As I stumbled around in 100 degree heat toward the next ride, futilely adding another layer of sunscreen to my saturated-yet-sun-dried skin, I was struck by an idea that doubtlessly countless others have had before*:
Amusement parks are a study in infinitely fractal, self-referential marketing and cross-promotion. Our presence as the willing public is their greatest opportunity, for we are a captive audience. Captives who have paid to be trapped in an endless barrage of merchandising. (A barrage made up of attempts clever, clumsy, and blatant alike. Often within what could be isolated as a single “pitch.”) It really is extraordinary (and also perhaps expected or mundane, which itself says a lot about our culture) the different levels on which this marketing happens.
The imitated voice of a famous rabbit Muzaks its way into our somewhat offended ears, telling us that now is the perfect time to upgrade to a season pass…so we can come back and keep hearing him give us these little tips and spend more time awash in a sea of themed advertising. Stores sell all sorts of products with the park’s logo on it, characters that the park is affiliated with, merchandise with the names of various rides, comic book character capes: everything you could ever want and very little you “need.” The rides are named after current, recent, or upcoming movies, reminding the public to go see them and be part of the national summer blockbuster conversation.
Perhaps this isn’t as extraordinary or complex as all that, and others have analyzed this phenomenon in more depth and with more care**, but when you start pulling back the layers, it certainly seems to be. Even while entering and exiting rides, patrons are reminded to go eat a turkey leg at a nearby snack bar, or visit a different ride or attraction. Everything is designed to remind the visitor about different aspects of the theme park’s financial interests so that they can support these interests by buying commodities that have been fetishized nearly beyond recognition and functionality.
Is that post-modern punk kid wearing that super-hero cape ironically, or seriously, or because it struck him as the appropriate thing to don while experiencing the corresponding ride? Are we playing these carnival games because we like that it involves hitting a representation of that pesky cat who always tried to kill the bird on the Saturday mornings of our youth, or because it involves the chance of winning an oversized plush doll that represents an entirely different cartoon character? Are we just pawns in several large, incestuous companies’ schemes to make sartorial advertisements out of us–soon all we’ll have to do is look in the mirror, and our shirts will subconsciously remind us that we really do need to go see that new super-hero movie. And then go buy a ticket and pay for parking so we can go ride the ride, and then buy a pen or hat or coffee mug to commemorate all of this.
Maybe none of this matters. It is what we’re paying for, after all.