In the great pleasure gardens of Renaissance Europe, landscaping was the star attraction. Entertainment took second billing. Dan McEwen talked to theme park landscapers who say those roles have been reversed – sort of.

It may be a stretch to suggest that the whole idea of landscaping as an attraction originated with the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, but it's definitely not a new idea.

At the very least the tradition dates back to The Gardens of Sallust. Developed in the 1st century BC, they became the imperial resort of a succession of Roman emperors. The concept eventually proved so popular that, today, every world class city has at least one public space grandly landscaped with massive gardens that seem straight out of a Monet painting.

These magnificent expressions of civic pride, royal prestige or private wealth were popularised from the 15th century onward as idyllic retreats from the hurly-burly of city life.

The theme parks of their day, they were designed to stimulate their visitors' senses. Their legacy endures in the landscaping of most modern theme parks, with one big difference – the role that landscaping plays in the guest experience.

"Today, typically the landscape provides a backdrop for the surrounding precinct or ride," says David Roberts, a director at Citicene, an Australian firm of landscape architects.

"While it still intends to stimulate the senses, the primary focus for patrons is the precinct or ride. The landscape has taken a backward step and the attraction has become the focus."

And yet, even in a supporting role, landscaping still commands the attention of park designers everywhere.

"Landscaping is perhaps the most under-appreciated thematic tool at the designer's disposal for shifting mood and reinforcing the story behind any theme park," contends Brad Shelton, director of entertainment development at the California design firm of BRC Imagination Arts.

"Whether its purpose was to create a sense of entry or element of discovery, to provide a sense of naturalness or exotic luxury, to frame views or screen views, don't underestimate the power that landscaping can provide a theme park," concurs Thomas Johnson, a US-based landscape architect at Atkins Global, one of the world's largest engineering and design consultancies.

"The landscape must be considered as an integral part of the overall park design and should be seamless with the layout, attractions and routing. No matter how great the rides and attractions are, if the spaces and environments that stitch a park together are lacking, the overall guest experience will go unfulfilled."

Disappointed guests translate into disappointing revenues. And make no mistake says Al Cross of the St Louis, Missouri design firm PGAV: "When guests are standing in an outdoor queue line over 40 per cent of their stay on a busy day, they really stare at the surroundings."

Little wonder then that park designers continue to rely on the ability of landscaping to 'stitch' a park together. Whether you call it storytelling, scene-setting, place-making or mood-shifting, the trend in recent years has been to ever more imaginative use of the landscaping.

"Since the 90s, landscaping has become more sophisticated and technical to insure the authenticity of the theme," observes James Worthington, also a landscape architect at Atkins in the UK. "Visitors now demand a much more involving and three- dimensional experience and to very much feel part of another world."

It's a trend his colleague Thomas Johnson says shows no sign of slowing. "Landscape design for theme parks is constantly evolving and we have seen considerable growth in new waterparks, particularly in the Mediterranean, Middle East and Far East. From a purely landscape perspective we are getting more requests to create fantastical landscapes – think Lord of the Rings – brought to life with integrated animatronics, misting and fire. Generating a sense of place is really the goal of theme park landscaping."

"Theme park operators are clever people who realise that the guest notices landscape as a primary shaper of their environment," comments Cross. "Every park practises a style of landscaping that fits its particular 'brand.' For example, the planting design in Busch Gardens Africa literally feels like Africa. Sea World feels lush and appropriate to the city the park is in, but doesn't necessarily transport one to a particular memory or story.

"Disney uses landscaping 'figurally' and often treats the plant design as if it is a character in a story. Universal favours parks that are artificially urban and therefore necessarily needs to place landscaping as a backdrop. The talent applied to landscape has grown tremendously and one sees far better execution than before."

Each to his own, then. But whatever the particular design concept, the guests' desire for authenticity keeps raising the landscaping bar ever higher according to David Roberts at Citicene.

"The amount of money spent and the use of technology to create impact and reinforce character is growing. More elaborate and technically advanced landscapes are becoming more popular."

Popular with visitors perhaps but a headache for landscapers says Worthington. "Themed entertainment developments are occurring in many countries on multiple continents around the world. Each location has its own climate, environmental conditions and indigenous plant communities.

"Developers are requiring us to create tropical plantings in horticulturally-hostile places. Finding plant material that supports the theme and can thrive in a climate that has no apparent contextual parallels with the theme becomes a major challenge. The more recent growth in waterparks, particularly in the Middle East and China, has also provided landscape architects with new constraints.

"For example, we have been asked on a number of designs to provide wave and splash pools and lazy rivers winding their way through dense forests. Exposing plants to excessive chlorinated water can provide a number of problems and result in plant death."

This challenge of creating these ever-more fantastic 'natural' environments has only added to the landscapers' usual woes, most of which come down to money.

"The landscape installer pays for all the budgetary sins of everyone who has come before," observes BRC's Brad Shelton. "When it gets to be only a couple of months before opening and the project is completely out of money, the mature trees are down-traded for saplings."

Money is always an issue laments Johnson at Atkins Global. "Theme park rides and attractions normally have… expensive maintenance costs. In order to keep operations cost manageable and the park profitable, landscape maintenance is not always given priority attention. In essence, landscape is a support piece, not an essential necessity to make a theme park function in its simplest form, therefore, although short-sighted, landscape budgets are typically one of the first budgets to get reduced."

Then too there's the eternal fight for enough space to play even a secondary role well.

"As with any development, theme parks aim to maximise the number of rides, attractions, retail outlets, etc, within their site," notes Worthington.

"This can reduce the amount of space available for landscape areas to create successful separation and enclosure, allowing the planting to create strong theming and visual separation between the attractions."

So to the question "Is landscaping still an attraction?" the answer appears to be a resounding "yes and no." No it's not, in that few parks hype their landscaping as enthusiastically as they promote the rides and shows. Nor is the landscaping accorded the kind of big bucks spent on the attractions they surround. But yes, it is an attraction to the extent that it can make a difference in consumers' choice of leisure entertainment destinations – your park or somewhere else.

"Creating a harmonious environment between natural features and attractions is so important to us because… the landscape forms an integral part of the experience," says Bart de Boer, president and CEO of Efteling in the Netherlands, the third most visited park in Europe. "For many years, Efteling's forest, gardens and water features have been among our visitors' most highly rated 'attractions'."

That also applies equally for Chessington World of Adventures in Surrey, UK, which bills itself as 'Britain's Wildest Adventure'. "Everything about the park and the resort as a whole needs to reflect this," says Daniel Begbie, in charge of park presentations.

"Chessington prides itself on creating inspiring landscapes within its nine themed mystical lands. Landscaping is key in creating these environments and bringing a sense of wild adventure to our guests. With each land having its own theme, it's vital that as much of the foliage and planting relates to that land as possible."

"Creating a 'sense of place' is the real goal of theme park landscaping," insists Johnson. "Providing guests with a complete experience and transporting them to far away or imagined lands may not have immediate revenue implications, but will go a long way in generating longer stays and repeat visits."

Perhaps Brad Shelton at BRC sums it up best: "Landscaping doesn't generate revenues; it generates a mood that makes it more likely that people will spend." Which is what it's all about, right?