The anticipation kicks in before you’ve even parked the car, just looking out the open window at the winding, towering roller coaster track. With the sun shining down from above, the scent of fried dough in the air, and a whole day ahead dedicated to nothing but pleasure, you’ve arrived at a place that is all but synonymous with summer in America.
An amusement park is like no other patch of land on earth. Full of bright colors, tantalizing games, infinite ice cream, and of course, amazing thrill rides that give you the power to speed or fly, they open every year to teeming crowds on a quest for fun. Lights flash everywhere; high-tech steel rides sit alongside old-fashioned diversions like face-painting stations and strength-testing machines; the laughter of children mingles with carnival music and happy screams of terror.
“You walk in and you sort of just go, ‘Whoa,’” said British historian Josephine Kane, the author of a 2013 book on early amusement park design called “The Architecture of Pleasure.” “There’s an immediate sense of sensory overload and chaos.”
But if the scene feels anarchic to you, there’s another way to think about the experience. The people who designed the rides, set up the games, and decided where to put the churro stands didn’t do it at random. The modern amusement park is, beneath the flash and the chaos, a carefully tuned psychological machine—a creation honed for more than a century to perfectly deliver a huge range of cognitive and physiological delights, pushing buttons you didn’t even know you had.
When the first amusement parks sprouted up during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they were often set up by people from the world of theater, with deep experience in the mystical arts of making people feel things. “There’s a very particular way that [parks] were designed,” said Kane, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Westminster, “[so that] you’d come off one ride and sort of float through the crowd, in a kind of swirling motion, and get sucked into another ride or another stall or booth.”
Today, as designs have evolved and improved—and modern psychology has unlocked more and more insights into what our bodies and brains crave—the amusement park has become almost a handbook to the ways the human brain can be switched on. It is “a whole system designed to manipulate you into experiencing different kinds of pleasure,” said David Linden, a neuroscientist at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the author of the book “The Compass of Pleasure,” about how the brain processes the things that make us feel good.
The tricks an amusement park plays on you don’t always happen the way you’d think. Games are designed to play on the appeal of almost, but not quite, winning; thrill rides like the Giant Drop tap into the strange mechanism in your brain that allows you to enjoy the rush of a simulated near-death experience. Even some aspects of the park that you’d never list as “fun” are gears in the machine: the maps that tell you where to go, the throngs around the food stands, the lines you have to endure to get to the more popular rides.
To understand the amusement park is to understand your own brain in ways you haven’t before—an almost unique window into the range of things that create that feeling we call “fun.” So step right up and enjoy the ride, as we take you inside the anatomy of a typical amusement park: a machine engineered for your conscious and subliminal delight, surprise, and excitement, right up until it’s time to head back to the real world.
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