We live in an age when almost every life experience is replicated as a roller-coaster ride that ends at the gift shop. What hath Mickey wrought?

By Henry Alford
January 27, 2011
Jo Magrean

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.

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).