Many people often incorrectly interchange the words “amusement park” and “theme park”. What’s the difference you ask? It’s very simple to remember; all theme parks are amusement parks, but not all amusement parks are theme parks. Still confused? Let me explain. 

An amusement park is defined as a park that offers visitors various attractions, such as rides, games, shows, or other forms of entertainment. Theme parks offer all the things that amusement parks offer, but the differentiating factor is theme parks base all of their assets (attractions) around a central, well defined unifying theme that can have multiple sub-themes underneath the guiding principle or ‘theme’ of the park. While amusement parks may have notions of underlying themes or stories that drive their idea, and can be located in beautiful settings, theme parks take those design principles to the extreme where the visitor or guest is immersed into a unifying ‘theme’. One common element found in amusement parks and theme parks, however, is the range of attractions or offerings they provide that are suitable for multiple age groups. 

Amusement parks have been around much longer than theme parks. Amusement parks evolved out of European pleasure gardens, picnic areas, and traveling carnivals and fairs dating back as early as the 12thCentury Middle Ages in Europe. History tells us the oldest amusement park is ‘Bakken’ in Denmark, which dates back to the 16thCentury. The more ‘modern’ amusement parks are the combinations of stationary fairs, pleasure gardens, and world’s fairs popular in 19thCentury Europe. These were places for large audiences to see attractions that often are associated with traveling circuses, such as menageries, acrobatics, freak shows, etc.

The Industrial Revolution, the introduction of machinery and the advent of electricity, would forever change amusement parks and transform them into the modern iteration as we know them today. The introduction of new Victorian era technologies and reduced working hours for the working class, allowed for fixed or stationary mechanical rides, such as roller coasters and carousels, to become more prevalent and available in amusement parks. In the United States, the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition was the catalyst for the modern amusement park in North America. It was at the Columbian Exposition that the birth of the ‘midway’ was born which showcased shooting arcades and games of chance.

Modern amusement parks post 19thCentury, in both Europe and the United States, have always had the challenge of getting the mass populous to the front door of the parks. The invention and integration of local and regional mass transportation, such as the trolley car or railroad, was a means allowing both the working class and upper class to access amusement parks often located short distances outside of or near the larger city centers where the bulk of the populations lived at that time. Sea Lion Park at Coney Island, in the United States, holds the title for the first permanently enclosed, single owner entertainment venue (amusement park) opening its doors in 1897. England’s first amusement park, the Blackpool Pleasure Beach, was opened one year earlier in 1896.

As the 20thCentury came around, and as the world began to heal itself from the first World War, amusement parks evolved with larger attractions, bigger roller coasters, and larger thrills. As the wide range use of electricity began to permeate cities, it extended the hours of amusement parks into the evening hours; transforming the feel of these day parks into something even more magical at night. The Golden Age of amusement parks is often attributed to the 1920’s. As the Great Depression in the 1930’s and World War II in the 1940’s affected the sentiment of the population and ignited a migration of the U.S. population from the city centers to the suburbs, amusement parks began to see a decline in attendance. By the 1950’s and 1960’s many of the urban, Golden Age amusement parks fell into disarray or became victims of mass fires and low attendance.

Theme parks, on the other hand, are a relatively new iteration of the old amusement parks. Theme parks, in the United States, have their origins dating back to the 1940’s, with Santa Claus Land, which opened in 1946, being attributed as America’s first theme park. Other, regional family owned theme parks would begin to pop up in the U.S. in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Some with lasting success to the modern day, others succumbing to hard times during economic downturns. 

The landscape and future of the theme park industry would forever change, however, on July 17, 1955 when Walt Disney opened Disneyland. Walt’s vision and advancement of the unified storyline that binds a theme park was inspired by his early visits to Griffith Park in California. Walt Disney’s vision quickly evolved theme park’s use of technology and storytelling, in a safe and clean environment, to a whole new level. In Walt’s theme parks, Guests were completely whisked away from the ordinary, real world and immersed into multiple storylines that were unified by a clearly defined theme and concept.

Today, amusement parks and theme parks are opening up and continue to operate around the world. With iconic brands such as Six Flags, Sea World, Busch Gardens, Universal Studios, Warner Brothers and Ferrari World; the days of the old pleasure gardens with side show freaks amazing audiences are seemingly a thing of the past. Today’s amusement parks and theme parks are multibillion-dollar places of entertainment that utilize and often create some of the most advanced technology in immersive guest experiences.

How to Become a Theme Park Architect

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