Monday, March 21, 2011

Dreamworld and White Water World: where the waves are our servants

I just spent five days in Brisbane, which included a visit to Dreamworld and White Water World. I’m glad I went. My boys definitely enjoyed the experience. And theme parks are kind of fun.
            But the reason why they’re such fun is because they’re so different to real life. My kids don’t use this word, but when I was their age when something was fun, it was unreal. Well Dreamworld was unreal - both in the sense of being fun, but also in the sense of being unrealistic. There's a variety of different experiences, but none of them bear any resemblance to reality. They’re the safe, sanitised, plastic version instead.
            In real life, when you open a door made from old wood, it feels rough, not smooth and it may give you splinters.
            In real life, pirates’ swords were made of sharp metal, not feathers, and they didn’t come with a corresponding plush toy.
            In real life, when you pull a tiger’s tail, he’s likely to turn around and kill you not do a trick for the crowd.
            In real life, if you float down the river on a log, you will very likely end up uncomfortable and possibly end up drowned.
            And I pity anyone who visits Dreamworld’s Australian Wildlife Experience and thinks they’ve actually experienced Australia. In real Australia, the animals do not live in small, isolated enclosures behind glass screens. Real Australia is wide, unstructured and free, not cramped, planned and controlled.
            In White Water World, I heard a little girl, who was waiting for the perfectly timed, perfectly uniform, perfectly controlled waves to arrive, say, ‘The waves are my servant.’ Maybe in White Water World they are. But in the real world waves are never our servant. They’re just as likely to dump us as they are to bring us to shore. Plus, they come with sandy beaches, sharp rocks and jellyfish.
            And that’s what makes theme parks so fake - yet so enjoyable to visit. They remove all the bits we don’t like about real life. Real life is unpredictable and untameable. It is sometimes dirty, sometimes unpleasant and sometimes dangerous. People often don’t want that - or they don’t want to pay money for it anyway. They want the experience with all the downsides sucked out. So they make do with their no-risk, cleaned-up, highly structured versions of those experiences - never minding (in fact preferring) that they’re nothing like the real experience at all.
            We like risk-taking. But we prefer to do it without putting ourselves in too much danger. We like to see animals, but we want them to come to us in a safe, controlled way, where they are easy to find, easy to identify and easy to watch without getting hurt. We’d like to visit the past, but the actual past would be too smelly, too dusty, too dirty, too dangerous - and too much hard work. We want to see everything and experience everything - but we want to do it on our terms.
            For many years, humans thought they could tame nature, that we were the ones in control. The recent Queensland floods, New Zealand earthquake and Japan earthquake and tsunami have shown us not only that nature can’t be controlled, but she often can’t even be predicted. For a society brought up on the familiarity and consistency of MacDonald’s and other brands, unpredictability and uncontrollability is a bit too hard to accept.  
            But in a MacDonaldised world, where everything is controlled, homogenised and sanitised, maybe we actually need a little dose of reality. So perhaps we should stop seeking unreal experiences and start seeking the real thing. The real thing can be dangerous. It can be unpleasant. It can be inconvenient. It can be unpredictable. It can also be downright heartbreaking at times. But there is also a definite beauty to this wildness, even when it does some ugly things. And maybe we might respect and appreciate this world more if we learned to appreciate its wildness, rather than trying to tame it or ‘recreate’ it on our own terms.          

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