Viscera-Tingling, Nostalgia-Inducing Amusement Parks: Why Americans Love Them Now More Than Ever

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Aug. 30 2013 12:54 PM

Magic Kingdoms

Why Americans love amusement parks now more than ever.

A general view of fans riding the Carousel at Comerica Park on April 30, 2013 in Detroit, Michigan.
In the late 1800s, carousel-riders, reaching for the brass ring, inspired wordsmiths to adopt that phrase as a synonym for striving

Photo by Mark Cunningham/Getty Images

August will expire soon, and with it the prime of what is projected to be a record-setting year for the business of pleasure as conducted at amusement parks. Experts expect U.S. theme-park revenue to climb to $13.4 billion in 2013—a figure that shames North American movie-ticket sales and makes Major League Baseball look small time, with Businessweek reporting that the happiest market segment on Earth has recovered from the recession more speedily than gaming or hospitality. “Consumers have found great value in these kinds of experiences,” the big fish at SeaWorld told the magazine at the end of May. (Though it turned out that SeaWorld got kind of soaked this summer, at the time the utterance met with the applause of shareholders and sea lions alike.)

Troy Patterson Troy Patterson

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.

You know what “these kind of experiences” are. You know it in the guts that churn and in the viscera that tingle on roller coasters (of which the tightly twisting wooden type are re-ascendant in popularity). You know it in the bones that ache while you stand on line to ride those coasters (lines that increasingly “feature videos, interactive games and animatronic characters to entertain waiting riders”). You know in your heart that what is intrinsic to this kind of experience is the self-awareness of being part of a larger experience, and you know in your head that the resilience of the theme-park industry expresses the hefty emotional investment made whenever piling the kids in the car for the drive to Wally World. You know what I see, surveying the landscape, sifting the news, staring at the Tilt-a-Whirl? I see through myself to recognize certain features of the contemporary national character.

At the amusement park—like the mall, a great preserve of pedestrianism in a car culture—we learn about American society and know our populist place in it. In June, it was reported that Parque EcoAlberto in Hidalgo, Mexico, opened an attraction, called the Night Walk, that simulates an illegal border crossing into the United States. Thus does Parque EcoAlberto render explicit the promise of our domestic theme parks, which offer an experience of escaping into the United States. This has been the case since the turn of the 20th century: In the late 1800s, carousel-riders, reaching for the brass ring, inspired wordsmiths to adopt that phrase as a synonym for striving; in the early 1900s, Coney Island offered immigrants ground on which to assimilate into mainstream culture. The most likely place to see small-town values in action is to visit the sort of agricultural fair where 4-H kids lead cows through a “beef obstacle course” and judges of blueberry-pie contests attend to their work with all due Solomonic solemnity.

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In all these instances (and in their most recent updates and most accurate analogs) consumers are exchanging money for the servicing of their American Dreams. We buy experiences for and of the family, tickets to exist as units promenading among its peers. Disney World, John Jeremiah Sullivan supposes, is “a place where people look at other people (the lines and the endless walking and the crowded feed stations) to reaffirm the fact that we are there together.” If you agree with him, you might decide that the ire about the rich hiring disabled people as “family members” in order to skip those lines is something beyond class rage or righteous annoyance about the gaming of a system: Is there not, in that ire, a feeling that the cheaters are disrespecting the very concept of the family, cheating themselves of an essential aspect of the theme park, and degrading the collective experience of sociology and socialization? The lines for the choicest coasters less resemble the queues at supermarket check-out than the devotional waits for pop-concert tickets, and it is tempting to suppose that there is an element of the heretical in sneaking into the express lane during a mass pilgrimage.

Or am I simply projecting? If so, is that not par for the course? Projection is what the amusement park is all about—the projection of eager ideas of innocent fun, of nostalgia for things that haven't even happened yet, of vomit on the X2 at Magic Mountain. The latest and last word in amusement-park projection concerns our disappearance into virtual reality by way of film—meaning, for one thing, the continued trend toward attractions such as Transformers: The Ride 3D at Universal Studios. Enthusiasts are already anticipating what 2014 will bring, naturally enough, ardent anticipation being among the defining qualities of the amusement-park experience: In Florida, Hogwarts wannabes will thrill to the expansion of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. In Italy, Cinecitta World will open on the grounds of the venerable movie studio, a development that has some cineastes up in arms but is okay with me so long as they include an Anita Ekberg water slide.  

There is a difference in kind between the straightforward pop-entertainment experiences pioneered by Disneyland and those exemplified by Transformers: The Ride (the purpose of which is "blurring the line between fiction and reality"). If we may take a brief ride of the Jean Baudrillard Reverse Bungee, we may theorize that while the old Disneyland model of escapism involves a flight from adult reality into its infantile simulacrum, the new line-blurring Transformers-style escapism represents the next generation of the ethos of Walt Disney World and EPCOT Center, with their designs on reshaping reality. "Disneyland still belonged to the order of the spectacle and of folklore,” Baudrillard wrote. “Disney World and its tentacular extension is ... a cloning of the world and of our mental universe. ... We are no longer alienated and passive spectators but interactive extras.” Look to the East for signs about where this is heading. South Korea is the home of Live Park, where “a user creates an avatar for himself that will be his virtual reality dopplegänger throughout the span of his visit.” The marketers and technologists consider this a 4-D theme park, and it is plain to see where they locate its appeal: People devote much time and energy to the care and feeding of their virtual existences, investing their souls in new machines, mediating their lives with simulacra thereof. Aren’t avatars increasingly essential adjuncts of our core selves? Don’t they deserve vacations, too?

In another view, the amusement park has been a virtual-reality space since it emerged from the tradition of ye olde British pleasure garden and exists in a never-ending present where the past isn’t even past. Its particular pleasures concern living in the moment—the awe that transports a child from the base reality of hot asphalt to the limitless realms of make-believe, the thrill ride that reduces an adult to an adrenal medulla and a howling mouth.

The lightly trafficked amusement park is a moment to evanescence, I decided, earlier this summer, while attending a press preview for Fête Paradiso, a show of old-school museum-quality French carousels that has settled at Governors Island in New York for the summer. (Some of the rides on display predate the Lumière Brothers' 1895 debut, but this festival's organizers caught the film bug, too, naming the affair with reference to an Oscar-winner.) It was a few days before the thing opened. Rides were still under re-assembly, and with no one but the previewers inhabiting the space, and nothing like crowd noise, so that the sounds of the pipe organ echoed a bit eerily, amplifying the sense that most every trip to an amusement park is, for anyone past the age of reason, on some level an impossible sentimental journey. The teens secretly hope to recapture the joy of childhood innocence (while hankering, nonetheless, for the G-force experience of summer love), while the adults are already archiving the kids' visits in the Precious Memories folder. How can you possibly watch a merry-go-round go round without spinning into a nostalgia spiral? Doesn't the sentient adult watching his kiddies find himself mistily anticipating his future reminiscence of that very moment?

August will expire soon, and, in September, J.D. Salinger will be in heavy rotation in the pop marketplace. The writer, who privileged the supposed purity of childhood to a fault, happens to have captured (and exploited) the particular pathos of these experiences in The Catcher in Rye. There, at the height of the action, he reaches certain depths of excessively tender bushwa when Holden takes kid sister Phoebe to the carousel in Central Park to watch her ride and reach for the ring:

“I felt so damn happy all of sudden, the way old Phoebe kept going around and around. I was damn near bawling, I felt so damn happy, if you want to know the truth. I don't know why. It was just that she looked so damn nice, the way she kept going around and around, in her blue coat and all. God, I wish you could've been there.”

Holden here combines a tourist’s postcard with a misfit's fantasy of returning to a pre-misanthropic state—wish you were here; wish I were her. As the climax of a novel, the passage seems at once undercooked and overwrought, but as an expression of a mindset, it presents a high-quality case study. Hokey feelings hardly seem such when they’re your own. The particular preciousness of time spent at amusement park derives from an awareness that the moment is fleeting, and the particular poignancy of a park closed for the season speaks to its power as a metaphor: The moment has fled.

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