When the scorching summer sun hits Southern Ontario, you can transport yourself to one of the coldest places on Earth. From May through August, Marineland in Niagara Falls offers visitors the chance to “cool off” in an Arctic-themed sprinkler park called Polar Splash.
Complete with artificial ice, glaciers, and animal life, the two-acre attraction evokes a diorama: as if frozen in place, seal pups gather to bask in the sun, dolphins jump in and out of the water, whales glide along the water’s surface, walruses lie at the water’s edge, a polar bear attends to her cubs, and two male bears engage in a violent brawl. The attraction’s 150 sprinklers emerge from the artificial landscape but also from the animals themselves: narwhals’ tusks and belugas’ spouts, for instance, double as sprinklers. Appropriately, the water is freezing cold.
Marineland’s Polar Splash is part of an emerging trend of Arctic-themed attractions at amusement parks around the world. In 2022, Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Florida launched a polar-bear sand sculpture to celebrate and advertise the release of Polar Bear on Disney+. In Sápmi, Finland, Arcandia – Arctic Adventure Park boasts a range of Arctic-themed attractions, games, and food: an “Arctic Colosseum,” an “Arctic Hunger Games,” a reindeer sausage. At Santa Claus Village, also in Sápmi, an “Arctic Circle” painted across the park denotes that visitors have “officially” entered the Arctic sphere. Hong Kong’s Ocean Park features an “Arctic Blast,” a rollercoaster that mimics the experience of sleighing through an Arctic landscape. In Jakarta, Indonesia, Ancol’s “Ice Age Arctic Adventure” gives visitors the chance to “experience the process of melting ice in the North Pole.”
Among the most striking examples is the “Arctic Rescue” ride at SeaWorld in San Diego:
It’s time to hop on your snowmobile and ride to the rescue! The ice is melting, the poachers are lurking, and the Arctic animals are in peril. Join the team and feel the rush of the fastest and longest straddle coaster on the West Coast: Arctic Rescue.
Increasingly, theme parks are capitalizing on the Arctic’s unique landscape and pressing environmental challenges to create a sense of adventure and danger for consumers that mimics the Arctic Sublime. These examples attest to the complex entanglements of entertainment, ecotourism, climate change, and the growing commercialization of the Arctic by for-profit corporations often well outside the Arctic sphere. It is no surprise, then, that Canada’s Marineland has followed suit.
The park (officially Marineland of Canada Inc.) is a privately owned zoo and theme park founded in 1961. Marineland has a number of amusement-park-style rides but is mainly known for the live animals it houses, including those made to perform for audiences. The park has received much negative publicity in recent years as whistleblowers and animal-rights activists denounce both its treatment of animals and its use of strategic action lawsuits designed to shut down protests. Marineland’s treatment of animals—particularly the orca Kiska, also known as “the loneliest whale in the world”—has attracted international attention, including from the likes of David Suzuki.
Marineland’s Polar Splash opened on July 1st—Canada Day—2019. The $6 million project was designed and built by Terraplan Landscape Architects Ltd. and UCC Group Inc, a company that has realized numerous such large-scale projects at zoos, casinos, and resorts. In a statement made prior to the launch of Polar Splash, Marineland said the new attraction was part of a larger plan to “re-focus the park around education, conservation and research” while maintaining a “fun-filled” environment.
Geographically-themed attractions like Polar Splash have roots in nineteenth-century zoological gardens, ethnographic displays, and curiosity shows, all of which projected—largely fictionalized—fantasies of faraway places, peoples, and animals. Like these historical forms at the crossroads of (pseudo-)scientific education and entertainment, Polar Splash presents its visitors with the opportunity to travel—albeit vicariously—to a place they’re likely never to set foot. Notably, Polar Splash is grounded in artifice: mimicking the natural world, the attraction comprises exclusively fake nature and animals.
This approach isn’t new. Conceptualizing the world-famous “Jungle Cruise” ride in the 1950s, for instance, Walt Disney planned to include live animals but ultimately opted for artificial crocodiles, elephants, and other “exotic” animals—first static and later animatronic. In recent years technological developments have led to new innovations that have enabled circuses and zoos, such as this zoo in Brisbane, to swap out real animals for holograms.
At Marineland, the choice to include artificial animals in Polar Splash might be practical, logistical, and financial—but one wonders if it’s largely a preemptive measure to curtail further criticism from animal-rights activists. To be sure, the value of bringing no additional live animals to the park cannot be undermined. Regardless of Marineland’s motivations, it is important to weigh the cultural impact of Polar Splash, including its drawbacks but also its potential benefits.
Marineland’s reasoning for building Polar Splash was to bridge fun and education. That people have fun at this splashpad is evident: the attraction is filled with toddlers and school-aged children who play, splash, laugh, scream, run, and climb around, underneath, and on top of the park’s artificial animals while, on the sidelines, their adult caregivers eat picnic lunches under beach umbrellas. But how far does this go in terms of education?
In the name of its self-proclaimed educational ethos, Polar Splash is accompanied by a single didactic panel with very brief descriptions of the Arctic seafloor and a small selection of animals, as well as a circumpolar map illustrating where those animals live. But the panel lacks detail and is rife with omissions. Only Canada, Greenland, and Russia are identified on the map. Strikingly, no mention is made of the Indigenous peoples who have lived on Arctic lands and with Arctic animals for millennia. A visitor with no prior knowledge might assume the Arctic sphere is devoid of humans—Indigenous and otherwise—and equally devoid of the practices that have long defined human-animal relations in the north: hunting, fishing, fur trading, transportation, and wildlife tourism, to name just a few.
Polar Splash presents a productive opportunity to think about the ways in which politics are inscribed in entertainment, which, like culture more broadly, is never neutral. Creating a seemingly benign space of pleasure and play is always also a way of imagining and framing the world. In the case of Polar Splash, a mythical vision of the Arctic is replicated and reinforced. How, we ask, has the presence—and absence—of Arctic motifs at Marineland influenced popular conceptions of the polar north? Beyond Polar Splash, a critical engagement with theme-park attractions as elements of visual culture is a necessary task.
 In actuality, the Arctic Circle is 700 meters north of the park’s faux-Arctic Circle.
 According to CBC News, Marineland appears to be initiating the process of selling the park. See CBC News, “Marineland registers to lobby Ontario government with goal of selling Niagara tourist attraction,” January 24, 2023.
 In June of 2005, Suzuki traveled to Niagara Falls for an event in support of local animal rights group Niagara Action for Animals. See Draper, “Suzuki Defends Niagara Group,” Niagara This Week, June 17, 2005. Marieland was also the subject of a series of investigative articles published by the Toronto Star.
 See Ray Spiteri, “Marineland About to Make $6 Million Splash With Arctic Themed Water Feature,” Toronto Star, June 27, 2019.
 Sabrina Mittermeier, A Cultural History of the Disneyland Theme Parks: Middle Class Kingdoms (Intellect Books, 2020), 25.
 The Arctic also covers parts of Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the United States.
 This is not to mention the cultural and spiritual valence of animals in the Arctic.