How Nostalgia Shapes Theme Park Visits

Posted by Elizabeth Alton on Thursday, August 4th, 2016

Vintage theme park

The nostalgia marketing trends that are everywhere this summer are bringing many of us straight back to the 1980s and 1990s: Pokémon, Lego, the Full House reboot. Major brands capitalize on nostalgia to emotionally engage Millennials and build deeper brand connections.

All of this got me thinking: what’s the relationship between nostalgia and theme parks? How can entertainment design buffs revisit their favorite parks without shattering treasured childhood memories while also appreciating the latest additions? And perhaps most of all, should theme parks be jumping on the nostalgia trend for their own marketing and design efforts?

The Role of Nostalgia in Fostering Our Love of Theme Parks

For most people interested in the world of entertainment design – or even those who just consider themselves Disney fans – it is usually rooted in childhood. A family trip where you experienced the Tower of Terror for the first time or floating through the fully immersive Jungle Cruise, for example. Whatever that moment was for you, something connected, fired up your imagination, and drew you into the story. From that moment forward, just thinking about or spending time in theme parks evoked a happy memory. As time goes by, memories become nostalgia.

What exactly is nostalgia, anyway? Writing for Scientific American, psychologist Clay Routledge describes a study where scientists asked people what they were nostalgic about and then analyzed the answers. He writes, “Results from these coded narratives indicated that nostalgic memories tend to be focused on momentous or personally meaningful life events that prominently feature close others (e.g., friends, family, romantic partners). Family vacations, road trips with friends, weddings, graduations, birthday parties, and holiday gatherings with loved ones are examples of the kinds of cherished experiences that people revisit when engaging in nostalgia… Nostalgic memories are happy memories.” If nostalgia is based on happy memories, it’s easy to see why theme parks have a starring role.

How we experience theme parks changes as we become adults, of course. The people and the places change. Our definition of what is momentous or meaningful evolves. Yet as adults, there are two related questions to consider: how can we revisit theme parks without nostalgia being a hindrance to a great experience? And can and should theme parks be using nostalgia as a design tool?

Theme park nostalgia

Tips for Visiting a Theme Park to Recapture the Magic – Without Losing the Spark

Nostalgia is about those perfect moments which are trapped in time, in your mind. There is no reality to test those remembered experiences against. Yet everyone has had the experience of going to a favorite restaurant or place you visited as a kid. It is larger than life, and you remember how much fun it was. Then, upon revisiting it as an adult, your impression changes. Colorful becomes garish, well-loved becomes shabby, and groups of people having fun evolve into unbearable crowds. Understanding how nostalgia works can help theme park visitors manage their expectations and structure their visits to avoid this from happening – and provide entertainment designers with a framework to make the most of this element of the theme park experience.

  1. Before you revisit, think about what you really enjoyed.

Revisiting your favorite theme park without destroying your best memories is the goal, right? If our yearning is about the fun and freedom and immersion  we felt, it is important to be clear about that. Start by determining what those memories were. Dig deep to think about what you liked. More importantly, what did you feel? For some people, it is about closeness with family, friends, or even a shared love of the experience with other visitors. For others, it is immersion in the story and the deep engagement with certain storylines or characters. By figuring out what created great memories years ago, it is possible to angle a visit to allow you the most time to explore those things.

  1. Mentally break down the difference between the place and the people.

Nostalgia is often as much about the people you experienced a destination with as the destination itself. It could be carefree time with friends or the safety of time as a kid with parents and siblings who are now flung far afield. Even if you are experiencing the destination with the same people, it is likely to feel different as relationships and people evolve. Being psychologically clear about the different elements of nostalgia outlined in Routledge’s work can help you focus on the parts of your visit which matter the most.

  1. Revisit the things you love – but manage your expectations.

Before your visit, make a list of what you want to revisit. Guests who spend some time online can quickly determine what elements are still there and can avoid in-the-moment disappointment which can ruin a trip. If a favorite ride was scrapped years ago, it is better to know that in advance to manage your expectations.

Walt Disney with officials

  1. Purposely use your intel to create new memories.

Use what you loved about theme parks in the past to find new attractions to enjoy on your visit. For Disney fans who love parades, each day now offers multiple new parades to explore. If you loved the story worlds, look at the latest adaptations of IP or at the most immersive dark rides. Resurrect dreams of plunging roller coasters by climbing aboard the latest record breaker. By thinking about what you truly enjoy and what adds up to a great theme park visit, it is possible to map out the latest experiences which will help create new memories. Planning ahead and trying new things balances nostalgia with discovering new passions and attractions to be excited about.

  1. Indulge your nostalgia.

It is often the little things we get most excited about: the remembered taste of cotton candy or the music in a fun house. Spending time revisiting those little details can help connect the present moment to the remembered past and create positive feelings. The New York Times has reported that nostalgia can be good for you: it can help you feel like you have roots and continuity, counteract negative emotions, and make you feel closer to loved ones. A little indulgence doesn’t have to be about looking backwards at all – at least not in a sad, negative, or wistful manner. Indulge your nostalgia and get a positive mood boost.

Vintage Mickey Mouse

How Theme Parks Balance Nostalgia and Innovation

Entertainment design is a field which is, at its core, about innovation – creating faster, higher, and more engaging rides or pushing immersion to new depths. As a result, designers are looking forward. What hot IP is coming out that we can build on to create the next big success? What technologies are becoming available that will push the envelope in a whole new way?

“Disney Is In the Details”: A Disney Imagineering intern wrote a thesis called “Disney Is In the Details.” That title beautifully sums up an angle designers can take regarding nostalgia in parks. Often, it is about the smallest details. For Disney, it might be that one iconic view of Cinderella’s Castle or a pair of mouse ears. Even when innovation is your priority, you can engage guests’ fond memories by adding little Easter Egg style nods to the past in your designs.

Generations of fun: From a marketing perspective, many parks already do this. Parents who had great experiences at certain parks often want to share that same experience with their kids. Parks can play to this by focusing on marketing campaigns and special promotions which encourage families to visit and help people explicitly make connections between past memories in a park and the new adventures they are having there.

Don’t confuse vintage and nostalgia: The words vintage and nostalgia are often used interchangeably. Since we tend to get nostalgic about things in the distant past, it is a natural leap; but it can be a fatal one for an entertainment designer who is trying to tap into this for guests. Vintage basically just means old; nostalgia is about craving a connection with something which is both old and personally meaningful to us. A vintage Ferris wheel is only exciting if we rode one ourselves, laughing with friends or sneaking a first kiss. Instead of expecting specific items from different eras to evoke strong feelings,  find ways to turn those influences into emotional levers for guests.

Don’t overlook the “architecture of reassurance:” In a fascinating piece for Harvard Design Magazine, Tom Vanderbilt wrote about the architecture of reassurance at Disney. He writes, “the architecture of reassurance:” all those architectural and environmental touches, ranging from harmonious color schemes to the absence of garbage (a Main Street “newspaper” was discontinued early on because the discarded copies were thought to clutter to the street), to the famous 5/8 building scale (which “made the street a toy,” as Disney put it), which work together to offer an accessible landscape where Disney and visitors alike could feel instantly “at home.”  It is a brilliant summation: the nostalgic guest is seeking something familiar, comforting, and ultimately reassuring.

Theme parks are an iconic American – and now global – experience which is likely to bring people fond memories.. For visitors or travelers, there is a deep emotional attachment which happens when feeling nostalgic, and uncovering the specifics can help make the most of visits. For entertainment designers, understanding how nostalgia and emotions play a role in the theme park experience can help in finding new ways to connect with audiences and build bridges between past experiences and future innovation.

Images sourced courtesy of Wikipedia, Wikia, Pinterest

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