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It's a Surreal World After All

It's a sunshiny day at Disney's Epcot this May. A camera-wielding mother watches her six-year-old nuzzle in the bosom of Minnie Mouse, who is crouching on the sidewalk in a way that ordinary mice cannot. "Look at the camera, Shannon!" Mom trills. Quickly pivoting to face Mom, Shannon bumps against Minnie's shiny, black nose. After the photo Shannon rubs her head and retreats Momward. "Minnie is a real mouse," Shannon reports, "but her nose is rubber."

Few would deny that we patronize theme parks for their attractions and rides, and their one-stop-shopping approach to vacationing. But the parks also hold a subconscious appeal for us: like two of today's dominant art forms—reality-based TV and the literary memoir—theme parks place us at the intersection of the real and the fabricated. Trying to parse what is actual and what is not can be great fun. Indeed, it is this activity—not the one where you rocket down a water slide to plunge into the waters of excited youth, and not the one where you try to get excited about something billed as "the World's Largest Miniature!"—that can perpetually replenish one's enthusiasm for amusement parks' inimitable offerings of trams, theme-appropriate fried food, and the presence of the Danskin crotch panel in a "historic" setting.

Over the years, since the opening of Disneyland in 1955 and Walt Disney World in 1971, theme-park developers have had to work harder and harder to create fantasy worlds that would allow patrons to suspend their disbelief. Jaded by sophisticated video games and movie special effects, today's park-goer requires total immersion.

Concurrent with this mind-set is the "cable televisionizing," or ever-more-specializing, of theme parks. New Orleans has Jazzland; Carlsbad, California, has Legoland; and Langhorne, Pennsylvania, has Sesame Place: the gauntlet has been cast down. The developers of the new Bonfante Gardens in Gilroy, California, spent $100 million to create a theme park that celebrates trees. Texas entrepreneurs are raising funds for Marianland, a Catholic-themed park; it's based on a Brazilian entertainment complex that weds the sacred to the profane by offering both fast-moving rides and life-sized computerized puppets performing the Nativity.

TWO HIGHLY SPECIALIZED PARKS THAT OPENED THIS YEAR are particularly good at allowing visitors to explore the nebulous intersection between the real and the trying-to-be-real. Disney's California Adventure, in Anaheim, is an attempt to condense all of California's natural splendors into one 55-acre compound: you can behold a concrete version of the Sierra Nevada or ride a virtual hang glider over a simulated landscape while a synthetic breeze scented with orange and redwood wafts over you. Orlando's Holy Land Experience re-creates Israel circa 1450 B.C. to A.D. 66. Even though there are no actual camels at the park, visitors—or, should we say, pilgrims—come away puzzled that the tiny, ride-free Holy Land features camel hoofprints in its sidewalks. They might also wonder whether God would emanate from the Ark of the Covenant in such a bold display of smoke and strobe lights.

"The packaged experiences offered in the future," Alvin Toffler wrote in his 1970 book, Future Shock, "will reach far beyond the imagination of the average consumer, filling the environment with endless novelties." Not only have amusement parks become, over time, more elaborate and heavily themed, more filled with Toffler's "endless novelties," but their influence has also spread to other pockets of our culture. It's difficult nowadays to discern between shopping malls and theme parks (many pedestrian plazas seem to harbor an implicit sign reading, YOU MUST BE THIS TALL TO SHOP AT THIS STORE). In the climate of high interactivity and heavy theming, museum has become a dirty word; ours is the age of the exploratorium and the science center.

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