Boy, Have We Got A Vacation For You

Westworld poster by Michael Heilemann

This may come as a surprise to some of you, but Michael Crichton was one of us: a raging Disney fan, likely counting down to his next chance to explore the Parks. You really only have to look at his films and books to see Disney’s influence on Crichton’s work.

Much has been made of how much Crichton was inspired by the adventure stories originated by Verne and Doyle, but the Disney-inspired, all-inclusive, absolutely immersive theme park experience is a reoccurring setting in his storytelling. Jurassic Park is the obvious example, and we’ll get there eventually, but the influence harkens back even further to Crichton’s directorial debut, Westworld.

I’m betting not too many Mouse on the Mind readers are well-versed in the Crichton cannon, so here’s the basic plot of Westworld: guests are welcomed to Delos, a theme park with three lands: Westworld, Medievalworld and Romanworld. Each is populated by androids that guests can interact with: gunslingers and swordsmen to fight and frolicsome maidens to, ehem, enjoy.

This film is a voyeuristic joy, until the humanoid robots turn on the guests, resulting in a veritable bloodbath and an expertly-paced robot-on-human chase sequence that has inspired countless movies since.  Westworld is Yul Brynner at his absolute best, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s a must-see.

Crichton has said that he was inspired to write Westworld after a visit to Walt’s original happy place. He internalized everything he saw at Disneyland and pushed it to an extreme, from the animatronic characters he saw on Pirates of the Caribbean to the very idea of a theme park itself!

He revisited the idea of a theme park (and technology) run amok in the 1990 novel and 1993 film Jurassic Park. You’ve probably actually seen this one, but just in case: Jurassic Park is a fully-immersive theme park whose main draw is dinosaurs, which have been genetically re-engineered from the long-preserved DNA found in prehistoric mosquitoes. Of course, that goes horribly, horribly wrong.

Photo by Loren Javier

One of my favorite things about Jurassic Park is the many, many references to Disney, a series of nods to its influence on both Crichton and on the story itself. My favorite comes when glitches in the Park lead founder (and Walt Disney analog) John Hammond to shrug them off, saying, “All major theme parks have delays. When they opened Disneyland in 1956, nothing worked.” The response, made by Chaos Theorist Ian Malcolm, is a classic nod to the audio-animatronics that inspired Westworld: “But John, if the Pirates of the Caribbean breaks down, the pirates don’t eat the tourists.”

In Disney Parks, we believe we’re perfectly safe. The pirates won’t eat the tourists. Neither will the gorillas cross the pits. Neither will the elevator really smash into the ground. The company uses cutting-edge technology—from audio-animatronics to advanced landscaping and architectural expertise—to make us think we’re in danger and to present idealized versions of the past, present and future.

In this way, the Parks raise questions about the importance of memory—real and imagined—and the ability to manipulate both surroundings and the responses to those surroundings. Michael Crichton was fascinated by these ethical, philosophical and technological questions associated with theme parks, which is why he revisited them as a setting for his larger themes of advanced science and technology.

Though Crichton hasn’t written about theme parks in more than 20 years, with the addition of live-action role playing games, like Kim Possible in Epcot and Sorcerer’s in the Magic Kingdom, and the continuing NextGen initiative, these questions seem increasingly relevant today. Crichton’s work was always good for stretching your mind, putting a new spin on both emerging and everyday situations and technologies. What would he have thought of Disney’s continued growth?

And what do you think? 

Thanks to Stephen from This Happy Place Blog. He wrote about the influence Disney had on Jurassic Park late last year. 

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