Entry By: Mel Mcgowan Inception Date: 02.1.12

Coney Island-Where it all started




1. The systematic study of the art and science of the theme park, especially the study of the origins, organization, development, and nature of said art form.

2. The indulgent ramblings of an industry veteran trying to make sense of it all


also,  park·ol’o·gist n.


Welcome to Parkology. As both a fan and a designer of themed attractions, I’ve been asked by Blooloop, the leading theme park industry website, to create a space to explore the history & future of the form, as well as to reflect on what they mean. Such musings have largely been limited to the Disney Parks in the blogosphere. However, I believe that each theme park has its own story to tell, and that the impact of “Walt’s Revolution” reaches far beyond the landscaped “berm” designed to keep the “real world” out. We’ll also explore how the design of themed attractions have influenced the world that we live, work, worship, and play in.


From Luna Park to Virgin Galactic’s Spaceport, the themed attraction is a unique cultural art form, with its own heritage, trajectory and extremely large canvases!


Houston, we have liftoff!

A Spaceship Named "Luna"


Luna Park

Contrary to popular opinion, it didn’t start with a mouse. It also didn’t start with Walt sitting on a bench at Griffith Park eating peanuts while his daughters rode a carousel. Although Knott’s Berry Farm has hung its cowboy hat on being “America’s First Theme Park,” I’d give the plaque to Luna Park.


Stereoscopic (prehistoric ViewMaster) view of Luna Park

Luna Park was actually built on the site of the first gated amusement park on Coney Island New York, Sea Lion Park. One of its founding partners Fred Thompson, knew enough about architecture to be dangerous.  The Chicago World’s Fair’s “White City” was a neoclassical vision of Heaven by day and an electric “city on a hill” by night that burned itself into the collective memory of 27 million of Americans that witnessed it during its 6 month run. Its “Midway Plaisance” international amusement zone established the linear mall layout that has been emulated hundreds of times around the world.  It served as the model of the 1901 Pan-American Exposition which featured one of the first “E-Ticket” attractions: “A Trip to the Moon.” The runaway hit was inspired by the silent film of the same name by George Melies (whose amazing talent and story is featured in my favorite film of the year, “Hugo”).


1901 Pan-American Exposition Midway

Melies' Le Voyage Dans La Lune

Rather than simply fusing the “Midway” layout with the neoclassical architecture of the White City (like dozens of uninspired copycats from neighboring Dreamland to the dozens of Electric Parks and White Cities across the US), Thompson intentionally designed the first gated theme park around his “E-Ticket” attraction…and what a theme it was: a city on the moon!  “A Trip to the Moon,” was an extravaganza that was not surpassed until Walt Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” six decades later.  In a precursor to the motion simulators and 4D theaters of today, your Victorian spaceship seats pitched as painted scenic canvases rolled past portholes simulating a fantastical space voyage. Upon landing you exited the spacecraft and were greeted with sensual “Moon Maidens” offering a taste of cheese pulled off the cavern walls. Talk about a multi-sensory experience!


A Trip to the Moon "post show"

Like today’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter, the anchor attraction was embedded in an immersive environment which extends the story beyond the ride time. Outside “A Trip to the Moon” the fantasy continued with a lunar cityscape consisting of hundreds of towers and minarets described by visitors as an “electric Baghdad by the sea.” Rather than choosing a known historic geography or even directly interpreting a known media property (Melies’ “A Trip to the Moon” silent movie, the first “sci-fi” blockbuster), Thompson and his business partner “Skip” Dundy, loosely appropriated exotic architectural details from throughout Asia and the Middle East in a wholly original composition, using sophisticated scaling techniques such as forced perspective. Entered from an iconic gateway on Surf Avenue, the vista was closed by deflecting the linear “Midway” axis, creating a sense of discovery. Multiple levels included elevated terraces and promenades culminating in the iconic “Shoot the Chutes” ride (the first flume ride, one of the few holdovers from Sea Lion Park).


"Electric Baghad by the Sea"

At the scale of just one of Disney’s “lands” (22 acres), Thompson & Dundy had elevated the pleasure garden and amusement park into an wholly immersive, multisensory environmental experience which transported visitors away from the grim urban reality of turn of the century New York. A new art form had been invented: the theme park.

Luna Park's Midway

  • http://twitter.com/AshleyASmith ash

    I have always been fascinated by parks and theme park experiences. My first career started at Disney when I was 18 and I fell in love with the idea of immersing guests into a full experience. I love how you took us through the historical landmark parks- cheese, moon- brilliant. What do you see as the future?

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  • Mel

    Thanks for your comment and question Ash. I see much of the future as remembering what we forgot! As a designer, I often find inspiration in the dialogue between past, present & future. As much as technologies, interactivity, mass customization, etc offer us in new horizons, “Big Ideas” from yesterday are often ripe for rediscovery. For example, a recent trend is focusing on new “lands” (Carsland, Harry Potter, Avatar) rather than just individual “white-knuckle” thrill rides. These were the draw and the “E-Tickets” of the original Disneyland, as emphasized and sold on the segments and structure of Walt’s weekly TV show. Disney’s latest announcement of transporting its guests to the alien world of Pandora reminds me of the promise offered to turn-of-the-century guests boarding the spaceship “Luna.”

  • Greenarch

    I really enjoyed this article. I’m sure that I had heard some aspects of the origin of Luna Park but I don’t recall that it was based on the Jules Verne novel and silent movie “From the Earth to the Moon”. I too loved the moon maidens greeting you with cheese. It’s unfortunate that so many people visit some of these historic parks and don’t know or appreciate the history involved. 

    Mel just touched on the history of Knott’s Berry Farm briefly in his previous article. Having worked for years off and on for the Knott’s people I can really appreciate it’s history. Most people don’t know that Walter Knott, Walt seemingly being a popular name for theme park pioneer’s, lived next to a botanist named, wait for it, Walter Boysen. He produced a new berry by cross breeding blackberries and raspberries that he called the Boysenberry. However he didn’t quite care for it. He sold the patent to the Knott’s family and Mrs. Knott’s used to sell boysenberry pies along with fried chicken from a roadside stand. This became so popular that they built the restaurant and later brought in real ghostown structures from the Mojave desert to entertain guests while they waited for the now famous Mrs. Knott’s  Chicken Dinner. Later came the stage coach and then the train and the rest is history. At least that’s the version of the story I remember. It’s sad that most guests today can’t appreciate that story.

    I think that a lot of what we can expect in the future of the themed entertainment experience will have a healthy dose of looking back, or at least I hope so. Again I really enjoyed this article, my only criticism would be that I wish it was longer and went into more depth about the origins and history of this iconic park. Thanks Mel.

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