The Business of Fun

This past week I had the privilege of attending the premiere of my work "The Legend of Kirsten Piils” at the Kentucky Governor’s School for the Arts Summer Session held in beautiful Centre College in Danville, KY. Written especially for the professional faculty chamber ensemble and accompanied by an original narrative poem it tells the story of a young, intrepid girl from Denmark, ca. 1583 who famously wandered into the forest on the eve of the Summer Solstice looking for the magic that seems to be at its strongest at that time of year. By coincidence (or not) the premiere was the week of the 2016 Summer Solstice and June marked my 40th year in the theme park business.

Like Kirsten, but only 40 years ago, I went looking for some magic and found it in this remarkable business. Lost and confused, she stumbled upon a sparkling spring of water with strangely curative powers and her legend initiated centuries of pilgrimages resulting over time in the world's oldest continuously operating attraction:“Dreyhavsbakken”. To this day the water runs cool and clear, children come to the well, the music plays and on it goes. 

As for me, I found my own brand of elixir in the operational challenges, fascinating people and creative metrics of producing themed attractions. During my first tour at Cedar Point I wrote to my mother that: “It’s like living in a cartoon - everything moves, it’s noisy and colorful, fun and frenetic; it never ends”. Kirsten found her way out of the forest by following an apparition of light but I’ve never found my way back.

Unlike Kirsten what I found was home; why would I leave? Besides my natural state is to be a little dazzled, dazed, amused and amazed - the normal state of things in theme parks - I fit right in. They know me here.

Standing on stage in front of 300 select young Designers, Architects, Musicians, Singers, Dancers, Writers and Media specialists I reflected on how special, compelling and unique my journey has been. From Cedar Point to ValleyFair, Busch Gardens, San Antonio, San Diego, Branson and countless projects in between I suppose I’ve been following some ethereal light of my own but just when I arrive, it moves on and so do I.

As I answered their questions and told my story I shared with them that they were in number and discipline almost precisely the size and scope of my team in California - musicians and dancers, writers and producers, designers and builders of dreams. I explained that their talents, emboldened by hard work and seeded by their imaginations would take them places they have never imagined; doors will open, trails will appear; all it takes is the courage to wander, sure in the belief that something awesome will follow. I asked that they each learn the language of the other; I told them that they are all in search of the same thing simply using different tools. 

The power of creativity is harnessed by the collective will of cross discipline thinkers that spans dimensions we can’t even see. 

Like the nuance of swing music or the pedantic lilt of an Austrian waltz (subjects we covered in my music lecture earlier the day) these subtleties cannot be captured in notation, on the written page or in words. You have to learn and experience it for yourself and that, is the power of theme parks, museums and theatre. The power of experience.

On a sleepy Spring afternoon this past April, I found myself in front of another class. I was teaching “The Business of Fun” for the University of Virginia’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute and I was looking for a place to start my discussion on World’s Fairs, Amusement Parks and the secrets that make them tick. My audience was mostly senior citizens so I coyly asked if anyone had attended the Chicago World’s Exposition in 1893 or St. Louis in 1904 which resulted in some chuckles and appreciative “whipper snapper” remarks which I took in the spirit of good fun. But when I asked about the 1939 NY World’s Fair an elegant, petite woman raised her hand and said quietly: “I was there”.

“I was there”.

“Tell us about it” - and so she did. 

You could hear a pin drop as she described the scale of the thing, how big it was and how tiny she felt, this experience more than 70 years ago that changed her forever. The next week she brought a small, souvenir pillow from the fair. As elegant as she, hand colored in the pastiche of an antique postcard her eyes twinkled as she shared her memories, suddenly brought back to life.

This year I’ve been able to share my memories with young people not half as old as my own story, and with folks that were riding rides years before I was born; I told the tale with pictures, story and music and if I learned one thing it is this: 

There are universal truths at work in our business that bring joy and excitement, hope and inspiration and perhaps most important, an infinite sense of youth and discovery and that seems to transcend time itself. 

I for one am grateful that Kirsten had the curiosity to dream and the courage to act; may we all do the same.