Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Amusing ourselves to death: 12 theme parks where the danger is real

Amusing ourselves to death: 12 theme parks where the danger is real

Illustration: Carl Gustafson

Summer is close to its halfway point, which if you’re responsible in any way for a school-aged child, means you’ve probably spent at least one hot, sticky afternoon waiting in interminable lines and wincing at the price of Dippin’ Dots already this year. (The goths, meanwhile, have been banished from Disneyland and sent back to the malls from whence they came.) But while the most dangerous thing about most theme parks is the damage they do to your wallet, the idea of an amusement park where the danger is real has become a surprisingly enduring trope in fiction over the past few decades.

That’s opposed to the older trope of the evil circus, which has faded from fiction along with the decline of traveling carnivals in real life. And, out of fairness to the proprietors, it should also be differentiated from otherwise harmless theme parks that have been overrun by some malignant outside force—like, oh, say, vampires or gentleman murderers. These are parks where, whether out of hubris, madness, supernatural evil, or good old-fashioned neglect, the people who run them have created a literal death trap.

1. Jurassic Park, Jurassic Park

“If The Pirates Of The Caribbean breaks down, the pirates don’t eat the tourists,” deadpans Dr. Ian Malcom (Jeff Goldblum) in the first
Jurassic Park, not long before the star attractions of John Hammond’s tropical entertainment destination do just that. Both Michael Crichton’s bestselling novel and Steven Spielberg’s high-grossing adaptation present perhaps the most dangerous amusement park of all time, where the follies of capitalism and scientific hubris take the form of genetically resurrected dinosaurs, busting through their padlocks to make a meal out of the guests. The later Jurassic World would envision a fully functioning, open-for-business version of the park, but to absolutely no one’s surprise, the prehistoric beasts still run amok, proving Malcom’s point for him yet again. Still, can you blame the arrogant industrialists for trying? As the increasingly ludicrous Jurassic Park franchise continues to prove, there’s big money to be made from not leaving well-enough alone.

Would you go anyway? Oh, for sure. There are dinosaurs there! Who could turn down the opportunity to see a real dinosaur, even if it might be the last thing you see? [A.A. Dowd]

2. Thrill World, Mr. Show

The mid-to-late-’90s constituted an arms race in the amusement park world, with advances in roller coaster technology and engineering ushering in a new era of taller hills, faster drops, and loops that posed serious challenges to the bounds of geometry and physics. Enter: The Devastator, the fictional centerpiece of the equally fictional Thrill World, with its “heart-stopping” top speed of 200 mph (which, as of this writing, would still be a world record), “spine-crackling” 90-degree turn, and the coup de grâce, two full minutes underwater. And that’s no exaggeration, as the third-season Mr. Show episode “Heaven’s Chimney” chases its ad for the ride with a remote news broadcast from Thrill World, where an alarming number of heart failures, spinal injuries, and drownings have occurred. In classic Mr. Show fashion, the sketch winds up as densely knotted as the most extreme Roller Coaster Tycoon creation, with details from the commercial parody feeding into the news broadcasts and vice versa. In the tug of war between truth and advertising, the ads win out, and the unparalleled rush of The Devastator continues to draw locals to Thrill World, where they hope beyond hope that the horrors will end, as they have for 96 days prior, between the hours of midnight and 9 a.m.

Would you go anyway? Yes, because the casualties appear to be concentrated in one specific part of Thrill World. Besides: We ain’t afraid of no rolly coasters. [Erik Adams]

3. Westworld, Westworld

Like a certain other doomed theme park imagined by Michael Crichton, Westworld exists simply so it can go haywire. Create a bunch of sentient, autonomous entities; let the paying public unleash their basest instincts upon them; and then watch as the robot revolution unfolds. Whether that takes the form of Yul Brynner stomping, glassy-eyed, through the 1973 original, or the broader and more empowered cast of freedom fighters currently laying waste to HBO’s expensive sets, the outcome is written from the beginning. You’re essentially teasing the androids into killing you the whole time you’re at the park. That being said…

Would you go anyway? Absolutely! You can do anything you want to those robots! And the scenery—at least in HBO’s reimagining—is worth a trip on its own. [Clayton Purdom]

4. Walt Disney World, Escape From Tomorrow

The story behind Escape From Tomorrow is full of fascinating anecdotes, but perhaps the most surprising thing about the film is that Disney chose to ignore it. After its debut at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, many critics assumed that Disney would never allow a movie depicting Disney World as evil to be released. But Disney, perhaps realizing that blocking its release would just be free publicity for the filmmakers, let Escape From Tomorrow come out in theaters unobstructed. Shot surreptitiously at both Walt Disney World and Disneyland, the film posits that the cheerful facade of smiling princesses and costumed characters Disney presents to the world is just that—a facade. The surrealistic filmmaking ensures that the exact details of how this sinister underbelly operates remain vague, but cyborgs, sex trafficking, hypnotic amulets, alternate identities, an evil corporation, and a mysterious flu that makes unsuspecting visitors cough up bloody hair balls are all wrapped up in the conspiracy.

Would you go anyway?: Considering the bizarre events of the film specifically targeted the protagonist and his family, the rest of us are probably safe. Just avoid the princesses. [Katie Rife]

5. Devil’s Flight, Final Destination 3

It’s a shame so many engineers worked very hard on ensuring Devil’s Flight, the twisty and frenetic roller coaster that kicks off the plot of Final Destination 3, would be a safe and smooth ride, because the uncredited architect of the ride’s massive disaster—death—rendered pretty much all of their efforts moot. High school student Wendy Christensen’s premonition that the roller coaster will fail after she boards it with her friends causes an understandable disturbance during which a number of her fellow students end up missing the ride, thereby narrowly avoiding gruesome death. The coaster’s hydraulics fail, releasing the seat belts; a dropped camera starts one of the wheels unhinging; and the subsequent electrical failures cause several cars to detach, sending them flying like a whirlwind gauntlet of death. In short, Devil’s Flight lives up to its name. Surely, even with a few missing kids, its supernatural engineer was pleased with the results.

Would you go anyway? Fuck no—if there’s one being you don’t want to tempt so blatantly, it’s Death. Besides, the ride doesn’t look that much better than your average roller coaster. [Alex McLevy]

6. Action Point, Action Point

It’s appropriate that a fictional amusement park comedy featuring a lot of dangerously real stunts is, in fact, based on a real place: the Action Point of Johnny Knoxville’s recent flop is a thinly disguised variation on the famed New Jersey deathtrap Action Park, which closed for good in 1996. Knoxville, examining an earlier age of lax safety regulations through rose-colored glasses (presumably with cracked lenses), reconceives the park as the site of a particularly loose enactment of the age-old slobs-versus-snobs conflict. In this case, the slobs are the enthusiastic but perhaps undertrained Action Point staff, semi-supervised by a beer-swilling Knoxville, whose slapdash rides are, like their real-life inspirations, reasonably likely to send riders off with a badly skinned knee, a concussion, or worse (chalked up, in classic old-guy fashion, to an ethos of personal responsibility and freedom). In the movie version, Knoxville saves a lot of the worst physical punishments for himself, as he tests out various “improvements” to rides that will make the park an even more dangerous alternative to the snobby competing park. It’s a creaky story mechanism even for an 85-minute feature, but some of the Jackass spirit lives on in the movie’s well-choreographed slapstick.

Would you go anyway? Plenty of people did go to the real Action Park, and if it’s hard to imagine many families flocking to a place like it in 2018—well, dirtbag teens need places to congregate in any era. Moreover, the movie makes Action Point look like a fun place to hang out and observe some good old-fashioned mayhem, even if you don’t want to personally risk your life. [Jesse Hassenger]

7. HorrorLand, Goosebumps

It’s really all right there in the name: One of several recurring locales in R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps universe, HorrorLand is a theme park run by, and mostly for, hideous monsters called Horrors. On the one hand, humans who visit the park are treated to such “attractions” as the Coffin Cruise, Fever Swamp, and a slide where the wrong choice might force you to keep sliding forever; on the other hand, admission to the park is (financially) free, and there are absolutely no lines or waiting to get on any of the rides. Sure, you might end up getting eaten by spiders or placed on a monstrous reality TV show, but it’s hard to beat that kind of value when you’re looking for an evil vacation destination on the cheap.

Would you go anyway? Did you not hear what we said about “no lines”? Sign us up for the Doom Slide today! [William Hughes]

8. Spooky Island, Scooby-Doo

Many crimes are committed by Scooby-Doo, the 2002 live-action iteration of the beloved animated cartoon series about a talking dog and his mystery-solving crew of humans: inverting the entire purpose of the show’s “find the reality behind the seemingly supernatural” premise, turning the gang into a vapid and obnoxious crew of sentient irritants, and giving famously inept director Raja Gosnell yet another thing to ruin, for starters. But the narrative crime at the center of the story is almost as appalling. Spooky Island, a hotspot resort for dimwitted tourists, finds the gang reunited to solve a mystery involving brainwashed guests. But soon, it’s revealed a host of demons are possessing the tourists, including Fred, Velma, and Daphne. Soon, Scooby-Doo learns the demons will rule the world for the next 10,000 years if a pure soul—Scooby himself—is offered up as a sacrifice. It’s all even dumber than it sounds, and by the time the team is pulling the mask off the head of the supposed villain, you’ll wish someone had brainwashed you into steering clear of this dreck. Even an evil resort should require sound planning.

Would you go anyway? As long as you weren’t aware you were gradually being possessed, there’s a lot of fun to be had on Spooky Island. [Alex McLevy]

9. Lakeside Amusement Park, Silent Hill

The entire town of Silent Hill is in bad shape, its elementary schools and hospitals and back alleys morphing, imperceptibly and subtly, into the chainlink labyrinths of hell. Inevitably, the sleepy town’s Lakeside Amusement Park is not exactly the hoot it appears to have been designed as. The horses on its carousel transform into skinless abominations. Its tea-cup ride forms some sort of evil, cult insignia. The Ride Of Your Life morphs to exploit your psychological play style, teasing out your deepest fears and desires. But it’s the Borley Haunted Mansion, visited in Silent Hill 3, that lingers the longest in nightmares, with an over-the-top narrator cheerily introducing actual corpses and talking to the protagonist by name.

Would you go anyway? Absolutely not! The rides look like shit, and we wouldn’t be caught dead in that town anyway. [Clayton Purdom]

10. Illbleed, Illbleed 

Sporting a name that couldn’t be sillier if they’d just gone with “Decapitation Junction” or “Super Murder Town 6,” the titular theme park of this Dreamcast horror title was explicitly designed to scare its visitors to death, luring victims in with a $100 million prize for anyone who can make it to the end. To no avail; Illbleed apparently kills about 100 visitors a day, freaking them out—to death—with a variety of serial killers, heart-attack-inducing evil cakes, and a knock-off version of Sonic The Hedgehog called Zodick The Hellhog. (Really.) Even if you manage to survive all of the park’s haunted theaters and evil department stores, you’ll still have to dig your idiot friends out of trouble and fend off the park’s deranged creator, who apparently designed this whole insane, murderous nightmare as part of an elaborate scheme to teach his daughter about the importance of fear.

Would you go anyway? Illbleed is literally designed to kill every single person who sets foot inside it. You should not visit Illbleed. [William Hughes]

11. Six Flags Magic Mountain, Kiss Meets The Phantom Of The Park

It’s hard to imagine a real theme park in our current, more brand-conscious era agreeing to be the setting for a made-for-TV movie about an evil theme park, as Six Flags Magic Mountain did for 1978’s Kiss Meets The Phantom Of The Park. But such was the power of KISS in the late ’70s that not only did the band get Six Flags on board as a shooting location, but it also got NBC to air the final product: a sloppily produced, unintentionally hilarious slapstick take on The Phantom Of The Opera starring four guys whose rock ’n’ roll superpowers apparently don’t include acting. To be fair, though, the members of KISS are very aware that the movie sucks and have blocked attempts to release the original American edit on DVD; aside from an out-of-print VHS, the only legally available version is the European cut, which removes most of Ace Frehley’s dialogue from the film.

Would you go anyway? Honestly, even without the booby-trapped rides, killer animatronics, and mad scientist outfitting minimum wage workers with mind-control devices, the mere presence of KISS makes this park a hard pass. [Katie Rife]

12. SeaWorld Orlando, Jaws 3-D

If Six Flags hosting KISS was weird, then SeaWorld Orlando—a real theme park where real people pay real money to gawk at real animals—agreeing to put into the public consciousness the idea that you might get eaten by giant sharks while you’re there was downright mind-boggling. Really, though, the monster in Jaws 3-D (1983) is our capitalist system, as the only reason the sharks got into SeaWorld to begin with was because shift manager Mike Brody (Dennis Quaid) refused to pay his mechanics overtime, leaving a busted gate open overnight and allowing the bloodthirsty critters to slip in. Perhaps it’s for the best, then, that Jaws 3-D is remembered (when it’s remembered at all) only for being marginally better than its successor, the notorious stinker Jaws: The Revenge (1987).

Would you go anyway? No, but not because of Jaws 3-D, which is too goofy to deter anyone from anything. We made up our minds about SeaWorld when Blackfish came out in 2013—and so did a lot of other people, based on the parks’ steadily declining attendance in the past five years. [Katie Rife]