Sunday, December 9, 2007

My Last Theme Park

I live in the magical Land of Theme Parks. There are a lot of places I’d rather live. I’ve never lived anywhere for more than 25 years, so I told my wife that’s how long I’d stay. We’re about halfway through.

Since we’re raising a child here, we’re obligated to take her to the theme parks. Because if we don’t, we’ll just have to pay for her therapy later, and the theme parks are slightly cheaper. Of course, this strategy has backfired to some extent, because after seeing “It’s A Small World” for the fifth or sixth time, I’m the one who needs therapy.

Every year, my company plans a “holiday outing” for the employees. The last several years have been theme park trips, which include a catered luncheon. This year, we were given a choice of any one of the Disney parks (Magic Kingdom, MGM Studios, Epcot or Animal Kingdom).

We chose Animal Kingdom, because I’ve never been there. It’s been struggling, because most people assume it’s just a zoo with a $67 admission. To counter this thinking, Disney desperately ran a series of ads with a man in African native attire declaring “Nahtazu!” They stress the “educational” and “ecological” aspects of the park, and they’ve expanded on those concepts to some degree, but they’ve caved to tourist demands for entertainment and added a few thrill rides.

The first thing we saw when we entered was a giant artificial Christmas tree, decorated with images of animals. Like everything at Disney parks, it was tasteful and grandiose, but because of the potential for hurricanes in Florida, it had to be tied down to heavy ugly steel supports. Here are pictures of it in the morning when we arrived, and illuminated in the evening when we left.


There’s a high-tech mechanism through which you must pass to enter the park. You slide your ticket into a slot, then place your finger on some kind of biometric sensor that records your identity. This (I suppose) is to prevent you from leaving the park at noon and giving your ticket to someone else to use for the rest of the day. Or perhaps it’s to help identify bodies in the event of a terrorist attack. We didn’t ask.


Disney tends to overdecorate everything in their theme parks. Everything is theme-specific, from the lighting fixtures to the manhole covers. There’s nowhere your eye can rest that you’re not seeing something engineered and decorated to enhance the experience. I once met a couple of plumbers who worked as contractors for Disney. They said that Disney pays well, but it’s horrible to work for them because “they change their minds every 5 minutes.” One of them told me that they installed a public bathroom, then were told to rip it all out because the Disney designers had decided to install tile in a “mouse ears” pattern. Then they had to do it all over again.




One of the first things you see when you enter the park is the massive “Tree of Life.” It’s huge, designed to look like a tree whose trunk has been carved in the shapes of animals. As we entered the park, I overheard one woman exclaim, “Look at that! Is it real?” And her companion answered, “Yes, it’s a real tree.” I confess I was shocked by the ignorance.



But that wasn’t the worst thing we observed. My wife and I were struck by the sheer number of tantrums we witnessed. It was only 9:30 in the morning, and everywhere we looked, kids were pitching fits. Another problem was obesity. My wife mentioned a news report she had seen that declared that this is the first generation in history that may live shorter lives than their parents as a result of obesity. Disney has addressed this issue by placing this warning on some attractions:


Another impressive construction is the “reproduction” of Mt. Everest. Seen in this view, it looks surprisingly enormous and realistic.


But Mt. Everest isn’t just for decoration; it contains a roller coaster. From another angle, you can see the ramp lifting the cars up for the ride, and the sense of scale is immediately destroyed. Nonetheless, it still might be the highest point in Florida.


One section of the park has a “dinosaur” theme. There are some good, scary reproductions of assembled dinosaur fossils scattered around.


But of course, Disney doesn’t want to actually frighten the children, so they have this one as well:


At lunchtime, we took a park bus over to the Disney Contemporary Resort hotel , which opened in 1971. I remember the fanfare at the time, because of its “revolutionary” atrium design, and the fact that the Disney monorail runs through the hotel atrium, stopping in the lobby. My wife and I both had a good laugh over the fact that "Contemporary" isn't contemporary any longer.


My company had arranged for lunch in the hotel ballroom, during which Mickey and Minnie arrived for a photo op. My wife insisted:


After lunch at the hotel, we took the bus back and continued with our visit to the park.

Some aspects of the park seem poorly planned. For instance, you have to take a train to one part of the park – you can’t walk. Which means you have to take the train back. So you spend part of your day waiting for the stupid train, which of course moves no faster than a brisk walk. So why not install a sidewalk and save the expense of the train?


At the end of the day, we saw a “Festival of the Lion King” show that consisted of people in brightly-colored costumes, music, songs, moveable stage elements, four floats with animatronic characters from the Lion King film, acrobats, fire, smoke and other wretched spectacle. Thanks to my ride on the “Expedition Everest” roller coaster, my stomach was already unsettled, but this really put me over the top.


I’m not a fan of the theater, mostly because I cannot suspend my disbelief. I can see all of the artifice that goes into such things, the little pieces of duct tape holding it all together, and it just looks completely fake to me. At one point, a woman did a dance with another performer, and she was hooked to a harness at the end of a thick cable. He would swing her around and let her go and she would swoop over the heads of the audience, who would “oooh” and “ahhh.” But of course, all I could see was the rope and the shiny metal clip holding her up in the air. She’s not flying, she’s hanging. By the time it ended, I wished I was.


Anonymous said...

i thought that show was well done! you're supposed to think about how pretty it looks, not think she's flying!

burton said...

I think I can guess who anonymous was...

I am with you Tim. Lion King extravaganza was too much. We went a few months after it first opened. I remember wondering why a Disney park had such narrow walkways everywhere.

The Bard from O'Town said...

And here I thought you liked the theatre!