A Short History of How the Cinema Shaped Theme Parks (part 2)

Posted in Theme Parks, Universal Studios Florida, Disneyland Park on Friday, February 3, 2017
Author: Ryan L. Terry

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Following the ending of the Studio System, the now bankrupt motion picture studios were purchased by various conglomerates looking for new sources of income. One of the sources of income that studios began investing into was the concept of movie-based theme parks. With the opening of Walter Elias Disney’s Disneyland in 1955, Universal Studios made the decision to incorporate stand-alone attractions into its newly reopened studio tour. Both Disneyland and the future Universal Studios used their intellectual property (IP) as the basis for creating theme park rides, shows, and attractions. Although movie studios as a “park” began with Laemmle, in its current incarnation, the convergence of cinema and theme park began with Disneyland, and later was perfected by Walt Disney World and Universal Studios Florida. Since the movie studios already had dedicated movie-going audiences, it made sense to capitalize on the idea of incorporating the concepts from the movies into attractions that the general public could enjoy and be immersed in. This action both acts as advertising for the respective studios and generates income for the movies and park improvements.

In today’s entertainment marketplace, media conglomerates are restructuring themselves to be as large a player in entertainment and media as possible with the ability to integrate various products and services into multiple areas of exhibition. This is easily witnessed in how the Walt Disney Company, Sony, and Comcast companies are setup. Walt Disney Company has significant investments in: motion pictures (i.e. Disney, Buena Vista, Touchstone), theme parks, TV (i.e. ABC, Disney Channel), leisure/tourism, radio, video games, stores, and record labels). Sony has investments in consumer/commercial electronics, computers, video game systems, motion pictures (i.e. Sony, Columbia, Tristar), television (CBS), record label, recording studios, radio, and stores. And, much in the same way, Comcast has investments in motion pictures (i.e. Universal Pictures, DreamWorks-SKG), theme parks, resorts, television (i.e. NBC, Golf, SyFy), video games, radio, record labels, and recording studios.

Whereas the fall of the original studio system set the precedent for media companies not to own or operate all the elements of media creation from conception to employment to production to the distribution, also known as vertical integration, companies are now embracing the idea of horizontalintegration. Horizontal integration allows a media company to push or market its products or services through various media channels. And, this is a perfect example of why media conglomerates own and operate theme parks. This is a common practice by Disney and Universal in their respective parks and resorts. Disney can release a movie, base an attraction off that movie, use that movie as the basis for a video game, and even include costume characters in the parks and on the cruise ships. In the same vein, Universal can take one of its movie properties and integrate the characters and story into a theme park experience, use the concept for a video game, and maybe even develop a TV series as a spinoff of the movie. This type of integration allows the companies to effectively customize glorified marketing campaigns for their brand. Having a given branding on various commercial outlets allows a company to maximize its exposure to general audiences/customers. As companies acquire more intellectual properties, media outlets, and commercial infrastructure, they are able to actively change entertainment offerings over the years; and this is definitely the case with the theme parks owned by media conglomerates that also have movie studio interests.

Some of the most impressive and revolutionary changes to the movie-based theme parks came to fruition in the 1970s and 1980s. This is the time that horror became the chief source of inspiration for attractions at Universal Studios Hollywood. The ride that ushered in the plethora of attractions based on some of the best horror movies of all time was Jaws. The Jaws Ride was opened as part of the studio tram tour in 1975, and was an immediate hit with the park guests. It was quickly followed by Kongfrontation and Earthquake: Ride it Out. Just as audiences are fascinated by horror movies and seek to watch that which would be repulsive in real-life, they are equally interested in immersing themselves into the experience by way of a theme park attraction. This phenomenon is not limited to horror movies, because rides like Jurassic Park the Ride (Jurassic Park River Adventure in Florida), Revenge of the Mummy, and Pirates of the Caribbean beckon millions of guests a year. In addition to attractions based on the movies, movie studio executives and theme park engineers created attractions that embody what Carl Laemmle first envisioned, by taking the audience behind the magic of the movies. This is the case with the (now closed) Backlot Tour at Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Hitchcock: The Art of Making Movies at Universal Studios Florida. The relationship between the cinema and theme parks is a strong one and creates an energetic synergy that entertains millions of people each year.

Over the years, the relationship between cinema and theme parks has shifted. Before, cinema was the attraction; and now, the attraction is infused with cinema. And the handful of multinational media conglomerates own both methods of the exhibition of creativity. With the exception of the Walt Disney Company, many of the other media conglomerates have prominent interests in theme parks and film and television studios; and some also have interests in Broadway productions (i.e. Universal Studios’ Wicked and Sony Pictures’ Spider-Man). Crossing over into new arenas of revenue requires access to vast media libraries, and that is what many of media conglomerates have at their disposal. This ability to converge areas of media interest in order to generate more revenue is something that contrasts with old Hollywood. This relationship between cinema and theme parks greatly influences the way society consumes media and entertainment (everything from movies to theme parks to music to toys and games). More than a cross-promotion of entertainment and media products, the convergence of cinema and theme parks is a reconfiguration of media power and a reshaping of media aesthetics and economics.

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Ryan L. Terry

Ryan L. Terry

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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