Theme Parks: Where Tech Meets Thrills

Host Walter Isaacson and guests find out what makes theme parks go, and how they have evolved from basic machinery and thrills to the highest of high-tech applications and experiences.
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Theme parks have been around longer than we could imagine, with the first ones popping up back in the 1100s.

Unsurprisingly, they have come a long way since then.

Follow along as we go from fun to frightful to fantastic throughout the history of the amusement park.

What you’ll hear in this episode:

● The Disneyland that almost wasn’t (0:00)

● Renaissance fairs: the original theme parks (3:26)

● Russian mountains and the birth of the thrill ride (6:20)

● Let’s hear it for the Imagineers (10:50)

● Like traveling to another world (14:20)

● Amusement parks in a computer age (18:40)

● Theme parks become even more magically immersive (24:05)

“It wasn't even state-of-the-art. It was the future.”

— Stephen M. Silverman

Guest List

  • Stephen M. Silverman is the author of The Amusement Park: 900 Years of Thrills and Spills, and the Dreamers and Schemers Who Built Them.
  • Steve Alcorn is the CEO for Alcorn McBride Inc, the company that makes the audio and video products for all the world's theme parks, and one of the original engineers who worked on EPCOT.
  • Rolly Crump is a designer, animator and former Disney Imagineer who helped design Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion, Enchanted Tiki Room and Disney World’s Magic Kingdom and EPCOT.
  • Miraphora Mina and Eduardo Lima operate MinaLima Design Studio and are responsible for the graphic design of the Harry Potter universe, both in the films and Universal Studios theme park.
  • Joe Kleiman is the news editor for the theme park trade publication InPark Magazine.

Walter Isaacson: It’s July 17, 1955. A blazingly hot and sunny day in Anaheim, California. And Roy Disney is sitting with his wife in a parking lot lumley eating lunch. It’s a big day for the Disney family but the two are reluctant to even get out of their car. The problem is Roy’s famous kid brother and business partner, Walter Disney has done it again. Against Roy’s strenuous objections Walt Disney has bet it all on a wild, crazy passion project. Roy’s seen these dreams come crashing down again and again with the financial failure of movies like Fantasia, Bambi and Cinderella whose box office sales failed to recoup expensive production costs and threatened to capsize their company, Walt Disney Productions. And today seems no different because today is the opening day of what might be Walt’s most extravagant folly. It’s an amusement park with their own name on it. Disneyland.

Walter Isaacson: Roy fought tooth and nail against this project refusing to allow his brother to use any of the Disney companies’ famous characters in the park, putting up such opposition that Walt had to mortgage home to secure the necessary funds. And at first it looks like the more level headed Disney brother is going to be. Disneyland’s opening day is a legendary disaster. Scalpers flooded the market with counterfeit tickets. A labor shortage caused by striking plumbers meant Disney had to choose between drinking water and toilets. Rides break down. The Mark Twain Riverboat, it sinks. Roy and his wife eventually leave their car to take a look at a fiasco of such proportions that to this day, July 17, 1955 is still referred to as black Sunday among Disney fans but in the end none of that matters. Walt Disney’s dream park quickly recovers from those uneasy opening days and changes not only his company’s fortunes but the entire entertainment industry with reverberations we’re still feeling today. I’m Walter Isaacson and you’re listening to Trailblazers, an original podcast from Dell Technologies.

Speaker 1: Do you remember how much fun you had in the amusement park when you were a kid?

Speaker 2: Rides and screams of delight in these cars that tilt and fly. A thrill a minute. Neck twisters. Spine shakers. The dynamic fun land of a nation.

Walter Isaacson: There’s something democratizing about the amusement park. For nearly a millennium the idea of a public place that combines food, entertainment and thrills has been a surefire way of attracting adults and children from all walks of life, not to mention their dollars. And with that very profitable audience in mind, impresarios have long vied with each other on how to draw the biggest crowds, whether in Coney Island, competing Luna Park and Dreamland or Universal Studios and Walt Disney World in Orlando today. Driven to deliver the biggest thrills innovation was never far behind and that tradition of technological limit pushing continues to this day. Attractions based on Harry Potter, Avatar and Star Wars are using the latest tech to create entire immersive worlds for fans to get lost in. A level of world building that would even make Walt Disney jealous. But the origins of amusement parks aren’t in business and technology. In fact, their roots are surprisingly regal. As it happens the very first amusement park began as a response to a big fat lie. In 1133 King Henry I inaugurated the first Bartholomew fair in London, England.

Stephen M. Silverman: In a way he was hoodwinked into starting the fare.

Walter Isaacson: Stephen Silverman is the author of The Amusement Park 900 Years of Thrills and Spills and the Dreamers and Schemers who built them.

Stephen M. Silverman: He had a very self promoting and opportunistic jester named Rahere who knew that the king was superstitious and convinced the king that a dragon came and plucked Rahere out of his bed and he was saved by Saint Bartholomew, but in exchange, Saint Bartholomew wanted a tribute paid annually to him. To make a long 900 year story short, the fair began the last two weeks in August. It ran basically every year. It evolved from a trade and religious fair into this fun time for all. Sort of an ancient Coachella until it just got so out of hand, but it in fact ran for 700 years and Bartholomew Fair was the very first.

Walter Isaacson: Bartholomew Fair with its food and live entertainment was such a draw that the London theaters would close down for the two weeks it was open. It even had primitive sorts of rides, crude swinging devices that could be pushed or pulled, but the birth of the thrilling amusement park rides we know today can be dated to yet another monarch, one who lived about 600 years after King Henry I. The Empress of Russia, Catherine the Great was known for many things, for modernizing her nation, for introducing smallpox vaccination and for being a noted patron of the arts. But one aspect of her legacy is still on display at theme parks around the world.

Stephen M. Silverman: We can really credit Catherine the Great for being the godmother of the roller coaster. First of all, we knew she was a good time gal, but the Russians sort of had this propensity, whether you were a serf or an aristocrat, depending on the sort of wood you could gather, they would build these wooden slides and then cover them with water. They would freeze and then they would get these sleds and go down these slopes. Catherine had the most elaborate. She built hers at all of her palaces and she would sit in the lap of a very handsome soldier who would drive her sled. And these became known as Russian Mountains and today in fact, everywhere in the world but in America, roller coasters are called Russian Mountains.

Walter Isaacson: Eventually, the idea of the thrill ride made its journey to the new world and became supersized. In the late 19th century the roller coaster as we know it, came from an unlikely source, LaMarcus Thompson, a deeply religious, Midwestern hosiery manufacturer going through a personal crisis.

Stephen M. Silverman: He was extremely successful as a garment manufacturer but he had a nervous breakdown. And during his recovery he tinkered and drew little blueprints. He’s religious bear that in mind. He wants couples to stop dancing because that’s sinful, so he devises this ride, what we’ll call a roller coaster, a gravity railroad. He calls it a switchback railroad that’s just going to thrill the people and he builds it in the most sinful place he can find, which is Coney Island in New York.

Walter Isaacson: There’s no evidence that roller coasters had an impact on the sin level of Coney Island or the surrounding metropolitan area but by the 20th century they did help establish the New York Beach as the capital of amusement.

Speaker 3: Coney Island, the world’s greatest fun frolic, with its beach miles long, all peppered with people. The place where merriment is king.

Walter Isaacson: Coney Island’s famous Luna Park even becomes a franchise with trolley parks bearing the same name all built at the end of rail lines across the country. At their peak in 1910 there were more than 2,000 of them in America. But an entrepreneur named Henry Ford was about to present amusement park with their biggest challenge, while inspiring them to reach new heights.

Stephen M. Silverman: Along comes the model T and it does two things to amusement parks, no more trolley cars to the end of the line and nobody needed thrill rides when they could have their own thrills on the road and do whatever they like. What then turned that around was that those who stepped in and bought amusement parks realized, well, we’ll give them supersize thrills and that ushered in the golden age of the roller coaster, which is basically the roaring ’20s.

Walter Isaacson: Thousands of roller coasters are built during the 1920s literally reaching new heights as they climb to hundreds of feet. Some of them, like Coney islands, the cyclone or Melbourne, Australia’s scenic railway are still in use today. But then as with so many things, the great depression put an emphatic end to the golden age of roller coasters. It would be two more decades before the amusement park experience the rebirth in Anaheim, California. But when it did, it would ring in an entirely new era and it was all thanks to a man who had already changed the face of entertainment forever.

Rolly Crump: I always want to be working for Disney.

Walter Isaacson: It’s no exaggeration to call Rolly Crump a Disney legend, one of the original Imagineers, Crump belonged to the elite group of designers, artists and technicians, handpicked by Walt Disney to design his theme park attractions. Among Crump’s achievements are Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion, Enchanted Tiki Room, as well as the Disney attractions featured at the 1964 New York World’s Fair and the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World in Florida. But although Crump’s status today is legendary, his start at Disney was unremarkable.

Rolly Crump: I spent half my life drawing, and luckily they hired me. But the interesting thing about it was years later they told me that when they hired me, I had the worst portfolio that was … that they allowed anyone to be hired. So I enjoyed that.

Walter Isaacson: Despite his less than impressive portfolio, Disney saw something in the 22 year old artist which would change Crump’s life in a measurable way.

Rolly Crump: He was beautiful to work with, absolutely beautiful, because he really understood the people that he was working with. He knew more about you than you realized, and because of that, his directions that he gave you were just incredible.

Walter Isaacson: In 1952, Crump left a job as a dipper in a ceramic factory to work as an assistant animator for Disney. To earn extra cash he spent his weekends building sewer manholes. Seven years later, Crump was tapped to join a new venture, WED Enterprises, named after its creator’s initials, Walter Elias Disney. Separate from the main Disney company, it had no board of directors or penny-pinching older brothers to cramp the creator’s style. After all, it was the 1950s and an amusement park was not an easy sell. Steven Silverman.

Stephen M. Silverman: All this was right after World War II, and by then the depression had already killed off so many amusement parks, and the ones that did remain, and they were mostly in urban areas, they were going to seed and it was a dirty word, dirty term, amusement park. But Walt just insisted he was going to build something different.

Walter Isaacson: From the beginning, Disney’s vision was different. He dipped into his creative pool, hiring art directors and animators such as Rolly Crump to design the park.

Stephen M. Silverman: He didn’t hire architects. He hired Disney artists and then they adapted the term Imagineers to what they were doing. In a way, they sort of worked backwards. It was like a crossword puzzle. “I want a mountain and I want a rollercoaster, a bobsled to go through it.” Well, they’d figure out how to do that. It hadn’t been done. “I want a wild ride through old London in an antique car that doesn’t look like any antique car you’ve ever seen before.” He wanted no prefab rides. Rolly Crump.

Rolly Crump: Walt knew that he wanted to take it to the next level, which he did. In fact, anything you did with Walt, he was always taking you to the next level.

Walter Isaacson: The park was built around a fantastical Main Street, USA, inspired by a small town Missouri upbringing, and surrounded by various lands, Adventureland, Fantasyland, Tomorrowland, each promising a journey into the imagination. It was designed with Disney’s famous attention to detail. He ordered artificial hills to be built around the edges of the park, so as not to break the illusion of a magical kingdom he was creating with the sight of some errand billboard or telephone pole. He once said, “I don’t want the public to see the world they live in while they’re in Disneyland. I want them to feel they’re in another world.”

Walter Isaacson: Disney was known for pushing animation technology to the next level, and when it came to theme park design, he was no different. He hired actors and had artists design intricate props. But realistic props weren’t enough for Disney. He wanted to bring those objects to life and perhaps even more importantly, have total control over them. Such an opportunity arose during the planning of what would become the Polynesian themed Enchanted Tiki Room attraction.

Rolly Crump: So they had one of the illustrators draw up what an inside of a tiki restaurant would look like. The fellow did it, and Walt took one look at it because some of the things that were in there were birds in cages, and Walt said, “You can’t have birds in cages in the restaurant.: And they asked him why. He says, “They’ll poop in the food,” which was kind of a crack up, but that was the way Walt was. He always thought in common sense, and I loved it.

Walter Isaacson: The Enchanted Tiki room became the first Disney attraction to feature what is now a hallmark of the park, the robotic audio animatronics. More than 150 incredibly realistic animatronic bird filled with Tiki Room, singing and chattering and flapping their wings, and they don’t need to be cleaned up after. And Disney didn’t stop at birds. At the 1964 New York World’s Fair, he unveiled an animatronic Abraham Lincoln who stood up from a chair and delivered an address compiled from the president’s actual speeches as a stirring rendition of The Battle Hymn of the Republic played in the background. Audiences were astonished. Steven Silverman.

Stephen M. Silverman: It was unbelievable. I mean, he stood up, he talked. He stared at the audience, he blinked. He practically breathed.

Walter Isaacson: Audio animatronics added a whole new layer of realism to Disneyland’s rides, allowing utterly lifelike characters and creatures to draw park goers into immersive experiences that were just as much about the story as the thrills. In fact, the most notable of them, and the last one that Disney personally worked on before his death, would decades later become a smash movie franchise. It involved 53 animatronic animals, 75 animatronic human characters, and it took its riders on a 15 minute and 30 second rollicking maritime adventure. Rolly Crump.

Rolly Crump: You want to know what the best ride was? Pirates of the Caribbean. That was interesting because all the rides were only like 90 seconds or two minutes. They weren’t very long. But Walt always felt that … He told me this. He said, “I want people to feel like they’re really doing something, they’re really gone somewhere.”

Walter Isaacson: Steven Silverman.

Stephen M. Silverman: Not only is it a magnificent adventure, but it was … It wasn’t even state of the art. It was the future. I mean, nobody had seen anything like that and on such a grand scale. The wow factor, I think, had to do with every scene that was presented and that … Yes, there had been attempts in the past, but nothing like this, and it would be cohesive and have a storyline and make sense.

Walter Isaacson: For all their ingenuity, Disneyland and the soon to be open Walt Disney World in Florida were pushing the very limits of the technology they were built with. By the 1970s, a new era was just around the corner.

Steven Alcorn: It’s very interesting to chart the course of technology development throughout the history of all the Disney parks, because Walt of course was very much an innovator.

Walter Isaacson: Steven Alcorn is the CEO of Alcorn McBride, a company that makes audio and video technology for theme parks around the world. He also worked as an Imagineer on the very first iteration of Epcot Center.

Steven Alcorn: When he developed the Disneyland park, they were pushing the technology of the 1950s. It was very difficult to do things in those days. And so what we think of as automated control and as audio playback and even video playback didn’t really exist in those times. So they found innovative solutions to those challenges. For example, the Pirates of the Caribbean ride used rotating 78 RPM records attached to a shaft with a motor turning limb and they shaved the edges of the records in order to create cams to move the figures, a very mechanical way to control things, but the only way they could do it in the ’60s.

Walter Isaacson: Before his death, Disney dreamed of creating what he called the Experimental Community Of Tomorrow, or Epcot. It was not going to be a theme park, but an actual working city built with all of the creative grandeur and attention to detail that the man could muster. But after his untimely passing in 1966, the plans were put on the back burner. It wasn’t until the 1980s that it was reformatted as Epcot Center, a new addition to Walt Disney World in Florida. It would be a theme park designed as a sort of permanent world’s fair, not the ambitious urban community of Walt Disney’s dreams. But despite deviating from his original goal, Epcot would prove to be a prime example of Disney’s innovation.

Steven Alcorn: Epcot Center in 1982 is really the first instance where you see what we think of as modern technology being employed in a theme park. The figures and other things that are controlled in the park were controlled by mini-computers, large, but basically versions of what we all have a hundred of in our homes now. And the audio was played back from multi-track tapes, and the video was played back from videodisk players, which was the only way that they could store video in a fairly reliable format in those days. But a technology explosion occurred after Epcot, because first of all, most of the people who work in the industry now went through that park and emerged from it with ideas for new technology, but also suddenly microcomputers are available to do all of these tasks. Epcot really was the blossoming of modern technology in theme parks.

Walter Isaacson: Once software was integrated into the theme park experience, it allowed for a level of complexity previously unimaginable. Every major attraction, from Pirates of the Caribbean to Star Wars, is automated by computer systems with the technical sophistication and decision-making capabilities of artificial intelligence.

Steven Alcorn: There are thousands of decisions being made every second by the automation systems that control these attractions, and many of those are routine decisions. For example, using Rise of the Resistance at the Disney Star Wars attractions as an example, there are self-guided vehicles that are moving the guests around the attraction, and they don’t all follow the same pattern. And the pattern that they follow is based upon where other vehicles are. And after they deposit the guests at one destination, then the empty vehicles need to return back to pick up more guests. So that’s a very complicated control algorithm that is being handled both by intelligence on the vehicle and wayside intelligence that’s coordinating all of those vehicles. I think that you could call any system that had enough microprocessors, all making independent decisions and coordinating with one another, some form of artificial intelligence. So in a sense, most modern attractions really are a giant AI.

Walter Isaacson: With that increase in control and complexity has come a new approach to theme park design, one that could be said to be very much in the tradition of Walt Disney’s commitment to total immersion and storytelling. These new parks don’t just offer up rides, but entire worlds to explore.

Walter Isaacson: It’s July 8th, 2014 at Universal Studios, Florida, and a group of lucky Harry Potter fans are in tears. They can’t help it. They’re among the first to enter The Wizarding World of Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley, the mythical London street immortalized in JK Rawlings books and their film adaptations. More than just a themed walkway, Diagon Alley is real enough to provoke gasp of surprise and sobs of emotion.

Walter Isaacson: Park goers can arrive by train, the Hogwarts Express, enjoy a meal at The Leaky Cauldron, purchase a magic wand at Ollivanders, and even use it in interactive moments of magic. And if they have time, they can even jump on a ride, Escape from Gringotts. But some will be having too much fun imagining they’re in the wizarding world to we even bother.

Joe Kleiman: The Wizarding World of Harry Potter really was a game-changer for the industry.

Walter Isaacson: Joe Kleiman is a news editor for the theme park trade publication InPark Magazine.

Joe Kleiman: One thing that I’ve noticed going into those lands is that once you go into The Wizarding World, you forget that you’re at Universal. Everything has been designed. Everything is integrated into a single theme. The place-making is impeccable down to the smallest detail.

Walter Isaacson: Part of that has to do with the pedigree of the talent called in to design the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Graphic artists, Miraphora Mina and Eduardo Lima have been with the franchise since the first cinematic adaptations hit in the early 2000s, when they were hired to recreate the universe depicted in the bestselling novels. A decade later, they were asked to bring the movies to life within the park.

Eduardo Lima: The position that Diagon Alley is within the park is brilliant because when you go through that little passage, you are in Daigon Alley. There’s no doubt about that. You don’t see palm trees. You don’t see any other rides. You are there.

Miraphora Mina: In London.

Eduardo Lima: Yeah, you in London and you are wizard and you’re going to have an amazing magical time.

Walter Isaacson: The two found that creating visual illusions for movies was vastly different than creating an interactive three-dimensional world.

Miraphora Mina: Unlike film where you might spend the same amount of time as we did the theme park, designing pieces and bits of graphics for the scenery, we never have any control as to what will actually get seen and for how long it will be seen on screen. Whereas, in a theme park situation, suddenly we were designing for a audience who could spend as much time as they wanted in front of one thing or 10 things or no things. And suddenly the audience had control over how much they would see.

Walter Isaacson: But handing that control over to the audience allowed for a depth of interactive storytelling that Walt Disney could only have dreamed of. The personalized wands that park goers buy at Ollivanders not only look just like the beloved props from the film, but have real technology-assisted magic powers of their own. The marriage of technology and design helps take fans one step deeper into the fantasy world of their dreams.

Miraphora Mina: You could buy a wand that had the ability to activate magic in certain shop windows and situations. So we were heavily involved in the design of how the movements of the wands would be represented in a brass piece that was embedded in the floor and also a map that comes with the wand to describe where you can find these activations. But ironically, and actually was so nice for us because the brief was to create a map that felt completely immersive. And whenever I see people walking around the park with it, I’m actually wondering how they can get from A to B, because it’s very complicated in the way that we always complicated a lot of the graphics for this alternative universe. But it was great that the producers wanted to, for every single element of the experience, to feel immersive from the world that people have become familiar with.

Walter Isaacson: The Wizarding World of Harry Potter may have been the first, but seeing its success, the rest of the industry as quickly followed suit. Recent years have seen the highly anticipated opening of parks like Star Wars, Galaxy’s Edge and Pandora-World of Avatar. And there are many more worlds for fans that get lost in, soon to come.

Joe Kleiman: It’s kind of a new direction that really was started by Universal with Harry Potter. And that’s to move away from having individual attractions in an area or a land that were based on a franchise, and instead having an entire land based on a single franchise. So, for instance, at Disneyland, in Tomorrowland, if you go there now you’ll find Nemo. You’ll find Buzz Light year. You’ll find Star Wars, all these different franchises in a single area. But when you go to the planet of Batuu, which is where Galaxy’s Edge takes place, you are suddenly immersed in this whole culture, so to speak. So you, you evolve into the Star Wars culture. And it’s a similar thing with the Toy Story Lands that have opened and with the Cars Land at California Adventure, in that once you go in, you do not feel like you’re in the rest of the park. You feel like you have entered a separate realm altogether.

Walter Isaacson: You can take a ride in a perfect recreation of the Millennium Falcon or fly a banshee through the skies of Pandora. With the coming years we’ll see parks themed after Nintendo, Nickelodeon, and even in Japan, Godzilla, featuring a replica of the famous movie monster designed to his exact enormous dimensions. It’s no surprise that these attractions continue to gain popularity, as Disney parks alone brought in a staggering $20 billion in just 2018.

Walter Isaacson: Walt Disney once said Disneyland would never be completed, that it would continue to grow as long as there was imagination left in the world. But even the visionary trailblazer might never have imagined just how powerful, not to mention profitable, that imagination could become.

Walter Isaacson: I’m Walter Isaacson, and you’ve been listening to trailblazers, an original podcast from Dell Technologies. For more on any of the guests on today’s show, you can head to our website at Thanks for listening.