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How America's Theme Parks Kill Our Souls

A display at Legoland in Carlsbad, Calif. (Sonali Kolhatkar)

Each year for spring break, millions of Americans flock to theme parks across the nation, lured by promises of smiles and fun for children and adults alike. Ordinary people shell out hundreds of dollars for tickets alone, and more for hotel rooms, meals and extras.

Egged on by my own children, I too spent spring break this year in such a manner, at Legoland in Southern California, knowing full well not to expect anything other than crass, commercial fun. I promised myself I would suspend political analysis for two days and give in to my inner child to enjoy fun rides and sunshine. But I couldn’t bear it. My journey into an American theme park taught me much about how the corporatizing of our fun is literally killing us. Or, to be more specific, killing our souls.

I confess, I have not been to many theme parks — just enough to get a taste of the typical. I have actively avoided Disneyland, just an hour’s drive from my home, mostly because Disney culture in general makes me ill — something about the claims of being the “happiest place on earth,” “where dreams come true,” repulses me right from the outset. But my impression of American theme parks, whether they are zoos, aquariums, Six Flags-type roller-coaster thrill-fests or a children’s toy-based fantasy park like Legoland holds true across the variations: Americans spend their hard-earned money mostly to wait in long lines from sunup to sundown to enjoy a handful of minutes of artificially induced choreographed entertainment on rides tailored to please as many people as possible just enough to keep them coming back for more but not so much as to require greater financial investment by the park or risk displeasing some customers.

Families push around sulking children in strollers through bewildering mazes of colorful plastic signs, structures, photo opportunities and gift shops perfectly designed to suck as much money out of our wallets as possible while also sucking as much joy out of our souls as possible. I carefully observed the throngs of crowds at the park this week and found, to my surprise, that the frowns far outnumbered the smiles. In fact, I was hard-pressed to find any smiles at all. Perhaps many attendees subconsciously realized that they were being taken for another kind of ride.

Theme parks are big business. They have recovered from the recession faster than casinos or hotel chains, raking in more than $13 billion a year. Disney theme parks alone made $687 million in the last quarter of 2014, a 20% increase from the previous quarter. The California-based Disneyland franchise is so lucrative that there are plans to expand it. The cost of tickets has shot up too, as Disneyland’s current admission price illustrates: Fifteen years ago, a one-day admission cost $41; today it costs $99. Some parks, like Knott’s Berry Farm, offer installment plans to help lower-income customers pay off the steep price of attendance. These companies have also expanded overseas, exporting the mind-numbing culture of American amusement parks to Brazil, Singapore, France, Spain, Hong Kong and more.

Theme parks are firmly part of the world of corporate exploitation that impoverishes 99% of Americans at the expense of the 1%. As such, they are just as guilty as fast food companies and large retail chains like Wal-Mart of paying their employees very low wages. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics cites that park ushers, attendants and ticket-takers make starting salaries of only $7.91 an hour, and amusement and recreation attendants start at $7.96 an hour. This is just a few cents above the federal minimum wage. I watched numerous park attendants during my Legoland experience this week dealing with harried customers and their over-stimulated children. While my family and I waited for two hours in line as a popular ride repeatedly broke down, I realized that much of the wait was for the clearly overworked maintenance workers to arrive as they rushed from one end of the crowded park to the other, fixing equipment. Meanwhile, ride attendants who were on the front lines of the collective public frustration caused by the broken ride displayed professionalism and calm assurances. And for that they were likely not even making a living wage.

The parks eat up unjustifiable amounts of resources. They are entirely artificial, from the colorful replicas of monuments and historical landmarks to the carefully sculpted and manicured foliage that fills every corner. Even as California is experiencing a spectacular drought, water continues to flow uninterrupted at theme parks in the state. The tens of thousands of attendees at each park consume a colossal volume of paper and plastic utensils, packaging and water bottles (this change.org petition is urging Disneyland to install water-bottle filling stations throughout the park).

Gift shops at every turn encourage children to beg their parents for useless plastic souvenirs wrapped in more plastic wrapping and likely tossed aside and forgotten within days. The parks use enormous amounts of electricity to power rides and light their structures. One theme park’s idea of being ecologically responsible is to cut down 18,000 trees in order to build a solar farm to power its rides.

The food and drinks sold at the parks are the worst examples of junk food: packaged ice cream cones, burgers, hot dogs, french fries, fructose-laden sodas and lemonade, sugar-dusted churros and donuts. At California parks it is common to see signs such as this one, warning attendees of cancer risks. At a Legoland stand selling chocolate-dipped churros, I even spotted a Proposition 65 sign warning of cancer-causing chemicals in the very food and drink being sold. None of the people waiting in line with me even noticed the large sign until I pointed it out. Theme parks are also notorious incubators of racist and sexist imagery, and thus a snapshot of the basest aspects of American culture. In one corner at Legoland California, a tableau of Mexican musicians made from Legos features yellow-skinned men with large noses, larger mustaches and giant sombreros playing mariachi music. One character’s eyes are completely obscured by his hat as if he had fallen asleep, invoking the ugly stereotype of the lazy Mexican. A similarly nasty display of rampant sexism seemed to shock even park attendees: A Lego male police officer talks into his walkie-talkie while his female firefighting companion standing next to him is putting on her lipstick. The park is also proudly advertising a coming feature designed especially for girls, called Heartlake City, based on a new line of toys that has been widely disparaged for shortchanging girls. Disney is especially guilty of such bigotry through its determination to push princess culture onto little girls and employ racist stereotypes in its animated features and, by extension, theme parks.

Just as fights between Roman gladiators were a form of spectacle intended to distract populations from injustices aimed at them centuries ago, today’s theme parks perform a similar function. While our planet burns from the overuse of fossil fuels and the vast majority of us are impoverished by the greed of an elite few, we give in to our desire for manufactured fun created by relentless marketing campaigns that offer happiness. We shell out money to be entertained in synthetic environments that are perfectly calibrated to appease our yearning for real joy. And we convince ourselves, as I did, that we are doing it for our children. But what values are we teaching our children at theme parks? We are teaching them to value these fabricated realities, to assume that fun must be bought at great financial cost and that experiences can be collected in the form of coveted rides and mementos.

I walked away from my experience picturing what the theme park that I had just experienced might look like a hundred years from now: an empty shell, a testament to a time when people were lulled into a false sense of security even as climate apocalypse settled in around us and our health failed from the stew of junk food and chemicals we were bathed in. The faded plastic will be a stark reminder of our wanton waste, the hulls of artificial enclosures echoing with the long-lost sounds of thousands trudging through, eager to collect one more experience. Perhaps some theme parks of today will end up submerged a century from now and turn into lost cities that future generations of humans or sea creatures will explore.

We still have time. Let us reject these corporate modes of entertainment and opt instead for companionship, family, community and the real wonders of the world. Let us enjoy what is left of our earth through the beauty of our national parks and forests, which we tend to undervalue simply because the corporate world hasn’t yet figured out a way to bypass legal protections and exploit them financially and environmentally (however, the encroachment of fracking operations in some national parks is certainly disturbing).

Let us experience the low-cost marvels of our natural mountains instead of the thrill of “Space Mountain,” the blue skies above us instead of the overrated “Sky Cruiser” and our vast oceans with real sand instead of the wave pools of heated, chlorinated water, stinking of sunblock and urine.

There is more wonder in a speck of our natural world than in an acre of phony corporate parks. Not only will our planet be better off, but so will our souls.

Sonali Kolhatkar
Columnist
Sonali Kolhatkar is a columnist for Truthdig. She also is the founder, host and executive producer of "Rising Up With Sonali," a television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV (Dish Network, DirecTV,…
Sonali Kolhatkar

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