The Miami Herald

Mindless in Mickeytown

(This Dave Barry column was originally published March 30, 2003.)

Every year, we return to Orlando. Instinct makes us do this. We are like the salmon who must swim upstream to spawn, and die. They are lucky. We must go to theme parks.

A theme park is an amusement park where you pay one blanket admission fee, which is quite steep, but once you're inside, everything is totally free, except all the other stuff you end up buying, which will run you around $11,000 per child. Every few yards you find yourself stopping to buy high-priced theme-park food, theme-park merchandise, theme-park clothing and theme-park photographs of yourself looking theme-park ugly.

Sometimes you stop and just spontaneously throw money into the theme-park air. You can't help yourself! You're theme-park stupid!

Everybody's IQ drops at theme parks. Really smart people, Mensa members, will stand in line for two hours so they can go on a 90-second ride with a name like "The Runaway Turnip." They do this because everybody else is doing it, and because they paid for it, and because they're going to have FUN, dammit!

Orlando, of course, is Fun Central; it's infested with theme parks. Thousands of Orlando residents make their living looking out through the eye holes of giant smiling character heads. At quitting time, they go to the Theme Park Workers' Bar, where you see everybody - Pluto, Popeye, Bugs Bunny, Piglet, etc. - pouring martini pitchers directly into their mouth holes, trying to forget about a day that consisted largely of having small, highly excited children run into them at exactly crotch level. Around 2 a.m. everyone staggers out to the parking lot to watch Chip and Dale pound each other senseless. Those two HATE each other.

This year, we started our Orlando trip at Sea World, which is an educational theme park where you learn how sea creatures naturally behave when they live in concrete pools and perform tricks all day. The big attraction is the killer-whale show, starring Shamu, who is the Elvis of killer whales (I'm talking about the older Elvis).

Over Shamu's pool was a giant TV screen, labeled SHAMU VISION, where they showed a video explaining that, in the wild, killer whales eat seals, which are strikingly similar in appearance to the wetsuit-wearing Sea World trainers. This may explain why the trainers are constantly heaving fish into Shamu's mouth. ("Have another fish, big boy! YOU'RE not hungry, right? No sir! Shamu's not hungry at all! Ha ha! Right? RIGHT?? HAVE ANOTHER FISH, BIG BOY!")

My favorite attraction at Sea World was actually not a marine show: It was a security guard standing directly under a sign that said, in big letters, EXIT ONLY DO NOT ENTER, and endlessly repeating "No, you can't come in here; you have to go over there, where it says ENTER HERE." He was saying this over and over and over to a constant stream of people who had been stricken with Theme Park Stupidity (TPS). Many of these people would stop and stare at the guard, slack-jawed, not grasping his point, even when he tried to simplify it. ("Not HERE. Go THERE.")

Hours later, I passed by the same spot, and the guard was still repeating his message. His face had a hollow look. I would not be surprised if, later that night, at the bar, he took a swing at Piglet.

Our next Orlando stop was Disney World, which is called "The Happiest Place on Earth" by people who write advertising slogans. Our 3-year-old daughter loves Disney World, because she gets to meet Mickey Mouse, in person. She sometimes meets Mickey three or four times a day, and he always acts really thrilled and surprised to see her, as if he doesn't remember that he just met her 45 minutes earlier. Mickey's a little on the slow side, if you ask me.

The highest Disney highlight, for our daughter, is when we go to "character breakfasts, " where, while you're eating, top Disney stars - Mickey, Minnie, Cinderella, Winnie the Pooh, Goofy, Fred MacMurray - come around to your table and make excited gestures. Our daughter believes that these characters are real - that she is actually meeting the real Cinderella, Pooh, etc. These are HUGE celebrities in her world. Imagine what this must feel like to her. It's as if, while you were having breakfast, Tom Cruise, Julia Roberts, Jennifer Lopez, Bruce Springsteen and Madonna all came to your table and made a big fuss over you, to the point where you wanted to say, "Hey, Madonna, do you mind? I'm trying to eat my waffles here!"

Yes, it is a magical place, Orlando, a fun place, and a place that we will be compelled to return to next year. They're opening a major new attraction. Spawn World.

© Dave Barry
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