Monday, May 30, 2005

Fun Day at Superland 

A few days ago we made our annual schlep to Superland, an Israeli amusement park. These yearly family trips are my chance to track my kids' progress against the fixed measure of all the thrill rides they are slowly growing into, and to compare their experience with my own memories.

Most importantly, the kids seem to have every bit as much fun as I remember having.

Of course, Israel's Superland manages to squeeze its share of thrills into a much tinier package than super-sized Disney, the benchmark of my childhood. The primary technique for keeping Superland small is having fewer rides. This isn't such a great loss because there really are only 3 basic rides -- rollercoaster and its variations, teacups and its variations, and bumper cars. The rest are variations on these primordial themes. Superland gets by with a sparse mixture that is sufficient to explore the realm of possibility without exhausting the novelty. Disney, on the other hand, mines the micro-gaps between clockwise and counter-clockwise teacups, differentiating each with subtle changes of pallette in the decorations and scenery. Fundamentally, though, once you've puked on one of these rides, you've puked on them all, which is why I no longer go on most of them anymore. Somewhere in my mid-20s I learned to value my lunch.


Kid stomachs, on the other hand, are impervious to spin, no matter how much popcorn, soda and candy they've managed to pack in. Even little Miriam, still only perched on the cusp of her fourth birthday party, feels nothing but excitement at the prospect of being whipped around inside the gut of a cheaply painted woodpecker. This is a universal truth, and does not depend on how the woodpecker is decorated. All the money Disney wastes creating foam models of real cities and skylines for the woodpecker to fly around would be better spent on padded benches placed around these rides for parents to collapse into. Superland, in its efficiency, gets some things right.

Another clever Superland innovation for packing more fun into less space is to leave out most of the surrounding marketing. Disney is chock full of gift shops, each screaming to the children, "You NEED these mouse ears, dolls, videos and replicas of the Matterhorn," a commandment they eagerly pass on to their parents. Disney operates its entire complex to reinforce this basic marketing message. Living, breathing Disney characters walk the enchanted streets, showing the kids that their dreams can come to life, with the proper parental investment. Superland, on the other hand, doesn't really have any magic to sell, and even if it did, their performers are dressed more in badly sewn handmade Halloween costumes than modern marvels of marketing technology.


That's not to say Superland doesn't make their costumed characters fun for kids. In the picture, you can tell Tamar is enjoying herself. Who wouldn't be thrilled to meet a pink elephant, while a giant yellow duck whacks you in the back of the head? Especially if you know the day's lunch is going to be all the cotton candy you can eat!

Nevertheless, it's quite true that Superland has less entertainment, less spectacle and smaller parades. There is no Bear Jamboree, no America Sings, and no animatronic Ben Gurion. But at least on the day we were there, they had stilt walkers and drummers marching around the park. They even had stilts for the guests to try out, something I'm sure Disney's lawyers would never allow. [update: pulled out some off-topic thoughts into their own post here]

In the end, though, despite the Superland efficiency, I could see my kids didn't get the same Disney experience I grew up with. But I can let go of that. It was obvious they loved Superland, because they only measure against last year's experience, not against my memories. As long as they continue getting one year older with each annual visit, there will always be a new ride to try, to challenge their sense of grownup-ness.

I saw this most clearly in Rachel. As an eight year old, she now has access to a few "real" rides. One of her favorites is the "Spinning Sky Chairs". The ride is perfect for her; she dreams of flying almost every night. Watching her, barely buckled into her seat, I could see her joy was positively aerodynamic. She leans into the wind in a way unlike the older kids on the ride, eager for her wings to sprout and carry her into the sky.


I'm sure someday those wings will sprout and she really will fly away. But no matter how ready for flight she feels today, watching my kids at Superland makes it clear to me, I won't be ready for a long time.
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