American Family Vacation

Photo of the Alpengist at Bush Gardens from

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

For that matter, so was I. When I was a kid, I absolutely lived for amusement parks and roller coasters. Those of you from the Midwest might be familiar with a place called Cedar Point. Set on a peninsula in an otherwise unremarkable stretch of northern Ohio, Cedar Point was, for a certain generation of children, nothing short of The Promised Land. Billed as America's premier roller coaster park, it featured rides with names like Wicked Twister, Iron Dragon and (a perennial favorite) The Demon Drop. I fondly recall many family trips in Dad's cramped Ford Escort, simply awash in bliss at the prospect of a full day of mixing dubious fair food with violently disorienting thrill rides.

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

Anyway, that was just the beginning. Busch Gardens is also set up with various areas that offer faux-European themes -- Germany, Ireland, Italy -- much like Walt Disney World's Epcot Center. It's kind of fun, some of the buildings really are quite pretty, and the food is surprisingly good. (I recommend the wurst sampler). But there's an aggregate effect that can really wear on you. It felt slightly hallucinogenic, this too-cheery, too-clean, ersatz Europe. America has a seriously weird fetish about this stuff, these sanitized faux realities. My local shopping mall, for instance, is carefully designed to resemble Main Street USA circa 1955, complete with "weathered" warehouse facades and wrought-iron bus stop benches.

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).

I was going out of my mind. The place was dimly-lit, with neon and flashing lights, and was -- clearly, undeniably -- a casino training ground for kids. Feed in the coins, get the tickets. Feed in the coins, get the tickets. Some machines -- like the ubiquitous Wheel of Fortune-branded game -- look exactly like casino slots.

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?

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