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A View Across the Water: Theme Park Lagoons

A theme or amusement park’s layout greatly influences the experience of a space. Determining where rides, attractions, food and beverage, retail, and restrooms will dictate where people will walk and what they will see along the way. This is, of course, no secret.

Some amusement parks seem to have little structure at all. I have gotten lost at Six Flags Over Georgia because paths wind in every-which direction, disorienting me from any point of reference. King’s Dominion in Virginia has four distinct spokes: the Congo, the Waterworks water park, the area formerly known Wayne’s World, and Old Virginia. Yet these four areas do not branch out from a single hub. Instead, the center of the park is a mass of three areas: Kidzville, Nickelodeon Central, and the carnival game midway Grove. As the park has added more attractions over the year and swapped parent companies (it was once a Paramount park), the view from any location in the park is relatively cluttered. Traveling through the park is a winding mess (though the inconsistencies are what I find charming).

The “hub and spoke” design of Disneyland and Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom allows visitors to quickly move from one land to the next with relative ease. They might travel in a clockwise or counterclockwise pattern from one area to the next, but they also have the option of cutting through the central hub to skip to a place of interest. This design obscures the view of each area. And while standing in the middle of the park the player might be able to see the tops of Space, Splash or Big Thunder Mountains, there’s no overview of what the park has to offer. This is by design, of course. The Magic Kingdom calls for the isolation of each land to produce a coherent theme and unbroken image.

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But not all parks deny their denizens a total view. Epcot’s World Showcase and Universal’s Islands of Adventure are two examples of parks that use a central water feature to create not only a circular path, but a vista by which the whole park can be seen. Water features provide something rare in a theme park: an unobstructed view. This design is a descendent of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, which included lakes, lagoons, and ponds around which buildings were organized.

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I refer to the World Showcase individually here because Future World at Epcot is a more traditional hub-spoke design. One side of this wheel empties out into the World Showcase. Around the 1.2 mile World Showcase Lagoon sits the eleven countries that comprise the back half of the park. Visitors can either head to the left for Mexico or right for Canada, and work their way “around the world”. But unlike the Magic Kingdom, the different countries are all visible from each other from across the lagoon. This is thematically important as Disney is trying to attempt a “global view”. When looking across the water, the parkgoer sees a place that is relatively near, yet still out of reach. This arrangement creates a sense of drama, too: anticipation of the new, accomplishment of the experienced, surprise at that which was not visible from afar.

Universal Studio’s Islands of Adventure takes a similar approach, but to a different end. The park’s entrance opens onto the lagoon with Marvel Super Hero Island on the left, marked by the formidable Hulk coaster, and the zany colorful Suess Landing on the right. This vantage point provides a view of the rest of the park, though the vista merely teases the experience to come. The eye-catching “weenies”, from this view, appear to be the Jurassic World Discovery Pavilion, the Mythos restaruant in The Lost Continent, and the marooned tugboat from Popeye and Bluto’s Bilge-Rat Barge. It is worth pointing out the two functions they do not serve. They’re not traditional “weenies” that stand tall so as to attract eyes and movement. They are also not entranceways–signs, gates, archways, or corridors that designate the separation of themed areas. Rather than show off the best and most exciting attractions, these landmarks are symbolic of each section of the park, a preview of the park’s offerings.

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Unlike the World Showcase, Islands of Adventure is not laid out as concentric circles with water on the inside, attractions on the outside, and a walking path in the middle. The park does not support a consistent view across the lake because it still wants to keep each area separate to sustain the ullusion. Beyond Marvel Super Hero Island and Suess Landing, finding a spot to look across the central lake means exploring each of the individual lands. The Jurassic Park area requires that visitors travel through or around the Discovery Center to make their way to the water. The Lost Continent is primarily self-contained (which will become even more important as Universal converts the area to its new Harry Potter theme for Spring 2010).

Of course, what good is a water feature if it’s not used for something besides decoration? Both World Showcase and Islands of Adventure lagoons are the site of daily shows. Epcot puts on its nightly IllumiNations fireworks show over the water, while Universal turns to its movie stunts heritage and features the HydroAction Ski Show starring water and jet skiers. IllumiNations punctuates the end of the night at Epcot, building on an evening spent touring the countries of the World Showcase. The HydroAction show, however, feels tacked on because it has little to do with the park itself. It is closer in kin to the speedboat stunt show in Universal Studios or Lights, Motors, Action! at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. And while it is a nice distraction in the middle of the day (and certain vantage points are splash spots, great for when it’s hot out), it seems out of place.

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These two lagoons serve as unifying structures in each of the parks. They create a natural layout for the park that is easy to navigate, allows glimpses of things to come, and provide the sense of a natural time-distance pacing by imitating the face of a clock. Plan on spending a four hours in the evening at the World Showcase? Then you better be at Japan two hours in if you want to keep your schedule. This, of course, does have its downsides. Revealing a visitor’s progress is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, if they’re paying attention to the clock they may not get lost in the world of illusion (the same reasons casinos are windowless). But a visible meter of their progress might be reassuring, allowing them to take a second turn on a ride or spend a little extra time at the gift shop.

World Showcase and Islands of Adventure are not the only parks to feature this kind of central water feature, but they provide us with two examples of how the same idea can be executed toward different effects.

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posted by Bobby in Theme Parks and have Comments Off