Monday 23 February 2015

Audience misinterpretation of hyperrealism in theming…. Or, “why Dinoland USA is interesting but ultimately flawed”.

I was reading what fellow theme park nerd friends had to say about Disney’s Animal Kingdom recently, specifically Dinoland USA. The usual comments: the area is vile, doesn’t fit in or feel very Disney-like in execution and other perfectly valid and true criticisms… But I felt the need to chime in and defend the cleverness of the theme.

Then I thought, wait, what am I doing? The answer: Playing devils advocate, mostly.

See, Dinoland USA is perhaps the most self-representational, metaphorical, hyperreal commentary on the amusement industry that exists as an actual attraction. And that’s kinda cool from an “arty-farty lets have a discussion about theme park theory” point of view.

But there is a problem with that. A problem I’ve discussed before in my (now rather old) post about Merlin’s theme parks and their use of realism

Photo by Jeremy Thompson of

On the face of it, Dinoland USA is a toony dino themed land. Most people reading this are going to know there’s way more to it than that, but take Dinoland USA out of context away from Disney and that’s exactly what it is. When guests – fans or otherwise – walk into the Dinorama area and are hit with visuals that scream “I’m a tacky fun fair!”, they suddenly feel removed from the immersion felt elsewhere in the park, naturally interpreting those cues not as thematic symbols, but as authentic ones, without even thinking about it. Because we’re in a theme park we naturally read the area as a raw amusement park in its base form, before Disney come along and cover it up with that stuff we like to call “theming”, presumably to the tune of "Whistle While You Work". The area is decorated and stylised and made to look like a funfair but… it isn’t one? Or is it? Who really knows! Because of where we are, it’s impossible to tell where cheap, off-the-shelf amusement hardware ends and intentional theming, narrative and ‘Disney’ begins. And that’s a huge problem, because it is irrelevant whether the area was a cheap last minute solution to a dwindling budget or a well-planned part of the initial intentions of Animal Kingdom as a whole. If it looks and feels cheap, chances are it is. “Cheap” is full of negative connotations that aren’t necessarily true, but that doesn’t make them go away.

Authentic cracks in the concrete and everything… The area looks like a funfair without the funds to do better, so we read it as just that. Photo by Jeremy Thompson of

As immensely cool as it is to theme something so, er, “successfully”, that you convince your audience they are having a “real” experience, it highlights a problem with Disney and other theme parks in general: that people think they are just highly themed amusement parks or funfairs, instead of bespoke experiences. And it also serves to remind you that Disney couldn’t convince the audience they were having a real experience in Nepal just round the bend in the next land. Dinoland’s realism only works because of accumulated history and pop culture of theme parks and their kin as a medium, because we’re in a theme park and no amount of “suspending disbelief” will change that. We should probably question whether or not anyone actually wants to visit a pretend, cheap roadside funfair, in the same way people might want to visit a pretend Nepal. A lot of high-end themed experiences are about safely (and comparatively cheaply) giving people the opportunity to experience something they might otherwise not have the opportunity or desire to do. The exoticness or period in which themed lands are set really matters.

The triceratops tin toy Dumbo ride. (Please stop buying these, Disney. You’re not fooling anyone by dressing them in different animals.) Photo by Jeremy Thompson of

At Disney, you expect high-end themed rides, shows and lands... And if you’re into this kind of thing, you might be more inclined to call them “experiences” because ride hardware is supposedly merely a platform in which to tell a story. Disney really don’t help themselves here, essentially buying off-the-shelf fair rides and decorating them fancifully throughout all their parks and lands as filler. So when we are suddenly expected to understand that their lightly decorated off-the-shelf spinning coasters “Primeval Whirl” are theming within themselves - that’s why they aren’t decorated extravagantly, selected specifically for their reference to roadside funfairs across America - it doesn’t quite work. Animal Kingdom in particular is full of real, found objects and real art that add details and authenticity to its themed lands and Primeval Whirl is one of those!

Primeval Whirl is one of the most common off-the-shelf roller coasters in the world, found at both permanent and traveling attractions everywhere. A large percentage of visitors will have been on one elsewhere. I guess that's the point, but is it what guests want? Photo by Jeremy Thompson of

Dinoland USA has a cool backstory... One I’ve seen criticised for being a jumbled mess, but I genuinely think it’s actually a really cool, logical, believable narrative. My highly neutered understanding is that some fossil hunters find some dino bones just off the highway, set up a research institute and museum (the building where the Dinosaur ride is) and local entrepreneurs try to cash in on this local finding with tacky tourist attractions, like gift shops and a funfair.

The museum set up to research the newly discovered dino fossils in the area houses the Dinosaur dark ride, now with added Aladar, because IPs sell. Photo by Jeremy Thompson of

In fact, the only part of this narrative that isn’t believable is the one attraction I actually like. Dinosaur - now based on the movie of the same name, where you’re transported back in time to collect the main character from the film for research purposes.

Carnotaurus skeletal cast in the museum themed queue of Dinosaur. Photo by Jeremy Thompson of

They even have money-grabbing game stands, not found anywhere else at Walt Disney World. And when you realise that the gift shop outside Dinosaur is a gift shop themed to a gift shop and that Primeval Whirl is a pair of roller coasters themed to roller coasters, you can’t help but smirk and think “ha, that’s actually quite clever.”

But the vast majority of visitors get no further than “wow, they didn’t make much effort with this area, did they?”

Tom Bricker wrote an interesting article about Animal Kingdom's flaws where he highlighted this unwillingness the audience has in entertaining concept when the presentation is so off-putting. "Many words have been spoken on all of the hidden details and backstory in DinoLand, but this backstory is nothing more than lipstick on a pig. This backstory is great, but it is not substitute for quality substance. Here, backstory is more an afterthought, added as artifice to explain away why Dinorama is such an eyesore. I couldn’t care less that it’s an “authentic” eyesore, it’s an eyesore with cheap carnival attractions, nonetheless."

The gift shop is themed to an old petrol station, converted into gift shop by locals who want to make a quick buck from the museum. Photo by Jeremy Thompson of

Dinoland USA is often criticized for not fitting in at Animal Kingdom, both artistically and thematically. The rest of the park is conceptually about conservation of the natural world whilst this garish funfair themed to a cartoon dinosaurs is so heavily man made. Whilst I agree it doesn’t stylistically work at the park, conceptually it definitely does. There is a pretty explicit “Countdown to Extinction” theme that runs through the area – that was the original name of the now “Dinosaur” dark ride, plus Primeval Whirl deals with extinction pretty explicitly through the comic format of text! Here is a land themed to the dirty amusements that supposedly offended and inspired Walt Disney himself to create the original Disneyland so different from them in approach. The classic amusement park is now an endangered species itself, with more and more small, classic parks closing their doors or increasingly adopting the theme park practices Disney themselves defined. Dinoland USA is about abuse and control of the natural world. The plot of the Dinosaur ride is that we travel back to the time of the dinosaurs to capture one “for science!” and that is very, very relevant to Animal Kingdom’s overarching theme.

The coaster themed to a coaster themed to a museum attraction in all it's underwhelming glory! Primeval Whirl’s decorations tell the story of time travel and dino mass extinction through cartoons. Photo by Jeremy Thompson of

But Dinoland USA’s aesthetics are massively more important than those concepts lost on the majority of visitors, because the area really is just a slightly nicer version of what you can get anywhere in the country for a hell of a lot cheaper. What are we paying for? A pretentious commentary we must deduce from the scenery and analyse as we wait in line for low capacity, off-the-shelf fair rides? So when guests feel conned and displeased by how un-Disney-like the area is, with its lack of elaborate rockwork and with a roller coaster exposing its dirty bare skin, it’s easy to see why, and me turning round to say “but that’s the point!” is pretentious dribble. Theme parks need to be fake in order to be enjoyed, because part of the appeal of Disney is admiring the artistry and fakery and being blown away by, haha... “realism.” Just maybe not this kind of realism, because we might not get it, and even if we do, does it really offer quality experience? 

Disney's other self representational coaster... The steel coaster themed to a wooden coaster on a classic boardwalk - California Screamin' at Disney's California Adventure park. Photo by Jeremy Thompson of

This happened at Disney’s California Adveuture park with Paradise Pier, too. There they reference a classic boardwalk for an audience who has access to real classic boardwalks. It’s the same reason I don’t personally get Europa Park – who’s European architecture is just a bit too normal for a theme park situated in Europe with a predominantly European audience. In a previous post about mundane or boring environments, I discussed how some time periods or settings are just inherently more interesting than others. David Younger left an interesting comment on that post: "My rule when it comes to recreating the mundane, or simply the real world, is that it works if there is a twist. The London set on Walt Disney Studios Park’s tram tour is a great example of this. Ordinarily there is no reason to recreate an environment that can be seen in everyday life a few hours away, but because there is rubble and a fire breathing dragon in the Underground station, that familiarity is turned on its head and becomes dramatic." And remember my point about how I like the Dinosaur ride, yet it’s totally unbelievable and silly? Yeah. We're not visiting an expensive theme park to have a recreated experience of the locally mundane.

In the end, Dinoland USA is just the land Disney forgot to theme for majority of guests, and little more than an annoying subject for pretentious pseudo intellectuals to blog about. Cough

As someone who enjoys all variants of theme and amusement parks and, coincidently, rather likes dinosaurs and art theory, I do actually like Dinoland USA. It’s an interesting and unique take on the difficult theme of dinosaurs. Why difficult, you may be wondering? Well, because you either send guests back in time and forego the use of man made objects. Or, you bring dinosaurs to the present but then you’ve still got the issue of how do you portray them? Fancy, expensive animatronics? Static models? There’s a problem with even the best dino models, as new discoveries render them outdated regardless of quality. Or you could represent them as extinct, and use conventions of dusty excavation sites and museums. Exciting stuff for a theme park? Not. Dinoland USA uses a mixture of these narrative ideas, which is probably why some people think it a conceptual mess. But with the added layer of tourism, dinosaurs are portrayed in a way we are all united in familiarity with: as pop culture.

Official concept art for what became Dinoland USA, featuring a wooden roller coaster that was never realised and lovely barren landscapes.

A Gallimimus or similar in the Creataceous Trail of Dinoland USA highlights a problem facing dino themes. Clearly realistically styalised, but very far removed from what current science suggests they looked like. Photo by Jeremy Thompson of

I also think the uncanny resemblance to American roadside kitsch is charming, because I personally love that kind of thing. But just because something works conceptually doesn’t mean it’s a good idea practically, or that it will be popular with the public, and at the end of the day, that’s what matters. A comment left on a previous blog post of mine read: "Familiarity of comparatively routine/regularly encountered environments isn't necessarily uninteresting, so long as you can put together an engaging story to those entering that space. The difficulty: creating an engaging story to a potentially apathetic individual."

A point could also be made for the land’s contrast to the otherwise lush greenery that makes up the rest of the park, and its outward comic relief being a well-earned breather from all that nature and conservation and “man is evil” stuff. How funny that we find this representation of stereotypical amusement attractions at the park often criticised for being little more than a glorified zoo, ay?

Signs like this are a genuine staple of American highways, like the ones littering North and South Carolina for “South of the Boarder”. Photo by Jeremy Thompson of

Many thanks to Jeremy for the photographs. Check out his awesome website.
Also thank you to Rachel for proofreading support.

1 comment:

  1. Although I get why Dinoland is often singled out among the DAK lands, I really don't think it's entirely fair, and it seems to be more indicative of certain class and cultural biases of the people criticizing it than an actual statement on the level of design quality, storytelling, and finish that this area has in comparison to others. Effectively all of Animal Kingdom are these personalized journal entries of travels to marginalized corners of the world brought to functioning, three-dimensional life. Dinoland is a heavily romanticized representation of third-world America in much the same way that Harambe and Anandapur are heavily romanticized representations of third-world Africa and Asia. I wonder how tourists from Kenya or Bangladesh will respond to each of these three areas?

    Also, it's not really accurate to say that Disney's representations of cheap amusements are simply substitutions for actual cheap amusements that can be found down the road. Having done a fair amount of travel, I can say I've never encountered any place that feels quite like Dinoland. Most modern roadside attractions are made using easily procured, generic, prefabricated construction methods, which produces quite a stark contrast from Disney's vision of a nearly 100% customized, DIY expression of local and personal values.

    Same thing with Paradise Pier; the "classic" seaside amusement park is nearly extinct along the west coast, available in only one or two miraculously preserved attractions in Southern California (Santa Monica's Looff carousel, Belmont Park's Giant Dipper; both parks are otherwise filled with off-the-shelf 90's rides and decor), and to some degree the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk five hours north (which I doubt receives even 1/10 the visitation as Paradise Pier anyway).