There were a few people who thought that because I really liked the musicals of Disney's late 80's/early 90's movies that I was a big Disney fan in my college years. I didn't really know it at the time, but I was more of a fan of musical theater than anything, and those movies were just animated versions of that. On my first visit to Walt Disney World as an adult, I was kind of underwhelmed by the lack of the thrill rides, though it didn't help that Stephanie and I blasted through three of the four parks in one day. We spent most of our time at Universal Orlando, where I remember thinking that, "They've out-Disney'd Disney." I thought the Lost Continent, not based on any big Hollywood IP, and Jurassic Park, were mind blowing.
I think it was my visit to Disney in late 2009, with Diana pregnant, that I really looked at WDW differently. Being months away from parenthood, I noticed every child and how they moved through the parks. It was a totally different experience. A year and a half later, we returned to Universal Orlando, and had Simon with us. Even those parks, which I spent so much time at in the years before, was totally different with my tiny human.
Moving here was not motivated by the theme parks (well, except that my first job here was for one), but it was a huge plus. Having no amusement park or theme park near by when we lived in Seattle was definitely a trade-off for the amazing scenery. But the day after Simon and Diana arrived, we took that little 3-year-old to Magic Kingdom, and it was amazing for all of us.
It's true that theme parks are owned by huge multinational media companies that essentially print money by giving people a contrived environment to indulge in escapism. What I fail to understand is why those who align with that criticism think this is bad. Real life, whatever that's supposed to mean, is hard. Everyone is burdened with something on a scale between basic survival and extraordinary responsibility or expectations. Even if money makes some things easier, you still have to roll with interpersonal relationships of all types, maintaining your health and generally finding your place in the world. It often feels like we don't have time to hope or experience wonder. We forget what it's like to see the world with child-like curiosity and joy.
Theme parks, I believe, can be a form of art, and art serves as a way for us to engage emotionally. I've stood at the base of a snow-covered mountain and have been completely awestruck by it, of course, but the natural wonders of the world create a different emotional response than art. A song or a movie can move me, but rounding the corner and seeing a real-life manifestation of the Millennium Falcon from Star Wars is a pretty powerful thing too. I logically understand that there's a tall dude in that Chewbacca costume, but I allow my imagination to believe otherwise.
Like any form of art, I'm sometimes inspired by theme parks. The first time I walked into Hogsmeade at Universal, I couldn't believe it. Thousands of people made a movie real. I felt the same way the first time I walked into Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge. It was inspiring to think that humans conceived of all of this, and they made it. Are my challenges really that hard? Definitely not!
All of that new Star Wars goodness had just opened when the pandemic started. Even though the parks would re-open four months later, I wasn't convinced that the science made it OK to go back. And frankly, the inspiring fake reality of the attractions was grounded in a reality that included plexiglass barriers and people wearing masks. That wasn't escapism. Once we were vaccinated (the adults at least), and things started to become more normal, it felt right. We missed the escapism. I missed the inspiration.
I'm not crazy about the cynics that believe that the art and escapism of theme parks is somehow artificial or juvenile. As I said, we don't get a lot of permission or time to see the world with wonder and joy, and that's unfortunate. I'm thankful that we have those opportunities, and that they're so convenient for us. I can see fireworks from my window, every single night, and it makes me smile every single time I see it. It's not "real life," but it's still inspiring.