Themed Spaces and AstroWorld

I’m in the early phase of an awesome post-doc research opportunity that I’m calling my Epic German Adventure. The project is researching theme parks (I’m leaning strongly toward a Disney focus–imagine that), postmodernism, temporality, and aesthetics. And it’s funded for three years. So basically, I have a three year subsidy to continue my dissertation research and write “The Second Book.” A totally groovy opportunity.

My colleagues–my new Deutsche Besties–have turned me onto a scholar named Scott Lukas. They speak of him with awe; I wish I’d known of him when I was writing my dissertation. He seems like Kind of a Big Deal. I’ll meet him this September, and maybe join the Scott Lukas fan club.  What makes his work stand out is that he, a cultural anthropologist, writes about theme parks and themed spaces with an ethnographer’s eye (a refreshing validation to my own perspective). When he was studying at Rice University, he had a gig working at Six Flags AstroWorld as a trainer.

So I figured I should find out what this guy is all about. I took a nice little field trip up to the University of Massachusetts library (a building that reminds me of Louis Sachar’s book, Sideways Stories of Wayside School) and picked up a copy of The Themed Space: Locating Culture, Nation, and Self. This is an edited volume that looks at themed spaces of varying sorts around the world. I’m going to confess that I haven’t read the whole volume yet. This is one of those aggravating books in which I find myself underlining every other paragraph and wanting to make lots of commentary in the margins, except that this is a library book, so I have to conduct these thought exercises in my notebook. I shouldn’t complain, though. Too many books don’t invite conversation, and I am very glad to be able to interact with this book at all.

Anyway, as one might imagine, I’m very Disney-centric when it comes to the kind of theming I’m looking for in a theme park. Six Flags parks, as a rule, tend to fall short of my very high expectations. So when Lukas writes fondly about AstroWorld, I question what AstroWorld he’s writing about. See, his tenure as a trainer overlapped with part of my angsty teenage years, growing up in Suburban Houston, and spending a very limited amount of my summer vacation at AstroWorld. Back then, ticket prices weren’t heinous, and I drank enough Dr. Pepper or Coca-Cola to guarantee cheaper ticket prices. My limited time at AstroWorld comes from a limited amount of interest and a vehement loathing of Houston summers.

For one thing, I don’t remember the themed boundaries that he describes. Sure, I remember that there were areas where there was more of one thing or another, but not a clear container to the theming. Perhaps one reason for this is that there were too many “lands” for the space available. It’s totally possible to pull off seven themed lands in a single park, but it takes skill to not make them so small as to be inconsequential or so overwhelming that the guest has a bad time. Disneyland in Anaheim has eight lands in a little more space. The big difference is that Disney doesn’t pack it’s theme park with a bunch of roller coasters, so many that it’s difficult to escape the screams and coaster rattles.

AstroWorld mid 1990s
AstroWorld mid 1990s

You can observe from the AstroWorld map that the coasters defined the berm of the park. They were the lure. They were what you could see as you rounded the bend on 610, competing for skyline with the Astrodome in what was called the AstroDomain.

Really Old Photo of the AstroDomain
Really Old Photo of the AstroDomain

The problem with defining the berm with roller coasters is that a) they don’t close the theme park off from the rest of the world, but more importantly b) already from the outset they establish a tone for the park as one of fast-paced movement. Disney’s berm is built up almost like a fortress wall that is designed to keep the outside world out of the park, because the outside world is full of enough of its own issues–let the park be a place of fun.

Plus, most of the roller coasters, though they looked cool, completely freaked me out. The Texas Cyclone was my favorite:

And though the Ultra Twister looked cool, I could never convince myself to go on it:

Excalibur was my first coaster ever:

But I never could convince anyone to go on XLR8 with me:

With these coasters, you’ll notice that you can see more than just the park. Because of their position on the berm, you can see Houston. It breaks the theme. No, I’m going to rephrase that–it breaks the sacredness of the space. It’s the ability to completely encapsulate me that I expect from a theme park, and it’s the fact that Six Flags fails in this detail that keeps me from regularly visiting those parks. That and this year Six Flags has developed some record-breaking doozies of death-defying rides that my inner roller-coward just wants to stay home.

As a kid, I was afraid of roller coasters, and never really had the opportunity to get over it. I think it has more to do with people telling me I’d lose my glasses if I didn’t secure them before going on the coaster, and the very real problem of not being able to see any of the sights without my glasses. One of the reasons I like Disney coasters like Space Mountain or Big Thunder Railroad is that I know my glasses will stay on without granny librarian strings to hold them in place. I can see the coaster’s narrative this way, enhancing my experience. Perhaps this is why I trust Disney so much, and not so much the other guys.

To me, the track of the coaster is a narrative, and our ride vehicle is our opportunity to read it. So I’m actually excited about the new Seven Dwarfs Mine Train at Walt Disney World, and I’ll close with that video. I’m not sure why other theme parks struggle with coaster narrative so much. This one fuses a coaster narrative with my favorite attraction format, the “dark ride.”

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