I really enjoyed my visit to Kansas City’s Worlds of Fun. The park is lushly landscaped, features a variety of attractions, and much of its early seventies design (led by Randall Duell) is preserved relatively intact. There’s been some thematic degradation over the years, for sure. All three original boats (two of which were purchased at an MGM backlot auction) that once factored into the park’s overall globetrotting theme based on the Oscar-winning film Around the World in 80 Days (1956) have been scrapped.
But it’s what remains that is the most interesting. And the most problematic. Worlds of Fun is a time capsule of an earlier era. Despite the gains made in expanding social consciousness throughout the 1960s, the park remains trapped in 1973 amber which fully reveals just what had not yet been addressed in American society. Worlds of Fun makes apparent just what kind of cultural stereotyping was acceptable back then—and is perhaps still acceptable today.
The 1973 Worlds of Fun souvenir map features cartoon mascots for each of the themed lands: Americana, Europa, Scandinavia, Africa, and Orient. As one might expect, the are all caricatures of the same white boy. In Scandinavia, he’s a Viking; for Americana, a cowboy. In Europa he’s some kind of cool lookin’ cat wearing French-like street clothing.
For the Orient our character appears, well, “Oriental” as they would have said then. The boy is wearing a conical hat (in Chinese dǒulì 斗笠) which is still popular throughout many Asian countries to this day. He appears to be holding firecrackers and a lit stick of dynamite. Yet his skin remains white.
I point this out only because it’s a clear representation of what “other” would be to an overwhelmingly white, middle class, Middle American audience at a Missourian theme park in the early seventies. Rather than presenting some kind of Asian young person, the white cartoon becomes the other, subsuming his identity. The cartoon kid gets to play “dress up” as Viking warrior and as a cowboy—here he acts as if Asian. Because my area of expertise is design, I’m not sure how else to comment. But there it is.
Press photos from the opening season show an Orient area with plenty of natural woods and more muted paint schemes.
The current look of the land is reds and yellows, dialed up to eleven. The forms on the roof appear to be a comically exaggerated and simplified interpretation of secular Thai architecture.
There’s color in Randall Duell’s original design treatment, but it’s subtle and scans as a bit more authentic (or authentic-seeking). There are also smaller details‚ such as the Thai-inspired columns, that appear to have been completely removed. It’s a shame—although the 1973 Worlds of Fun 1973 souvenir park map poster is full of racist caricatures, the 1973 thematic design is not quite as offensive. At least they were trying.
I expect cheesy puns for my theme park attraction names, but the ones here in Orient are especially bad. Panda, bamboo, Bamboozler, get it? To be bamboozled, or course, is to be taken by a confidence man or tricked by some other kind of fraud. Curiously, it’s also the title of a film by Spike Lee about a contemporary television minstrel show on which black actors wear blackface makeup. But I digress.
Bamboozler opened in 1977 as Singapore Sling. The ride moved to the Americana area in 1980 (where it was known as Whirligig), and then four years later returned to its current location in Orient as Bamboozler.
A “Singapore Sling” is a classic gin cocktail which was supposedly invented during World War I at the hotel bar in Singapore. That hotel, Raffles, is a late nineteenth century British colonial-style luxury resort and was named for Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles who founded the colony in 1819 as and outpost of the British East India Company. This is nothing more than an interesting aside; “Singapore Sling” has a colonial connection.
Yes, yes they did. “Pagoda Soda.” The script typeface is particularly egregious.
There are a few such “pagodas” scattered around the Orient area. They all carry what are called hard hill roofs (in Chinese yìngshāndǐng 硬山顶 ). So there’s some authenticity in those tiles and framing, but the colors are extremely garish. Mustard yellow everywhere.
I commented on this in my prior Worlds of Fun post, but I’d like to point out again the—quite ironic—suitability of a Panda Express outlet in the Orient area. This was probably added after Cedar Fair bought the park in 1995, during a period of explosive growth for the Chinese American fast food chain which included contracted presence at both Cedar Fair and Six Flags parks nationwide.
This bridge appears to be painted red in all the early park photos, just not this red.
Here’s a new one for me—pagoda as duck food dispenser. With the red paint and white trim, at a distance, this looked like some kind of emergency phone box to call the paramedics. And look at those upturned eaves! This is a common (and thus obvious to reference) feature of traditional Chinese architecture.
What’s interesting about thematic design is that it’s a distilled art form. Aesthetics become heightened, sweetened, amped up, exaggerated. And thus sometimes misapplied. That upturned curve telegraphs “Asia” to a white Western audience in a very direct way. So why not use it everywhere, even if that’s a departure from the actual design of said culture(s)? Here in Orient at Worlds of Fun even the benches have upturns. And they’re bright mustard yellow, naturally.
In the center of Orient is a large garden area surrounding a pond. Early photos show a sparse landscape, but in the decades since it’s actually become quite heavily wooded and somewhat charming.
That’s the queue building for Bamboozler off at the right. The ride which used to be at this spot was called Oriental Octopus. It moved to Scandinavia and then left Worlds of Fun after the end of the 2014 season for Valleyfair where it lives as Monster.
I’ve been in love with Japanese garden design since I was a child. These stone lanterns (in Japanese tōrō 灯籠 or 灯篭, 灯楼) are indeed authentic examples, and likely made of concrete instead of actual stone—just like other contemporary low-cost models which you can buy for your own garden. This is a pedestal lantern (in Japanese tachidōrō 立ち灯籠) of which there are some twenty subtypes. The style pictured here is commonly called Kasuga-dōrō (春日灯籠).
You can buy lanterns carved from actual stone, but get out your checkbook. Even the smaller ones can cost over $10,000. No wonder Worlds of Fun went with concrete.
This is a kind of stone pagoda—a tower—and not a lantern. Curiously, such stone pagodas and lanterns which are covered in moss and other aged distressing are considered more valuable. But here we lose points for the concrete.
Thematic design is also not only a distillation, it’s also quite often a collage. So in this “traditional” garden setting we see Japanese forms, Chinese forms, and more generic pan-Asian forms. Sumo wrestler becomes the Buddha and back again.
Just to the right of the Bamboozler building, which is quite Thai-inspired, we have these public restrooms, which are housed in a (surprisingly) authentic Japanese structure. I’ve been to public baths in Japan, and this strikes me as completely legit (except for the paint-by-numbers job).
Where would cultural appropriation be without depressing, poor quality typography? And I won’t even comment on the problematic nature of henna tattoo art. Best to let that one lie.
Another pagoda. This time with a decidedly Midwestern roof shingle treatment.
But they still managed to curve up those eaves.
Again like I saw in the Africa area, we’ve got some Lithos-looking type with an inline element added into the graphic mix. I don’t know why an inline Neuland/Lithos is a seemingly the only shortcut for “exotic and/or ethnic” for many American designers. But there you have it.
Here’s something I did not know: the English “Rickshaw” is Japanese in origin. Dating back to the 1870s, we get the word from jinrikisha (人力車, 人 jin = human, 力 riki = power, 車 sha= vehicle), which literally translates to “human-powered vehicle.” But of course the designers of Worlds of Fun probably didn’t know that. They were just looking for some tacky alliteration. “Richard” certainly isn’t Japanese—it’s about as white European royalty as you can get.
Ricky’s (sorry!) shop is closely guarded by more than one imperial guardian lion—something authentically Chinese.
Yet just across the path in a neighboring planter is a stone pagoda in the Japanese style. It’s all a melange—a design soup of “Asian-ness.”
Spinning Dragons is a small coaster which opened in the Orient area in 2004 after the demise of Orient Express (more on this in my next post). I like the elaborate nature of the ride’s logo and typography, but like so much 2000–2010s design, it’s very video game / sports team / energy. And—of course—more bold red and yellow, because this is Orient!
Speaking of bold red, Coke seems like a more natural fit here than in other parts of Worlds of Fun. This outlet was added relatively recently (within the past decade), but the designers still took care to give the Coca-Cola pagoda the very same garish features to match the other older ones in Orient.
I Bless the Rains Down in Africa
The other themed area which I found fairly ridiculous from a cultural perspective is Africa. Just like Orient it’s trapped in a pre-social consciousness amber. Which I found a bit odd, because Worlds of Fun opened in 1973, at the height of the Blaxploitation era. Then again, this is Kansas City. Missouri has an unfortunate and long, bloody history—owing to its status as a border state—of ugly race relations.
There were moments of stark contrast as I snapped photos. Many of the frontline staff at Worlds of Fun are African Americans, such as the young man walking by here.
I’d been extremely curious to know what these young people think of this theming, because the “jungle tribalism” on display is beyond tacky. It’s crudely cartoonish.
The buildings themselves are not super awful. It’s the kind of thing you see in zoos and wildlife preserves all over the United States—raw wood and corrugated metal roof construction that telegraphs “jungle.”
The only park I’ve ever visited that has managed to avoid all these design tropes is Animal Kingdom at Walt Disney World. And they had a ton of money and research behind the development of that park, so I get it.
Their Africa area is set in fictional east African port village called “Harambe.” Disney’s designers went out of their way to avoid depicting the continent as a jungle cartoon devoid of people. Instead it feels like Sub-Saharan Africa today. It feels lived in, all the way down to the tattered electrical wiring and scattered television aerials.
The designers of Worlds of Fun neither had the time, nor the money, nor the inclination for such an approach. There is a mix of Central African jungle and North African desert however. As you wrap a corner you come into what looks like Morocco or Tunisia.
The theming is sparse. But the radically different architecture manages to convey the shift in locale without that much detail.
The ‘open air market’ look is co-opted here to house carnival games. But still it’s played as passably realistic.
Cooper Black lets us know this is home to the “Moroccan Merchant.” Stereotype much, Worlds of Fun? Worst of all, this is a crazy discount store—the equivalent of Dollar Tree. “Everything must go” markdowns, etc. I’m assuming they can still get away with this today because a.) this is Kansas City and b.) racist depictions of Arabs are the only legitimate, overt forms of racism left in the United States.
Here we have a knock-off Moai (those very large heads on Easter Island). This is an icon which has become more popular in recent years due to the revival of polynesian pop, and the tiki bars and mugs which go along with it. This fella sits outside the queue area for a standard Vekoma Boomerang which opened in 2000. The park had it plopped down in the Africa section, but given the coaster’s name, the area around it is a sort of loosely themed as a mini-Australia / Micronesia.
The real Moai are on a Chilean island off the coast of South America, but they are related to similar statuary found in the South Seas. So I’ll give Worlds of Fun a pass on this. But I bet this one doesn’t have a full body underneath it like the real Moai!
Eleven years after the park opened, and they still opted for full-on cartoon depictions of hieroglyphics.
And of course, “Mummy’s Yummys.” Ancient Egypt (like Ancient Rome, Ancient Greece, or Ancient China) is totally acceptable as a full-blown cartoon, even today. It’s as if these societies are so long-dead, we can’t very well offend anyone—failed civilizations can totally be mocked. They failed, after all.
A New Cultural Map
As sort of a postscript, let’s have a look at the very next year’s poster map after Worlds of Fun opened. It’s a completely new design, and all the original white boy caricatures have been removed. In fact, the only humans shown are park guests. Everyone else is an animal.
Who was only the year before a colonial “jungle explorer” is now a silly looking ape wearing the pith helmet this time and (of course) snacking on a banana. Still no people of color in sight—but this is a common trope across all sorts of media. To show “Africa” you just show “wildlife.” It’s like no one actually lives there. Certainly no one black.
Over in Orient, everyone’s been eliminated all together. No white boy “Asian,” no animal characters, no park guests, no nothing. Visually, the area’s trained dolphin show Fins & Flippers (1973–1996) appears to have taken center stage. Because, you know, Asia?
I can only speculate as to why this new map for 1974. But I’d like to think that someone in management decided (perhaps urged on by some comments from the public) that the caricatures as originally drawn were in poor taste.
When I was strolling around the Europa area, I spotted this sign. As the Urban Dictionary suggests, paisano is sort of the equivalent of “fellow countryman” or “hommie” for Italians Americans. The Racial Slur Database doesn’t list it as a pejorative term, but it would appear that the shortened form, paisa, is used to disparage Mexican Americans in some contexts. So this theme park pizzaria sign isn’t insulting, exactly. Instead it’s merely tacky. It’s a joke that’s too on the nose. It would be like calling a French bistro “Chez Francais.”
I titled this post “Can Theming Be Racist?” because I don’t have an answer. Can thematic design be culturally insensitive? Well I would venture that all forms of design are cultural artifacts, and as products of one culture or another, they can certainly be insensitive to one or another culture. And I think that’s what I took away from my visit to Worlds of Fun—that key notion of other. It’s the same reason Martin Scorsese gets a pass for trafficking in Italian American Mafia stereotypes. There’s an authenticity of experience and expression there.
But at least none of his films ever featured a “Paisano’s Pizza” joint.