Episode 91

91. How Fake Museums Are Used in Theme Parks with Shaelyn Amaio


April 19th, 2021

12 mins 35 secs

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About this Episode

Museums can be a shorthand for truth, or for history, or for what a culture values. Disney theme parks all around the world use fake museums as a tool to immerse visitors in the themed environment. This detailed world-building can make the imaginary universe more real—or provide a setup to subvert a narrative.

But these fake museums aren’t the only ways the Disney theme parks present history to visitors. Public experience advocate Shaelyn Amaio describes how the parks “traffic in the past.” By removing references to the present or a future with consequences, parks like Disneyland free the visitor from responsibility for what happened in history. Since the opening of Disneyland in 1955, there have been several iterations of Disney theme parks, each reflecting the way we think about knowledge and history in the times they were built.

In this episode, Amaio describes examples of fake museums in Disney theme parks, details how corporate-sponsored edutainment can reflect the public's anxiety, and explains why EPCOT has the most museum-like spaces at Disney theme parks.

Topics and Notes

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Below is a transcript of Museum Archipelago episode 91. Museum Archipelago is produced for the ear, and only the audio of the episode is canonical. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, refer to the links above.

There's a museum just outside Orlando, Florida at Disney's Animal Kingdom theme park. It's called the Yeti Museum, and it's dedicated to the scientific, historic and cultural studies of the legendary humanoid primate said to inhabit the Himalayan Mountains. The curator of the museum is convinced that the Yeti is real and dangerous.

Shaelyn Amaio: It includes local, indigenous cultures and references to their beliefs about the Yeti. And it's all of this evidence, quote unquote--I'm doing air quotes, but you can't see it--that the Yeti is real and it's something that you should be scared of.

The museum is actually the queue to a roller coaster called Expedition Everest, which is themed to look like a train taking visitors on a journey through the Himalayas. At points in the ride, visitors encounter an audio-animatronic Yeti.

Shaelyn Amaio: So by the time you get on the train, you're primed. You know you're going to see the Yeti, even if you haven't been on the ride before. And so then when you encounter it, it does make it a little bit more real because you've already seen all of this evidence of the existence of Yetis. And so you're not just like, Oh, this is just a robot covered in fake fur with a strobe light on it. And it kind of like switches that on in your brain.

For public experience advocate Shaelyn Amaio, this is a great example of how museums--and museum iconography--are used as shorthand for reliability, truth, and prestige in theme parks.

Shaelyn Amaio: Hi, my name is Shaelyn Amaio and I am somebody who works in museums, mostly in history museums, but I like to think of myself as a public experience advocate. So my interests lie both in museums and in other leisure activities.

Amaio grew up in Connecticut, and first visited Walt Disney World in Florida as a five-year-old.

Shaelyn Amaio: I just remember the feeling of being on Main Street U.S.A. in the Magic Kingdom and being completely overwhelmed. Right? Because when you're five, you don't know the history, you don't know what it's referencing, but you still know that it's like this nostalgic feeling, even if you don't have the words or the experiences. To, to relate that. And I think at that age, a lot of what you're feeding off of are the reactions of the adults around you. When people talk about going to Disney, they tend to center children and, like, what the kids will think of it. But I think something that's left out of that conversation is how adults react to the theme parks and why the kid's experience is kind of a mirror of adult experience in theme parks.

Back in Connecticut, Amaio also spent her childhood visiting museums.

Shaelyn Amaio: I was really lucky to get exposed to museums from an early age. And then as I got older, I will admit that I did not see a career in museums for myself. And then I went to undergrad and I was studying anthropology and I got to the end of my undergrad and was like, oh no, I don't actually want to be out in the field all the time. What am I going to do?

Shaelyn Amaio: And so I ended up in a museum education program. And when I went on to get my MA I actually wrote my thesis on the presentation of history in Disney theme parks. So it all, it all came together.

The 2011 thesis, which was titled “Yesterday, Tomorrow and Fantasy: History and Innocence in the Magic Kingdom”, dives into how the so-called Castle parks at Disney resorts around the world, like Disneyland in Anaheim, California, Disneyland Paris in Paris, France and the Magic Kingdom in Orlando, Florida--which all feature an iconic castle in their center and differened themed lands surrounding it like Adventureland and Frontierland--remove the present from the visitors’ experiences.

Shaelyn Amaio: So the Disney theme parks actually like traffic in the past, that is their main currency you have in the Magic Kingdom most of the areas of the park are themed to different historic moments, right? The one main exception being Tomorrowland, which is kind of set in this retro-futuristic never. And so when you look back and say, okay, I as a visitor am now the main character, the important thing to understand is that they remove the present.

Shaelyn Amaio: And so if you are only looking at the past and this future that will never be then the past doesn't have any impact, right? There's no responsibility for what happened in the past. And so as a visitor, I can just kind of be like, wow, the past was bad, but look, we've made so much progress. Things are getting better every day and not really have to grapple with all of the history and, and its continuing legacies today. I think another important thing is that it's intended to feel neutral to mostly to white Americans, which I think we can't talk about Disney parks without talking about that.

Each of these images of the past, weathered rocks etched in the landscape of Frontierland or the oil-lantern illuminated shops of Main Street, U.S.A, help us relate to history. One of the main principles of experience design is that even the smallest out-of-place detail ruins the illusion.

Castle parks that follow this same formula continue to open into the 21st century in Hong Kong and Shanghai. But even by the 1980s, Disney had developed a different model of park in the form of EPCOT. EPCOT was a theme park which sought to create a permanent World’s Fair. Disney had experience with the 1964/1965 World's Fair in New York, where no fewer than four corporate sponsors hired the company to develop attractions for them.

Shaelyn Amaio: It is really interesting to think about how these different parks and the periods in which they were built reflect the way that we think about knowledge in these different times. If you look at EPCOT, which opened in 1982. Here you have a different relationship to history and a different relationship to progress for Americans. So you're coming off of the 1970s, which were really tumultuous, right? You have an entire pavilion in EPCOT that is the Universe of Energy Pavilion, which was sponsored by Exxon Mobil. And we had just come off of the gas crisis. Americans were not really feeling secure in the future of fossil fuels. And so you have this entire ride that talks about how great everything is, how technology is advancing, how we're going to solve all of the problems of humanity.

Universe of Energy Narration: In our ever-changing world, the road to tomorrow’s energy is indeed long, complex, and challenging. It demands the development and wise use of today’s energy resources. It calls for practical and affordable new sources for tomorrow.

But at this point they have to kind of also be like, we know sometimes things are bad. Like they have to acknowledge the reality of the situation, but at the end of the day, they're still like, yeah, but don't worry. Corporations are doing great. We're going to figure it out together. We'll get there, which is this just a really interesting contrast to what's happening in the Magic Kingdom, where it's just like, we've removed all of the bad things. Don't worry. We're all doing great!

EPCOT represents the closest experience to going into a museum in a Disney theme park, precisely because of its World’s Fair legacy.

Shaelyn Amaio: You also have things like a pavilion devoted to imagination that was sponsored by Kodak. So thinking about the power of creativity and imagination, you have a pavilion about the ocean and about things that live in the ocean and ocean technology. So all of these attractions are basically set up so that you are learning something, it feels like a very didactic experience, right?

Shaelyn Amaio: Like probably the most traditional quote unquote museum-y, edutainment-y experience in the parks.

By the early 1990s, Disney was on track to develop yet another type of park--a theme park that presented actual history in an edutainment context called Disney's America. In episode 17 of Museum Archipelago, we cover its spectacular failure. Disney’s idea would have put a park showcasing [quote] “the sweep of American History”--including the institution of Slavery and the Civil War--within a fun theme park environment just outside Washington, DC.

The idea met so much public resistance that it was scrapped and there’s no plans for this type of park in the future.

In recent years, in the current park types, there’s been a mixing of mediums happening: the introduction of fake museums in the Disney parks, like the Yeti Museum. The mixing says more about the medium of museums than the medium of theme parks.

Shaelyn Amaio: There's so much that you have to do in order to help people take that leap, to kind of letting themselves be immersed in an experience. And the fact that theme parks very often turned to museums as a tool in that journey is really fascinating to me.

Another example is also at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Park: it’s a ride called Dinosaur, which begins with a museum space filled with fossils and printed graphics, setting up the subversion that happens in the ride itself -- and is actually meant to be dull.

Pre-Show of Dinosaur: Hello! I’m Dr. Marsh, Director of the Dino Institute, and I hope you enjoy those quaint exhibits in the old wing. That's how dinosaurs happened was into to the public since the study of fossils began over 150 years ago.

Shaelyn Amaio: You have the Institute quote unquote, where the Dinosaur attraction takes place, which has the actual fake museum inside of it. And I think all of that is meant to set up this idea. That this is somehow legitimate in a way that it wouldn't be understood otherwise. And so I think just the use of not only museum environments, but also just the science world in general is really interesting. it really just tells you as a visitor, like I am meant to understand this as real. I am meant to understand that we are actually going back in time, and it’s not just strobe lights.

The museum, and everything it represents, can be a tool in the world building of a themed environment. Theme park designers talk about layers of meaning, all on top of one another to create a successful theme. A fake town seems less fake if there’s a fake historical maker describing the founding of the town. It’s even less fake if within the fake town there’s some disagreement about the accuracy of the marker -- feuding families, each trying to tell their own stories. As visitors, this level of detail doesn’t distract -- quite the opposite.

For anyone who works in or thinks about museums, it’s worth figuring out what museums are shorthand for in themed environments.

Shaelyn Amaio: Walt Disney himself had this quote that was like, “I'd rather entertain people and hope they learn something, then educate them and hope that they are entertained.”

Shaelyn Amaio: I don't think that the way that theme parks use museums is meant to be educational the way that museums want to be educational. I think it's a little bit of a distortion of theme parks, even the ones that are more traditional in terms of how they're displaying things in the topics they're covering. But there is a lot of overlap when you're looking at how humans act, and so that's where we really have this opportunity to learn from each other to improve experiences in both spaces so that visitors do learn some things. So that visitors do have fun. I think we have to kind of embrace some things that theme parks are doing well so that we can better serve our visitors and continue to fulfill our missions.

This has been Museum Archipelago.