Monday 19 March 2012

Realism of Theming at the Merlin Theme Parks

Realism is a funny term with various meanings. When realism is discussed in artistic theory, it’s not usually looking at the accuracy with which something was visually drawn or painted. It’s not interested in the accuracy of portrayal of perspective, for example. Realism is concerned with objective reality – in portraying the mundane truth, not romanticized ideas. This is usually achieved by exaggerating negative aspects such as ugliness or dirtiness.

With regard to theme parks, there are so many things to consider when exploring “realism”. Typical theme parks are fake by their very nature, removed from site history. They are purpose-built environments, usually trying to emulate some real place elsewhere; think of somewhere like Walt Disney World, built on otherwise useless swampland. There are exceptions, such as theme parks that have long been leisure venues of some kind like Alton Towers, which was once a pleasure garden and holiday home. The oldest amusement park in the world, Bakken in Denmark, started its life as a pleasure site when a natural spring was discovered in 1583. Along the way, it’s evolved into the amusement park of today, acquiring various entertainment venue qualities along the way.  These spaces can feel more genuine because their history is accumulative and feels less purpose-made. But the art of hiding that, and making you feel like the environment has been that way forever with the use of scenery, is another kind of realism altogether - realism in the skill of fakery. How much like a rock does this pretend rock look? It’s very difficult to make an imaginary place seem real, and in complete juxtaposition of the realism which seeks to portray objective reality, making the imaginary look real involves using a lot of romanticized clich├ęs. In trying to communicate to someone what something looks like, it’s easier to conform to stereotypes, which may be less accurate, and so less real. It’s funny how being more realistic in some ways makes something less realistic in others.

In theoretical exploration of theme parks, there is an overused idea that their purpose in society it to be an “escape from everyday life”. I hate this concept; I think it demonstrates an ignorance of the world of theme and amusement parks outside of Disney. It’s certainly a concept which has a place in how themed environments evolved from a social perspective in a post-war depression, but it doesn’t explain their popularity today where “escapism” is available in the form of gaming, television, cinema, shopping, dining and an endless assortment of other affordable leisure activities that are closer to home, less time consuming and far cheaper than any day out at a theme park. On top of all this, there is something very odd that I’ve noticed of the UK premier theme parks. For the last 20 or so years, they have been practically rejecting the idea of transporting guests to another world in favor of a more realistic approach.

The British entertainment industry is known for it’s gritty social realism. I don’t know enough about the history and theory of it to comment on what came first; were we always so skeptical in the UK, with our love-hate relationship with everything mundane? Or did the evolution of the UK media industry shape us? Whichever it is, we seem to moan and hate it but cannot escape it, even mocking the US in particular for its lack of realism and love for fakery.

The idea of theming being a representation of mundane everyday life seems like the complete opposite of what it should be about. But in the search for creating a convincing and immersive world, Tussauds (now Merlin) have been doing just that for a number of years. Their most famous attraction, Nemesis, doesn’t appear on the face of it to be all that realistic in it’s narrative, but it does possess a connection to the site itself, integration to the real place. When we think of theme parks with the example of Alton, we think of the real physical place located in Staffordshire, and then the pretend places it creates and their associated brands – Forbidden Valley, X-Sector, etc. The weird thing about Alton is the connection between many of its created environments and the real space. The Nemesis story talks of the monster being discovered during routine ground work on site. That is, at least in part, believable. Whilst the story has never been available to the public, the communication is visually expressed through the landscaping. The pit where the roller coaster resides looks too rough to have been intended for visiting public. The steel supports and track of the ride itself are painted dull colours, with areas of them speckled to emulate rust – exaggeration of dirtiness. The themed station building, which is a large crab-like alien monster, has some limbs themed to resemble the coaster track, merging the gap between the necessary hardware and the decorative theming by aiming to make you believe that it’s one in the same. There are also found objects dotted around the site suggesting some kind of campsite and military presence. It’s all very weirdly mundane and a world away from what Disney would usually do.

Found objects are something I’m going to be talking about a lot and refer to any object that was not designed for an artistic purpose, but existed for another purpose already. A popular example in the art world is Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain”, a urinal. Found objects are troublesome, because as with any kind of art there is an unwritten expectation that it should require effort, skill, time, money and talent. The fact that “anyone could go out and find an old urinal and put it on a plinth” is bothersome and devalues the concept for a lot of people. Found objects can often be seen as cheap, and whilst cheapness should have no bearing on immersive experience, it just does. It gets in the way of people’s perceptions. Found objects have another battle against them… They aren’t purpose built. That has massive implications on creativity. Where Disney might go and purposefully build a plane that matches their exact intentions, or edit found objects or seek them out meticulously, Merlin will find any old plane and make it fit.

I sound like I’m being critical of found objects here, when actually I really like them. I think real objects convey something that true purpose-build themed scenery can never express. They do just feel grittier and well… realistic. They feel darker and whole, if slightly pretentious. But I do think they have a time and a place and need to be sought and selected with care, because some found objects are incredibly detrimental. One such example is particularly prominent at Thorpe Park, in the queue for Saw: The Ride. The environment has been designed to look like an old warehouse or logging factory, long abandoned with bits of machinery and other junk left here at this abandoned warehouse that Jigsaw has been using to develop into traps. The problem is that many of the objects used here are indistinguishable from junk. Junk is thematically relevant here, but the concept doesn’t work because of what those symbols convey. If I see a pile of rubbish, regardless of context, I read it as a pile of rubbish. Imagine if you created a themed room and included a rubbish bin to complete the look of a realistic room. I bet you’d find guests placing their real trash in it, because it would be indistinguishable from the real usable object. The symbol of a bin cannot be seen as anything but a usable bin. This is what has happened in Saw’s outdoors queuing area. The most offensive objects are these….

The problem with the water tank in particular is that the park uses those for real functional reasons, to weigh things down, such as marquees. So, as a guest, you read it and consequently almost everything else in that area as stuff the park has dumped there… Not theming. The worst part is it is right at the entrance to the queue.

Once inside Saw’s station, we have fantastic application of found objects. None of the items are from the Saw films, or fake replicas of items from the films, but they are all found objects that look like they could be from the films and look like they would be used by Jigsaw. That’s awesome, because it doesn’t try to make you believe you are in one of the past films, but suggests that this is perhaps a new site for similar events to take place. That in itself is more real and believable, and a technique used by Disney and Universal. Reliving the movies isn’t the goal here, it’s to create your own, and it allows guests who haven’t seen the films to enjoy and “get” the whole experience and loose narrative. Forcing guests to pay attention through an attraction just isn’t cool, in my opinion, and more often than not fails.

Another case of problematic found objects at a Merlin park can be found at Alton.  Alton Towers is home to a gothic castle from which it gets it’s name, a real building with real history, and the perfect setting for storytelling! Hex: Legend of the Towers is a dark ride I find hard to fault. Its story is based on a local legend and the attraction is partially inside the real towers building. The smell and atmosphere that creates alone is something no amount purpose-built theming could attempt to recreate. It really adds a mysteriously real aura to the attraction that is hard to explain, it feels haunted, and it feels like you shouldn’t be in there. It’s queue is adorned with found objects, none of which I have an issue with, they all work because of their application alongside a queue-line mockumentary video that looks like something straight of the History channel. It’s probably pretty dull to watch for any normal guests, but the beauty of it all is you don’t even need to pay attention to it. The feel alone communicates the theme. I could go on forever praising Hex, but the ride I actually want to talk about is a far more recent addition, Thirteen. Like Hex, Thirteen’s theming ties it to the site, but unlike Hex something has gone very, very wrong.

Thirteen’s station building is designed to look like part of the towers. And, like the real towers, it’s got scaffolding around it. (The real towers are in a perpetual state of restoration work.) I get the intention here, and actually I think it’s a really cool idea, but it just doesn’t work. It looks like a building site, it looks unfinished and I distinctly remember overhearing guests on opening weekend commenting, “it’s not finished yet” on several occasions. The attempt to convey realism went too far in the wrong direction; guests “believe” the found objects – the scaffolding, but are unconvinced by the themed building itself. The theming isn’t being read as the whole picture being painted. That’s kind of exciting in some weird backwards way, because it means the public pay more attention to reading theming than I perhaps give them credit for. So how could this have been avoided? How else could the idea that restoration work was taking place (a realistic narrative element) have been conveyed? This is where sacrificing realism for communication should happen. Perhaps some unauthentic wooden scaffold appealing to romanticism would have made the world of difference? Alton also tried to tie their recent pirate themed area to the site with castle like structures, and seem to have for the most part got away with it there. Perhaps because pirates are a more stereotypical unrealistic theme and there’s less confusion?

One of the side effects of the realism appears to be that almost all the attractions at Thorpe Park and Alton Towers are extremely negative. Most of the attractions do a very good job of conveying a mood to the guests that enhances the ride experience. The problem is that as a whole that mood throughout both parks is now quite samey. You don’t want to be feeling on edge for a whole day out. It’s a lot easier to make someone scared than it is to excite them in other ways, so it’s understandable that the themes which aren’t negative struggle to keep the balance. Lighter themes can easily seem cheesy or childish and to make something epic and exciting for all ages is very difficult. Even at Chessington with the recent addition of Wild Asia, the land feels very stark and realistic. There’s a lack of colour to break it up, and it all merges into one samey grey block.

So why do Tussauds/Merlin create so many of these “realistic” themes in the first place? Well it must be something to do with the British audience and I will be interested to see, as time goes on, how they tackle things away from the UK. Particularly if they ever take on a non-Legoland park in the USA. So far it’s hard to tell if their additions in Europe are following suit. Gardaland’s Raptor seems quite Nemesis like, but having not been there it’s hard for me to really judge. What interests me is whether or not using happier, stereotypical, extravagant theming at a British park would turn people off… Is this realistic edge needed to keep the majority of the public here engaged? Since so many Brits flock to Disneyland Paris and Walt Disney World in Orlando every year, we can’t be that bad, can we?

So does it boil down to cost? Is it a case of avoiding creating a crap Disneyland because the budget simply isn’t there, so going for something completely different that looks to a high standard within it’s style? I don’t know, but if that is even part of the reason, it’s a damn good reason. Knowing how to spend a budget to get the most from it is difficult, and it’s why the majority of the British film industry is the way it is. The film industry is praised for it’s pretentious low-budget grittiness… But what about theme parks? Is it really because it doesn’t work in the theme park medium, or rather because people are making judgments which take no interest in the actual end result as I mentioned before? With lower budgets you have to be clever and think of cheaper ways of doing things, which are convincing on at least some level and so become immersive.  How conscious are such decisions, or have the attitudes to design been sculpted over the years to be inherent?

What we’re left with though, are some of the most original and creatively interesting attractions in the world. Merlin has had to battle with other constraints, such as noise and height restrictions at two of their British parks, which have further shaped their creations. I don’t want Merlin to produce similar themes to Disney, Universal, Busch, Europa or Phantasialand… I want them to do their own unique thing. I don’t want them to have the freedom to build whatever they please, because I fear we’d end up with a world full of Cedar Points. They are far from a perfect company, but I think people should cut them some slack and perhaps spend more time thinking about why they do what they do and actually, why many of their attractions are so special.

Maybe I’ve got it all wrong… As always, I’d love to hear from you! You can respond by writing a blog post and linking to it in the comments, or simply leaving a comment here, or perhaps you’d like to e-mail me. 


  1. Have you ever seen the short movie Far From the Sodding Crowd? It's from the writers of the book Bollocks to Alton Towers and is available to watch free online.

    In it, the director of Blackgang Chine explains that, when creating their Wild West-themed land, the park's owners deliberately went for an understated, slightly worn look. In his words (or thereabouts) they 'really wanted it to look about 150 years old'.

    The reason behind this thinking was that, although their approach in terms of themeing was modelled on Disneyland (but with a microscopic budget by comparison), they didn't think the British public wanted things to be too bold and brash and shiny. In their eyes, we'd all prefer understatement and reject something that smacked of showing off.

    Of course, that was decades ago now, but maybe there's still an element of that, as you say.

    Personally, I love elaborate themeing, but I do also like a themed area to feel 'natural' and relatively seamless. This isn't necessarily the same as 'realism'. While I'm not too fond of the Saw-type 'gritty' look, it is at least consistent - as opposed to, say, a volcano with a shed sticking out of it.

    (By the way, I hate to be an arse, but it's only 'it's' if it's short for 'it is'...sorry, sorry, but it bugs me while reading and I thought it was a really good post...)

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