Book review

Theme park fandom: Spatial transmedia, materiality and participatory cultures, by Rebecca Williams

Carissa Baker

University of Central Florida, Orlando, Florida, United States

[0.1] KeywordsDisney; Fan studies; Universal Studios

Baker, Carissa. 2021. Theme Park Fandom: Spatial Transmedia, Materiality and Participatory Cultures, by Rebecca Williams [book review]. In "Fan Studies Pedagogies," edited by Paul Booth and Regina Yung Lee, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 35.

Rebecca Williams, Theme park fandom: Spatial transmedia, materiality and participatory cultures. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2020, hardcover, €99 (260p), ISBN 9789462982574.

[1] Prior to being a scholar of themed entertainment or a university professor teaching theme parks, I was an employee of both Disney and Universal parks. Before working in those places, I was a fan of the fascinating and multilayered spaces that are theme parks. I lived in Southern California and then Central Florida, wrote papers on Disney parks in my undergraduate years, and visited those places that delighted me. Yet when I examined the academic conversation in graduate school, I was bombarded with negative and narrow perceptions of theme parks. Writings repeated the themes of consumption, control, exploitation, artificiality, simulacrum, imperialism, childishness, bread and circuses, escapism, and similar strains ad nauseam. The little said about fans pathologized them and reduced them to unquestioning automatons. With equal parts shame and anger, I questioned my choice of profession. As a scholar, I endorse the important roles of criticism and interrogation of culture or media. In the case of theme parks, and especially of their fans, however, there was a predominant narrative and by no means a balanced dialogue; only a few works provided divergence.

[2] One rebuttal comes by way of Theme Park Fandom: Spatial Transmedia, Materiality and Participatory Cultures by Rebecca Williams, a compelling entry into the dialogue. The underlying premise of Williams's book is that much current literature does not take into account the complexity of theme parks or the relationships people form with them. She argues that "theme parks and their fans are worth our attention" and that fan studies is an approach that will facilitate awareness (244). She quotes some of the critics and interacts with common tropes. Broader points about theme parks being a demonstration of transmedia narrative and participatory culture are interwoven throughout individual cases of theme park fan practices, which allows readers to frequently contextualize the examples. Between the introduction and conclusion is a literature review section, followed by six chapters on specific fannish practices that represent theoretical concepts. The variety and specificity of the sections adds value to the discussion. The book's organization is logical, as it is meant to reflect the fan's visit progression: practices in anticipation of the visit, the experiences of "being there," and reflections on the location/"focal point of the fandom" following the visit.

[3] One of the strongest features of the book is Williams's definitions for new ideas or concepts that extend previous notions. Studies in transmedia are peppered throughout the book, especially the work of Jenkins (2006), who has been an advocate for theme parks as texts worthy of media studies attention and who calls transmedia storytelling "the art of world making" (21), a description theme parks exemplify. Her phrase spatial transmedia describes one of the primary characteristics of the theme park medium: its dimensionality. In my investigations of the affordances of media types, it is the spatial characteristic that is the most prevalent when regarding theme parks (through terminology such as environmental storytelling, placemaking, setting, et al.). Theme parks provide the ability to physically move through a built storyworld, something that can lead to heightened experience, especially if one has attachment to the stories presented. Nonetheless, in literature on transmedia or crossmedia, theme parks are often overlooked as nodes in the storytelling infrastructure, despite how publicized some of the installations are (Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge, etc.). Williams attempts to rectify this, and the text is part of the publisher's transmedia series.

[4] Williams challenges traditional readings of transmedia by emphasizing spatiality (with narrative in "specific rooted locations"), its potential for being led or cocreated by fans, and its reality of not always being established at the conception of a narrative instance. The Haunted Mansion attraction's wider storyline that fans curate, to use her example from chapter 4, was pieced together from canon and fan sources over time, illustrating a more "dispersed and gradual expansion of a storyworld," a situation Williams terms retrospective transmediality (122). I was particularly pleased to find her mention of the Society of Explorers and Adventurers (S.E.A.), Disney's "multi-park storyworld" that has been constructed over time and place by park designers and rooted out by curious fans. I find this so indicative of layers of narrative, "forensic fandom" a la Mittell (2013) (who suggests fandoms that "dig deeper" into story layers), and the affordances of the spatial medium (physical clues spread through parks around the world and even the Disney Cruise Line) that I have both written about it and taught it in class several times. As Williams proves throughout the text, those who blindly accept a single narrative of theme parks and their fans miss out on the complexity and uniqueness of these spaces and the communities that interact with them.

[5] Another facet of transmedia can be observed through Williams's reference to embodied transmedia extension. In this principle explored in chapter 7, fans who visit parks engage with the physical place through behaviors such as exhibiting merchandise on one's person (and trading of Disney pins) or wearing clothing that expresses fan identities. Chapter 3's concept of haptic fandom also includes bodily association, with physical, sensory inputs vital to fan engagement with parks, not only through features of theme park attractions with haptic feedback. She considers Disney's MagicBand and Universal's TapuTapu, both NextGen technology wearables that interact with the theme park space and demonstrate a fan's physical link to the location. Both systems only fully function within a park property, fortifying her position that many of this fandom's practices are inextricable from the places in which they occur. Williams asserts the "centrality of the physical body in fannish practices," something that is rarely discussed in relation to theme parks, despite their materiality (191).

[6] Related to arguments rooted in the body are assertions based on food items and beverages (discussed in detail in chapter 6), things Williams deems culinary paratexts. While substantively ephemeral, these goods become objects of fandom themselves and help to "create and extend storyworlds" (168). Amusement park or theme park food has a notorious reputation, but parks now incorporate foodstuffs as essential facets of an immersive guest experience. Fan practices have sprung up around food and beverage items, from full meals at restaurants in the themed lands (e.g., Three Broomsticks or Be Our Guest) to Disney cupcakes (a personal favorite, and blog posts abound on just this one food item). Williams usefully distinguishes between items that gain a cult following because they originate from a text (e.g., Butterbeer from Harry Potter), from a park relating an item to a text that may not appear in it originally (e.g., Freeze Ray from Despicable Me), or from fan interest in park-developed products (e.g., Dole Whip at certain Disney parks). Considering merchandise, clothing, and even consumables such as food and drink as paratexts and transmedia extension opens useful lines of inquiry into a number of fandoms.

[7] Several fan practices are investigated in Theme Park Fandom and paired with concepts. Even before a fan visits the park, there may be a lengthy and comprehensive process of planning, a form of anticipatory labor covered in chapter 3. She explains that putting forth voluntary planning effort is done to achieve a pleasurable experience in the end, so it is not labor in the traditional sense. I appreciate her recognition that annual passholders complicate the idea of travel developing in linear stages, as locals and passholders have distinct practices and often more spontaneous visits. Chapter 5 explains an infrequently discussed group, that of adults who partake in meet and greet character experiences. She sees this as occurring in two forms, ani-embodiment, or park characters that represent animated characters come to life (such as Shrek), and metonymic celebrity, park characters that stand in for live actors and actresses (like Rey from Star Wars, originally played by Daisy Ridley). Fans suspend disbelief to partake in meet and greets, a behavior that may be disparaged by critics but leads to deeper participation and immersion. In paratextual spatio-play, a helpful albeit clunky term, adult fans signify characters or park attractions through Disney-produced geek attire or by way of activities like DisneyBounding, wherein fans perform a role through selecting representative clothing. Williams observes the subversive element of this routine, as it circumvents Disney's in-park costume rules. Unlike cosplay and role-playing that occur in home or convention spaces, these endeavors take place in the park, again allowing for narrative extension and highlighting the situatedness of this fandom.

[8] A final nod to participatory culture comes in analysis of a behavior that largely takes place outside of the parks: fan critique. Williams's examples in chapter 8 showcase Disney park fans expressing frustration at corporate decisions with new attractions (in one case, Frozen Ever After replacing the Norwegian-themed Maelstrom boat ride) or having a sense of loss at attractions closing down (or whole parks, like her River Country example). I liked the nuance in this section. Fan groups might lament popular intellectual properties replacing original attractions at Disney's Epcot (in stark contrast to "regular" visitors), but she admits that while some fans find the inclusion of Frozen to be in ideological tension with Epcot's original purpose, others' dislike may be tied to "cultural derision towards girls' media products" (224). This values negotiation is something I witnessed recently with social media posts about the impending closure of Disney's Splash Mountain. Many understood the reasons behind replacing the ride but had a sense of loss because of nostalgia. However, one message complained about the ride makeover because a "12-year-old boy would not enjoy it," presumably because of its being updated with The Princess and the Frog, revealing that gender (and presumably race in this case) are issues fan communities continue to grapple with. Whatever the reasons, fans may find their "ontological security" (drawn from Giddens) threatened by the removal or repurposing of theme park attractions. After all, unlike a television show, which can still be viewed after cancellation, a ride is material, located in physical space, and tied to sensory immersion—aspects that cannot be duplicated once removed. Online spaces are used to memorialize or mourn defunct attractions fans formed "affective attachments" to, something Williams tackles sensitively by including extracts from fan voices.

[9] Any gripes with the work are minor but worth mentioning as the discourse continues to develop. The text is at times a bit self-referential, and Williams admits it is Western-centric and Disney-centric. She effectively focused on the "duopoly" of Disney and Universal in Orlando, but I would be interested in seeing more distinctions made between fan communities within the US parks as well as dialogue on how they differ from those in Europe and Asia, something she recognized in the conclusion. Williams (and Pande, as she notes) suggest that fan studies works sometimes default to white, middle class, cisgender norms. The limitations section missed the opportunity to reference socioeconomic status in depth. Financial limitations are a major barrier to entry for theme parks, with few fandoms as dependent on an ability to pay. Movies, for instance, are available through a variety of means, whereas the geographical scarcity and embeddedness of experience in physical space makes the theme park an expensive proposition, especially for nonlocals. While the book has important things to say about fandoms within Disney and Universal, I would say that the title is not wholly accurate, as theme park fandoms outside of those two are hardly mentioned. There is a quote referencing Efteling, for example, a nearly seventy-year-old park with a robust fandom that has cultural and practical differences that could be explored. Finally, it might be worthwhile to note that theme park scholarship from the tourism, hospitality, and leisure fields (which she cites) simply do not trend as negative as those from approaches like cultural studies. An exciting aspect of interdisciplinarity is locating ways discourses can inform one another, and a strength of this text is a deft use of interdisciplinary literature.

[10] Theme Park Fandom is the first book-length work on theme park fans, so it is an essential text for those invested in this area. She cites previous theme park fan studies articles throughout, acknowledging previous contributions and making it a valuable reference in this emerging area of inquiry. Fan studies itself has gained traction over the years, but texts on theme park fans have continued to lag. Using the lens of fan studies as a kind of liberating approach for both theme parks and their fans, Williams provides foundational concepts for understanding them but also leaves the door open for further studies. Rebecca Williams has an extensive background in fan studies, with publications on television and media audiences and frequent service to the field. I appreciate that she states her positionality right in the beginning, self-identifying as a theme park fan and expressing disappointment in previous scholarship (and also facetiously declaring herself a possible "traitor to the Cultural Studies cause") (249). I found the work to be a thoughtful take on a derided fan community whose practices prove instructive for research into participatory culture, transmedia narrative, cocreating immersive worlds, and the theme park artifacts themselves. When I first engaged in studies of academic perspectives on theme parks for my graduate degrees, this is the kind of book I wished to find. Though I am singing in the choir she is preaching to, anyone with an interest in theme parks, fandoms, or transmedia would benefit from the work's careful analysis.


Jenkins, Henry. 2006. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York University Press.

Mittell, Jason. 2013. "Forensic fandom and the drillable text." Spreadable Media.