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Amusement Parks

Amusement parks are leisure locations where large groups of people can enjoy various attractions, rides, and performances. They differ from circuses and carnivals in that they are usually found in a fixed location. Amusement parks have evolved over time, growing from simple country fairs and playgrounds to more elaborate and grand entertainment centers, hosting millions of visitors each year. Though many of them as regarded as a recreation option for a younger generation, there are plenty of amusement parks that are targeted towards more mature audiences as well. There are several different types of amusement parks, ranging from the more grandiose international theme parks like Disneyland and Universal Studios, to medium sized parks like Six Flags, and even local and regional parks that cater to smaller groups of people. Admission is usually paid for, either on a pay-as you go basis, or a one-time entry free, with a range of food and beverage options and other services like parking and locker facilities that account for the bulk of the parks’ revenues. While the amusement park industry has seen ups and downs mostly along the lines of the economy, the industry generates approximately $12 billion in revenues each year, and contributes about $57 million to the U.S. economy (1). In addition to this, the industry provides jobs for more than 600,000 full-time and part-time employees per year. In recent times, there have been a handful of incidents in which patrons have accidentally been harmed or injured, which is one of the main criticisms against amusement parks. However, this has not stemmed the popularity of the vast majority of amusement parks, a fact that can be observed in the millions of tourists who still visit these parks every year.

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History of Amusement Parks

Though many attribute the birth of the amusement park to Walt Disney World, the truth is that amusement parks have existed in various forms for many centuries! The oldest of these roots can be traced back to the Middle Ages, when the Bartholomew Fair in England opened its doors to the public. With live performances such as magicians, acrobats, musicians and more, the fair drew an audience that represented all the classes of London society, until it was forced to close in 1855 on grounds of ‘public disorder’. Public pleasure gardens, which were also popular in that era, are also often cited as the original inspiration behind amusement parks. These were large open gardens that hosted live performances of music, theatre, and other forms of entertainment. Though initially targeted towards the social elite and the gentry, they developed over time as spaces where the general public could also find amusement. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution the industry saw the development of many innovations, such as steam powered and mechanical rides. The most famous of these, the steam powered carousel, was invented by Thomas Bradshaw, which was soon to be followed by several variations in the next few years. More modern influences of amusement parks include the World Fairs, which were established in the late 19th century to celebrate the technological and developmental advancements of countries. These fairs saw a slew of innovations that paved the way for the modern day amusement park. Finally, with the increase in public wages, more people could afford to spend their earnings on leisure activities, a fact that coincided with the mushrooming of several small beachside parks and resorts that saw an increase in popularity over the years. By the early 1990s, there were more than a hundred amusement parks in the US alone. With the reduced working hours (2) and increased conspicuous consumption contributing to their growth, parks like Coney Island, Blackpool, and Steeplechase Park, and other well-known amusement parks flourished during this era.

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However, the upswing could not last forever. As the Great Depression and the World Wars began to take their toll on the public, amusement parks became a luxury that few could afford. In the wake of urbanization, racial tensions, and public apathy, many once-famous amusement parks were forced to pull down their shutters and declare bankruptcy. The heavy costs of maintaining parks, increasing insurance charges, and reduced flow of visitors were deterrents to the opening of new parks, and in 1939, the number of open parks was as low as it had ever been, at only 245 (3). However, as the economy began to recover, and innovation was on the rise again, the industry began to see a gradual revival, which culminated with the opening of Disneyland in 1955. The launch of Disneyland was a milestone that would long be remembered in the amusement park industry. It was a breath of fresh air that completely revolutionized the world of amusement parks. With eighteen new attractions over a 160 acre ground, the park was built entirely upon the whim of its founder, Walt Disney, who, inspired by watching his two daughters ride a carousel, envisioned a place for parents and children to enjoy together. Though the initial opening day of the new park was plagued by accidents, it hosted a “second opening day” which was more successful. Disneyland set the stage for a new kind of amusement park - the theme park, in which the entire visitor experience was woven around a universal theme, allowing them to escape from reality, and experience a magical and exciting world. It was this innovation that made Disneyland the success it was. In fact, the most successful amusement parks today are also large theme parks, such as Universal Studios, and the Great Adventure, which while not quite as successful as Disneyland, are also popular among recreation-seekers.

Types of Amusement Parks

Though the parks that enjoy the most popularity and footfall are the grand, multi-attraction theme parks, there are also several other kinds of parks that target more specific audiences. These differ from each other on the basis of age groups, regions, and specific objectives. While parks like the Magic Kingdom and Universal Studios try to capture audiences by providing them with extraordinary experiences, there are more educational parks, like the Epcot Centre, which try to educate its patrons though interactive learning. Traditional and localized, family owned parks that cater to specific regions have also become more prevalent over the years. Existing parks also continue to expand through the purchase of new properties. Six Flags is one of the successful multiple-property parks that owns a number of well-frequented locations around the United States. There are also park types that are derived from the attractions they offer, such as water parks which offer water-themed rides, zoological parks, which allow patrons to interact with various forms of wildlife, and adventure parks that are specifically focused on adrenaline-inducing rides and attractions. Though amusement parks originally developed in Western nations, their increasing popularity has led to their expansion in developing countries, where the attractions and experiences are tailored to meet local tastes and cultures. For example, Disneyland, which has opened other parks in countries like China, France, and Japan, manages to stay as popular with the locals as it is in the United States. Another type of amusement parks is the smaller, family-owned parks that offer a limited number of attractions, like bumper cars, go-karts, or penny games and contests. These parks are often seasonal, and are only remain open during popular and tourist seasons in order to keep costs low.

Rides and Attractions

The first amusement parks were dependent on live acts, musical shows, and theatrical performances that were the primary form of entertainment meant to amuse the public. However, as technology began to advance, so did the scope of amusement park rides. From basic mechanical rides such as carousels and go karts, to the wildly popular roller coasters, train rides, Ferris wheels, and finally water rides the options for entertainment are never limited at an amusement park. Though these rides are often restricted to certain audiences, especially due to reasons of safety, most amusement parks also try to have a range of rides meant for all ages that families can enjoy together. Besides mechanical rides, there are also a variety of themed rides that offer the escape-from-reality experience that patrons are often seeking. Haunted houses, magic castles, and interactive adventures are extremely popular, and are often used to complement the chosen theme of the parks. Some parks even employ real live actors to guide groups of patrons through the park, which is even more interactive in nature. Apart from the regular mass-appeal rides, amusement parks also include penny-games and informal contests that allow patrons to win prizes, such as ball-tosses, casino style games, and more. These games not only help to regulate the crowds for the more popular rides but also provide an additional source of revenues for the amusement park. Though most patrons these days are more attracted to technologically innovative rides and experiences, many amusement parks have also attempted to preserve tradition. In many big amusement parks, it is still possible to catch live performances of magic and theatre, musical concerts and fireworks shows. Though parks always try to come up with new rides and attractions to keep its patrons entertained, a lot of the original attractions are also maintained as a part of the parks’ legacy. Disneyland, for example still has fourteen of its original attractions running (4), though the park has expanded exponentially since its opening to include several new theme parks and locations.

The popularity of amusement parks can be evaluated by a variety of measures, including the number of visitors, attractions, or years in business. Certain parks though, have withstood the test of time and managed to remain equally popular over the years, by changing with the times and constantly adapting to people’s tastes. The Magic Kingdom in Florida, for example, right from its launch in 1971, has consistently topped critics’ charts as one of the most evergreen amusement parks. With nearly 18 million visits in 2013, which is a 6% growth over the previous year, the Magic Kingdom continues to enchant its patrons, with an all-encompassing live experience of all the heartwarming tales the animators at Disney have created over the years. Another popular amusement park is the Epcot Center, an educational theme park in Florida which features futuristic and scientific attractions. Sea World and Disney’s Animal Kingdom are two popular zoological theme parks that offer patrons the chance to interact with animals at close quarters and learn more about their natural habitats and behavior. International parks are equally popular, with the Japanese counterpart of Disneyland also enjoying the great reputation of its Florida predecessor, and celebrating its 30th anniversary in 2013.

Criticism of Amusement Parks

There have always been critics of amusement parks, right from the early days when they were denounced as places of decadence and wildness, to modern day issues of quality and safety. While common matters of contention are the increasingly expensive admission fees, poor quality of refreshments, and lack of variety for younger patrons, more serious incidents of injuries, in some extreme cases, even accidental deaths, have begun to plague amusement parks. While these parks are usually stringent with regulations of safety and quality, a lot of these accidents are attributed to the large number of patrons and wear-and-tear of the machinery. However, with the public opinion turning harsher and harsher on these incidents, it is becoming increasingly important for amusement park management to keep a strict control on quality and performance standards. Critics have also spoken out against the mistreatment of animals in these parks, allegedly discriminatory hiring policies, and capacity management issues that the parks face during peak seasons. While amusement parks do their best to maintain a good public image, the customer-centric focus of the industry increases the need for active management to be answerable to patrons.

Amusement Parks Today

In spite of the criticism and an increasing need for innovation in the industry, amusement parks today continue to flourish, with millions of visitors each year. Technological developments as well as the evolution of the entertainment industry, especially media and film, have provided plenty of fresh opportunities for amusement parks. For example, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, a new theme park in Universal Studios, is one of the most popular parks to open in recent years due to the popularity of the Harry Potter series that was authored by J.K. Rowling. Some parks even close down temporarily and reopen after making renovations to upgrade the experience for its patrons. Even the rides have evolved over time, to include more experiential entertainment, such as 4D-cinemas, athletic facilities, interactive adventures and more. Amusement parks make dedicated attempts to retain their visitors through loyalty programs, value-added services, and special promotions throughout the year, and offer various payment options to cater to patrons with special needs. The idea of the traditional amusement park has definitely evolved to encompass a much larger variety of activities and attractions, some of which have become an integral part of modern culture. Larger parks like Disneyland have even attempted to launch themed hotels and cruise lines to enhance the experience of their patrons. Rarely are visits to amusement parks one-day excursions any more, but more popular as long weekend getaways and even holiday destinations for international tourists. The industry receives a lot of media and press coverage, with several specialized websites and magazines dedicated to it. For example, industry achievers are honored in the annual Golden Ticket Awards, sponsored by the Amusement Today magazine. With its amazing historical growth and vast opportunities that lie in store, it seems that for now, the limits are boundless for the industry, and amusement parks will remain a top recreation option for generations to come.

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