Spectacular Nature: Corporate Culture and the Sea World Experience / Edition 1

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This is the story of Sea World, a theme park where nature itself is on display, where the wonders of marine life are marketed to an audience hungry to discover new worlds. Drawing on ethnographic research, history, and cultural criticism, Susan Davis reads Sea World as an industrial landscape and a postmodern phenomenon. Included in the price of admission, she finds, is a heavy dose of public relations, advertising, and environmentalism, corporate-style.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780520209817
  • Publisher: University of California Press
  • Publication date: 10/31/1997
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.75 (d)

Meet the Author

Susan G. Davis is Associate Professor of Communication at the University of California, San Diego.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Introduction 1
1 Another World: Theme Parks and Nature 19
2 The Park and the City 40
3 Producing the Sea World Experience: Landscape and Labor 77
4 Enlightenment Lite: The Theme Park Classroom 117
5 Routine Surprises: Producing Entertainment 152
6 Dreaming of Whales: The Shamu Show 197
Conclusion 233
Notes 247
Index 305
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First Chapter


Another World

Theme Parks and Nature

Sea World's experiences are manufactured by a relatively small number of people working for a very large organization; they are disseminated from a narrow point of origin for wide reception and consumption. In this sense, the theme park is industrially produced popular culture. Viewed this way, from its landscaping to its performing whales to its television commercials, Sea World is more than just another example of a universal human tendency to enjoy nature. Rather, the theme park's oceanscapes are an example of the private production of visions of nature and ideas about animals, images and ideas that spread out into the larger culture. To unpack the meanings of places like Sea World, it is useful to speak of theme-parked nature as an industrial product and to look closely at the industry that produces it.

At the same time, of course, the Sea World parks are popular culture in the sense that a large number of people, more than 11 million a year in fact, enthusiastically enjoy them. But what has created this enthusiasm? Fascination with nature and animals has deep roots in Western culture, and so, while the industrial history of the theme park needs analysis, Sea World's manufactured marine visions must be located in this cultural history. The present-day surge of commercial nature imagery is not a transparent matter of commerce bringing the previously unseen into focus, but a case of selecting natural things to see and inventing ways to see them. Sea World adds to this history, producing and mobilizing a stream of intertwined ideas. Its innovation is to make remote ocean worlds visible to a mass public and bring previously little-known sea animals to fame, even as it folds these novelties into older nature stories.

Sea World's Forebears

The beginnings of this industry are usually dated from the 1955 opening of Disneyland in Anaheim, California, but its roots run deep in the history of popular and commercial culture. Theme park ancestors include the older amusement park and its peripatetic forebears, the circus and carnival, and the industrial expositions and world's fairs of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Historians consider turn-of-the-century Coney Island prototypical, a mass commercial recreation synthesizing carnivalesque fun with the celebration of technological progress. Urban resorts like Coney Island, along with smaller pleasure gardens, were inexpensive, widely popular gathering places for European immigrants, working people, and youth, providing a shared experience of the freedoms of the industrial city and offering connections to the new meanings of the culture of consumption. Their proprietors profited from the freeing up of leisure time attendant on the ten-hour day, and they catered to a large working and middle class seeking cheap amusements. Social historians' evaluation of the amusement park is complex. These pleasure worlds provided a realm of liberty that undermined older gender barriers and allowed unmarried women, in particular, freedom from the constraints of factory and family. They gave a wide spectrum of Americans a place to shed harsh work discipline and self-restraint, a public place to learn to play. But at the same time, like much of the rest of commercial recreation, amusement parks and World's Fairs were racially segregated. Their displays carefully connected leisure to the basic lessons of white superiority and American imperialism. In this sense, there was nothing innocent about their pleasures.

Between about 1900 and 1920 organized amusement zones modeled on Coney Island's resorts sprang up in most metropolitan areas in the United States. During the Great Depression, the amusement park business suffered, and it did not rebound until its wide working- and middle-class audience found itself amid the unparalleled post-World War II economic boom. Higher per capita income, the reemergence of leisure time in the 1950s, and the advent of the paid vacation in the 1960s gave the amusement park business new energy and direction. In the first two decades following the war, a building boom nearly doubled the number of amusement parks, from 400 counted in 1954 to 786 tallied in 1967.

As American prosperity and the amusement park industry expanded, the parks themselves were profoundly reorganized. By all accounts, Disneyland, completed in 1955, was the model. At Disneyland, the amusement park shed its petty commercial connections, and the principles of the theme park were decisively laid out. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, many large national corporations followed Disney into the theme park industry, seeking the profits to be made from entertainment, mass leisure, and the expanding tourism industry. Enthusiastically aided by local and state governments, this "minor stampede" resulted in a U.S. landscape dotted with elaborate, themed leisure zones as development corporations absorbed older parks, built new ones, and cloned successful single ventures into chains of similar parks. By 1993, Amusement Business, the industry's leading trade journal, estimated that the more than seven hundred theme and amusement parks in North America had an attendance exceeding 255 million. Attendance at the fifty largest parks was about 143.3 million in that year, or more than half the combined Canadian and U.S. populations. In the 1980s and 1990s, waves of corporate mergers, takeovers, and leveraged buyouts gathered under the wings of still larger corporations the chains constructed in the 1970s, so that in 1993 about 40 percent of all theme park visits were made to parks owned by conglomerates. In 1995, corporately owned chains accounted for 90 percent of attendance at the fifty largest North American parks. Meanwhile, many small and locally owned amusement parks, some of them survivors of the thirties, continue to go out of business.

Disneyland's designers had sparked the two-decades-long theme park boom by inaugurating not just a new park style but a new kind of cultural product. The structure of the theme park and its cultural ingredients differ in some important ways from those of its forerunners. The early parks were certainly completely commercial ventures, making their profits from a high volume of admissions, rides, games, and concessions, all offered at low prices. But the first theme park was commercial with a new intensity: it built advertising and modern marketing into its amusements, and in fact it placed them at the core of its activities. As is well known, Disneyland's success derived from its founder's foresighted connection with the fledgling ABC television network. Together, Disney and ABC developed The Disneyland Show to showcase the Anaheim park: the show promoted the park while the park promoted the show and the network. Disneyland imagistically and physically converted Disney media products into tourist attractions. This new genre was a medium of mass communication, one that literally made film physical and spatial.

As it has developed, the theme park is exhaustively commercial, a virtual maze of advertising, public relations, and entertainment. Whether Sea World, Disneyland, or Six Flags Over Texas, the theme park is the site of carefully controlled sales of goods (food and souvenirs) and experiences (architecture, rides, and performances) "themed" to the corporate owner's proprietary images. But theme parks are advertising culture in another way too, and here again Disneyland led the reworking of the amusement park's economy and organization. While the early amusement park was often built by metropolitan capital (for example, railway companies had trolley parks and brewers had beer gardens), Disney followed the example of the twentieth-century world's fair or industrial exposition and involved national corporations as investing partners. Consumer goods manufacturers like Carnation received exclusive sales, marketing, and advertising rights at Disneyland in return for cash investments to help start up particular displays or rides. As at the world's fairs, these displays in many cases promoted a product, a technology, or a corporate vision of the future. This pattern has been expanded over several decades, and the theme park has been used to concretize and demonstrate visions of the social future. Today corporate sponsors collaborate in promotions, sharing advertising costs while they fold their general social stance into the recreational landscape.

The contemporary theme park is, in theory, open to all who can pay. In contrast to the amusement park, where raucous mixing was framed by racial hierarchy, it appears broadly democratic. But spatial and locational changes altered the meanings of the amusement park and defined the theme park as a new kind of experience, in some ways more restricted than before. Where early twentieth-century amusement parks had been built within short distances of urban neighborhoods or connected to them by cheap public transport, the new theme parks went up far beyond the outskirts of town. In the 1950s, land in the exurb was cheap, federal policies dictated the connection of vast interurban areas with the new interstate highway system, and housing policies set the stage for massive suburban growth. By the 1980s, Anaheim, San Diego, and Orlando were no longer the sleepy outskirts but the centers of vast tourism districts. From the beginning, this geographical pattern in tourism development tended to cut the urban and inner-city working class out of the theme park market. As one park marketing director put it, not mincing any words, "Once you got out of those old neighborhoods, you left a lot of trouble, a lot of tough people and rowdy teenagers behind. That was the real breakthrough." The new audience would be mainly white, suburban, and middle-class, although in this manager's opinion the important social dimension "wasn't color so much as class." Navigating the interstate to the theme park required, of course, a car and a parent free to drive it, which limited the access of the amusement park's younger and poorer audience.

Similarly, pricing strategies helped shift the cultural meanings of the theme park as they revealed the developers' conception of their customers. Whereas the older amusement park charged no admission but collected a separate fee for each ride or attraction, in the 1960s the Six Flags parks initiated "pay-one-price," a high admission fee allowing unlimited access to rides and shows. Although a convenience for the visitor, the single price eliminated nonpaying access, and the meaning of a visit to the park shifted from a casual, often spur-of-the-moment recreation to a planned excursion. Pay-one-price tended to define the customers as those who could save enough to pay a high fee, and it tended to define them as families--or groups under parental control. The theme park offered families on vacation a carefully packaged tourist experience whose meanings were based on recombinations of familiar content, novel location, and the expanded technologies of perceptual control.

It was this corporately shaped product that became so widely popular, promoted through the 1970s and 1980s as the focus of middle-class travel plans and, increasingly, business conventions and professional-society meetings. As the parks steadily flourished, they influenced the landscape around them. While in the 1970s theme parks were stand-alone tourist attractions, by the 1990s they became the core of vast leisure and resort complexes such as those in Orlando, Florida; Orange County, California; and Las Vegas, Nevada. Theme park companies are now involved in developing entire urban entertainment districts. The famous Universal Studios Tours parks in Hollywood and Florida (owned by MCA) have expanded outward into malls surrounding them. Called CityWalks, these are in fact attempts at small, themed residential and working cites. Similar zones are being built in Germany and France, and in Tokyo and Osaka, Japan. At the same time, urban planners and shopping mall designers draw heavily from theme park technique.

In the 1990s, the theme park industry's most striking development has been the integration of the chains built in the sixties and seventies into enormous conglomerate corporations. The "big five" owners are Disney, Anheuser-Busch, Time-Warner, Paramount-Viacom, and Universal-MCA, a subsidiary of Seagrams Co. Together these five chains comprise twenty-nine parks in North America, with combined attendance totaling more than 119 million visits in 1995. Four of these chains are nestled within mass media conglomerates, with Disney dominant; its American parks alone account for 47.2 million visits in 1995. Time-Warner's attendance, an estimated 24.3 million, probably ranked second in 1995; the company estimates that 85 percent of the U.S. population lives within a day's drive (three hundred miles) of a Six Flags park. The Busch Entertainment Corporation's nine parks garnered about 20 million visitors in 1995; about 13 million people visited a Paramount park and 12.7 million visited an MCA park in the same year.

The Cash Machine

The theme park is a good investment for a corporate conglomerate, since it is a machine for the rapid generation of cash. Immediate profits are made in much the same way as in other mass entertainment industries, such as movies, rock concerts, and big-league sports. Admissions make up perhaps as much as 50 percent of revenues; roughly another 50 percent comes from sales of food, drinks, souvenirs, and other merchandise inside the park. But unlike the rock concert and more like the shopping mall, the theme park depends heavily on the construction of a landscape and the careful planning of human movement through space. The spatial rationale of the theme park is to cluster commercial opportunities represented by concessions, including everything from hot dog stands to designer boutiques, around attractions, which can range from rides and simulator theaters to animal, human, or robotic performances. Event scheduling, architecture, and landscaping help move customers through concessions at speeds and intervals that have been carefully studied and determined to enhance sales.

Because of the overriding importance of concession sales measured in sales per capita, or "per caps," managerial and perceptual control are central to any theme park. The old amusement park was a complex mix of often sleazy entertainments run by subcontracting performer-entrepreneurs or concessionaires. By all accounts it was this cheap and explicitly carnivalesque heritage that Walt Disney rejected as he planned Disneyland. By contrast, the theme park specializes in experiential homogeneity. Replacing the petty carnival and midway entrepreneurs with the corporation's own centrally produced and managed attractions, Disney and his followers gained control over profits, the quality of concessions, and--just as important to advertisers and sponsors--image and style. This totalizing effort is captured in the industry phrase "to theme." Surface stylistic characteristics are highly coordinated in "theming," but more important, the meanings the park contains are centrally produced to be as nonconflictual as possible. Paradoxically, this overall uniformity is expressed as a rich variety of artifacts, cultures, histories, styles, texts, architectures, and performances.

The production of an environment that pays so much attention to experience is costly, requiring centralized monitoring of a range of factors. Temporary and long-term problems demand solution: theme park companies are divided into departments filled with specialists in traffic flow; design and signing; maintenance and sanitation; interaction between the park and its patrons ("guest relations"); the quality, tone, style, and content of performances; food and drinks; and souvenirs and concessions. One theme park designer writes that "in the final analysis everyone views the design of the theme as a complete unit in which all elements, major and minor, work together in a harmonious relationship. This means keeping contradictions to an absolute minimum." Indeed, the concept of the "themed environment," the fully designed, highly coordinated "land" with all services, performances, and concessions designed and provided in-house, was arguably Disney's major contribution to the industry and perhaps to American culture.

As is well known, park themes vary. The industry leader Disney's overarching theme is the corporation's imaginative work and media products, "The Magic Kingdom." During the 1970s the other park chains could not draw on an animated film heritage, but they did find pieces of cultural history to mine as themes. National history, once over lightly, was the original narrative of the Six Flags company; now it specializes in mind-blowing roller coaster rides themed to action movies. As I will show, the Sea World chain discovered the charisma of marine mammals and the benefits of specializing in marine nature and wildlife. Media conglomerates' acquisition of most parks located in large markets has resulted in a wave of retheming as parks display and cross-promote the entertainment products of the parent companies. These products include a wide variety of animated films and live-action film and television, television cartoon and comic strip characters, books and magazines, sports teams and sports heroes, music and music television celebrities. The promise of limitless opportunities to cross-promote (in entertainment industry terms, to "support") goods and imagery and the vast potential for interlocking products and overlapping promotional activities is what has attracted MCA, Viacom, and Time-Warner to theme parks.

Cross-promotional possibilities have been evident for at least three decades, but only the recent merging of huge media companies and the collation of a wide range of media products have allowed its full promise to become clear. Today, the overlap of marketing, advertising, and content has become the essence of media profitability, especially since licensed merchandise sales can now far outstrip the revenues from the original media product. In the marketing language of the 1990s, each product--the television show, the animated film, the rental video, the theme park, and the Pocahontas pajamas--adds value to all the others.

In an industry dominated by mass media conglomerates, Sea World is both typical and an anomaly. Its parent company, Anheuser-Busch, stands out for its lack of major media holdings and Hollywood connections. Although Sea World was a relative latecomer when it opened in 1964, its history parallels that of the parks industry as a whole. Begun as a single park developed by a group of Southern California investors, Sea World was quickly expanded into a chain which then changed corporate hands several times: The publishing, real estate, and insurance firm Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (HBJ) bought the first three Sea Worlds in 1977 in hopes of combining the marine exhibits with its own extensive educational publishing and filmstrip enterprises. This promise was never realized. When HBJ was threatened by a takeover attempt from a consortium put together by the predatory British publisher and financier Robert Maxwell, HBJ pulled all the available cash out of the theme parks division, sucking the Sea Worlds dry of funds for anything beyond day-to-day operations. The parks raised admissions prices and laid off nearly half their on-site workers, but when fiscal restructuring failed to right HBJ's ship, the Sea Worlds were put up for sale and purchased by Anheuser-Busch in 1989.

Anheuser-Busch had been in the amusement parks industry in the old days, setting up brewery tours and picnic grounds around its plants in Tampa and Pasadena. The Tampa amusement park was expanded into a botanical and zoological garden in the 1970s (felicitously called Busch Gardens: Africa: The Dark Continent). Later, Anheuser-Busch diversified by building Busch Gardens: The Old Country, a history park near Williamsburg, Virginia, and acquiring Sesame Place, a TV-themed children's play park in Langhorne, Pennsylvania. With the purchase of the HBJ holdings, Anheuser-Busch owned the largest group of theme parks in the United States.

Anheuser-Busch's parks are very successful. While none of the biggest theme park chains report attendance figures, it is likely that Anheuser-Busch's nine parks together have the third largest total attendance of the five United States theme park conglomerates. At a conservative guess, the four Sea Worlds together entertain about 11.6 million paying visitors annually, and most of these are North Americans. These visits alone evidence wide exposure to and interest in Anheuser-Busch's colorful worlds of the sea. And Busch Entertainment is expanding abroad with the Gran Tibidabo theme park in Salou, Spain.

The theme park business is ancillary but important to the brewer. As a giant beverage and food producer, Anheuser-Busch controls 43 percent of the U.S. beer market. In 1993 the company saw about $11.6 billion in sales worldwide, and in 1995 it bought a half interest in China's national Tsing-Tsao brewery and announced an aggressive plan to expand into beer making in all of Asia. Although the parks appear only tangentially related to the beer product, with their Sesame Street character tie-ins and their nature education theme, they do help provide a useful "family image" for the Budweiser brand in particular. The Sea Worlds also help further beer's association with the great outdoors, picking up a longtime Busch family association with wildlife management. By associating the brewing conglomerate with conservation, the parks help deflect concern over industrial pollution and large-scale waste production.

Unlike other theme park owners, Anheuser-Busch has no significant media holdings or outlets to help integrate its parks into a cross-promotional marketing and merchandising strategy. Sea World has never had a film product or long-running television series to make up the core of its marketing, although it airs annual television entertainment specials and buys prime-time advertising. Lacking a Mickey Mouse or Bugs Bunny, Anheuser-Busch and Sea World rely heavily on Shamu, the trademarked killer whale, which is also a licensed image, park logo, and corporate icon. But Anheuser-Busch's ability to exploit the whale mascot is limited, at least compared to what Disney can do with one of its characters. Although the company bought the rights to an animated, feature length film that would promote Shamu and the parks to movie and television audiences, licensing rights have been tied up in a legal Gordian knot. Meanwhile, Time-Warner, owner of the Six Flags parks, has done well with two action adventure films starring a killer whale named Keiko. Free Willy was spun off into Free Willy 2: The Journey Home and an animated Saturday morning television show. Following an imbroglio over the treatment of Keiko at a theme park in Mexico, Time-Warner helped invent a "Free Keiko/Free Willy" rehabilitation campaign that not surprisingly also promotes the film products. Ironically, despite the Warner films' anti-theme park, anticaptivity story lines, Sea World claims that all their parks have profited from an increased general interest in killer whales stirred up by the movies and the Keiko controversy.

Industrial Nature Magic

The lack of a direct film or television tie-in has encouraged Sea World to carefully cultivate nature as the theme park's central story. Although the park always includes human and land animal entertainments, recreated ocean environments and marine animals--from invertebrates to birds to mammals--are the central theme of the Sea Worlds; the performing whales are the central attractions, and management calls them its "core product." Superficially, the ways that the different Sea World parks present nature seem varied; the oceans' rich variety is one theme at all the parks. Occasionally there are regional variations. Sea World in Orlando, for example, features manatees that cannot be seen at Sea World in San Diego; conversely, the killer whales are on display at all four parks. But despite the detail in the dioramas and the range of species within individual parks, Sea World's nature is standardized. As we will see (in chapters 3 and 5), nature displays for mass audiences rely on stock techniques and the corporate search for a consistent product. Indeed, in addition to being visually dazzling, Sea World's nature spectacles must be consistent and predictable precisely because they express a corporate worldview.

In the theme park-world's fair tradition, other corporations are involved with Sea World. The park subsidizes some of its displays through corporate partnerships, and park brochures refer to the Sea World "family of sponsors." In San Diego, ARCO helps present the Penguin Encounter, the Skytower Ride is brought to you by Southwest Airlines, and am/pm mini markets helps fund the Shark Encounter. But many other businesses and manufacturers, from Kodak to Pepsi-Cola, take part in joint promotional and advertising ventures inside and outside the park. Southwest Airlines also provides Sea World with a "flying billboard" in the form of Shamu One, a black-and-white-painted Boeing 737 lined inside with wall-to-wall paintings of Shamu. Through sponsorship arrangements all the Sea World parks reduce their advertising costs; sponsors gain exclusive merchandising rights (for example, Kodak and Pepsi-Cola are "official suppliers"), cross-promotional advantages such as the ability to offer Sea World discounts along with their products, and association of their name in connection with animals and children, the environment, and family entertainment.

Sea World gives the most thorough service to its parent company. The park integrates advertising, public relations, and political argument for Anheuser-Busch. For example, besides selling Anheuser-Busch's Budweiser beers and Eagle snack foods, all the Sea Worlds' "Hospitality Centers" feature a microbrewery and free beer tasting in what amounts to direct product promotion. In San Diego, the modern beer garden houses museum exhibits of brewing history and video screens that cultivate Anheuser-Busch's identity as an environmental and conservation-minded company. Pamphlets and posters exhort customers to recycle aluminum, drink sensibly, and resist increased excise taxes. Next door, in a huge stable are Anheuser-Busch's trademark Clydesdale draft horses, the registered trademark of one corporate division converted into an attraction at a wholly owned subsidiary. Anheuser-Busch-themed merchandise, from beer steins to T-shirts and baseball caps, not only generates concession sales but circulates the corporation's image, as customers pay to wear its advertising and logos. And of course, associating Anheuser-Busch and its products with animals, nature, education, and families positions the world's largest brewer as a socially concerned firm.

The company uses the theme park as an environment for its messages, and this can be useful, if it is not directly related to theme park profits. Anheuser-Busch's walk-through advertising may be especially important in a time of rising anti-alcohol sentiment in the United States. Brochures promoting responsible drinking through slogans ("Know when to say when") and urging parents to talk frankly with their children about alcohol can deflect if they can't defuse widespread concern about the health and societal effects of alcoholism and alcohol abuse among children and adolescents. Similarly, by relentlessly stressing the values of recycling in its theme parks, this huge manufacturer of bottles and cans can displace the discussion of the effects of the American system of disposable packaging and stave off attempts to legislate limits on the production of waste. The theme park can be turned to many public relations uses, in fact; the more diverse the conglomerate, the more issues it may need to address. In any case, at the Sea World theme parks, advertising, marketing, and public relations are so thoroughly part of the landscape that they are collapsed into entertainment and recreation, until it is very hard to tell what is publicity and what is "just fun."

In the case of Sea World, the live nature of the oceans and coasts is the heart of the successful entertainment-promotional mix. Nature--living creatures in harmonious environmental balance--exists at Sea World as a commodity for sale in its own right, in order to sell other things and to help people feel good about larger social projects and arrangements, including the high-consumption economy typified by the theme park itself. On one hand, Sea World shares this use of nature as a surface with much of the rest of American consumer culture, and in this sense, nature is just another industrial product or symbolic commodity, available today to anyone who can afford the poster, the T-shirt, or the ticket. But of course, in another sense, nature is not just another product--not only is it the basis of all human existence but culturally it carries meanings that seem special and magical. It is a world beyond the human that is invented out of inevitably human meanings and desires, an escape from the limited, the routine, and the mundane. Here the oceanic nature on display at Sea World may have special salience. As we shall see in chapter 3, there is something special about the underwater worlds the theme park constructs for viewing. They can seem especially remote, deep, and endless, free of boundaries and limits. Such nature visions promise transcendence of the polluted and conflictual social world on land, even while we realize that they are in fact terrestrial and artificial, highly processed commodities.

As a piece of industrial magic, Sea World represents an enormous contradiction. Using living animals, captive seas, and flourishing landscapes, the theme park has organized the subtle and contradictory cultural meanings of nature into a machine for mass consumption. At the same time and despite its best efforts, Sea World makes nature--one of the ideas most taken for granted in Western culture--into a problem that leads to questions. Why should nature in general and ocean life in particular be so central to the workings of this hypercommercial space? How does nature work as a commodity in the late twentieth century? In what way is what we see at Sea World "natural" or unnatural? Who wants to see it and buy it, and why?

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