To remember, Wonderland in view, Wonderland until, I outgrew

     Escaping to the idyllic memories of my childhood, no other place fills me with the same sense of wonderment as that of Paramount Canada’s Wonderland. Designed as a fantastic suburban paradise, the theme park afforded patrons the chance to enter a symbolic landscape of upper-middle class dreams…as long as they could pay the admission fee. This ‘perfect’ world, bridging the real and imaginary, was entirely dreamlike and, unbeknownst to an idealistic child, entirely artificial; the 5000 planted trees, 900,000 board-feet of wood, 125,000 feet of underground pipe and 2.9 million paving stones that made up the park/artwork were all carefully considered and not simply spontaneously generated in place, as I once believed1. Among the 45,000 people privy to this construction on any given day during the summer were myself and my two parents, brought together in revelry by the park’s cinematic and glossy atmosphere. Championing the ‘ideal’ upper-middle class suburban family-unit (every patron must pay…), Wonderland allowed a space for my parents and I to live out fantasies together, sometimes plummeting towards the earth side by side, screaming in unison. Visiting Wonderland time and time again, the feelings of love that I felt in the park became as real as the park’s fakery of construction. The epitome of a capitalist environment, Wonderland constructed a waking-dream to instill real feelings of wonder.

Developed for $122 million and designed by then 31-year old Bruce Robinson2, Wonderland engaged with the space of a theme park as an art of “place-making, storytelling and experience design”3. When the park was bought by Paramount in 1993 (the year I was born), it was adorned with Paramount movie iconography and licensing, creating a cinema themed utopia (as of 2006, the park is now under new ownership, and has dropped its Paramount Movies theme). Moving through the planned narrative of the park, Wonderland presented a space for immersive fantasy and un-condemned indulgence. Visiting the park as a child, the micro-world of ‘Hanna-Barbera Land’ and its abundance of pleasures was my most beloved part of the trip, the chief feature of this being ‘Scooby’s Gasping Ghoster Coaster’, a Scooby-Doo themed wooden rollercoaster. The ride, with its rollercoaster-narrative of anticipation, climax, resolution4, was terrifying and delightful, a thrill for both myself and my parents seated next to me. While the dive of the coaster and its sudden strategic twists were electrifying, Wonderland’s environment allowed for a much more poignant experience; within the borders of the park, fantasy was legitimized as a socially acceptable concept and “cut through the participant’s self-doubt” about taking part in this celebration5. As a child, this indulgent freedom came easily, but it was my relation to my parent’s joy within the park that left me with the feelings that still resonate with me today. Wonderland allowed adults to ‘re-create’ their childhood, placing them into a child-oriented environment and encouraging them to participate to their fullest6 (further complicating this was my parent’s own personal history of visiting the park when they were young). The escapist nature of a theme park offers a vision of an idealistic, polished and innocent upper-middle class reality, where adults can escape to along with their children, safe from the shame of indulgence and removed from a harsher, mundane and less-wonderful world. This freedom, paired with the theme park’s idealization of the conventional close-knit nuclear family unit, brought my parents and I together as we were able to explore fantasy alongside one other. Riding the Ghoster Coaster became an opportunity for family building and identity formation7, revealing to me the wonders my family could provide for me and instilling a personal trust in their authority (it was only through their gatekeeping could I ever visit Wonderland as a child). The park allowed my parents to bring our family into the realm of fantasy, and granted us the ability to experience this wonder together. This sensation, of course, came with a price tag, and while transformative, was entirely contrived, anticipated and constructed by the park’s design.

The “environmental theatre”8 of a theme park, in which a landscape can be “arranged to control drama, movement and behavior in order to foster a park’s message”9 leaves nothing to chance. A theme park’s design ensures people will enjoy themselves and ultimately influences their spending choices10. Simple decisions such as placing games of chance and other stalls that may not be actively sought out near the park’s biggest rides, placing food stands near the back of the park, and positioning souvenir carts near the exit gate are clear markers of a park’s precise design11, however there are also larger ideological forces at work. At Wonderland, and similarly at many other major theme parks, the environment, rides and shows are all ‘free’ once one enters the fantasy park, which is granted access to by “real world” money at the front gate’s barrier12; this simple monetary exchange completes the “transition from a land based on one set of rules to another with opposite conventions”13, entering the fantasy of Wonderland. This convention effectively reinforces a utopian version of a “new harmonious sense of community built around the consumption of pleasure”14, granted by the privilege of class and financial means. This sense of harmony is instilled through a park’s themed atmosphere of pastiche, made up of architecture, landscaping, music, smells, recognizable iconography and public space design15, not simply rides, to create simulated perfections and “simulacra”16of places and ideas. Generating depictions of settings that never truly existed, the simulacra environments within the park become “better than real”17, as a visitor is confronted with Medieval buildings that are fully air-conditioned (in the “Medieval Faire” area), rapids that are entirely controlled and safe (in the “White Water Canyon” area) and a childhood realm that is innocent, sweet and joyous in Hanna-Barbera Land. These simulacra settings enhance the fantasy of the park, while extending an imprint on one’s personal identity, place in society and self-worth18. Accessing this desirable hyper-reality provided through monetary admittance fosters a strong trust in the apparent splendors of capitalism; although I was a child, Wonderland became for me a symbol for an idealistic world, one in which my parents and I could be together in perfect contentment. Further, this hyper-reality effectively instills a union between that of personal values and commercial symbols. Values such as freedom, safety and excitement became tied to the Wonderland brand, as well as the iconography and music of Paramount movies. Consequently, my memories of being happy and connected with my family as a child are inseparably tied to the image of Scooby-Doo. As a “theatre of pervasive manipulation in the guise of innocent entertainment”19, Wonderland effectively tied my core values, as well as my current nostalgia and wistfulness for childhood, to that of commodity.

Nostalgia for my time at Wonderland, and my childhood generally, is ‘real’, but problematic, as nostalgia’s affect is “always going to be a wishful colouring of the past”20. My memory and experiences of Wonderland are authentic, but blur a line between myth and reality21, as fiction and fantasy converge to create my memories and celebration of childhood. Understanding nostalgia as narrative22 shows the crucial disruption that forces such as Wonderland have on transforming that of memory and nostalgia into commodity. Finding personal identity in commodity, I relate my selfhood with Wonderland as it serves as a prime site from which I connect with my childhood. Through returning to Wonderland in memory, the park becomes a sacred place that enables me to renew my “faith in the innocent delights of childhood”23. Coding childhood with commodity, and in turn commodifying nostalgia, products that evoke my Wonderland memories become alluring – Paramount movies, Scooby-Doo memorabilia, Tiny Tom’s Donuts and re-visiting the park itself all feel like viable ways to return to my idealized childhood. This process is not only successful, especially on a young mind, but generates a cycle of identity development in relation to commodity; as I grow older, I will always seek out Wonderland-adjacent products and experiences to live-out in the present, only to idealize these experiences again, and search for the same products in the future. Although I’m now aware of Wonderland’s careful manipulation, its influence and impact are no-less authentic. Thinking of my parents, our togetherness remains suspended in memory by Wonderland. Further, the prospect of taking my own not-yet-born children to Wonderland in the future feels like a trip both wonderful and necessary.

Paramount Canada’s Wonderland continues to resonate with me today because it was designed to. The park’s carefully constructed environment of fantasy, its ability to interweave capital and personal values, and its effective means of tying childhood to capital / nostalgia to commodity has proven to have long-term effects, far more subversive and prevailing than that of joy from a simple thrill ride. Memories of my father winning a giant stuffed tiger via an impossible milk-jug toss game, of me discovering a replica golden idol from Indiana Jones hidden in the park, of my mother’s love for the ‘Swing of the Century’ ride, of my father’s baseball cap being expelled on by a bird while in line, of the three of us watching a School of Rock live performance and my father’s comments on the sound of the bass-guitar, of my mother and I waiting to try a new ride for an hour only to have me chicken-out at the front of the line, of a mock-model rollercoaster competition I was a part of, of vulgar teens commenting on the size of a hotdog I was eating, of my father recreating one of the park’s skill games at home so we could practice before returning next year, of losing a hat on the Ghoster Coaster… all fill me with an authentic, yet constructed love for childhood.

Of my most cherished memories is an afternoon when Wonderland was oddly unpopulated, and my mother and I were delighted to find we could simply walk onto the Ghoster Coaster with no wait. At the ride’s conclusion, pulling into a still empty cue line, the teenaged Wonderland staff informed us we could “go again” without having to exit the ride – of course, we stayed on. Once more, at the conclusion of the ride we were met with no line, and proceeded again to make the most of the coaster. In memory, this cycle repeats endlessly, a Ghoster Coaster with no end.


1 Cameron and Bordessa, Wonderland Through the Looking Glass (Belsten, 1981), 71.
2 Wonderlandstheone, Concept and Construction
3 Carol S. Jeffers, “In a Cultural Vortex” Studies in Art Education 45,3 (2004) 221.
4 Michael DeAngelis, “Orchestrated (Dis)orientation” Cultural Critique 37 (1997) 123.
5 Cameron and Bordessa, Wonderland 106.
6 Ibid. 107.
7 Liang-yi Yen, “The Frontier of a Theme Park” IASTE (2006) 73.
8 Cameron and Bordessa, Wonderland 101.
9 Terrence Young and Robert Riley, Theme Park Landscapes: Antecedents and Variations (2002) 9.
10 Cameron and Bordessa, Wonderland 14.
11 Patricia MacKay, “Theme Parks: USA” Theatre Crafts (1977) 56.
12 Carol S. Jeffers, Cultural Vortex 230.
13 Cameron and Bordessa, Wonderland 102.
14 N. Harris, Expository expositions (Flammarion) 1997.
15 Margaret J. King, “The Theme Park” Material Culture 34,2 (2002) 3.
16 Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation 1994.
17 Chin-Ee Ong and Ge Jin, “Simulacra and Simulation” Tourism Geographies 19,2 (2016) 222.
18 E. Meyers, J. McKnight and L. Krabbenhoft, “Remediating Tinkerbell” Jeunesse 6,1 (2014)  96.
19 Cameron and Bordessa, Wonderland 101.
20 Dirk Klopper, “The Problem of Nostalgia ”English in Africa 43,3 (2016) 10.
21 Carol S. Jeffers, Cultural Vortex 28.
22 Dirk Klopper, Problem of Nostalgia 15.
23 Gary Cross, “Nostalgic Collections” Consumption Markets 20,2 (2016) 105.

Wonderland From Memory (2017)

Wonderland recreated from memory in RollerCoaster Tycoon
click to enlarge
click to download 'Wonderland.SV6' map for RCT

Max Taeuschel, 2017