Here’s my big thought for the week: people will pay a lot for their fantasies. I’m not just talking about my two favorite things: giant rolling land barges or the increasing prevalence of Dorito-phile Americans wrapping themselves in Under Armor until they resemble the mascots for French tire companies. I myself am not immune: I have one Weber grill for every member of my family, because I want to indulge the fantasy that I am a flesh-burning man’s man, and not a desk-bound bureaucrat by day and junior partner/line cook in a child-rearing enterprise by night. My autobiographical graphic novel, Domestic Man #1, didn’t sell well enough to make a sequel.
I thought of this last week when I spent money in the low three figures to take my kids to Six Flags Great America, a theme park in Gurnee, Illinois (where the local fantasy is that you are not in Wisconsin). You are paying for two fantasies at Great America. First, the park overtly draws on symbols from an America of bygone days – wooden roller coasters, rides clustered around “neighborhoods” with names like County Fair and Hometown Plaza, and an aural onslaught of live and canned classic rock buffeting you from every direction. This is a fantasy of the America that was: parents take their kids to amusement parks where they can have a wild time, just like your grandparents did at Coney Island or Riverview Park back in the good old days when women didn’t work and the lines were shorter because there were no Blacks or Latinos in them.
The bigger fantasy of Great America is that you go there with your family to go on rides. This is not true. You go there to wait in lines. Really, really, long lines. You are not there to share with your children the thrill of hurtling through space on a rusting metal contraption operated by a poorly paid teenager with the attention span of a housefly. You are going there to share with your children important lessons about delayed gratification, patience, and – when you tell them to take their mouth off the handrail for the third time – what hepatitis, staph infections, and herpes are.
I remember cowering in terror in the footwell of some Great America ride when I was a kid. I’m sure my parents thought that was money well spent. At Great America the “fun” is not the kind of fun you have when you’re just goofing around with your kids. Everything about the park is controlled, regimented, and highly engineered. Where else can you tell someone to stand waiting for 60 minutes, then lay back, be strapped in, have a bar across your chest, keep your head back and your arms at your side for 3 minutes of terror? Preparing for a ride on the The Demon is very similar to getting ready for a ride on the lethal injection gurney.
In spite of the appeal to nostalgia, Great America is less like early 20th century America and more like 21st century America. From the minute you enter the parking lot, you are being watched. There are security cameras and people with ear pieces everywhere. Everything is so noisy and distracting you barely notice the rust on the ride supports and how dirty the water is in the holding pools near the water rides. Great America, like actual America, seems to have decided that spending money on security is far more important than spending on infrastructure.
Like 21st century America, the park also gives the illusion that you’re free to explore and create your own experiences. Of course, that’s not true. The park is open for 11 hours a day, and the average wait for a ride was 45 minutes. Add in time for vomiting, and maybe you can do 10 rides per visit. If you really want to experience all that the park has to offer, you can buy a supplemental “The Flash” pass that will allow you jump ahead, skip the lines and accomplish more than those without the pass. It’s created a sort of class system at the park, where those with “The Flash” avoid looking at the people waiting as they jump ahead, enjoying the privilege they bought for their kids and wondering why everyone else doesn’t do the same thing. At some point, The Flash pass will allow holders to get on exclusive rides, while those who just paid the gate fee will stand in lines going nowhere. At that point, it will be a perfect model of Paul Ryan‘s vision for America.
While we were eating lunch, there was a commotion and I looked up to see that a woman was lying on the ground, evidently having a seizure. I realized after witnessing a fatal motorcycle crash a few years ago that my first instinct when seeing someone seriously hurt is trying not to cry (see fantasy of being a man’s man, above). My second instinct is trying to help. But there was nothing to be done for this woman that the 1/2 dozen strangers already at her side weren’t doing. So then, my next ten thoughts in order were:
(1)Boy, this is really going to upset my kids.
(2)I’ve got to explain what a seizure is and that she’ll be ok.
(3) I hope they don’t get so upset that they stop eating their chicken strips- two goddamned kids meals cost me twenty bucks!
(4)This woman could be dying, and I’m worried about my kids eating their chicken strips. I’m a terrible person.
(5)Maybe I should eat their chicken. Shame to waste it. It was twenty bucks!
(6)I should pray. There’s no God. I should pray anyway. I’m a terrible person.
(7)Good, the kids are still eating and not watching this woman’s eyes roll back in her head.
(8)What if I died here?
(9)It would be horrible to die on the ground at an amusement park, surrounded by french fries. Hey! She kind of looks like Gulliver tied down by the Lilliputians. French fry Lilliputians. Ha!
(10)If I died at Great America surrounded by french fries and a spilled super-sized soda, my wife would have to make up a better story so people didn’t laugh at my funeral.
This thought process led me to a new life lesson: if you’ve just spent serious money for a “fun” excursion with your kids and you realize it would be terrible and embarrassing thing to die there, you have to ask yourself how much fun you’re actually having. It kinda ruins the notion of a fantasy, huh?
A few days after Great America, we biked with our kids to a park not far from us. My kids went to the pond, where they saw an immature black crowned night heron. Both boys watched the bird fish for 20 minutes. We walked around, saw frogs and turtles, went to the playground, had a picnic and biked home a few hours later. The whole thing cost me $18 for the sandwiches.
Three days later, my seven year old is still talking about the black crowned night heron. He hasn’t really mentioned Great America since. There’s some kind of lesson there, too.