Rediscovering the magic of theme parks
// JJ Brewis

Vacation destinations are meant to give us a break from our day-to-day lives, no matter what the opportunity brings. Recently I took a trip that came as a surprise to many of my colleagues: I took a week to head to Orlando, Florida to scope out the theme park culture that has given the city its reputation.

Theme parks, particularly the ones I visited, are well-advertised, and efficiently run machines. You literally can’t travel more than ten paces inside one without an available park attendant to help you locate the nearest washroom, food stand, or poncho kiosk. My week at three Disney parks and the two Universal ones was a great testament to the child inside of me who always wanted to visit, but ended up both questioning and satiating my adult tendencies in their own right.

For those braving theme parks, particularly several parks in a short time period like most tourists, you need the right mindset to get yourself through it. It may sound silly to have to “brace yourself” for a place filled with fun and adventure, but the reality behind theme parks is that there are many small pitfalls that could easily discourage the average visitor.

As I waited in line to pay for my gate admission to Disney’s Magic Kingdom, the man in front of me was complaining to his wife about the cost. It is true that everything is expensive at these places, but the alternative is to walk back to the car and leave. Everything is expensive, but aside from gate admission, you really don’t have to spend a dime to enjoy yourself. For those willing to bring their own food, and skip the frills of taking home merchandise and buying photos of themselves on each ride, the experience could potentially be quite cost-effective as far as vacations go. However, temptation awaits around every corner at these places, and by the time I’d arrived back home, my Visa bill met me with the nasty reality of just how expensive fun can be. Your time is likely to be as indulgent and decadent if you’re willing.

Despite many amenities available, one of the major lacking points was food within the actual parks, particularly of nutritional value. Though some of the treats are irresistible, being both classic and tasty, such as the ten-inch-long cinnamon churro, other options are limited, and come at a high cost. At The Magic Kingdom, my only sit-down meal was at Pinocchio’s, a childthemed European-motif cafeteria. For $7, I had a sloppy plate of white pasta with a dull tomato sauce, greasily seeping into the depths of the paper plate it was served on. Over at Universal, the Harry Potter standby pub The Three Broomsticks had a wide range of food offerings, but not many vegetarian options. I ended up with a corn on the cob (complete with husk), a handful of potato nuggets, and a plate of iceberg lettuce.

Despite the lackluster food, it’s hard to not enjoy yourself, though – you are surrounded by an atmosphere that entirely replicates the movies and brings out the youthful energy for anyone willing to let their imagination run. Though the park food is a far cry from decent, the atmosphere of say, Hogwarts’ Three Broomsticks Inn, is so charming that it doesn’t feel so bad to pay $5 for a butter beer (which is somewhere between butterscotch and cream soda with an ice cream top). The alcoholic equivalent of the Hog’s Head Brew is available next door: a slight reprieve for parents at the wit’s end with their over-excited, butter beer-fuelled children.

The thing to realize when planning a visit is that everything in these places is artificial. This works both as a selling feature and a deterrent: the cafe workers that you know are earning minimum wage greet you with friendly smiles that only come off as realistic; garbage is never taken away by hand, instead riding in an expensive and wasteful underground tubing system to not defer from the ‘magic’ of your experience.

The parks can do what’s in their control to make attendees have a magical and memorable time, but the one thing they can’t control is the behaviour of their crowds. While waiting in line for a showing of a live play, I overheard someone interrupt a park attendant speaking in Spanish by saying, “You’re in America. Speak English.” I also momentarily had my magic cut short while in line buying a souvenir when a large, intimidating guest came up to me and insisted I’d budged in front of his wife. Believe me, the last thing I envisioned Disney World to be about was getting clocked out while buying a stuffed Mickey Mouse.

Outdoor park rides are shut down each day due to Central Florida’s midday rain storms, which break up an otherwise scorching day with a torrential downpour that range from one to three hours. With the threat of potential lightning strikes for massive metal-based attractions like roller coasters, parks keep the attractions down for what feels like forever, re-setting the clock at each thunder roll, and re-opening rides only once a minimum of 30 minutes have passed since the last alert. But even these rainstorms were a nice reminder just how far away from home I was, and as most tourists cowered under each nearby awning, my friend and I quite literally danced in the pouring rain, soaked head to toe, while tourists snapped our photo from every angle.

The parks are essentially what you make of them. I would challenge anyone to go to these places and not have a good time. Some of my best moments came unexpectedly, such as the altogether out-dated and cheesy Jaws ride at Universal, which was made palatable by our “skipper” Corey, an obviously over-excited theatre student spending his summer as an intern at the parks. On one night, my friend and I treated ourselves to dinner at Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville, which is stationed in the admission-free City Walk, sandwiched between the two Universal parks. The entire experience was certainly a departure from a hometown sushi meal, with pirate waitresses blowing balloon animals on stilts, and triple-shot beverages removing any ounce of a childlike thread from my experience.

For those seeking the thrill of rides, theme parks are a natural hotspot. The rides at the Disney parks are naturally aimed at various age levels, ranging anywhere from the charming boat ride in Peter Pan’s Flight, to the somewhat terrifying Space Mountain, an indoor in-the-dark roller coaster with very little light components. Universal’s offerings are more high-octane, including an Incredible Hulk coaster than goes underwater, and The Revenge of the Mummy, which has more than a few unexpected turns, including a sudden backwards drop out of nowhere that nearly made me, as an adult, felt like I was living my last moments.

Of course, each attraction is based more around an entertainment franchise than the concept of the ride’s motion itself. Enjoyment, I found, was based ultimately on the experience and the personal attachment to the ride’s source material. On the E.T. Adventure, ride-goers take a seat on an air-bound bicycle on a mission to “save E.T.’s planet from destruction.” Though the ride was created almost 20 years ago, my sentimental attachment to the film made me that much more excited to see animatronic aliens bouncing about as I glided through the air.

At the World Showcase at Disney’s Epcot Center, an 11-country pavilion circled around the walkway of a massive man-made lagoon. The amenities at each country’s pavilion include corresponding restaurants, shops, bars, and attractions. The World Showcase, like the Future World section of Epcot, is definitely more adultoriented than the Magic Kingdom. With the services open later than other parks, guests are encouraged to take their time, and, naturally, drop their cash. Many choose to “drink around the world”, which I managed to do to an extent, having margaritas in Mexico, wine in France, and German beer. But even in the more adult section of the park, I managed to get involved in the “all-ages child’s activity”, in which guests colour a template of Disney’s newest mascot, “Duffy Bear”, and get their art stamped at each country’s rest stop.

You may walk into the park as yourself, but as I found, daily problems vanish as soon as you wait in line to hug Wonderland’s White Rabbit. Spending $6 on a pineapple soft serve doesn’t seem so painful after you conquer the 60-foot-tall Swiss Family Treehouse.

Disney’s Epcot Center is a paradise for those interested in technology and the wonders of tomorrow. Inside the massive Spaceship Earth, the globe-shaped icon of the park, guests travel through a Judi Dench-narrated history of technology, ending with an in-ride ethics questionnaire that shows you a cartoon mock-up of your own face in a “sustainable world of tomorrow” that is both adorable and heartening.

Even history is made available, such as in Disney’s Hall of Presidents, an animatronic display of all 44 American presidents, including a specially recorded speech by President Obama. The variety of attractions, from a Disney’s electrical parade, to the Hogwarts bullfrog choir, appeal to interests of every angle. It was actually more of a challenge of not letting my OCD run rampant when I told myself I would see every last feature – it simply is not something a week’s visit can accomplish.
Downtown Orlando itself is not too far removed from the parks, but the city appears to be nothing more than an extension of the synthetic world found at the parks. While the charm of movie-themed magic works in the context of the parks, having rows upon rows of imported palm trees lining the toll-boothed highways is both misleading to visitors and irritating to local taxpayers. Hotels and restaurants have the air conditioning cranked on as a selling feature for guests, because the outside temperatures are unbearable, particularly with Florida’s constant wall of humidity.

Everything is available to you in these places, which is a huge part of what makes them so magical. Certain aspects of theme culture don’t matter to guests of any age. Waiting 60 minutes in line to get inside the Hogwarts castle to ride The Forbidden Journey makes people of any age groan. But getting to the finish line is the ultimate prize, particularly when you get to simulate your way through the eyes of a wizard, and get personally thanked by Dumbledore.

//JJ Brewis, art director
//Photos by JJ Brewis

Enjoy it? Share this on Facebook


© 2011 The Capilano Courier. phone: 604.984.4949 fax: 604.984.1787 email: