I was dismayed by a recent news story about tourist trends in America. According to the report, attendance has been declining during the past few years at historic parks such as Colonial Williamsburg and Sturbridge Village. During the same period, visitor numbers have been going up at entertainment parks such as Disney World.
This shouldn't be surprising, since companies that own commercial theme parks are experts at promoting pop culture. They have developed high-tech roller coasters that duplicate the gravitational forces of a jet plane spinning out of control.
I am not a fan of modern parks or their thrill rides. Think of an old plow horse that, having been spooked in colthood by the backfire of a passing car, is forever nervous and jittery at the sound of a gasoline engine. My aversion to noisy crowds and thundering roller coasters started during a theme park visit that backfired. It happened around 1960, on a hot summer day in southern California. My family had motored down from the Bay Area, and one of the tourist spots my mother wanted to see was Knotts Berry Farm.
At that time, the park was very low-tech. It featured a stagecoach, a little sluice where kids could pan for gold, and lukewarm boysenberry juice. The special attraction, which might have seemed fun to grown-ups but looked quite ominous to a me, was the frontier train that circled the park on a short track. I balked at getting on when I noticed a row of authentic-looking arrows sticking out above the windows on each passenger car. They appeared to have been fired by hostile archers stationed along the route. My parents explained that the arrows were strictly ornamental, so I reluctantly boarded and sat alone, ready to dive for cover at the first sign of trouble.
My fears were soon confirmed when the door between passenger cars opened and an Indian chief stepped forward, dressed in full-feathered regalia. He was not jovial, like Ronald McDonald or Goofy. His expression was dour, and I was petrified as he approached my seat. But he passed by wordlessly and sat with someone else.
Then, before I could breathe a sigh of relief, the door opened again, and two outlaws barged in, their faces concealed with bandannas, each one waving a six-shooter. They approached the chief, poked their guns in his ribs, and acted out a mock confrontation. Thankfully, the guns never discharged, but I left the train with a lasting suspicion of theme-park theatrics.
Small wonder, then, that historic parks are my family's destination of choice. The pace is relaxed, and the interpreters share amazing talents. Two summers ago, a blacksmith in a nineteenth century forge at Kings Landing in New Brunswick hammered out some small wrought-iron hooks, which he then gave to our daughter as a souvenir. Hanging by the fireplace, they bring back vivid memories of a ride back in time on a friendly afternoon. What a thrill.
* Jeffrey Shaffer, a regular Monitor contributor, writes from Portland, Ore.