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In Praise of Amusement Parks!
I make no apologies for loving them with all my heart.
I love amusement parks. And not ironically either. And also not for some pretentious, deeper reason — because they're, like, metaphors for the human condition.
No, I love them for the reasons you're supposed to love them: because they're bright and colorful and kitschy, and they serve ridiculous junk food, and also because you get to climb into different rides that fling you around, or carry you into rooms filled with talking robots.
The more the rides fling me around, the more robots that talk, and the more ridiculous the junk food, the more I love them.
I've always loved amusement parks. Like most American kids, I was desperate to go to Disneyland, and when my parents finally took my brother and me, sure, I liked Space Mountain, the Haunted Mansion, and Pirates of the Caribbean.
But the ride I liked the most was something called Adventure Through Inner Space, which closed forever in 1985, replaced by Star Tours (which itself has since seen several updates; I’m old).
I rode Adventure Through Inner Space at least ten times in a row, long after the rest of my family had moved on. (This was back before Disney crowds became absolutely insane. But more on this later.)
The conceit of Adventure Through Inner Space was that you climbed inside something called an "atommobile," and this giant machine called The Mighty Microscope shrank you and your vehicle down to microscopic size. There was an extremely clever visual in the lobby where the carts enter this machine, and you see little tiny carts — with little tiny people sitting in them! — emerge out a clear tube at the other end.
In reality, those little carts were models, and the actual carts entered The Mighty Microscope and sank down into the floor to the ride area below.
Needless to say, the effect absolutely blew everyone’s mind.
Inside the ride, you supposedly shrank smaller and smaller, entering into a world of swirling snowflakes. As you got smaller still, the snowflakes got bigger and bigger, and you eventually entered the crystals of the snowflakes themselves.
And now, all these years later, I'm wondering why the hell there would be swirling snowflakes in Southern California.
Anyway, you kept shrinking, all the way down to the molecular level, into the realm of the atom with protons and electrons flying all around you.
At this point, there was this narration (by the same actor who narrates the Haunted Mansion, incidentally): "And there is the nucleus of the atom! Do I dare explore the vastness of ITS inner space? No, I dare not go on. I must return to the realm of the molecule, before I go on shrinking...forever!"
Truthfully, this was a bit of disappointment. I wanted to go inside that damn proton! But I still loved this ride almost more than was humanly possible. I thought it told such a fascinating story.
Which I guess means I lied before when I said I don’t love amusement parks for any reason except that they're fun. For me, rides and amusement parks absolutely have a deeper meaning.
Good amusement parks and their rides tell stories.
I'm primarily a writer of fiction — a screenwriter and a novelist — and I'm incredibly passionate about the whole concept of "story." Honestly, I think Adventure Through Inner Space is probably eight percent of the reason I became a writer. (Some of the other reasons include The Lord of the Rings books, Star Wars, Star Trek, Indiana Jones, the Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying game, and S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders. I am a child of the 70s and 80s through and through.)
I've long thought that a good story has a great concept, and a clear beginning, middle, and end.
And so does a great amusement park ride!
Incidentally, I think this idea that rides-tell-stories is true not just for the "dark rides" (which are the ones where carts or carriages or boats carry you into a dark area). It's also true even for roller coasters and water park water slides.
It's all about the pacing — the overall "experience." And also the concept and theme, especially the name.
I also love a good gimmick. The really good rides excel at those. But, hey, I like a good gimmick in traditional storytelling too, providing it delivers what it promises while also going somewhere interesting and unexpected.
I think a writer can learn a hell of a lot about storytelling from amusement park rides: about theme, expectation and misdirection, and the importance of a satisfying resolution.
The entire amusement park tells an “overarching” story too — although sometimes the creators of a park are not aware they’re telling an overarching story, so it ends up muddled, or confused, or just plain stupid.
Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, tells two interconnected stories: it draws you in by claiming to celebrate the life story of plucky country superstar Dolly Parton, but then it cleverly redirects you to the story of the poor local mountain folk that Parton created the park to honor and — more importantly — employ.
In the case of Disneyland, I think Walt Disney was openly and proudly telling a story of America: a place of benevolent nostalgia coupled with an unbridled optimism about the future, especially as it relates to technology. That's really what Adventure Through Inner Space was all about: how no frontier wouldn't eventually be conquered by ingenious American minds.
This vision of nostalgia coupled with optimism was never the story of America, not even in 1955, when Disneyland first opened. It was always only a story — and a very incomplete one at that. But it was perfectly in sync with the post-World War II zeitgeist of America.
Disney, the corporation, has since tried to update the story their theme parks tell. Now they tell a tale that's more about inclusion, about celebrating racial and cultural diversity. One recent Disney addition, Pandora — the World of Avatar, which is part of Animal Kingdom at Disney World, is all about appreciating and respecting the food and indigenous culture of the fictional world of Pandora.
It's a big, broad, sanitized way of showing respect for all indigenous cultures.
This literally couldn't be more different from the racist depictions of natives on the old Jungle Cruise, only recently updated (and now being updated again to coincide with the recent movie), or the Disneyland Railroad, which, in the 1960s, passed a settler's cabin on fire and featured this narration: "Our forefathers who tamed this great wilderness faced constant danger. And there, across the river, is proof — a settler’s cabin afire! The old pioneer lies nearby — the victim of an Indian arrow."
In the 1970s, the burning cabin became the victim of unexplained "river pirates," and in the 80s, the settler had set his own cabin on fire making moonshine. In the 1990s, the fire went out for good.
The newer, more tolerant Disney is, of course, perfectly in keeping with the current national zeitgeist. And it's also a little bit closer to the truth about America.
"Pleasure parks" were common throughout Europe in the 19th century, but the notion of a themed amusement park, with related rides and attractions, dates to Coney Island, New York. Then an actual island, it featured a number of iconic parks, including Luna Park, which opened in 1903 and had a theme based on the park's premiere attraction, A Trip to the Moon.
In the ride, guests rode a zeppelin-like vessel to the moon, where they could then walk around a lunar surface made of papier-mâché. "Moon maidens" danced in the palace of the Man in the Moon.
I'm sure this was all sexist as hell, but I still think it's unbelievably cool that in 1903, you could climb aboard a ride that supposedly took you to the moon. Don't tell me this isn't a big part of the reason why, sixty-five years later, Americans flew to the moon for real.
Bà Nà Hills, a theme park that Michael and I visited in Da Nang, Vietnam, is located on top of some jungle-covered hills, on the site of an old French resort, and includes remnants from that old resort, and also a recreation of a French village. But it also includes recreations of a Buddhist temple and other famous spiritual Vietnamese sites.
And a German Oktoberfest. Go figure. That part still makes no sense to me.
Or maybe it does. Maybe the story Bà Nà Hills is telling is partly about European colonialism and occupation — sanitized, of course — but also about a country that has since proudly reclaimed its destiny and reasserted its own national identity.
It's a fascinating blend of old and new.
Interestingly, the park's central attraction is the already-Instagram-famous Golden Bridge, a spectacular 150-meter bridge that arcs out over the jungle below. On one hand, the bridge itself looks very modern. But it's held up by giant hands that were made to look very old: they're made of fiberglass but meant to look like ancient stone. They're even covered with fake moss.
How's that for telling the story of modern Vietnam? It's literally a mix of old and new.
Many European amusement parks, such as Efteling Park in the Netherlands and Europa Park in Germany, feature attractions based on European fairy tales. But unlike optimistic Walt Disney, who never met a Grimm's fairy tale he didn't try to make less grim, these parks feature darker, scarier versions of these classic stories.
And these versions of the stories are perfectly befitting the grimmer view of reality in Europe in general, compared to America, especially after centuries of war and genocide — not to mention a series of crazy-bad famines and periodic outbreaks of bubonic plague.
Look, I'm a fan of the Disney Parks. Any amusement park enthusiast has to be. Walt Disney had a real vision, and he completely upended the theme park experience.
And since his death in 1966, the company has continued his legacy, not only making his parks more culturally relevant, but also debuting some of the best rides ever created. I am just in awe of the creativity and detail behind The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror (in Disney's Hollywood Studios at Disney World); Expedition Everest — Legend of the Forbidden Mountain (in Animal Kingdom); and Flight of Passage (also in Animal Kingdom).
But the prices have become simply insane, and, COVID notwithstanding, the crowds at the Disney are now beyond insane.
I said at the start that I adore amusement parks simply because they're fun. In truth, the answer is a bit more complicated than that.
But come on, the fun is still important. And there is a point where hordes of people are. Just. Not. Fun.
Fast Passes and "single rider" lines can only do so much. And I completely reject on principle Universal Studios' "Express Pass," which enables you to cut the line if you pay (a lot) more money for your ticket.
For me, the crowds just reinforce how most amusement park rides are almost entirely passive experiences. Even the best of them can leave you feeling vaguely disembodied. You're there, but only to see and hear, never touch, never impact. It’s the same generic experience for everyone.
A crush of people leaves me feeling even more anonymous and irrelevant.
Plus, I just hate waiting in line.
Which means that for me, at least for the next few years, I'll be gravitating to amusement parks outside of America, where the crowds are usually much less ridiculous. The parks are often dramatically cheaper too.
Better still, there is all kinds of ridiculous junk food I've never tried before, and all kinds of fascinating cultural references I'll probably never understand.
But yeah, I’m ultimately there for the stories. Please tell me another!
Because somewhere along the way, the story behind all these amusement parks has become part of my story — my life. And I’m breathless with anticipation, waiting to see how this whole fascinating adventure of mine turns out.