behind the screen.

Interestingly, according to famed psychiatrist Sigmund Freud, horror is often concerned with revealing “other” scenes to the audience. And, keeping with this theoretical approach to horror cinema, Laemmle opened this “other” scene to the guests of Universal Studios Hollywood. But more than horror, Laemmle also brought the studio guests face-to-face with western action/drama. From early in the 20th century, the concept of cinema and theme park convergence was born. The happy marriage, however, was not to last very long. Upon the introduction of cinema sound, Laemmle was forced to close the studio “park” to the not-so-quiet guests in order to facilitate appropriate recording sound for the motion pictures. The Universal Studios tour would remain closed to the general public for over 30 years. But, in 1961, the studio would once again open its gates to a new generation of movie lovers. Between 1961 and 1964, Universal outsourced the famed tram tour to the Gray Line bus company. Following a feasibility study, conducted by researcher Buzz Price, the same man who helped determine the locations for Disneyland and Walt Disney World, Universal decided to start its own tram tour of its facilities, and Universal Studios Hollywood opened in July 1964.

Part 2 Next Week!

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Ryan L. Terry

Ryan L. Terry

Ryan is a theme park enthusiast living in Central Florida, and loves going to the parks as often as possible! Passholder to Disney, Universal, Busch Gardens, and SeaWorld. In the Fall of 2017, his Thrillz article on Turn it Up: the Hottest Show on Ice at Busch Gardens was cited in a massive ad campaign. He also loves horror films and just movies in general! If you see him out and about in the Florida parks, stop him to say hi! 

Ryan holds a Master of Arts degree in Media Studies (with a concentration in cinema and themed entertainment) from the University of South Florida. His research area is on the convergence of cinema and theme parks. He explores ideas such as narrative, spectacle, setting, and setting in terms of movies and themed entertainment. Learning how to successfully translate an idea of intellectual property from one medium into another is the primary goal of his predictable model for creative design that affects both theme parks and the cinema.

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