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.