As a Southern California kid, theme parks have been a part of my identity, for better or worse. Most kids, no matter where you lived, probably got a chance to go to their local carnival, or their local amusement park or one of the thousands of odd ball parks across the U.S., or even made it to Disneyland on a family trip if they were lucky.
So I say theme parks have been part of my identity not as a way to say I’m unique in this, because I’m not. But as a way to think about how someone can absorb not only story but the structure and artifice of story in different ways. There’s a beautiful thing that happens, when you accept the construct of a fake world built on taking your money. And you believe in it anyway. And hard.
You can hear the Disneyland fireworks from my grandmother’s backyard. Back when it was affordable, my mother would take me out of school for mid-week, rainy-day Disneyland trips with our annual passes. My mother was cast as Snow White (though opted to take a job in nursing instead). The place was part of my routine. Being immersed in story was my routine.
Amusement parks are fun and all, but it is theme-parks that have my heart – the ones that tell a story with its immersion, rides, and games, giving the illusion that you are in this world and are part of the story. You are an adventurer, a pirate, a space traveler, a princess. You are part of the story being told. I was never one for thrills for thrill’s sake. I want a thrill because it is part of a story. Don’t just let me drop from a high peak. Tell me why I had to jump and what I have to do to land.
I recently went to Universal Studios Hollywood – which has become a part of my routine as well during this part of my life, as I live about ten minutes away and almost every theatre person I know has worked there, is working there, or is trying to work there. At 33, I’m cynical as hell – I look at the throngs of people with their giant Simpsons donuts and plushies, their Jurassic Park uniforms, their Harry Potter robes and wands and wonder at how silly we all look, dressed up in our respective fantasies. Are we wasting our days? I don’t care how punk rock you are, you are decidedly less badass when you wear your Ravenclaw robes and wait in line for a 2 minute ride on a Hippogriff.
But then I remember – who wants to be a badass anyway, if it means not being able to dream?
I spent considerable time during my day at the park dreaming up what the themed land would look like if I could create the seaside town from one of my plays. In my fiction class last week, I made my students walk around for ten minutes as their characters, experiencing the drab creative writing building through the eyes of someone (or something) else. As writers we spend so much time in our heads, that the physicality of something can sometimes be the key we need to unlock the connection we so desperately want.
Theme parks are crowded, hot, and annoying. They are overpriced, often disappointing, and I know enough from my friends who have worked behind the scenes and from watching endless hours of the Defunctland YouTube channel that the politics and economics behind many of the choices are infuriating, to say the least.
But nothing beats being able to walk through the physical landscape of your chosen fantasy and imagine what your story might be in this place. The best thing I did the last time I visited Hogsmeade in the Harry Potter land of Universal was a fifteen minute conversation with a shop worker at Ollivanders Wand Shop about who I am and what I hope to be in order to fit me with the proper wand. Yes it was $52 and I did not buy it. But I will, dear reader, I will eventually.
Because I’m a sucker.
I watched the new projection/light show in Hogsmeade (twice) – The Dark Arts at Hogwarts Castle – and couldn’t help letting my mind wander to the darkness we all fight every day, the real evil stuff we have to combat that is not cloaked in black robes or maniacal laughter. Does a light show fight any of that? Hell no. Does it sorta help me imagine a better, more courageous version of myself that would fight a dark wizard and maybe actual real bad stuff in the world? Yes, a bit. Does it make me wish I was that person and give me something to work for? I think so.
When the shop worker at Ollivanders asked what my favorite subject would have been if I went to Hogwarts, I answered Defense Against the Dark Arts almost immediately. I had never thought about it before that moment, but I knew it instinctively.
And I feel like that is what most of us are doing, in one way or another, as we write. It is a constant training in Defense Against the Dark Arts. Looking for hope wherever we can find it.