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It's a Surreal World After All

What has caused theme-park culture to take such firm root in our psyche?The spectacular production values of today's movies, TV shows, and video games have certainly raised the bar for anyone trying to lure children outside their homes. Compared with the acid-tripping fantasia of the Teletubbies, the average suburban backyard looks like one of the bleaker Hopper paintings. But there's something deeper going on. Theme parks afford man the opportunity to create an idealized version of a world—here is Main Street, U.S.A., without the horse poop or the gossip; here is the Holy Land, without the territory disputes or the halitosis.

Perhaps it's no surprise that the impulse to create these sanitized, alternate versions of reality has become particularly strong now. The more we conduct our lives over the Internet and the more we fall under that medium's timelessness and intangibility, the more we crave environments that impose a strict sense of reality, places where the clock has stopped, places where the only directive is "ride me."

THE PARADOX, OF COURSE, IS THAT this impulse often leads us to increasingly sophisticated simulations of reality, rather than reality itself. Tell a random group of Americans that you're taking a trip to California's Sierra Nevada, and watch them react with head-nodding and vague murmurs of assent. Tell them that you're doing this same trip courtesy of millions of dollars' worth of computer imaging and aroma simulation, and you're suddenly an object of fascination, maybe even envy.

It's not easy, theme-park developers have learned, to strike the proper note of realness. Themed environments can be too "real," or worse, not the right kind of "real." Colonial Williamsburg came down with a case of the "too-reals" several years ago when it began staging historically accurate enactments of runaway-slave patrols. Terrified children would gather around the "slave" to protect him from his pursuers, and at least one adult tried to grab a white actor's musket.

Elsewhere, on the not-the-right-kind-of-real front, the plans for Universal Studios Japan, which opened in April in Osaka, underwent huge changes during the development phase. The original project had called for the creation of Octosaurus—a gigantic, primeval octopus that would emerge from the depths of a simulated harbor. But the developers discovered that the Japanese think monsters like Godzilla are dated, and they consider octopuses to be friendly creatures. Octosaurus was dumped, as were several samurai-warrior and geisha-girl characters and even many Japanese-language signs. The Japanese, Universal found out, wanted a more American reality.

Henry Alford's latest work of investigative humor is Out There: One Man's Search for the Funniest Person on the Internet (Random House).

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