There aren’t really too many really terrific theme park documentaries out there – at least ones written and produced with an eye towards objectivity and education. There’s always been making-of television specials and the kind of “documentaries” Disney regularly commissions from the History and Travel Channels, but these are as much promotional tools as anything else. But a well-researched theme park documentary that has a point of view and a variety of subjects across a broad spectrum of the industry?
Well, I know of one. It was a large influence on my way of thinking about theme parks, and we’re going to take a look at it today.
In the 1990s growing up out in the country, I did not have access to a lot of information about theme parks. I had grown up with our regional amusement center, Riverside Park – now known as Six Flags New England – every few years may be able to make a trip down to Disney. There was no such thing as streaming video, and a dial-up connection to a 56k modem was still years away for me. Amazon did not yet exist, never mind of the sort of information resource I’ve worked to make this site into. I wanted to learn more about theme parks, but my options were very limited.
Thankfully I was at the time a VHS hoarder and was able to capture this Discovery Channel documentary in 1997. When I watched it some time later, it really took my head off and changed the way I thought about my occasional trips to the orlando mega parks. Suddenly, the two worlds of amusement parks I had known – the regional parks like Lake Compounce and the Orlando extravaganzas – were contextualized as being two different expressions of a shared heritage. It was a revelation. The show was called “Fun House”, and there seemingly is very little information available about it.
One could argue with certain points that the documentary makes. Its’ two examples of cutting edge attractions are Indiana Jones Adventure and Terminator 2: 3D, and most theme park fans would not lump T2 in with all of the dark rides. At the end, it takes a dive into the world of IMAX films. Yet it’s very easy to imagine an updated version of this documentary then moving on to discuss Universal’s Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man or Disney’s Soarin’ as examples of rides which build on the boom in themed projection technology from the 90s. The current champion for most cutting edge attraction operating is Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, which frankly isn’t all that different than Spider-Man.
And on the other hand, this hour long show preserves a number of things which are now lost. The Old Mill and Le Cachot at Kenywood are gone, and Bushkill Park’s historic Haunted Pretzel was destroyed in the Pennsylvania flooding in 2005. The lights-on tour of the Haunted Pretzel is a high point of this documentary, and worth watching to see exactly what the Pretzel Amusement Company was building in the late 1920s.
Oh, and thankfully the me of 1997 had enough foresight to include all of the commercials. Hop on board the Fun House and let’s learn something!