1. Regional Amusement Park
-Build all the fancy inverted roller coasters and projectile trains you want, but if you're going to open an amusement park, make sure you stock the staples: a log flume, an antique car ride, elevated swings, a ridiculously tall wooden coaster, a runaway mine car coaster, and, if the park is big enough, a sky ride and/or train. There's something reassuring about the fact that no matter which amusement park you go to in the U.S.A., there'll be set of rides that'll make you say, "Oh man, I just had a flashback to when I was ten and my brother got lost at Opryland!"
-It's also reassuring that those legacy rides–almost always the most fun–are still the easiest to get on. I can't remember a time in my amusement-park-going life when I had to wait more than five minutes to ride the swings or the runaway mine car coaster, and I could ride those all damn day.
-Of course, the lack of lines also speaks to a certain declining popularity at amusement parks. I tried to calculate how many guests per day and how much money spent per guest a park needs to stay solvent, and whatever the figure is, the place my wife and I went earlier this summer probably isn't hitting it.
-I read an article recently about the futile efforts of the Six Flags chain to revive the brand by going more upscale, charging more in order to drive away the idle teens that scare away families. I don't have a problem with parks charging more for admission–there's always a coupon to be found at some nearby fast food place–and I can even handle paying a buck more for a hamburger, even if the fried jalapeno topping is still frozen in the middle. (Or maybe that just happens to me.) But jacking up the price of midway games is a huge mistake. It's not too tough on the wallet to plunk down a dollar to throw three softballs at a milk can with an opening that's barely softball-sized; but asking for two dollars (or three! or five!) is loony, especially since I can go down to my local Wal-Mart and extract a prize just as good from the quarter claw machine.
-The general amusement park plan to cater to middle-aged, middle-class families apparently extends to the PA music, which at my local park was blaring album rock hits of the '70s. And I'm not just talking "Stairway To Heaven" here–though we heard that one–but, like, Pink Floyd's "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" and Yes's "And You And I" in all their ten-minute-length glory. The better to enhance that whole flashback effect.
2. Disney Cruise
-One of the selling points of cruise vacations is that they're all-in affairs, but from the moment you walk on the boat, there are ample opportunities to spend more money. People want to take your picture, or book time for you at the spa, or sell you a wine package, or a water package, or a lanyard for your key-card. To be fair, it's not a hard sell, but there's definitely a sense that you can cruise or you can cruise, if you know what I mean.
-Cruise vacations are supposed to be all about relaxation, but there's a lot of worry involved too. Is there a hurricane coming our way? Will I get seasick? What about stomach viruses? How much should I tip everybody? Am I having the most fun I could possibly have?
-Veteran cruisers can't wait to tell newbies about how well they're going to eat, and they're not lying. High-toned four-course meals every night, plus late night snack buffets, well-stocked breakfast bars with omelet stations, a choice between sit-down lunches and poolside junk food, and all the soft-serve ice cream and fresh-baked cookies you could want. I can't say much for the poolside junk food, but everything else was delicious. And they'll accommodate any weird requests you have. A kid at the dinner table next to mine had a bowl of sprinkles for dessert, every night of the cruise.
-Given the surge in popularity of luxury cruises since the prices started coming down a decade ago, it's surprising that no one's trying to revive The Love Boat, as a TV series or a movie. (Maybe it's because the last attempt at a movie sunk before it could leave port, and the last attempt at a series didn't go very far either.) Here's a suggestion: make it a soapy show about the young crew of servers and entertainers instead the passengers. Better yet, how about a reality series? I'd love to know more about what the cruising life is like for people who do it all summer long (between semesters, mostly).
-Whenever the boat pulls into port, it's hard not to look at the other cruise ships and do a little comparison shopping. Do their pools look nicer than ours? How are their portholes? What's the action like at their bars? I have to say that not too many ships could beat our Disney boat, at least from the outside.
-This being a Disney cruise, there are plenty of opportunities to reflect on what "Disney" means circa 2006. For one, the studio behind the biggest movie of the summer has gone pirate crazy. We had "Pirates In The Caribbean" parties, and "come dressed as a pirate" dinners, and during the character meet-and-greets, the guy playing Captain Jack Sparrow drew longer lines than Mickey Mouse. (And that dude playing Sparrow was scary good. It was like Johnny Depp decided to slap on his old makeup and take an impromptu cruise to the Bahamas.) But Mickey and Goofy got their props too, especially in the nightly musical stage productions, which typically ended with the big Disney guns taking the stage to a rousing audience ovation. Prior to their big entrance? Lots of appearances by Disney characters I'd forgotten about, from that fallow late '90s period between Pocahontas and Tarzan. (Remember the ape in Tarzan who had the voice of Rosie O'Donnell? A kabuki version appears weekly in the "Golden Mickeys" show on the Disney Wonder.)
-Of course, Disney is still in full "princess" mode as well. Every little girl on the boat is called "princess" by the waitstaff, and the personal appearances by Cinderella, Belle, Ariel and Aurora–peppered with Mulan and Pocahontas–were as popular as the appearances by the people in the furry costumes. Odd side effect of all this? Minnie Mouse is suddenly hip again.
-Going back to those nightly shows, they're about what you'd expect from a floating amusement park: fast-paced, medley-filled, corny, uplifting, and delivered with 110% conviction by young performers honing their chops for something bigger. It's hardly art–nor are the cover bands that play drum-tight versions of familiar hits in the ship's various nightclubs–but there's something endearing about their enthusiasm. They're here to entertain you. It'd be rude not to go with the flow.
1. Regional Amusement Park