This is the worst time of year to go to a theme park. Summer is tough, too, but the Winter holiday is so compact, time-wise. Urrf.
Still, it’s a great local option if you’re not otherwise traveling or if you just want to do something besides eat and watch football. And with all the fake snow and that garish, silver shit they drape off every protuding surface, it’s pretty damn romantic, too. Nothing says “I love you” like plastic snow.
Whether you’re actually going to a theme park or not, you can enjoy these immersive works of art — or stoke your fanaticism – with some of these books. They cover everything from Help With Travels to Peek Behind the Curtain to I’m Goin’ Pro Someday.
The Unofficial Guides series is the foam on your theme park cappuccino. These top-flight theme park nerds constantly and meticulously examine and reexamine all of your number #1 themed destinations to provide you with the latest, most accurate, and least “officially sanctioned” inside info for your visits. They cover the biggies: Disneyland, everything in Orlando (including Universal) – even Vegas. Some travel guides have that “bought” feel, like, “hey man, was this written to get me to buy this overpriced hotel room?!” But these dudes are on your side. Don’t believe me? Here’s an interview on the Season Pass Podcast (only the best theme park podcast ever – if that means anything to you).
We’ve already reviewed Jeff Baham’s tasty The Unauthorized Story of Walt Disney’s Haunted Mansion, but it belongs on this list. Besides the recent addition of the Hatbox Ghost (which it does talk about), it is exhaustive and detail-oriented. It’s the best book on the best ride ever made (in my humble and correct opinion). Check out our original review, from earlier this year. But hey – there’s a second edition now – that’s even better.
Disney’s archrival in the theme park business, though still a distant second place in terms of revenue, is mighty Universal. When I was a kid, Universal was nothing like Disneyland. It was fun, but it was weird: a tram tour, with some funky characters and buildings full of props and special effects from the Cenozoic era. Now, Universal has a handful of the absolute best attractions ever built in a theme park, including the Harry Potter lands, the newest of which is opening at Universal Hollywood this coming April. You can feel Disney’s tension from all the way down the freeway. Sam Gennawey covers this rivalry and the rise of Universal Studios in Universal versus Disney, this fortuitous rivalry that will keep us rolling in awesome attractions for years to come.
All of us who grew up in Southern California grew up at Knott’s Berry Farm. It’s unique and essential. Believe it or not, Walter Marvin Knott and Walter Elias Disney were buds. They influenced and supported each other. When Cedar Fair (the massive group of well-made, well-run amusement parks, with some of the premier coasters on the planet) bought Knott’s Berry Farm a few years back, they did a lot to modernize, but have been careful to cultivate its native charm. There are a few choices for books on Knott’s. Knott’s Berry Farm: The Early Years from the Images of America Series goes way back to the beginning. This is for your hardcore or history-minded fan.
More of this history all the way up to just a few years ago is Knott’s Preserved. This one has tons of pix and 20 years of research. The good news: there’s a revised edition. The bad news: it’s hard to find. This is from the great Christopher Merritt, both a fan and a designer.
Besides Boysenberry jam (Knott’s basically saved the hybrid “boysenberry” from extinction and popularized it in convenient jam form) and the log ride/flume (not the absolute first version of this ride style, but certainly the one that set the standard), Knott’s biggest singular mark on culture might be Knott’s Scary Farm, which is now copied the world-over, rarely with anywhere near their level of success. Knott’s Halloween Haunt: A Picture History by Ted Dougherty (foreward by renaissance man Neil Patrick Harris) tells the whole story. It’s also hard to find. [Sorry to include things that are tough to find, but I’d rather make you aware they exist than not. Besides, they’re not impossible to find. In fact, maybe there’s a fresh printing for the holidays that I just missed. Good luck. Definitely worth the search.]
The closest thing to a rival Knott’s Scary Farm has is Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights. There’s a book for that, too: Halloween Horror Nights: The Unofficial Story and Guide 2015 from Christopher Ripley. This one is new and it doesn’t look hard to find. It covers Universal’s long and rocky history of halloween events (they actually skipped a few years).
Nick Weisenberger is an engineer and “railhead”, “adrenalinite”, “ERT junkie” – he loves roller coasters. His 50 Groundbreaking Rollercoasters is a survey of the epoch-makers in rollercoaster evolution. It’s not like “Most Barfs in an Hour” or “Cleanest Decapitations”; it’s more like “First quadruple loop”, “First to break 100”, “Where they first learned how to convert wood to steel”, etc. – the stuff that actually leads to better experiences and less cleanup/jail time.
Also from Weisenberger is Coasters 101: An Engineer’s Guide to Roller Coaster Design, an excellent start for your sharp, young amusement park nut who you’re afraid will never have a real job cuz all she wants is adrenaline. This is not advanced engineering; it’s an intro to concepts and background for design – perfect for non-engineers with an inclination. Don’t just tell them Math is important: show them why, at 100mph.
Along those same lines, but a little broader is Theme Park Design: Behind the Scenes with a Theme Park Engineer by theme park engineer Steve Alcorn. More than just roller coasters, this covers dark rides, safety, merchandising – every single aspect of building and running a park. Obviously, it’s still only an introduction; you would need a library to cover all the details exhaustively. For your enthusiast who loves theme parks and wants to be a part of the magic, it’s a solid insider’s survey. You can even earn a certificate from Steve, for just a couple hundred bucks.
And if your idea of Theme Park Fun!! includes a few loops around Postmodern theory, then let Scott A Lukas be your tour guide. The insightfully titled Theme Park examines the phenomenon from its prototypical roots in fancy gardens and… whatever the hell they used to do before theme parks were invented… and traces the developments of this gesamtkuntswerk (remember this word? it’s a fave: a total work of art, using all the various art forms in one whole – sound, performance, fine art, etc.. God bless the German language). Heady stuff, but pretty fascinating. Only for smart peeple or them what wanna be smart and shit.
Lukas has a few other books on the topic, including the broader The Immersive Worlds Handbook: Designing Theme Parks and Consumer Spaces.
In this list, we have moved from “where to stay at Walt Disney World” to “how to design a really bitchin shopping mall”. See? Gesamtkuntswerk. Hey, tell me I’m wrong, but that’s a great word for this “themed environment” thing. There’s an angle for everyone, from enjoyment to employment.
I wish I was in a theme park right now.
(Oh, and don’t forget to pay a visit to the Last Bookstore theme park, if you get a chance. It’s specifically designed for book lovers, like You!)