Theme Parks, Then and Now by Gail Eastwood

My family and I recently returned from what for us is a rare activity–a vacation! We had a thoroughly lovely time at the two Universal Studios theme parks in Orlando, Florida (and came home just in time for the blizzard that affected much of the northeast U.S.). My husband’s random comment that much of what we did and saw “could barely have been imagined even fifty years ago” started me thinking about which aspects of our vacation might or might not have been at least recognizable to a Regency time traveler.

The notion of a theme or amusement park itself would certainly not be foreign to our visitor, for the fairs and pleasure gardens familiar to him or her were exactly the roots of the “Magic Kingdoms” and “Islands of Adventure” we have today. The history of fairs as gathering places for both trade and amusement goes back to ancient times well before the Middle Ages, and both the Bartholomew Fair, a chartered London fair held in the fall from 1133 to 1855, and the Sturbridge Fair, held in Cambridge (1211-1882 or longer), are historically famous in England. If you look carefully at the 1808 illustration of the Bartholomew Fair, you can see all the familiar elements – throngs of people, and vendors selling wares, spectacle/show stages and also rides –note the giant swings at the right, and the “spin-around” on the left (we had one of those in my schoolyard when I was a kid). There is even a “pleasure wheel” (an early form of ferris wheel) in the background. Granted, a large number of the rides at Universal are roller coasters of various sorts, but a little research reveals that roller coasters originated in Russia during the 1600s in the form of ice slides –70-foot ice-covered ramps with wooden frames for riders to slide down. By 1784, wheeled vehicles were being used (powered by gravity, I suspect), and by 1812 in Paris they had even learned to lock the cars onto the tracks! I did not find evidence that these had reached England by then, however. More investigation needed!

Bartholomew Fair 1808

The idea of a fair running all year long on a permanent basis might surprise our Regency friend at first, but not after the example of the pleasure garden is considered. Pleasure gardens date as far back as the mid-16th century, providing a permanent acreage set aside for entertainment and recreation. Pavillions and long walkways were standard landscape features, all illuminated by hundred of oil lamps. Vauxhall Gardens in London (originally opened in 1661) is the one most associated with our period as Ranelagh Gardens closed in 1803, but there were similar gardens in many places. Games, dancing, concerts and fireworks, tightrope walkers, hot air balloon ascents, re-enactments of sieges and battles, illusions of exotic places…gee, with the exception of the hot air balloons, I think I saw all of these at Universal. Do you see a similarity in the two pictures below?

Universal Gateway

Vauxhall Grand Walk 1791

Modern technology has given a new spin to all of these time-tested crowd-pleasers –computers now control everything and video enhances many of the rides. The big thrill in Hogwarts in the Harry Potter section of Islands of Adventure is basically riding a moving gyroscope, a very new way to use technology that was only in its infancy during the Regency. The fireworks display and waterworks we saw in the evening at closing time at Universal included a fabulous light show and projection of images on the constantly changing configurations of fountains and curtains of water well beyond anything Vauxhall would have been able to produce. But you know, the descriptions of period illusions and shows they did manage to put on are quite impressive, even by today’s standards.

My husband pointed out that the biggest difference that might have truly frightened our visitor is the speed of everything. Coming from a world where people were frightened by the speed of trains when they were introduced at 35mph, and where at one time 20 miles was considered a full day’s travel, to our world where 20mph is considered an annoying snail’s pace, our Regency time-traveler might think twice about going on a rollercoaster traveling at 90 miles an hour. I know I passed on some of those myself! I think in the end that he or she would have been more astounded by this and by the building technology in the parks, the moving sidewalks, the acres of parking lots and rows of huge parking garages, the cell phones and cameras (and the skimpy clothing on the tourists) than by the parks or entertainments themselves. But since our visitor is obviously intrepid (having time-traveled, after all), after equipping him or herself with an appropriate t-shirt, I am certain he/she would have enjoyed the time spent there every bit as much as we did.

For more information about VauxhallGardens, I recommend these websites (among many):

Gail Eastwood


About Gail Eastwood

Gail Eastwood is the author of seven Regencies that were originally published by Signet/Penguin. After taking ten years off for family matters, she has wobbled between contemporary romantic suspense and more Regency stories, wondering what century she's really in and trying to work the rust off her writing skills. Her backlist is gradually coming out in ebook format, and some are now available in new print editions as well. She is working on the start of a Regency-set series and other new projects. Stay tuned!
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9 Responses to Theme Parks, Then and Now by Gail Eastwood

  1. Elena says:

    Cool post, Gail. I enjoy theme parks–in moderation, after a while noise and crowds can get to me. I like roller coasters but there too I pass on some of the scarier ones. But I bet there were Regency thrill seekers who would enjoy them.

    Agree on the similarity between those pictures. I think then and now people like to feel they are someplace special, designed for their pleasure!

    • Thanks, Elena! I find crowds hard to handle, too. I must admit when I look at that Bartholomew Fair picture, the throng of people gives me pause! We found that doing Universal at the end of January (post-holiday season and before spring school vacation times) was a great time to be there –almost no lines or crowds at all, except in the Harry Potter section.

  2. What a great post! And some terrific links as well ! I enjoy theme parks in moderation. I am more fond of safari parks and some zoos. I prefer zoological parks where the animals are living in as natural environment as possible.

    I am, however, my niece and nephew’s go-to person when they are looking for someone to ride those roller coasters and scare you to death rides!

    • Louisa, thank you! Glad you found the links useful. I am glad we live in the modern age when it comes to zoos and animal parks. I’ve no doubt we would have found the animal exhibitions in the Regency period to be very depressing even if the animals were fascinating to see, as the keepers had no notion of giving the poor things a naturalized setting!

      I admire your pluck in being the “go to” person for your younger family members on scary rides. I don’t get scared, but I am prone to motion sickness. I sat out a few rides at Universal reading a book while my family rode. Many of the rides had warnings posted so you could judge the risk for yourself. Some had lockers available for your “loose” items while you rode. And some had “stationary seating” available, so I didn’t have to miss out on all of the experience, which was wonderful. Maybe this is standard now –I hadn’t been to a theme park in so long, I wouldn’t know!!

  3. Karen H in NC says:

    When I saw the picture of the Universal park entrance, my first thought was Jurassic Park! In my younger days, I enjoyed theme parks, but not so much anymore. I don’t like the crowds now and don’t particularly like the rides….except the Tilt-a-Whirl! Do they even have that ride anymore? I still enjoy touring a good zoo, museum or a beautiful botanical garden with or without a historic home or plantation!

    • Hi Karen –thanks for commenting! I agree with you –I’d prefer a lovely garden and historic home museum given the choice. I did enjoy all the beautiful flowers in the theme parks –the color and the sunshine were a treat for us after all the snow at home. Of course, all my menfolk just groaned every time I exclaimed, “Oh, look! How pretty!” I’m sure the husbands and sons did that in Regency times as well. 🙂

  4. Lisa Norato says:

    Very entertaining post, Gail. I’m glad you had such a wonderful time on your vacation. I’ve been to Universal in California, but it was a long time ago; I imagine a lot has changed since then. Are you thinking of maybe writing a time-travel story? I think you might be onto something here!

  5. Diane Farr says:

    Now I’m picturing our middle-aged Regency characters sighing and swapping tales of Ranelagh, lamenting its loss and declaring that the younger generation will never know what they missed …

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