American Family Vacation
Roller coasters are fun, vacations are fun, and parks are fun. So why are vacations at roller coaster parks no longer any fun?
I've been asking my self this question the past few days following a family trip to the famous American "amusement park" known as Busch Gardens, in Virginia. It was the best-intentioned of trips. Our four-year-old, Young Master Declan, was quite reasonably excited by the idea of an amusement park -- what with the rides, and the water slides, and the ready availability of high-sugar foodstuffs.
Photo from BushGardens.com
So naturally, as an alarmingly eager parent and red-blooded American Dad, I wanted to recreate this experience with my boy. We set off with high hopes.
I don't want to say it was a miserable experience, but . . .from a certain point of view, it was a miserable experience. First of all, for those who are not aware, Busch Gardens is operated by the venerable Anheuser-Busch institution; the beer company. All the snack shops serve Budweiser, there are several beer-themed attractions (tour the mini-brewery!), and even the Clydesdales are there.
I'd always been aware of Busch Gardens' pedigree in an arch, ironic, Simpsons-esque way (Duff Gardens and all). But I must say, actually being there was seriously creepy. As a friend pointed out, can you imagine a beer company today opening an amusement park for kids? I don't think of myself as particularly politically correct about these things, but I'd contend that, if you're really paying attention, you must concede: A beer company running a theme park for kids is an empirically jarring scenario in the 21st century. What if it were another variation on the theme, say, Marlboro Manor? Would that be different?
Photo from BushGardens.com
Magnifying this effect was the relentless branding of characters and products, regardless of the theme or area. Whether you're in Venice or the Scottish Highlands, there's still SpongeBob or Scooby or what-have-you, grinning out from every store window and kiosk. I became suddenly aware of how often I'm looking at these sunny icons, even in my own home. On juice cans, cereal boxes, toothbrushes, band-aids…
The final straw, for me, came when we took Dec to the arcade game room. Now, I love arcades and videogames -- grew up with 'em, still dig 'em. But again, things have changed. In this place, there were but a handful of actual videogames, and they went for $1-$1.50 per game. The rest of the room was filled with cheap, awful "game of chance" arcade contraptions where you feed in the tokens, and get back strings of tickets. Like skee-ball, but with no skill required whatsoever. Then you redeem the tickets for cheap plastic toys (invariably SpongeBob-related).
Look, I've long been comfortable with middle-class America family fare. I like it. It's what I grew up with. And I understand things like industry and economics, advertising and marketing. But in the land of roller coaster parks, things are changing, and I'm clearly at odds with my consumer culture on a much more significant level than even I knew. I couldn't wait to get out of that place.
The upshot, of course, is that Declan loved every single minute of it. Loved the park, loved the games, loved the rides -- he even loved the Clydesdales. He can't wait to go back, and doesn't care at all about my hippie hang-ups, my Marshall McLuhan conspiracy theories, my slowly fermenting paranoia.
Great. Now what do I do? I wonder, where do anarchists take their kids for vacation?