But it’s all FAKE!

In the Back to the Future sequels there’s this motif of scenes that occurs. Inevitably, events will be moving right along and then someone will say to Marty, “What? Are you chicken?”

Time stops, brakes squeal. Marty is halted in his tracks as the words send an electric shock through his body.

That’s how I feel every time someone says, (cue exasperated valley girl accent) “Ugh but theme parks are so fake!”

Forgive me, but, what is your point?

Seriously, what is your point? Are you offended that Caesar isn’t actually stabbed on stage? Is it a problem for you that Oz was built on a soundstage? Will you not go see The David because it’s made of marble and not a rotting corpse? Please tell me, what are you trying to communicate when you feel the need to point out that there’s speakers in the trees, that the castle isn’t real stone, as if real [read worthy] entertainment is dependent on silent compressed dirt. When you feel the need to point out that we’re not really in Hogsmeade were you somehow under the impression that ever was the goal?

For the love of Walt people, OF COURSE IT’S FAKE.

What exactly is it you expect to be doing in a theme park? Are you actually expecting to be convinced that you’ve stepped into the old west, or Pandora? Actually going on a cruise through the jungle? Actually flying to Neverland? Well then of course you’re going to be disappointed. Did you think that magician was actually sawing the woman in half? Did you think Titanic was a documentary? Is a sculpture or a painting the same thing as its subject? Of course not. When you go to see the musical, Wicked you don’t go because you want to be convinced that Elphaba is actually defying gravity you go to see bloody “Defying Gravity”! 

I feel like the criticism of theme parks being fake, constructed, artificial is so short-sighted, so uniformed, so cynical, that these have to be the criticisms of people who have such preconceived  disdain going in that the only thing that could change them would be an actual fairy: people who have such feelings of superiority regarding “proper art” that they can only find comfort in the most abstract and post-modern and depressing of endeavors. 

Is the tone of most themed entertainment enterprises too cheerful for you personally? Are you too distracted by the business machinations operating in the background that seek to empty working families of their hard-earned cash? Ok those are genuine criticisms that need addressing. Also, I’m sorry you’re a sad, bitter, cynical adult with no capacity to have fun, connect with your inner child, or believe in optimistic portrayals of the world: rendering you incapable of enjoying anything that requires you to see past the brutal necessities of creating art and entertainment in a capitalistic society unless it fits your own personal tastes that encompass said cynicism. I get it. Perhaps a non-profit experience based on the Holocaust is more for you. But don’t write off the entire medium and come up with some frail excuse of “artificiality” to justify it. That’d be like me saying I hate movies because the only ones that are ever acknowledged are depressing dramas oozing with pretentious one-take camera techniques and obnoxious method acting anecdotes about how the lead was so serious about getting into the mind of Oedipus that his mother had to stop him from blinding himself when they were getting their marriage annulled.

 And I’m only half kidding about the Holocaust thing. Themed entertainment is an enormously powerful medium that is only beginning to be used outside of the context of the traditional theme park, but is infinitely more effective at communicating the impact of events than static museum displays of old, documentaries, movies, etc. In fact one of the the best uses of themed design I’ve ever seen is the 9/11 memorial and museum. Are we to describe that as fake too? If you walk out of there without having been profoundly moved you are not a human. And yet, make no mistake, every bit of what makes that experience work as well as it does is theatre, is architecture, is using the shape and context of space to imbue story right into the very fabric of the experience. Sure the artifacts are real, the location has significance, but everything else has been constructed, fabricated, planned, timed, designed to tell the story at hand.

And that’s what themed entertainment is. It’s imbuing places with story. It’s creating beauty and emotion with physical form. It’s experiential art. I feel that those who criticize the artificiality of the methods used to achieve that are visiting with fundamentally wrong expectations in the first place. All art is fake. All art is a representation of something else. That’s what art is. That’s how art is achieved: making a statement about one object by using another.

Why does it matter so much to you that the materials are different than what they represent? That the lands aren’t the places that inspired them? They’re not supposed to be. Does it bother you that Casablanca wasn’t shot in Casablanca? That Blade Runner wasn’t shot in the future? That the facades on a Broadway stage are made of muslin and wood? Sure the castle isn’t built of stone, and wasn’t used to fight wars, but does that matter? A “real” castle doesn’t have Fantasyland behind it or have a dragon in the basement or act as symbol of optimism and hope for millions of people. No one is going to a theme park with the expectation that they’ll be convinced they’ve actually entered an alternate reality. Or rather, they know the altered reality they’re in is one that’s been created and designed for them. The environments of theme parks are still real, they’re very real. You can touch them, get lost in them, feel them, smell them, viscerally experience them. Theme parks are the most real art form. Perhaps this is the problem, perhaps you take it too literally and are expecting to be convinced that you’ve stepped into medieval village or city of the future. To this I can only say, world traveling and theme park visiting are two very separate experiences. To visit New Orleans Square and expect to experience authentic New Orleans is akin to seeing The Sound of Music and expecting to experience authentic Austria. Sure you’ll get a vague taste of some aspects, but that’s not the point. 

What is the point? The proper headspace to approach any theme park is the same headspace you use when approaching any theatre or art or a fun activity. Theme parks and themed entertainment are the attraction in their own right, not a substitute for seeing the other great art and experiences of the world. Though perhaps when one doesn’t have the resources to experience the thing that inspired the attraction, the attraction can be a good stand in. We enjoy watching people climb Everest on TV while knowing the experience of watching it and doing it are very different. Why is it so hard to accept that going on a safari in a theme park and going on a safari in Africa might be two different experiences that are still both worthwhile and enjoyable? Why is it so hard to accept that if watching people fly a spaceship in a movie is entertaining, despite knowing that it’s just foam models reflected through prisms and plastic, that doing the same thing in a theme park could be fun too? The artificial realities of the construction of the experience need not negate the effect that experience has.

Whatever it is you’re seeking to find in your entertainment and excursions you can find it in theme parks, as long as you’re not expecting them to be something they’re not, or expecting them to substitute for everything else – which for some reason seems to be the attitude of so many critics. As if choosing to enjoy the urban space of the wharf at California Adventure precludes you from enjoying the urban space of a local park. That’s absurd. The only thing precluding you from enjoying the local park or historic district or nature trail is the fact that most governments (in the U.S. at least) seem uninterested in providing or preserving them: possibly a reason themed experiences are so appealing in the first place. People crave interesting, pleasant, and aesthetically pleasing places to be. Exciting things to do. Spectacle, adventure, drama, romance. And why not purposely design that? Why not create that? Why not give people experiences that overwhelm their senses and touch their souls? Why not inspire them and make them rethink what’s possible? That is the magic of theme parks. To take these dreams people want, people need, and make them into reality. To paraphrase something I once heard a magician say (I wish I could remember who) real magic isn’t real, and the magic that is real too many people dismiss. Don’t be the person that dismisses real magic when they see it because it isn’t real enough. Appreciate it. Cherish it. Try to spread it. There’s far too little of it to go around.