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Why theme parks are now like mixtapes

Disney’s theme parks are mixing and matching their rides, becoming more like playlists than albums

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Over 60 years after its opening, Disneyland and its sibling theme parks have become a powerful, profitable, and reliable pillar of the Walt Disney Co. When Walt Disney’s genre-defining theme park opened in the orange groves of Southern California in 1955, it was a relatively bespoke and personal statement as well as a financial gamble. Now its a collection of ideas, properties, and fantasies, imagined by countless designers, engineers, and artists.

Sure, Disneyland is the same park, but it’s experienced dramatic change from a shift in the way theme parks are conceptualized and expanded. Global success and even greater ambition have changed what a theme park is.

Theme parks aren’t conceived with wholly unique attractions anymore; instead, their designers pull from an increasingly deep back catalog of existing and proven rides, designs, characters, and properties. To understand the theme parks of today you need to understand that they aren’t made like albums: they’re made like mixtapes.


First, let’s talk Bowie

David Bowie’s Low was a landmark album, melding Bowie’s typical themes of isolation and introspection with a new avant garde sound developed during his recovery-induced retreat to Berlin. The album’s opener, “Speed of Life,” remains absolutely perfect, easing the listener into Low’s post-rock minimalism, while still maintaining Bowie’s emotional distance. He doesn’t sing; he lets the music do the talking.

The instrumental track in many ways defined the 1976 album and this era of Bowie’s work, but those themes also spoke to me on a personal level during the summer of 2009 as I struggled with my own sort of malaise and uncertain future. “Speed of Life” was undeniably David Bowie’s but like so much good music, it felt like it was also my own, a song that somehow captured all the feelings I couldn’t reduce to words.

I put the track on a mixtape labeled Lost Summer, and suddenly a song from a specific time, by a specific man, and for a specific purpose on a specific album, had a new meaning and new life completely out of its original surroundings. I did not change the song, but I changed its context. And for everybody who listened to that mixtape, I ever so slightly changed its meaning.

The Haunted Mansion in New Orleans Square at Disneyland, opened in 1969.
The Haunted Mansion in New Orleans Square at Disneyland, opened in 1969.
Photo: James Hilger for Polygon

What I did with Bowie’s single is a small scale version of what Disney Parks have been doing for decades with theme parks attractions.

Disneyland’s final big expansion before Walt Disney’s death was New Orleans Square. The land opened in 1966 and would become home to two landmark attractions: Pirates of the Caribbean and the iconic Haunted Mansion.

The Haunted Mansion’s stately exterior, as well as the playfully macabre attraction contained within, helped paint the beautiful, romantic, yet mysterious and mystical New Orleans Disney was shooting for, one that helped New Orleans Square redefine what theme parks as an art form were capable of. New Orleans Square was simultaneously the platonic ideal of the real New Orleans and a textured fantasy loosely based on that ideal.

New Orleans Square immediately became a core part of Disneyland with the Haunted Mansion integral to both. It was a declaration that theme parks could simultaneously work as a sort of urban idealism as well as a fantastical exploration of darker and more existential themes. The area moved Disneyland’s fictions beyond the retold fairy tales of Fantasyland, providing more of an urban edge than the squeaky-clean idealism of Main Street.

By 1971, the Disney company had turned its focus towards a Florida installment of its Disneyland concept: a, bigger, more ambitious park near Orlando, Florida called the Magic Kingdom. The Magic Kingdom was built essentially as a remix of sorts of the original Disneyland, some of its lands merging or reconceptualizing what had worked in the original park. Instead of New Orleans Square, it was built with a land known as Liberty Square that explores themes related to the formation of America via attractions such the The Hall of Presidents. Despite this difference, and despite the Haunted Mansion’s close ties to New Orleans Square, the Haunted Mansion was still placed in the Magic Kingdom, like taking a song from a classic album and dropping it into a mixtape.

The Haunted Mansion in Liberty Square at the Magic Kingdom, opened in 1971.
The Haunted Mansion in Liberty Square at the Magic Kingdom, opened in 1971.
Photo: James Hilger for Polygon

With music we tend to think in units of songs, which are traditionally collected into an album, the song’s very creation stemming from that album’s themes and overarching vision. Similarly with theme parks we tend to talk about the attractions, the rides and shows that we wait in those long lines for, which are typically collected into themed areas or lands which in turn are collected into the theme parks we buy the tickets for.

A specific song is associated with a specific album just as a specific attraction is associated with a specific land in a specific theme park. What “Speed of Life” is to the emotional distance of Low, Main Street is to Disneyland’s Americana-tinged idealism, Spaceship Earth is to Epcot’s map of human progress, Kilimanjaro Safaris is to Animal Kingdom’s vision of conservation and ecology.

Mixtapes are different: They cherry pick parts from other works to construct something new and say something distinct.

Mixtapes summarize our summer. Energize our workout. Nervously declare our love and then cause us to second guess just how many D’Angelo songs is one too many. Just like albums, mixtapes work towards a theme, the difference being they repurpose a variety of established and disparate work, rather than assemble something new.

Aside from the Haunted Mansion itself, Liberty Square hits very different textures and beats than Anaheim’s take on New Orleans. Liberty Square is a take on colonial America, the land telling a tale of America’s progression as both a physical place and as a governed nation. To better fit inside the new setting, Disney’s imagineers gave The Haunted Mansion’s exterior a new look: a gothic, east coast mansion replaces the southern antebellum mansion from Disneyland. But inside, at its core, it’s practically the exact same attraction.

Rather than create a new song for its new album, Disney was thinking about the Magic Kingdom more in terms of remixes and mixtapes. Despite the change in lands, the Haunted Mansion ultimately fits well into the Magic Kingdom’s Liberty Square, the new context causing it to weave different threads and create a new but similar experience out of the same form. Where New Orleans Square used the attraction to flesh out the voodoo mysticism of New Orleans, Liberty Square used it to symbolize the anxiety of early America and its fascination with the occult. Both sets of themes ultimately work as both Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom paint an idealized, fantastic, Americana, the Haunted Mansion in Liberty Square a prime example of how the mixtape approach can squeeze new texture off a pre-existing track. However, Disney would soon use the mixtape approach to take more drastic contextual leaps.

Always Crashing in the Same Car

The next evolution of the mixtape approach would hit thanks to the exciting new 1986 attraction based on the Star Wars films known as Star Tours. Star Tours was designed as a purposeful attempt to fill a very specific existing space in Disneyland’s Tomorrowland as well as breathe a specific bit of relevance into Disneyland. Star Tours was a very bespoke fit for both Tomorrowland’s space-tinged futurism and Disneyland’s world-building fantasy, designed to transport you to a galaxy far, far away.

That specificity of purpose was quickly get thrown out the window in 1989 when that very same Star Tours attraction was added to Walt Disney World — not in the Magic Kingdom’s Tomorrowland, nor the Magic Kingdom at all, but Disney’s then brand new Disney-MGM Studios (now Disney’s Hollywood Studios) theme park. Disney-MGM Studios was a theme park about movies and movie magic, and Star Tours was placed in an area themed around Los Angeles’ Echo Lake. In this context, Star Tours was not representing futuristic space fantasy at all, instead somewhat sloppily representing movies and moviemaking with an exterior that confusingly hinted that Star Tours was actually a hot movie set.

Disneyland and Disney-MGM Studios could not be more different as theme parks, completely different albums with different themes and vision, but here they were sharing a hit track in common. Star Tours was the first ride to completely divorce itself from its original context, both micro and macro, the most blatant use of the mixtape approach to theme parks yet. Unlike the Haunted Mansion in Liberty Square, Star Tours arguably works less well at supporting the themes and goals of Disney-MGM Studios: it’s based on a movie, yes, but it doesn’t tell you much about making them or their legacy. Despite this, Star Tours was a hit with guests at both parks, the industry’s willingness to deconstruct the parks and lands for their constituent parts and then recontextualize them for different purposes, like songs on a mixtape, further emboldened.

Art Decade

Indiana Jones Adventure at Disneyland, opened in 1994.
Indiana Jones Adventure at Disneyland, opened in 1994.
Photo: James Hilger for Polygon

Following the lead of Disney-MGM, the mid ‘90s to the mid 2000s brought a slew of new theme park openings which, when combined with a growing back-catalog of existing attractions, created the perfect storm for theme park designers to fully embrace the mixtape approach. Ripping attractions from one context and placing them in a new one has been a mixed bag of success.

Disney’s Animal Kingdom theme park opened in 1998 with It’s Tough to be a Bug, an attraction literally located within the park’s iconic Tree of Life. Three years later, that same attraction was added to the newly opened Disney’s California Adventure, a theme park about California. Disneyland’s 1994 hit Indiana Jones Adventure ended up in Tokyo’s brand-new DisneySea in 2001, fitting well in a bespoke land tailor-made to serve the attraction. California Adventure’s 2001 ode to aviation history and California landmarks, Soarin’ Over California, found itself in Epcot’s Future World of all places in 2005, renamed simply Soarin’ It still tours California and still has nothing to do with the future.

Indiana Jones Adventure at Tokyo DisneySea, opened in 2001.
Indiana Jones Adventure at Tokyo DisneySea, opened in 2001.
Photo: James Hilger for Polygon

The list goes on to this day, theme parks pulling from each other to build themselves, the way you or I will pull songs from various albums in our music libraries to construct a mixtape. Where the original Disneyland had to create every attraction from scratch, today it’s simply a given that new theme parks will contain some hits from those that already exist, that the latest new attraction to hit a theme park in one country may be a version of an 18-year-old hit from another. Disney’s back catalog is now so large it could conceivably make a completely “new” theme park consisting of nothing but a collection of thematic Greatest Hits from other, already existing Disney theme parks.

Take all the water attractions like Splash Mountain and you have ‘Disney’s Splash Kingdom’. Take all the space-themed attractions like Space Mountain and you have ‘Space Station Disney’. The permutations – the mixtapes – are conceivably endless. With the mixtape approach art become more about intention and context than literal creation.

Breaking Glass

Hogsmeade at Islands of Adventure, opened in 2010.
Hogsmeade at Islands of Adventure, opened in 2010.
Photo: James Hilger for Polygon

More recently the mixtape approach to theme parks has evolved to an even more extreme form, moving beyond the attraction level and instead operating on the scale of entire themed lands. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter debuted with Hogsmeade at Universal’s Islands of Adventure theme park in Orlando in 2010, but that same area was built at the Universal Studios theme parks in Osaka in 2014 and Hollywood in 2016.

Toy Story Land popped up as a grand expansion to Hong Kong Disneyland in 2010, but a remix of it now also appears at Disney’s Hollywood Studios as of 2018. The ultimate realization of this approach may be Disney’s Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, freshly opened at Anaheim’s Disneyland this past May and set to open this August at Orlando’s Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Both versions of this land will be all but identical, despite appearing in two very different theme parks with very different visions, just like Star Tours before it.

By designing themed lands for multiple contexts, old notions of how theme parks can and should be designed are being completely shattered. Galaxy’s Edge may be the first entire theme park land written not for the album approach but for the mixtape — imagined from the ground up to exist in multiple parks with their own themes and purposes.

Hogsmeade at Universal Studios Hollywood, opened in 2016.
Hogsmeade at Universal Studios Hollywood, opened in 2016.
Photo: James Hilger for Polygon

A New Career in a New Town

Industries change and evolve, which nobody knows better than the music industry. It’s a struggle to sell albums these days; the industry instead has moved towards creating hit songs that hook us into plays on subscription services such as Spotify or Apple Music.

A similar shift has taken place with theme parks. Increasing revenue has largely meant two things: more parks across the globe, and getting guests near these locations to visit more and spend more. So along with new resorts in China, theme parks have also trended towards “theme parks as a service.” Annual passes with monthly payment plans have become increasingly popular over time, with Disney introducing new, lower-cost options for non-locals who still visit on the regular. Not to mention the continued expansion of Disney’s timeshare Disney Vacation Club encouraging a never-ending stream of Disney vacations, usually to the same park. Disney hooks you in to its parks as a lifestyle, the way families used to have or aspire to have a lake house.

Theme parks as a service has created the need for a fairly consistent stream of new attractions to appeal to those that see them yearly, monthly, and even weekly. This increased pace has often meant cribbing from the worldwide back catalog to bolster the local Anaheim, Orlando, Tokyo, Paris, Hong Kong, or Shanghai resort’s offerings. When you take a global perspective, the number of attractions that exclusively define each theme park is dwindling with time, each theme park becoming less a completely unique album, and more a thematic mixtape pulling from Disney’s increasingly deep back catalog. Currently Disney’s Hollywood Studios is becoming less an album about the golden age of Hollywood and moviemaking and more a mixtape of songs related to Disney-owned film franchises. Epcot a mixtape of technology-related and cultural Disney content. Even the original Disneyland, the one that started it all from scratch, is transitioning from being the album Disneyland to a mixtape heavily based on that album.

Looking back to the music industry, the fear of a world without albums is that the more complex statements and themes they allowed will disappear, that a certain depth will be lost if songwriting becomes more about writing the next Spotify hit and less about creating the next Sgt. Pepper’s. A mixtape can never have the depth and purpose of an album, right?

Later in life I would discover that David Bowie’s Low, so purposeful for me, had no real driving vision, Bowie declaring plainly of its recording “I had no statement to make.” Perhaps purpose and depth don’t need to be willed from nothingness. Perhaps commercial art such as albums and theme parks need a looser definition in a culture of remixes, DJs, curated playlists, DLC, and algorithms.

The creation of the “theme” in theme parks may be changing, less about auteur vision and statement and more an ethereal set of structural and emotional textures pulled from a mix of original and existing sources. We may be witnessing the natural and necessary evolution of the most physically constrained and expensive of commercial art forms, one that increasingly depends on referencing and remixing itself within new contexts and cultures to maintain its continued growth, relevance, and reach. Disneyland started as Walt Disney’s album but now it’s Bob Iger’s mixtape, both contributing to and pulling from Disney’s theme park menagerie, as much a composite as it is a personal statement.

“Sometimes I don’t feel as if I’m a person at all. I’m just a collection of other people’s ideas.” - David Bowie

The spires of Galaxy’s Edge, opened in 2019, loom above Disneyland’s Frontierland, opened in 1955.
The spires of Galaxy’s Edge, opened in 2019, loom above Disneyland’s Frontierland, opened in 1955.
Photo: James Hilger for Polygon

James is a writer and photographer that explores the art and culture of theme parks at www.madnesskingdom.com. He can be found on Twitter as @MadnessKingdom.