"Welcome (Or Stay At?) Home:” Theme Parks and COVID-19

Curator's Note

When it was announced that parks would be closing their gates due to the COVID-19 crisis, fans and families took to TikTok, Twitter, and Youtube to recreate their favorite rides at home. Accompanied with the hashtags #HomemadeDisney, #HomemadeUniversal, and #HomemadeThemePark, these short DIY videos featured fans re-staging theme park attractions by repurposing objects from around the house—water hoses, wagons, action figures, costumes, dart guns, iPads—and editing them to official ride narration. These recreations of rides like “Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run,” “Pirates of the Caribbean,” and “Men in Black: Alien Attack” fit into the larger genre of “sweded” fan videos, or “short, amateurish, low budget” remakes that are celebrated both for their cheesiness and creativity—“in terms of remaking professional movie aesthetics with cheap arts and crafts” (Gratch 2017: 89).

As the sweded videos began to go viral, Disney and Universal quickly incorporated them into the Twitter campaigns #UniversalAtHome and #DisneyMagicMoments, a promotional initiative “designed to let our fans see, hear and feel the magic of Disney, wherever they may be.” The announcement of #DisneyMagicMoments was accompanied by the message: “We have been thrilled to see how fans and families are creating their own ‘only Disney’ moments in their daily lives… You’ve even inspired us to bring Disney to you in new ways!”  Both campaigns involved releasing first-person point-of-view videos of rides and attractions, providing virtual Zoom backgrounds of park lands, declassifying official park recipes, and, of course, challenging fans to recreate their favorite rides at home. 

Shortly after re-tweeting a fan-made swede of "Jurassic World: The Ride," Universal Studios Orlando invited fans to take part in a new challenge: "1. Watch this Video. 2. Record your Recreation. 3. Share with us." By contrasting low-budget fan recreations with official ride-through videos in 4K high resolution, #UniversalAtHome simultaneously managed to applaud the work of fans while also addressing these works as ordinary recreations of an extraordinary experience. This practice of re-tweeting fan videos, praising them, and linking to a studio-produced version continued throughout the COVID-19 crisis. For instance, one recreation of the “Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey" attraction which featured a clever use of LEGO sets, lighting effects, DIY costumes, and a Golden Snitch made from a tennis ball on a string was re-tweeted onto the official Universal Orlando Twitter and awarded “10 Points for creativity, 20 Points for bravery, 15 Points for dedication, and 5 Points for ambition.”

Disney Parks shared the official recipe of “Woody’s Lunchbox Grilled Cheese” from Toy Story Land, writing: “While we can’t visit Andy’s backyard right now, this recipe is just one more great way to create #DisneyMagicMoments in your own backyard (or kitchen).” The recipe reveals that not much separates an ordinary grilled cheese sandwich from an authentic “Woody’s Lunchbox Grilled Cheese,” save the symbolic power of the media and a slice of provolone. As Williams (2020: 165-166) suggests, these culinary objects are imbued with a sense of extraordinariness precisely because of their limited availability in space: “it is only when within the physical spaces of the parks themselves that the actual items can be purchased and enjoyed, again speaking to the interlinking of place, authenticity and experience that ‘being there’ allows.” In the case of both sweded rides and at-home recipes, then, the act of re-creation effectively reifies the authenticity not only of the official offering but also of its spatial context, further sacralizing both: “once a sight is sacralized, it is almost impossible to move it without desacralizing it, so the original location of any touristic element is also its final location” (MacCannell 1976: 169). 

As home to particular sacralized experiences and products, theme parks also navigated the COVID-19 crisis by leaning on discourses of “branded authenticity” in order to inscribe the space of the theme park with a “naturalized sense of belonging” and “connotative notions of ‘coming home’” (Hills 2016: 247). This was the message that accompanied the re-opening of WDW on July 11, 2020 in an advertisement featuring masked park staff looking into the camera and addressing viewers with the greeting, “Welcome Home.” Given the fact that this re-opening took place amid record-high COVID-19 cases in Florida, the ad quickly trended as a meme on Twitter, with users adding horror music to the clip, dubbing the words “Welcome Home” to “Stay at Home," and blasting Disney for putting profits over the health and safety of its frontline workers. 

Taken together, these promotional moves—albeit some better-received than others—show how, in an uncertain moment for the theme park industry, both Disney and Universal sought to protect and enhance their various lands by drawing, bolding, and bending various geographic and symbolic lines that separate domestic and touristic spheres of life. This was done by, paradoxically, invoking discourses of home while at the same time bringing bits and pieces of the park experience home and inviting participants to “visit soon and compare your homemade versions to ours!” Such marketing initiatives are consistent with today’s broader network of transmedia tourism sites, which increasingly call on franchise fans to move not only between platforms and screens, but across communities and countries as well—to cross a line as touristic “hunters and gatherers” (Jenkins 2006: 133), seeking authentic experiences "in other ‘times’ and other ‘places’ away from that person’s everyday life” (Urry & Larsen 2011: 10).

Gratch, Lyndsay Michalik. Adaptation Online: Creating Memes, Sweding Movies, and Other Digital Performances.

Jekins, Henry. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide.

Hills, Matt. “The Enchantment Of Visiting Imaginary Worlds and ‘Being There:’ Brand Fandom and the Tertiary World of Media Tourism.

MacCannell, Dean. The Tourist: a New Theory of the Leisure Class.  

Urry, John & Jonas Larsen. The Tourist Gaze 3.0.

Williams, Rebecca. Theme Park Fandom: Spatial Transmedia, Materiality and Participatory Cultures

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