D&D as Amusement Park Part I: Theme

There are a lot of parallels between what makes for a satisfying experience at Walt Disney World and what makes for a satisfying role-playing game session. Both forays into imagination seek to create comprehensive fantasy experiences. While Disney has considerably more resources at its disposal, game masters can uniquely tailor their games to their players. In this article we look at the many immersive layers of the Disney World experience and how those same concepts can apply to tabletop role-play.

How Disney Magic Works

Transparency Now explains how Disney creates an illusion:

Much of it revolves around Disney's effort to create the illusion for visitors that they have entered a perfect world, which more closely conforms to their desires. It creates this "perfect world" in various ways. For example, it encourages visitors to see the park through the eyes of a child and defines itself as a place that "brings dreams to life." But most essentially it creates a fictionalized version of a perfect world by inviting visitors to escape their containment in physical reality so they are no longer limited by time, distance, size and physical laws. In various attractions, visitors seem to float through the human body and through DNA; they travel to the past and future, and leave the earth. On the thrill rides, they defy gravity, moving at speeds and in ways that seem to violate what common sense tells them should be possible.

Marisa N. Scalera defines the elements of a Disney theme park in "You're On Stage at Disney World: An Analysis of Main Street, USA in the Magic Kingdom": theme, cast, and set. These same elements are essential to making a role-playing game session successful, and game masters can learn a lot from how Disney works it magic.

The theme of Disney World varies by the attraction, but each has a unique and carefully crafted theme. Dungeons & Dragons takes a similar approach by incorporating a wide variety of fantasy elements from multiple sources. The amalgamation of these disparate elements is Michel Foucault terms a heterotopia:

These are spaces of otherness, which are neither here nor there, that are simultaneously physical and mental, such as the space of a phone call or the moment when you see yourself in the mirror.

In a heterotopia all of the various elements of a fantasy universe are captured in one space that occupies both the mental and physical. To understand the levels of heterotopias it's helpful to understand Gary Alan Fine's frames of reference, as outlined in Shared Fantasy:

First, gaming, like all activity, is grounded in the "primary framework," the commonsense understandings that people have of the real world...Second, players must deal with the game context; they are players whose actions are governed by a complicated set of rules and constraints. They manipulate their characters, having knowledge of the structure of the game, and having approximately the same knowledge that other players have. Players do not opreate in light of their primary frameworks -- in terms of what is physically possible--but in light of the conventions of the game. Finally, this game world is keyed in that the players not only manipulate characters; they are characters. The character identity is separate from the player identity. In this, fantasy gaming is distinct from other games.

Heterotopias apply to all three frameworks, as we shall see.

The First Framework: Real Life

The first frame of reference, that of real life, includes a visit to Disney World -- families (unless they live nearby) leave their own day-to-day living behind to travel to the amusement park, which creates an expectation of a fantasy experience. Scalera explains how this first framework applies to the entrance to the Magic Kingdom:

...Main Street, USA is not, and does not intend to be, a substitute for the democratic public realm, but a temporary escape from it, a show. The visitors become actors; they are self-cast and anticipate that they will be playing roles in a show with a pleasant fairy tale ending​

In the case of Dungeons & Dragons, the table and the players occupy the physical space and the fantasy universe -- in all of its variations -- take place in the collective mind of the participants, who are similarly primed for an imaginative experience. D&D co-creator Gary Gygax attributes this role to the game master as creator in Master of the Game:

He or she creates and continues to re-create the tenor and excitement of what the RPG is. The sense of fantasy, wonder, mystery, suspense, danger, and all the rest are created by the Game Master. When excellence of game meshes with that of the Game Master, truly enthralling interaction occurs for all participants.

In both cases, engagement and immersion are important factors in the success of the visitor's experience.

The Second Framework: The Setting

In the second framework, the heterotopia is the "rules" of the setting within. Walt Disney World presents a hodgepodge of loosely connected ideas: Epcot is divided into countries, the Magic Kingdom is divided into lands. Visitors are free to travel between these lands and each has its own theme, but they all sit comfortably next to each other as part of the overall experience. Scalera explains:

Gottdiener proposes an additional symbolic justification for Main Street as the introduction into the park. He believes that each of the Magic Kingdom’s ‘lands’ (Adventureland, Frontierland, Tomorrowland, and Fantasyland) corresponds to “compartmentalized aspects of the world of a young boy growing up in a midwestern town” (Gottdiener 114). For instance, he compares Adventureland to childhood games, comic-strip superheroes, and backyard play, Frontierland to summer vacation and Boy Scouts, Tomorrowland to spectacular careers in science and technology, and Fantasyland to fables and bedtime stories.

In D&D, this is similar to a game world and its various adventure settings: towns, wilderness, and dungeons. Gygax considers game world continuity to be part of the game master's purview in the role of Overseer in Master of the Game:

Along the way the Game Master reads and knows the rules, the milieu, and the specific setting for a session of play. How does the session of play relate to the adventure scenario, the adventure scenario to the epic, and the epic to the campaign? The Game Master must oversee the coordination of the game with the action of play and the needs of the group to make sure that the longevity and fun of the campaign agree with systems and scenarios at use now and in the future. It might be very enjoyable to reward a group of players for success in a single episode, but that elation will be short-lived, of course, for there is then little purpose in continuing. Expectations must not be continually unattained, but neither must they be continually exceeded. This applies to the internal logic of the RPG world, the campaign milieu, and the particular setting in play. Overseeing with an eye toward balancing these factors can be quite demanding.

For D&D campaigns each session is a piece in a larger puzzle. Long-term campaign sessions are actually a series of set pieces that contribute to the heterotopia. But what makes up each campaign's heterotopia is subtly influenced by the origins of the game itself. Jon Peterson clarifies how D&D combines different forms of fantasy in Playing at the World:

Even more than in Chainmail, the fantasy setting of Dungeons & Dragons is a generic setting, an amalgamation of various fantasy sources rather than the world of any particular author. Its construction was a taxonomic exercise, incorporating a superset of the elements that appear in the corpus of fantasy fiction and, through a system of quantification, providing something of a “grand unified theory” of how all these entities compare to one another and might interact with one another. From the foreword we know this corpus must include Burroughs, Howard, de Camp, Pratt and Leiber; in later writings Gygax enumerated more sources, as is discussed below. This ambitious taxonomic undertaking grew ever more elaborate as Dungeons & Dragons developed past 1974, incorporating diverse historical mythoi and the products of many authors’ imaginations; its overall classification of the fantasy universe is one of the most lasting products of the game. The core elements of the Dungeons & Dragons setting, including creatures, magic items, spells, currency and classes, influenced a host of subsequent games and fictions.

There is of course one hugely influential setting that is not mentioned above: J.R.R. Tolkien's works, including The Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit. Gygax included Tolkien's work as an inspiration for Chainmail, but excluded it as a reference when he launched Dungeons & Dragons. Since D&D was built upon Chainmail as a foundation, Tolkien's outsized influence is undeniable. Peterson explains the discrepancy:

Remembering the state of obscurity in which fantasy literature languished before 1965, it seems improbable that Chainmail or Dungeons & Dragons could have found a broad, positive reception without the monumental popularity of Tolkien. What Gygax does suggest, however, is that in much the same way that other fantasy authors reaped the rewards of a market seeded by Tolkien in the late 1960s, so too could Dungeons & Dragons sell to Tolkien’s fans a game weighted toward the creations of other fantasy authors.

D&D has been criticized for its heterotopia reflecting the aforementioned genres, in which white male-centric characters dominated. The transitive property of fantasy from Tolkien and others to Chainmail appealed to the player base, says Peterson, but that was about to change:

A very small minority of white, male, middle-class American youths played wargames, while the ranks of the counterculture grew unchecked and claimed a national consensus of the young.

Chris Van Dyke's famous presentation on Race in Dungeons & Dragons sums up the baggage a heterotopia formed in the late 60s/early 70s that was in turn based on writing from the 1930s:

Humans are the norm, and all other races are judged and evaluated in how more than or less than human they are – the closer to a white European ideal, the more human the fantasy race is. While this is not evaluated as “good” or “bad,” the other is NOT normative. The non-white is alien, strange, and removed from the self.

A more modern approach to fantasy evolved into "dungeon punk" in the 90s:

Welcome to Dungeon Punk, a Punk Punk genre which tries to apply the gritty, cynical tone of Cyber Punk and Steam Punk to a Heroic Fantasy setting. Usually, this takes the maxim "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic" and turns it on its head. As we get more proficient with the use of magic, it takes on characteristics of technology.

This change was a reflection of the trends in fantasy at the time:

Some of the dungeon punk chic is also the result of a desire to push away from adherence to realism and historical armour to a more stylized and fantastic design. To many gamers, the Tolkien style has becomes a tired old cliche and they want D&D to look new and modern. But to me, the dungeon punk look always reminds me a little of ’90s comic books, where all the character designs got a little more needlessly complicated with leg pouches, chains, spikes, and overly large guns.

By the time the Fifth Edition of D&D was published, the D&D setting had become all-inclusive of gender, sexual preference, and race:

Think about how your character does or does not conform to the broader culture's expectations of sex, gender, and sexual behavior. . . . You don't need to be confined to binary notions of sex and gender... The elf god Corellon Larethian is often seen as androgynous or hermaphroditic, for example, and some elves in the multiverse are made in Corellon's image. You could also play a female character who presents herself as a man, a man who feels trapped in a female body, or a bearded female dwarf who hates being mistaken for a male. Likewise, your character's sexual orientation is for you to decide.

The second framework, then, is shaped initially by biases and trends of the rules themselves, changing with each edition and then molded further by the individual tastes of the gaming group.

The Third Framework: Within the Game

The concept of a heterotopia also applies on a macro level to homegrown and published settings in D&D, some of which are compatible with each other. Planescape provided an inter-dimensional justification for crossing to other worlds; Spelljammer created a fantastic means of space travel; Ravenloft's mists reach into other worlds and draw characters into them. Although each setting is different, the characters bring their D&D sensibilities with them, create a sort of meta-heterotopia. All of these settings create what Jon Peterson calls "visitation fiction," a concept that dates before D&D but is an important part of its foundation:

Visitation fictions recognized the appetite of fantasy readers in the 1960s to interact with these fantasy worlds— not merely as passive observers, but as protagonists. Fantasy was never content to be confined to the page. Fantastic adventure is too exciting, too immersive, to be appreciated only from afar: its fans wanted to get involved with it. This longing became so integral to the fantasy setting that it steered the very plots of the genre toward stories where ordinary people leave the mundane world behind and enter, for a time, the world of the fantastic. These visitation stories must have satisfied the craving for a greater level of immersion for a time, at least, but fantasy demanded more.

Gygax emphasized the importance of shaking things up even within the fantasy universe:

There is, obviously, a certain sameness inherent in adventures of less than cosmic scope. There is a sameness in life too, if we choose to see it this way. As a Master GM, you avoid apparent repetition and the resulting boredom through two devices. Varying the spectacle that surrounds the quest is the first and most common device to be employed. The setting, the antagonists, and the object of the quest can be varied to make the adventure quite different in all apparent respects from its predecessors, except that it is plotted in the usual way. The second device is to step out of the mythic theme once in a while for relief. Whether this means a comic episode, one which is simply random in nature, adventure in exotic places, of exploratory sort, or non-adventure, is not important. The object is to relieve the players of the routine and to break the sense of continuing spirals upward toward an unattainable goal.

It's not surprising the Gygax recommends "adventure in exotic places" as a means of keeping the game interesting; visitation fictions were influential in shaping D&D. WWII resistance fighter Holger Carlson of Three Hearts and Three Lions, was the archetype for the paladin class and regenerating trolls. The Dungeons & Dragons cartoon, in which our young heroes are transported to a fantasy world by entering through an amusement park ride, is another example. In fact, the D&D cartoon is itself a merging of two different heterotopias -- the amusement park and the D&D campaign.

Crossing Three Bridges

Disney World's mastery of heterotopia is an instructive template on building a great role-playing experience. The first framework builds on participants' expectations to visit imaginary realms. Like vacationers at a Disney World resort, they have an expectation to actively participate in the entertainment. This is also a mindset on both the players and the game master that Disney World visitors share: they mutually acknowledge that everyone's there to have a good time.

The second framework is the heterotopia of the game's rules. Unlike a massive resort like Disney World, game masters can individually tailor the experience to their players. It's useful to understand the biases of a fantasy game and D&D specifically with how it treats races, classes, and "leveling up."

The third framework is the heterotopia within the fantasy universe. The nature of adventuring assumes that characters are often visitors to other strange and exotic places, all just one step away through mundane travel or magical transport. Just as Disney World has Main Street, USA as a bridge to all of its lands, game masters can leverage the gradual entry to other worlds through a unifying central place that the player's call home. This could be a city, town, or even an entire dimension like Sigil in Planescape. Providing a homogenous entry to a fantasy universe -- something the player characters can relate to that addresses the staples of the role-playing setting -- helps players transition between adventures.

In the next installment we will discuss how Disney uses its actors, human or otherwise, to reinforce an immersive experience that GMs can emulate in their own campaigns.

For the rest of the articles in this series please see:
Mike "Talien" Tresca is a freelance game columnist, author, and communicator. You can follow him at Patreon.
Michael Tresca


The hodgepodge of Epcot’s world section totally feels like Hyboria.

With 3e coming out in 2000, I can totally see the influence of comics’ “extreme” 90s art on the dungeonpunk aesthetic. Still want to start a Dungeon-Punk band one day…


I read the title and started thinking about a D&D themed amusement park (Dreampark) and was sort of hyped. Turned out to be about something different. I guess I can continue to dream lol.

Olaf the Stout

My only worry in trying to recreate the magic of a theme park is that my group may get transported to some strange land where there only guide is a little balding old man in red robes.


I'm with Arioch about the bait and switch title. I must be getting old, because this kind of over-analysis just kills the fun for me. I feel like Martin Crane right now. Or maybe that guy at the NWA wrestling convention who said, "it's still real to me, dammit!" :/

In Our Store!


Latest threads