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Parkology: Coney Island the First Theme Park?


luna park theme park coney island

(Above: Coney Island-Where it all started)

mel mcgowan theme park plannerby Mel McGowan

Welcome to Parkology. As both a fan and a designer of themed attractions, I’d love to create a space to explore the history & future of the form, as well as to reflect on what they mean.

Such musings have largely been limited to the Disney Theme Parks in the blogosphere. However, I believe that each theme park has its own story to tell, and that the impact of “Walt’s Revolution” reaches far beyond the landscaped “berm” designed to keep the “real world” out. We’ll also explore how the design of themed attractions have influenced the world that we live, work, worship, and play in.

From Luna Park to Virgin Galactic’s Spaceport, the themed attraction is a unique cultural art form, with its own heritage, trajectory and extremely large canvases!

Houston, we have liftoff!

spaceship named luna fron luna park theme park artcile new york coney island

(Above: A Spaceship Named "Luna")

Luna Park

Contrary to popular opinion, it didn’t start with a mouse. It also didn’t start with Walt sitting on a bench at Griffith Park eating peanuts while his daughters rode a carousel. Although Knott’s Berry Farm has hung its cowboy hat on being “America’s First Theme Park, ” I’d give the plaque to Luna Park.

stereoscopic view of luna park theme park coney island new york

(Above: Stereoscopic – prehistoric ViewMaster – view of Luna Park)

Luna Park was actually built on the site of the first gated amusement park, Sea Lion Park. One of its founding partners Fred Thompson, knew enough about architecture to be dangerous.  The Chicago World’s Fair’s “White City” was a neoclassical vision of Heaven by day and an electric “city on a hill” by night that burned itself into the collective memory of 27 million of Americans that witnessed it during its 6 month run. Its “Midway Plaisance” international amusement zone established the linear mall layout that has been emulated hundreds of times around the world.  It served as the model of the 1901 Pan-American Exposition which featured one of the first “E-Ticket” attractions: “A Trip to the Moon.” The runaway hit was inspired by the silent film of the same name by George Melies (whose amazing talent and story is featured in my favorite film of the year, “Hugo”).

1901 Pan-American Exposition Midway in luna park new york coney island blog

(Above: 1901 Pan-American Exposition Midway)

Melies' Le Voyage Dans La Lune

(Above: Melies’ Le Voyage Dans La Lune)

Rather than simply fusing the “Midway” layout with the neoclassical architecture of the White City (like dozens of uninspired copycats from neighboring Dreamland to the dozens of Electric Parks and White Cities across the US), Thompson intentionally designed the first gated theme park around his “E-Ticket” attraction…and what a theme it was: a city on the moon!  “A Trip to the Moon, ” was an extravaganza that was not surpassed until Walt Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” six decades later.  A Trip to the Moon "post show"In a precursor to the motion simulators and 4D theaters of today, your Victorian spaceship seats pitched as painted scenic canvases rolled past portholes simulating a fantastical space voyage. Upon landing you exited the spacecraft and were greeted with sensual “Moon Maidens” offering a taste of cheese pulled off the cavern walls. Talk about a multi-sensory experience!

(left: A Trip to the Moon "post show")

Like today’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter, the anchor attraction was embedded in an immersive environment which extends the story beyond the ride time. Outside “A Trip to the Moon” the fantasy continued with a lunar cityscape consisting of hundreds of towers and minarets described by visitors as an “electric Baghdad by the sea.” Rather than choosing a known historic geography or even directly interpreting a known media property (Melies’ “A Trip to the Moon” silent movie, the first “sci-fi” blockbuster), Thompson and his business partner “Skip” Dundy, loosely appropriated exotic architectural details from throughout Asia and the Middle East in a wholly original composition, using sophisticated scaling techniques such as forced perspective. Entered from an iconic gateway on Surf Avenue, the vista was closed by deflecting the linear “Midway” axis, creating a sense of discovery. Multiple levels included elevated terraces and promenades culminating in the iconic “Shoot the Chutes” ride (the first flume ride, one of the few holdovers from Sea Lion Park).

Luna park theme park new york coney island Electric Baghad by the Sea

(Above: "Electric Baghad by the Sea")

At the scale of just one of Disney’s “lands” (22 acres), Thompson & Dundy had elevated the pleasure garden and amusement park into an wholly immersive, multisensory environmental experience which transported visitors away from the grim urban reality of turn of the century New York. A new art form had been invented: the theme park.

Luna Park midway theme park coney island new york

(Above: Luna Park’s Midway)

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