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  • Dan Connors

Twelve theme parks that swallowed tourism and movies

American tourism takes in over $1 Trillion dollars in business every year. For centuries, tourism involved seeing monuments, museums, nature, and the beach. It still does to some extent, but a shinier new institution called the theme park emerged in the 20th century to revolutionize vacationing and change the entertainment industry at the same time. Theme parks alone take in some 22 Billion dollars per year, and they've spawned a huge networks of hotels, restaurants and airports that service them.

Amusement parks go back into the 19th century, and they were simpler venues that included rides and sugary treats. Coney Island in New York was one of the more popular such parks in the US. Theme parks, however, took the rides and attractions of the typical amusement park and wrapped them up in a compelling story. It turned out that vacationers love a good story, and love to see one acted out in real life.

Many think that Walt Disney invented the first theme park, but that is not true. There is still some debate, but Santa Claus Town opened in Indiana in 1935, becoming a true theme park with admission in 1946. Now known as Holiday World, it is one of Indiana's top attractions. Knotts Berry Farm, from whom Disney got his inspiration, opened in 1940 as a wild west ghost town in California. The theme park was just an add-on to the farm then, but it grew in popularity and still exists today.

Walt Disney opened Disneyland in 1955, and the tourism industry was never the same. Disney got inspiration from Electric Park, a small amusement park in Kansas City while he lived there. The park had fireworks and a train to go along with the usual assortment of rides, and he traveled the world preparing to open his new park. Disney also borrowed from Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, Henry Ford's Greenfield Village near Detroit, and Children's Fairyland near Oakland, California.

“To all who come to this happy place: Welcome. Disneyland is your land. Here, age relives fond memories of the past… and here youth may savor the challenge and promise of the future. Disneyland is dedicated to the ideals, the dreams, and the hard facts that have created America… with the hope that it will be a source of joy and inspiration to all the world.”  Walt Disney at the opening of Disneyland.

Disneyland changed theme parks with its familiar characters and stories, but it also changed entertainment. From then on, Disney would look at its next movie productions with an eye on what toys they would inspire and what theme park rides and attractions could be gained from them.

Many words could be written about Disneyland and how it came to be, but here I will stop and give my rankings of the 12 most well-known parks that I have been lucky enough to personally visit and my quick thoughts on each one. Here they are in order from best to least best:

1- The Magic Kingdom, Orlando, Florida- opened 1971

In my eyes, the Magic Kingdom will always be the best theme park ever. It was opened in the middle of Florida's swamp land and is the keystone to Disney World and Florida's non-beach related tourism. Its six themed lands, Main Street, Fantasyland, Adventureland, Tomorrowland, Frontierland and Liberty Square all incorporate stories that make them feel special.

I have many great memories of the Magic Kingdom, from my first visit as a teenager to taking my own little ones to meet Mickey and Minnie. The rides were great and not too scary, and the shows and parades were top-notch. My favorite memory includes its iconic Cinderella Castle, a landmark of grace and beauty. During the day it inspires and at night it sparkles with fireworks and high-tech light shows.

2- Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure, Orlando, Florida- opened 1990

Disney was so successful in merging its entertainment business with its theme park business, that it was inevitable that other movie studios would follow suit. The biggest so far has been Universal Studios, which began with a them park in Hollywood in 1964, following Disney to the booming tourism market of Florida in 1990. In 1999, Universal followed with a companion theme park, Islands of Adventure that sit right next door and had a separate admission.

At Universal you can see Spongebob Squarepants, the Simpsons characters, Shrek, Beetlejuice, the Minions and a whole host of non-Disney characters. Rides take you into the stories of Jurassic Park, ET, Dr Suess, and Spider Man. But the biggest thing to hit Universal Orlando was the Harry Potter phenomenon. JK Rowling's beloved wizarding creatures have come alive in two separate "lands" that occupy both theme parks and is connected by the Hogwarts Express. The Harry Potter phenomenon has changed them parks forever, inspiring Disney to double down on its Star Wars franchise and stress popular stories to bring in customers.

3- Disneyland and California Adventure, Anaheim, California 1955

Disneyland was the first big theme park that incorporated movie and animated characters into a coordinated story for the park visitors. It only makes number three on my list because I think the Magic Kingdom does everything just a tiny bit better and feels more like a true vacation destination with its dedicated hotels and associated parks.

In 2001, Disneyland converted one of its parking lots into a second theme park, California Adventure. This park was themed around the state of California itself and feels more like a traditional amusement park with roller coasters, a huge ferris wheel, and a hodgepodge of Disney themed rides and shows.

4- Epcot Center- Orlando, Florida, 1982

Epcot Center was one of Walt Disney's most ambitious dreams. He originally intended it to be a prototype community of the future, but he died before any plans were finalized. Instead, Epcot was developed as Disney World's second theme park, copied from the World's Fair template of technology and international brotherhood. Epcot has a large community of national pavilions from such countries as China, Mexico and France, each with distinctive landmarks, food, entertainment and shopping. At night there is a spectacular light show over the lake that the nations surround.

Along with the World Showcase, Epcot features a Future World section with pavilions and attractions that are meant to inspire and inform. The inform part has had to take a back seat as the park has been remodeled to become more entertaining, incorporating more Disney movies such as Frozen, Finding Nemo, and Guardians of the Galaxy. The main landmark of Future World and the entire park is an enormous geodesic sphere, known as Spaceship Earth. Huge changes are in the works for Epcot in 2020, and I look forward to another visit some day to this inspiring theme park.

5- Busch Gardens, Tampa, Florida 1959

Busch Gardens was the first theme park of its kind that incorporated traditional amusement park rides with wildlife more commonly found in a zoo. It all started with a brewery, Anheuser Busch, that wanted to incorporate some wildlife encounters with one of their brewery tours.

Starting from a few wild birds, Busch Gardens has expanded to hundreds of animals and a large Serengeti-style plain that visitors can take trucks out onto and pet giraffes. The brewery closed in 1995, and the property was sold to Sea World shortly after that. But Busch Gardens remains open for business with a decidedly African theme that mixes in nicely with their animals, shows and rides. Importantly, Busch Gardens takes its animals seriously and has earned high marks from animal rights organizations for its humane treatment.

6- Disney's Animal Kingdom. Orlando, Florida 1998

The fourth and last of Disney's Florida theme parks, Animal Kingdom followed the template of animal theme parks perfected by Sea World and Busch Gardens. The park has an enormous sculpted tree called the Tree of Life as its centerpiece, and is well laid out to incorporate animals, Disney characters, and thrill rides.

The best part of Animal Kingdom is a safari ride through elephant and giraffe habitats that let you get up close but not too close.

7- Sea World- Orlando, Florida 1973

Sea World opened just two years after the Magic Kingdom and became Disney's biggest competitor for over a decade. The theme park features animal shows and thrill rides, with a big emphasis on marine life and Florida wildlife. Manatees, penguins, sea lions, sea turtles, sharks, and all sorts of fish grace exhibits and shows at Sea World, but their biggest draw and largest problem has involved the dolphins and killer whales that provide the biggest shows.

In 2010, one of Sea World's trainers was killed by a killer whale there, which propelled bad publicity about their treatment of these intelligent animals. A popular documentary turned public opinion against Sea World, and they stopped having their iconic Shamu killer whale show in 2019. Park attendance has suffered, and the park has tried to compensate with other offerings and a large assortment of rides. The dolphin show continues, though public feelings towards the captivity of dolphins is turning against them as well.

8- Silver Dollar City- Branson, Missouri 1960

Silver Dollar City is one of the most unique theme parks I've ever visited, and like Disney World it's spawned its own tourist mecca around the hilly Ozark town of Branson. Started atop a large cave known as Marvel Cave, a small 1880's Ozark village was recreated as an extra attraction for the cave visitors. There were craft demonstrations, shows and folks wearing authentic costumes of the period.

From its opening in 1960, Silver Dollar City has grown into the area's top attraction, showcasing an impressive array of roller coasters and rides, mixed in with entertaining shows, parades, and light displays. Cave tours are still available, as is free parking, and the park is renowned for its decorations and shows at Christmas time. The city of Branson that sits just a few miles to the east, has become an entertainment mecca of its own, featuring dozens of theaters focused mostly on country music.

9- Disney's Hollywood Studios, Orlando Florida 1989

Normally, I would put this theme park much higher, but it has changed radically from its themes at opening. The park was initially opened as Disney World's third theme park, to be focused on movies and movie making.

Hollywood studios tried to emulate the famous studio tours of the west coast, and they transported actual shows back to Florida to make it happen. An animation tour showed actual animators at work on a Disney movie. A backstage tour showed live production studios where television shows were being produced. A sound stage showed how sounds were added to movies, and a stunt man show showed how stunts were done. The centerpiece of the park was the Great Movie Ride, which took you on a trip to see recreated scenes from famous movies.

Almost all of that has been removed from the park today. The park is more of a traditional amusement park with a few movie themes thrown in. There are still many worthwhile things to see there, the most intriguing of which will be Star Wars- Galaxy's Edge, The park is centered on its Star Wars characters and that part of it will remain the main emphasis going forward.

10- Six Flags. St. Louis, Missouri 1971

Originally called Six Flags over Mid America, this third in the Six Flags chain of theme parks opened the same year as the Magic Kingdom in Florida. I visited it many times as a teen and a father. The park has a nice mixture of shows and thrill rides, but is not in the same league as the other nine parks in this list. Six Flags is an amusement park with a very flimsy theme knitting everything together.

Originally meant to depict six nations and cultures that went into making up the area, including France, Spain, and England, Six Flags got rid of most of that theme and introduced Loony Tunes characters like Bugs Bunny to incorporate with its impressive array of rides. Where most theme parks have spawned matching water parks with a separate admission, Six Flags is the only one to my knowledge that has a water park included with regular admission. Hurricane Harbor was added to the park in the 90's and made it one of the top fun attractions in the St. Louis region. Six Flags has excelled at making theme park experiences accessible to residents of areas not in Florida or California, and now has 25 separate parks across North America.

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