Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Theme Park Culture

My wife and I have owned a timeshare in Orlando for a number of years. We bought it while our sons were still at home and were really into the idea of vacationing one mile from Disneyworld. This is the first year we have found ourselves using the week all by ourselves -- just the two of us. Since we have never been to Universal Orlando, we decided to go (under the pretext of checking it out for our new grandson -- yeah, right).
Our timeshare is just every other year, and I was in Europe the last time it came around, so my wife loaded up two of our sons and some of their friends and had a grand time. So it has been at least four years since I experienced the genuinely American phenomenon called the theme park. Some raw reflections:
First, I was taken back to my years of living in Europe when I would land at an American airport after months or even years away and be immediately struck by the number of obese people. America, the land of extremes. A multi-billion dollar fitness industry alongside the highest obesity rate in the world. I'm sorry, but this makes me ashamed.
Second, you've probably heard me say before that one of America's strengths is creativity and innovation. Disney and Universal are creativity on steroids, a celebration of storytelling and imagination. As I stroll through Universal's Seuss Landing or the new Harry Potter section, for example, it's impossible (for me) not to appreciate the wealth of imagination that was in operation not only when the original stories were conceived, but also in the translation of those stories to tangible "things" that can be touched and crawled on and ridden in.
What is contained in my ticket is a mixed bag, symbolic of the paradoxical day and culture in which we live. On one hand, my entrance price pays for the creators' innovations. I was thinking how much fun it must be to be an architect for Disney or Universal. Or an orchestrator. Or an engineer. The multi-faceted skills that go into just one of those rides is staggering. It also pays for summer employment for hundreds of high school and college kids. On the other hand, the ticket also represents obscene profit margins on food and drink, not to mention the not-so-subtle message, delivered long before you arrived at the park, that your kids HAVE to have that toy or keepsake in order to "keep the memory alive." These parks have a way of bringing out the worst in us consumers -- or teaching us a measure of restraint if we let them.
Since, at least for the time being, I don't have to choose between a make-believe theme park world and the preferred adventure of experiencing the real world we live in (stay tuned for more European adventures this summer), I'll most likely cave when my grandson asks me, with those big blue eyes, if we can go see Mickey.

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