Theme Parks, Imaginary Worlds, and Real Access

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How many theme parks can you name?

Disneyland, Six Flags, Marine World, and Great America are some better-known US theme parks. Tivoli in Denmark, Huis Ten Bosch in Japan, and GRS Fantasy Park in Mysore, India might turn up on your list if you are a theme park connoisseur. Cadbury World, Hershey Park and Hershey World might also come to mind if chocolate is your passion.

Now, turn the question around. How do those theme parks name you? That is, who are you allowed to be once you enter the magic of a theme park?


What is a theme park?


It is first a park. Extent and boundaries define a park. A park occupies space in a particular location. Unlike a nomadic circus or a traveling carnival it has permanence of place. We go to a park.

A park is a physical space that can be marked. Parks create frontiers -- the contrast between "inside" and "outside."

The frontier is also a psychological and social space, as anyone who lives near a national border, knows. Reality changes somehow when we cross a frontier or when we pass into a park.

The tension between inside and outside creates anticipation for the traveler - a spirit of pilgrimage that can only be satisfied by arrival at the goal. For the traveler with a disability arrival may not be easy - and it is most likely only the start of new kind of tension.
This fact is captured in the title of the very first study in English on the travel behavior of consumers with disabilities. The article, "From Anxiety to Access" by Simon Darcy of Australia, launched the field of inclusive travel as a topic for academic study in the English-speaking world.

Simon revealed to the travel industry what those of us with disabilities who travel want as consumers. We want exactly the same thing that other travelers want! That is not a difficult concept - "exactly the same thing." As visitors to a theme park we want to be "inside." We want the magic to work on us.

The psychological-social definition of "inside" changes depending on the type of park. So, let's consider the varieties of park - park typology.

Kinds of Parks

One type of park may be offer nothing more than the features of its location.
 
These parks exist to guarantee access to some location that is often entirely natural. The site may be only slightly modified for human use if at all. Once inside the park boundary we move in order to observe nature. Examples include:

•  Grand Canyon, or Yellowstone National Parks in the US
•  Ngongoro, Kilimanjaro, or Serengeti in Tanzania

Another type of park may exist to preserve a place that is entirely manmade because of its historical or cultural purpose. In this sort of park observation is secondary to preservation. In fact, entry into some buildings may be entirely prohibited - or the preserved architectural features, such as stairways for example, may make entry difficult or impossible for someone with a mobility disability.

A third type of park may obliterate the original local features that were either built or natural. This is often the strategy taken by theme parks. Theme parks create a coherent artificial space. By doing so theme parks acquire a degree of ethical responsibility not shared by the previous types of park.
 
Degrees of Responsibility

Theme parks have a responsibility to be 100% accessible.

Why? Because they can be 100% accessible in the way that the natural environment of a national park or the historically authentic environment of an enclave of the past cannot. Theme parks have a responsibility to be accessible because of the definitions of disability and of discrimination.

Some individuals carry a certain deficit in capacity. In English we call the lack of capacity a "disability." Some modifications change the environment making it usable only to those with that capacity. To build a system, building, product, or ideology that does not allow for the participation of persons with differing capacities is to discriminate, to isolate, to leave "outside."
 
We call the lack of access through design "a handicap." A handicap is a socially constructed reality that prevents social participation on the basis of difference in capacity.
Medicine may have something to say about improving capacity. Universal Design is the solution to the lack of access.

Universal Design

Universal Design starts with the fundamental assertion that people with disabilities are consumers. Universal Design is about engineering the full inclusion of the widest range of consumers - offering them appropriate choices in the marketplace and the dignity of participation.

In the end, the meaning of inclusion is social participation. Social participation is the second psychological meaning of "inside."
 
A theme park that "names" a visitor as anything but a full participant in every activity that it offers names the visitor an "outsider." It breaks the magic.

Magic by Design

Theme parks tell a story.

Their magic comes from allowing visitors to participate in their story.

The measure of theme park accessibility is not simply physical accommodation for those with ambulatory disabilities; Braille signage for the blind; or auditory amplification for the deaf. The park must arrange all those things toward the goal of full participation by carriers of those differences in capacity; those disabilities. The architecture, the paths, the music, the signs, the staff and the returning visitors all work together to teach the visitor how to be an actor "inside" the theme park.
 
The key question is, do all those elements work together to allow visitors of every degree of capacity to play every available role in the theme park story?

Can a child with a developmental disability be the protagonist? The princess? The clown? Can the visitor with a mobility impairment be he adventurer conquering ride after ride? Facing wild animals like a hero? Can the person who does not take in information visually or auditorially find their stage cues as they play out the park's fantasy?

The next time you visit a theme park - or build one - think beyond the minimum requirements set out by the Americans with Disabilities Act in the US or the relevant building and safety codes in your country. Imagineer an environment where the differences in capacity between children and seniors are bridged. Stage a world where those with disabilities and those enjoying those temporary phases of life where they are not experiencing one can recreate side by side. Name yourself as hero.

Bring home a memento of a place that still might only exist in fantasy - but can still come true by design if the story escapes.


First published at Suite101.com



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