The "White City" and the American Dream – 100 Years of Amusement Parks

Release Date: September 6, 1991 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- To library director Judith A. Adams of the University at Buffalo, the amusement park is more than a thrill a minute. It's a gleaming temple to the American dream -- canned fun served up in a somewhat whitened sepulchre.

In her new book, "The American Amusement Park Industry: A History of Technology and Thrills" (Twayne, 1991), Adams demonstrates that while they have changed in many ways over the years, amusement parks have consistently extolled the guiding spirit of American culture (the myth of redemption through technology) while ignoring technology's grimmer consequences.

We may think it's all ours, but the American amusement park is no orphan, says Adams. It is the spawn of 700 years of bawdy English fairs, of elaborate European "pleasure parks" and of the Puritan Pilgrim's allegorical, redemptive notion of a "celestial city on a hill."

From these, the park borrowed such things as its atmosphere of escapism, a tawdry and faintly criminal shadow and its essential form. These were also the sources of hundreds of today's park attractions -- the Ferris wheel, carousel, roller coaster and exotic cultural exhibits that include "faux Europes" and shrines to home grown "saints" like Abraham Lincoln and Bambi.

Historically, fun parks have always tended to lock out most of the nastier realities of daily life, but Adams emphasizes that Americans added one more element: Our parks extol the myth of a technology that is entirely redemptive, soul-saving, glorious. It's an idea that we now export in a variety of forms, one of which is the American-style amusement parks that have blossomed in Korea, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Australia and elsewhere.

The clearly "American" amusement park derives from the 1893 Chicago World's Columbian Exposition. It was there that technology met and married the American dream.

In 1893, Adams recalls, the real city of Chicago "was plagued by political corruption, the horrors of the stockyards, a per capita yearly beer consumption of 49 gallons, 7,000 saloons and 10,000 prostitutes."

The Chicago of the exposition was another thing entirely. It was a shining, neoclassical "White City" that rose out of the Illinois marshlands to bedazzle the public with its vast reflecting pools, elaborate landscaping, intricate layout and gilded allegorical statues to the spirits of the age.

Adams says that the grim reality of life in Chicago actually intensified the message that "unity and utopian perfection" were possible in future American cities. She writes that the exposition "was poignantly revealing of American values and aspirations and of our propensity to focus on the illusion of the future ideal while ignoring temporal reality."

Adams points out that this description applies not only to the Pilgrims' celestial city and its real-life 1893 counterpart, but today's "mousified Meccas to corporate values" that continue the tradition of sanitizing America's dream of itself:

"None of the undesirable results of technological progress impinge upon the Disney paradise. In EPCOT Center, there "is no pollution or acid rain in the 'Universe of Energy;' no famines, dust storms, droughts or even natural dirt in 'The Land;' no gridlock, smog or highway carnage in the 'World of Motion'; no threat of nuclear power, no arms, no wars, no urban ghettos anywhere in 'Future World.'"

It's not simply that we have come to prefer fantasy to a mean reality, but that many prefer it to any reality at all, a fact underscored by the tourist who Adams heard comment that "Disneyland is better" while standing in the shadow of Switzerland's Matterhorn.

While generously acknowledging Disney's elaborate technology and planning, she notes that EPCOT Center, for instance, is distinguished not only for what it leaves out of its descriptions of life on earth, but for what it includes -- a "blatantly selective view of the history and prospects for a technology," an overwhelming commercial pitch for the internal combustion engine and a spectacular celebration of fossil fuels courtesy of the Exxon Corporation.

Although she directly confronts America's neurotic claims to spiritual splendor, Adams' book is also an affectionate biography of the United States told in the language of roller coasters and entrepreneurship. It include hundreds of observations from historic personages, park designers and operators, historians of popular culture and critics of individual parks.

In its pages she tracks the salad days, tragedies and celebrations of traditional parks like Coney Island and Cedar Point; theme parks like Busch Gardens' Dark Continent, Opryland and Sea Worlds of all description. Best of all, she gives us a glimpse of what's in store for us in the fantasy parks of tomorrow. Hint: If you're up in age, a woman and even moderately monied, hitch up your skirts and get ready to fly -- perhaps to a mall in Tuscaloosa.

Amusement Park Facts

* The roots of the amusement park are in medieval England's Bartholomew's Day Fair, a riotous annual event held for 700 years on London's marshy Smithfield Common. For this and other trade fairs, travelers came from all over the country to enjoy the strolling entertainers, food and free-spirited atmosphere clouded with the taint of criminal activity.

* By 1600, the fairs' entertainment factor had decidedly increased. New features included jugglers, puppet shows, genetic "enormityea" and other freaks, fat women, dancers, peep shows, actors, etc. The fair continued to attract a tawdry criminal element and the stigma remained and persisted as a formative factor in the development of the amusement industry.

* By 1800, lighting became an entertainment staple of the fairs and a multitude of lamps were erected to light the way to attractions like the "Pig-faced lady," "Wombwell's Menagerie," the "Fat Boy and Girl," a "Panorama of the Battle of Navarino," fried sausages, bawds, bailies, tumblers, pimps and dancers, black puddings and oysters and, as one poet wrote, "The whole Court of France, and a nice pig in the fire."

* Europe's pleasure gardens emerged in the late 17th century and represented a trend in outdoor amusement that countered the transitory, chaotic fairs. Eighteenth century London boasted 65 such establishments that were open for the entire suitable season, unlike the fairs.

* The heyday of the "pleasure parks" coincided with the industrial revolution in England, and no doubt manifested a desire to preserve idyllic natural settings amid the soot and gray dinginess of industrial cities.

* One London garden covered 12 acres with "a fragrance of walks and bowers," nightingales, intricate landscaping, elaborate fanciful structures, refreshment centers, balloon ascensions, fireworks displays, concerts and theatrical performances.

*As the clientele became more bourgeois, the gardens began to offer prototypes of Disney entertainments: a restaging of the Battle of Waterloo; a facsimile of Mount Etna that actually vomited flames and lava before a final, violent explosion; performances by stars of the day like Mozart and Handel; primitive moving mechanical monsters; distortion mirrors and huge fish and mermaids that rose to the surface of ponds when unsuspecting feet activated hidden triggers.

* Vienna's Prater opened in 1766 as a 2,000-acre public pleasure park that incorporated hand-driven carousels, marionette shows, pyrotechnics and much more. It is still open and remains an unstructured hodgepodge of cafes, gardens, entertainments and booths, some of which have been in the same family for hundreds of years.

* Chicago's 1893 World's Columbian Exposition had a seminal influence on American amusement parks. It gave us the midway and the Ferris wheel, the clearly sectored landscape design, minutely organized environment and the notion of exotic cultural environments as exhibits.

*After our redemption, Americans of the 1920s to the 1940s, wanted to be titillated. This was the era of the roller coaster, dance marathon, games of chance. It was the heyday of Coney Island, Crystal Beach Park, Cedar Point, Six Flags and other "traditional" amusement parks.

*From 1950-1990 American park patrons wanted to be "protected, pampered, comforted and passively entertained," according to Adams. Enter elaborate theme parks like Busch Gardens, marinelands, game farms and Walt Disney-plexes that dapple the highways of our mind --contrived, controlled pleasure enclaves that embrace the glitzy, selective, and wonderful worlds of "Mickey Mouse history and technology-inspired dreams of the future."

Today the American amusement park industry is a $4 billion industry that entertains more than 90 million visitors every year who still want to be absolutely amazed. According to Adams, here's what the future holds for amusement park patrons:

* More American-inspired international amusement park offspring like Oslo's "TusenFryd," Indonesia's "Jaya Ancol Dreamland," Seoul's "Lotte World," "Tokyo Disneyland" and "Atallah Happyland" in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

* More attractions designed to lure older guests -- restaurants, gardens, live entertainment, extravagant simulation experiences that offer safe adventure but leave visitors breathless, like the simulated earthquake and star flight simulator already in place in Disney World.

* "Soft adventure" vacations -- "safe" versions of challenging or dangerous undertakings like mountain climbing or scuba diving that will ensure safety, but satisfy the yen for danger, adventure and the out-of-the-ordinary.

* "Fantasy vacations" will transport visitors into manufactured environments where heightened exotica and dramatic surroundings (location, landscaping, decoration, theme) will intensify traditional vacation activities.

* The downplaying of physically demanding thrill rides designed especially for teen-agers, plus more attractions geared to a single, female and aged population that is more healthy, mobile, affluent and better educated than in the past.

* More amusement parks in "second tier" cities like Kansas City, Louisville, Cincinnati, Reno, Charlotte and Columbus; park activities geared to shorter, more frequent vacations; more amusement parks in shopping malls.

Judith Adams, author of "The American Amusement Park: A History of Technology and Thrills," is the director of the Lockwood Memorial Library at the University at Buffalo. She was born and raised in Keansburg, N.J., near the Jersey shore's major summer amusement areas. Adams has written books and many journal articles on technology and values in American culture, as well as a bibliography of Jules Verne. She has held professional positions at the Library of Congress and at the libraries at Lehigh University, Georgetown University, Oklahoma State University and Auburn University.

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