On Twitter, a New York Times writer asserts, “Nearly everything that has made America exceptional grew out of slavery.” Hang on, that doesn’t sound right. What about deep-fried Oreos? Yacht rock? The Simpsons?
My kids have just become fans of the last of these. This is my proudest achievement in parenting, and accomplishing it cost me only 4,000 bucks. On an August excursion to the Universal Studios theme parks in Orlando, where we became masters of the game I call “Spot the Brit” (“There’s one!” I’d cry, espying another squamous-cell outburst on the back of a tank-top-clad bloke clutching a pint of lager), the family agreed that one of the top two attractions was the Simpsons Ride, one of those VR coasters where you get jiggled around a bit as the huge video screen in front of you makes it feel as if you are soaring and swooping through Springfield, where a radioactively enlarged Maggie the size of Godzilla goes on a rampage. The ride is not just exciting, it’s hilarious. We paid for the Express Pass, which is why costs approached $4,000. Money well spent, given what happened when we got home: “Daddy, can we watch The Simpsons?” A sweeter sound I never heard. Even better: At the café next to the Simpsons Ride in Krustyland, hard by Kang & Kodos’ Twirl ’n’ Hurl, they serve Duff Beer and even Flaming Moes, which inspired me to share my favorite toast with the tots: “To alcohol! Cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems.”
The kids’ other favorite ride, which they succeeded in dragging me on 1,217 times, was Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, a simulated broomstick flight through a Quidditch match, some creaking animatronic beasties, and then back home to a warm welcome from the actors who played Hermione, Dumbledore, and the red-headed sidekick. What’s it like to be that guy? Do he and Hayden Christensen chat about what it’s like to co-star in a billion-dollar franchise as they apply for jobs at Walmart? Did he call up Danny Bonaduce for advice on how to nab those pro-wrestling and reality-TV gigs?
HP’s Forbidden Journey isn’t as witty as the Simpsons excursion, but what thrilled me was that it meant a shortish wait (thanks, Express Pass!) followed by a longish opportunity to sit. Fifty-three-year-old me has somewhat different theme-park tastes than 17-year-old me had. If there were an attraction called “Dobby the Elf’s Magical Foot Massage,” I would pounce. What was making the old dogs bark was all the standing around as the kids sought to hit every Ye Olde Crappe Shoppe in Harry Potter–land and find out what their magic wands could do when waved in precisely the right way. We already had a magic wand at home from a previous visit, plus one of my nieces who has outgrown PotterJunk has one she could have lent us, and yet we somehow wound up at the park with nary a wand in hand. Mistake! Each kid must have her own, of course. At $55 plus tax. These are plastic items with sensors in the tip, useless anyplace else on earth. When jerked around according to formula at designated areas, they incite animatronic “magic” to occur, little jack-in-the-box moments that surprise and delight, if you happen to be wearing a (pre-purchased-online) Gryffindor cloak, as my darlings were. There is a line out the door to buy the wands, all day long. As Colonel Walter E. Kurtz once said in a slightly different context, “I thought: My God, the genius of that. The genius. The will to do that. Perfect, genuine, complete, crystalline, pure.” After weepingly handing over the Visa, I immediately thought of calling up TD Ameritrade, but it turns out you can’t buy stock in just that portion of Comcast/NBC Universal/Duff Beer that sells plastic Harry Potter rods for 55 bucks. They make you buy into the Will & Grace reboot and pay Brian Williams’s salary and all kinds of other stuff I don’t want on my conscience.
The one corner of Universal’s Islands of Adventure that’s more or less empty is Toon Lagoon, the Jurassic Park of carbon-dated humor. It celebrates a pre-Simpsons era when people actually turned to the “funny pages” in search of things that might be funny. What they got was Cathy or The Family Circus. Might as well go to the Mormon Tabernacle in search of a Duff Beer. Other strips decorating the area predated the birth of my grandmother: Gasoline Alley? Really? Popeye and Olive Oyl made for a great excuse for a Wimpy burger stand, I guess, but try explaining to today’s younglings why “I shall gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today” was considered a hot catchphrase. Also there are whole stores devoted to Betty Boop memorabilia. Who’s buying that? My grandmother is no longer with us, and even if she were, I doubt she’d be marching gaily towards the Booptique. I don’t think she was too interested in saucy pink backpacks.
Back home, my feet have nearly recovered (being a film critic is good therapy for aching bones), and the family has agreed that Daddy is not to be shown any credit-card bills for the next 60 days while he goes back to work, mulling ideas such as “Nearly everything that has made America exceptional grew out of slavery.” The world’s favorite tourist destination didn’t grow out of slavery. It grew out of a swamp, and if that ain’t American awesomeness, I don’t know what is. Even the second-best theme-park shills in Orlando provided my kids with the joy of a lifetime, at least until the next outlandishly expensive trip. I hereby declare the entire vacation a business expense.