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The United Theme Parks of America

Published Sep. 16, 2005

One of travel's numerous attractions for a journalist, or at least for me, is that as a field it is pretty much unencumbered by trends. My features colleagues hunt for what's hot; I go to Italy and write about the Eternal City. But sometimes, developments arise that warrant attention.

Several weeks ago I received in the mail a packet from something called the New York-New York Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. According to the news release, the $460-million property will, when it opens at the end of this year, "combine the sights and sounds of America's most famous metropolis with the fun and excitement of gaming."

A photograph of the architect's model showed what looked like the southern tip of Manhattan except for the fact that instead of two rivers, two boulevards converged. Watching over the intersection was a conveniently relocated Statue of Liberty. Between the statue and the requisite cluster of trademark skyscrapers looped a geographically incorrect roller coaster.

The news about New York-New York arrived the same week that Key West at Sea World opened in Orlando, and the two places got me thinking about this new _ okay, I'll say it _ trend in America.

In the early theme park days, attractions offered an unadulterated escape from reality. Disney's Fantasyland, Frontierland, Tommorowland, even, in its nostalgic perfection, Main Street USA, were all thoroughly removed from any recognizable place. And the subsequent growth and popularity of these parks paralleled the decline and decay of our cities. The worse the real world got, the greater became our need to flee it.

Disney, along with Busch Gardens, eventually got into the business of re-creating authentic locales: countries rich in readily identifiable cliches, such as England, France, Mexico and China. But they were foreign lands, removed from our everyday experience and traditional hitching posts for our armchair fantasies. The resulting pavilions became the topographical equivalents of Madame Tussaud's: the faux cobblestones, like the wax figures, providing a sterile titillation, an inanimate brush with history and romance.

Today our theme parks, into which category the city of Las Vegas must now inevitably fall, have moved on to a third stage: replicating not only the real but the familiar. Key West at Sea World is less than 400 miles from Key West in the Keys. Most of the people who go to Las Vegas are, or would be, more at home in Manhattan than in the desert lying at the edge of the Strip.

What makes this new concreteness notable is that it coincides with a growing trivialization of our cities. In fact, just as our theme parks are starting to mimic our towns, our towns are beginning to look like our theme parks.

It has gone well beyond the Rouse-designed malls. Key West's Duval Street is now as thick with T-shirt shops as any amusement arcade. New York City, long the apotheosis of urbanity and sophistication, is becoming as bloated with kitsch _ chain theme stores and celebrity restaurants _ as Universal Studios. It is as if our cities are so desperate for the safety, cleanliness and general profitability of theme parks that they have decided (as if this will work) to sacrifice individual character for homogeneous artificiality.

Church Street Station in Orlando is indistinguishable from Pleasure Island at Disney World. At a downtown intersection in the heart of Atlanta, a Planet Hollywood butts heads with a Hard Rock Cafe. Once it was a skyscraper that heralded a city's emergence into international prominence, now it's a Cadillac stuck to a building.

In 40 years we have, at least cosmetically, narrowed the gap between where we live and where we play (a process that will only continue with the construction of Disney World's new town, Celebration). As they say at weddings: We're not losing an identity, we're gaining a thrill ride.

Thomas Swick is travel editor for the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, where this commentary first appeared.