Kenneth Burns: That great American invention, the theme park

Jan. 18, 2014 @ 11:46 PM

A hush has fallen over Sevier County.

Dollywood is closed for the season. There’s nothing to do.

I kid. The ski slopes are open, Wilderness Wildlife Week starts Saturday, and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a beautiful place to visit any time of year.

But Dollywood is a big deal around here, and for good reason. It’s iconic, and it employs a lot of locals.

And it’s a fine example of that great American invention, the theme park.

Dollywood reopens March 22. Meanwhile, the off-season is an excellent time to think about theme parks and what they mean.

Theme parks fascinate me. I like visiting them. I like looking at all the stuff. I like the shows, the food, the rides.

Needless to say, I also enjoyed theme parks when I was a kid. I guess I never outgrew them.

But when I visit one now, I do so partly in the spirit of journalistic research. That’s what I tell myself, anyway.

As a journalist, I’ve long covered various aspects of the entertainment industry, and theme parks are a big entertainment business. Media behemoths like Disney and NBCUniversal run theme parks, which promote the companies’ film and televison properties.

I’m also interested in business journalism generally, and few businesses are more exciting than real estate. Depending on you who you ask.

Theme parks are all about real estate. Walt Disney determined early on that there was money to be made renting rooms to theme park guests. Now entertainment complexes like Florida’s Walt Disney World are as much about developing hotels as they are celebrating Mickey and Goofy. Here in Sevier County, Dollywood is jumping into the hotel business with its DreamMore Resort, slated to open in 2015.

Yes, I think about these sorts of things when I visit theme parks. I also laugh and scream my head off as I ride rides like Dollywood’s Thunderhead roller coaster. Strictly in the spirit of journalistic research, of course.

My earliest theme park experiences were at now-shuttered Opryland in Nashville, my hometown. In addition to the usual mix of rides and attractions, Opryland offered superlative shows. Many starred the enthusiastic college kids who are a staple of theme park shows.

But Opryland shows also offered something unique: performances by country music pros, both talented sidemen and legends like Roy Acuff. I’m a lifelong country fan in part because of what I saw at Opryland in the 1970s, when I was little. Theme parks can be powerful that way.

I’ve also experienced the Busch Gardens and Six Flags parks. And then there’s Disney. Visits to the company’s Magic Kingdom in Orlando are some of my favorite childhood memories.

I revisited those memories a few years ago at Disneyland, in Anaheim, Calif. The year was 2009.

I had traveled to the Los Angeles area to compete on the game show “Jeopardy!” The producers said to book a two-day stay, in case my appearance extended beyond the first day’s taping.

I’m proud to say that I won a round – Jeopardy! champion forever – but by lunchtime on the first day, I was done. I had a day to kill in L.A.

So I went to Disneyland, which seemed celebratory. It was either that or the La Brea Tar Pits.

Let me tell you, Disneyland is not really set up for people visiting alone.

That was made clear to me in the parking garage, before I even entered the theme park. As I pulled up to a booth, an attendant greeted me with, “You guys ready to have fun?” He hadn’t yet noticed that I was flying solo. I just grinned in response.

I had similar experiences throughout the day. At the rides, families piled into the little cars that took them on Peter Pan’s Flight or Snow White’s Scary Adventures. Then there was me, a lonely commuter in theme park cars built for four or six.

I enjoyed my day at Disneyland. The Disney people understand the business of fun.

Do you know what I remembered as I waited to board Disneyland’s Jungle Cruise ride? As a young man, Ron Ziegler, President Richard Nixon’s press secretary, was a skipper on the Jungle Cruise ride.

That’s the sort of thing I think about when I visit theme parks.

When I’m not screaming my head off.

Kenneth Burns is Community News Editor of The Mountain Press. Call 428-0748, ext. 212, or send e-mail to kburns@themountainpress.com. Twitter: @KennethBurns.