I had originally intended to have this post up a couple of weeks ago, but that was back around the time that things, as described in the post directly below this one, started going from being just a little crazy to being just plain ridiculous. Now that I’ve started the new job things have finally managed to settle down some, which should allow a bit of respite, for at least a couple of weeks until Thanksgiving arrives and brings with it the whole general mishmash of the Holiday season (assuming that you haven’t already been wallowing in Holiday stuff since August, that is.) Anyway, this post is intended to be a followup to a previous post from a couple of weeks ago, which itself was inspired by the short trip I took to Disneyland in May, but sat in my draft queue for several months before it got finished.
To briefly summarize the previous post, I talked a little bit about some of the challenges facing the designers (or Imagineers as the case may be) of the various theme parks in trying to create believable fantasies, and how this ultimately runs into the seemingly impenetrable barrier that comes with an inability for some people (especially adults) to suspend disbelief. Although we can still appreciate the technical achievements that have gone into the creation of these parks and their various rides and shows, eventually there has to be a point where one will inevitably realize that Mickey Mouse is just a guy in a suit, and that the hitchhiking ghosts riding in your doom buggy are the result of animatronics and trick mirrors. Those of us who might be bringing children along with us for the trip will make an effort to maintain the illusion for the benefit of the kids for at least a while, but they too will come to the same conclusion.
So what can be done about this? Well, right now, not much. After all, the problems I’m talking about here don’t seem to be hurting Disney any. In fact, Disneyland and Disney World managed to actually increase their year-over-year attendance figures in 2009 in spite of the economy, and the Disneyland Resort currently boasts record numbers of annual passholders. California Adventure is expected to complete a major overhaul in 2012, headlined by the addition of Cars Land and the now open World of Color nighttime show, as well as significant rethemings of several other rides and areas of the park. If you can manage it, I happen to think the parks in both California and Florida are well worth visiting as is, but as I’ve thought about this, I’ve wondered if there might be a completely different approach to a theme park that could not only provide an entertaining destination for people of all ages, but completely eliminate the issue of suspension of disbelief. Why not build a theme park based on the real world?
Yeah, I already know that pretty much everything else I’m going to write here is basically just delusions of grandeur (at least unless the stock options I have at my new job somehow manage to make me ridiculously wealthy,) but if you think about it, there are a lot of things in the real world that I think could be just as fascinating to children and their parents alike as any elaborately crafted animatronic ride-through. Take, for example, manufacturing. These days, the sheer amount of machinery and automation that goes into the production of all sorts of everyday items is staggering, and I suspect that most people these days don’t have a clue where most of the stuff they use on an everyday basis comes from. Although TV shows like How It’s Made and Unwrapped have become popular enough to establish a small niche genre on cable TV, there just aren’t a lot of factories out there that people can go in and take tours of (Hershey’s Chocolate World in Hershey PA sort of fits the definition, but it’s only a simulation of the manufacturing process, as the number of visitors it attracts is too much for the actual factory to handle.) Unfortunately, most factories tend to be dangerous and loud places, and wouldn’t exactly be good places to be bringing a couple million visitors a year into.
Even so, if you could find a way around the various logistical problems involved, I could see a ride through a working factory being something that could have the potential to be quite popular. After all, you’ve got plenty of action to watch (provided it can be done in a way that it can be made easily visible to spectators,) you’ve got a story to tell, and you wouldn’t have any problem stocking the gift shop at the end of the ride. In fact, there’s a semi-obscure attraction offered at Disney’s California Adventure park with a small-scale tortilla factory that serves mostly to supply tortillas to some of the nearby restaurants, but also offers free samples to the guests as they pass through. It’s a fairly basic operation without a lot of moving parts involved, but it does act as a bit of a proof of concept. Of course, putting a small factory into your park making various trinkets is one thing, but if you really want something impressive you’d have to go for something big like a steel mill. Quite frequently on TV shows you’ll see the giant smelting furnaces pouring out tons of molten steel to form giant billets and girders, and it looks like the type of thing that would be quite impressive to see in real life. It also looks like the type of thing that could probably result in fiery death if you made one wrong move around the stuff, but that’s beside the point.
Then again, if you’re trying to build a whole theme park based on this stuff you’d probably need a whole lot more than that, but there are still plenty of possibilities. I’m sure we’ve all seen young children fascinated by heavy construction equipment, as evidenced by the ongoing popularity of Tonka trucks and shows like Bob the Builder. I’d be willing to bet you might even find a few grown-ups out there who, given the chance, might enjoy the chance to play around with a full-sized backhoe or a bulldozer for a while. Once again, we’re running into some major safety issues, but remember that this whole thing is pretty much delusions of grandeur in the first place, so we can all pretend it’s perfectly safe for now. And that you aren’t going to run out of stuff to dig in oh, about three days. Even if you don’t exactly want random people off the street wandering around in heavy machinery, I think some people would find it interesting to go on a ride through an active skyscraper construction site to see how the things are built. Which, of course, presents its own set of quite likely insurmountable challenges.
And even though big heavy equipment seems like the star attraction here, I think there’s a possibility that even slightly more mundane things could be interesting to play with given the proper context. I know I personally like to tinker around the kitchen when I get the chance to do so, and would enjoy the chance to play around with some of the latest kitchen toys you’ve been hearing about in the really fancy places these days. Stuff like sous-vide machines and liquid nitrogen freezers that most people probably won’t ever see outside of an Iron Chef America episode sound like they’d be fun to experiment with and try out, but are hideously expensive and would practically take up my whole kitchen here. Heck, even spending some time a well-stocked kitchen of high-end equipment would be something I probably wouldn’t get a chance to do otherwise (they actually have a pretty nice kitchen downstairs in the lounge area at my apartment complex, but using it requires a costly rental of the entire lounge, making it impractical.) Sure I’d probably manage to burn food and/or extremities horrendously in the process, but it would be fun to play with for a while, right?
And even though things like this would most likely be impossible to pull off in real life thanks to some combination of impracticality and/or swarms of rabid lawyers, you can still see elements of some of these in some of the places we have already. In addition to the above mentioned tortilla factory example at California Adventure, there are several theme parks that include “behind the scenes” rides or tours, and I happen to think something like that would be interesting to do someday. Those are pretty much only showing you what’s behind the scenes at a theme park, but when you think of the logistics involved in running a place that millions of people pass through yearly and keeping everything from falling apart at the seems, you can begin to appreciate the efforts needed to do this. Ultimately, now that I think about the concept more and get it down in print (or whatever the virtual equivalent is supposed to be called) I doubt it would be possible to get an entire park out of these things (if nothing else, you’d probably want at least a few thrill rides to keep things interesting) but when people finally start to get bored of fantasies, no matter how elaborate, maybe a good strong dose of reality might be just what’s needed to keep things interesting.