Culture and consumption in amusement parks

Every year Liseberg, Astrid Lindgren’s World and Fenomenmagasinet
adults – but what makes them places for children, and how do children experience what goes on there? This question is being studied by researchers from Linköping University in a unique project.

“Culture and consumption are the most important attractions in amusement parks. Useful activities and learning are combined with fun”, says Anna Sparrman of the Department of Child Studies, who is researching visual culture and children’s culture.

She is leading a research project on culture for and by children which is studying Liseberg, Astrid Lindgren’s World and Fenomenmagasinet Science Centre in Linköping, and two children’s museums in the United States.

“Each of them is unique, yet at the same time they have many common features; this tells us something about children’s culture and how activities for children are put together.”

This is a cross-boundary research project that is going through a number of sites and operations with many different methods and perspectives in a way that is new in amusement park research. Ethnographic studies, construction documentation, time-geography studies and analyses of material on the internet about sites and visits are all being carried out as part of the project.

David Cardell is focussing on the children’s experiences. He has been using ethnographic methods, following children and their parents at Astrid Lindgren’s World and Liseberg.

“Up till now research on theme and amusement parks has not focused so much on the child’s perspective,” observes Cardell, whose main role during the visits was as someone for the child to talk to.

He saw how children often made conscious choices of what they wanted to do and how, but that their emotions were very significant in how they related to the park and its attractions.

Theme and leisure parks are designed for socialising, both among children and between children and adults, and daily life can revolve around a visit for a long time.

The parents’ engagement is evident, even after the visit. They take photos and videos that they post on the Internet, for example in blogs or on YouTube.

“The internet is full of pictures from parents who have been to Astrid Lindgren’s World, often showing their children as characters in Astrid Lindgren stories. But the question is what does putting them online mean? Children do not post similar pictures of their parents,” states Anne-Li Lindgren, who has analysed websites, blogs and films on the Internet.

She has also read blogs where children write about their visit to an amusement park, but these are different, often describing the idyll of somewhere like Astrid Lindgren’s World in ironic terms.

Sparrman and Cardell followed a class on a school trip to Liseberg. In order to find out how the children moved around the park and how much time they spent in various places, they wore GPS receivers.

“With data from the GPS receivers we then made a time-geography study – a research method that looks at how both time and space are used”,Kajsa Ellegård explains.

It turns out that the children first got an overall idea of Liseberg and then stayed in a fairly limited area. A lot of time was spent moving between different attractions, food stalls and stands. Sometimes they might stay a long time in one place, perhaps because there was a queue or because they went on the same ride several times.

But it is not just the visitors and the activities that make a fun park; there are also the buildings and the site. So the researchers photographed both the sites and the buildings, creating visual documentation of the parks.

Miniatures, sparkling colours, low height and small toilets are features that occur again and again in theme and amusement parks, science centres and children’s museums. In some cases the buildings are custom-built for the attraction, but in other cases it has been necessary to adapt the attraction to an existing building.

An example of this is the Please Touch Museum, a children's museum in Philadelphia. This is housed in a monumental building from the late 19th century, with a façade that reveals nothing of what goes on inside.

“A site that is not originally designed for children may be exciting, but may also bring problems such as high noise levels. The result is a somewhat topsy-turvy world in a space that is not like any other space for children space”, Sparrman says.

The museum is situated in a poorer area of Philadelphia, but the children who live there do not come to the museum.

“In Sweden too, where parks and museums for children are located, and how difficult it is to get to them, says something about who they are created for,” Lindgren says.

Text: Birgitta Weibull   7 Oct 2013