Theme park design: Making reality fantastic – DePaoli on DeParks

by Jeff DePaoli

Theme park designers do an incredible job creating environments that people dream about visiting, whether it’s a princess’ castle, your favorite wizarding school, living inside cartoon atmospheres, or a myriad of other wondrous locations. But it isn’t always the job of a theme park designer to make fantasy-themed places a reality. Often, the job is put upon them to make very natural environments feel as real as possible. In this case, the designer’s job becomes invisible (if done well) and the credit isn’t as plentiful as someplace more imaginary brought to life.

theme park
Photos courtesy of Walt Disney World Resort

One of the biggest examples of this is Disney’s Animal Kingdom. This theme park is not only massive, but highly-themed to mostly natural environments. Due to this fact, the jaw-dropping “oh wow” moments (like the first time you see Cinderella Castle in person) aren’t as common. But when you think about it, the natural wonderlands are even more impressive. Even though I prefer the more fantastical environments, I am in awe of the natural landscapes created around theme parks.

animal kingdom

When you take a step back and realize that most of the rocks you see aren’t real and were sculpted by a human, it’s pretty remarkable that an artist can make such a lifelike landscape. Even the decisions made about where to place trees and plant life are done in such a way that it looks as if they’ve always been there. And then there’s building decay — the craft of aging a building or prop takes much more than just banging some nicks and throwing some dirt. Careful attention is paid to the aging process and story is considered so that the age of the building makes sense within the park, land, or ride storyline.

theme park

Since these locations include items we see every day like rocks, plants, trees, and decayed buildings, it’s much easier for guests to recognize inauthenticity when the theme park environment includes everyday (but often fake) items. In America, we don’t regularly see castles in our everyday lives, so I honestly wouldn’t know whether or not Cinderella Castle or Hogwarts looks authentic to a true castle. I just know that my jaw drops and I get chills when I see them.

galaxy's edge

In more recent years, it seems as though even fantasy-driven stories are including a lot of organic landscapes. When you think of Pandora – The World of Avatar or Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, they’re full of a lot of natural (and additionally fantastical) environments. The Black Spires of Batuu, and even the floating mountains of Pandora, feel real and like something you might find in real life.

The next time you’re in a theme park in one of these “natural” environments, take a moment to step back and recognize the fact that these “nature” elements are entirely designed and crafted by the hands of an artist. I’m sure that realization will “wow” you as much as a fantasy environment when you take notice. But even if you don’t take that moment to step back, I’m sure the egoless (and often forgotten) artists who created them would appreciate the fact that it feels so real to you that you wouldn’t even think of noticing.

What are some of your favorite artisan-made “natural” locations around the parks that you often forget aren’t real? Let me know in the comments.

Jeff DePaoli is a producer and voiceover artist living in Los Angeles. He can be heard as the voice of Disney Trivia on Alexa as well as the host of “Dizney Coast to Coast,” the ultimate, unofficial Disney fan podcast. Get your FREE gifts of “America’s Hidden Mickeys,” “On the Rohde Again,” “Theme Park Comfort Kit” and more at DizneyCoastToCoast.com.


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