Seaworld might not seem very adventurous. It might not seem to mean very much of anything at all except for a relatively pleasant - if rather expensive - way to spend an afternoon.
However, part of both the appeal and the marketability of going to a place like Seaworld is that it speaks to something inside of us that longs for adventure. Very few of us will ever get to swim with dolphins in the ocean or to see puffins in their native nesting grounds. What a place like Seaworld does is to often us the sense that we have gotten to travel to distant places.
We feel like explorers, like ethnographers, as we set off through the gates of Seaworld. We feel that we are going where, if not perhaps where no one has gone before than at least where we ourselves have never gone before. We are not engaged in the petty business of capitalism, but in the great project of finding ourselves.
This may simply seem like overblown ad rhetoric from a Seaworld television spot, but in fact it comes authentically from my own recent experiences of visiting Seaworld and from individuals that I talked to when I was there. To help analyze what it is about Seaworld that makes it such a fascinating place to visit, the following description of my visit will be useful.
It should be noted first of all that everything at Seaworld is perfectly choreographed. There is nothing that is either left to chance or that it left to nature. This does not surprise me as I enter the grounds, pay for my ticket, get my hand stamped even without being asked if I wish to leave the park and then return before my ticket has expired. (The assumption here being, of course, that no one would not want to return, would not want to spend as long as is possible in the wonders of Seaworld.)
This particular style of hyper-manicurism will be immediately familiar to anyone who has ever been to any theme park. There is just enough nature to make one feel that one has indeed left the usual constraints of the urban world and entered some other, more exotic, more enticing sphere. And yet this nature is kept beautifully tidy. There are no weeds anywhere. I keep a look out for them all day but fail to find any at all. Even the dirt seems clean, perhaps because it is sprinkled through with little flecks of white.
I am not quite sure what these little white flecks are made of but I do not believe that they are organic. They come in little potted plants that one buys from nurseries. They are not the native sort of dirt that you see along the roadside as you are driving into the park. This might not seem to be important, but in fact it is because it is in such details, once one begins to notice them that one comes to understand how essentially artificial Seaworld is.
Seaworld is supposed to provide the visitor with a sense of what it is like to experience nature close up. But every honest aspect of nature seems to have been expunged from the place. Even the dirt is clean.
And the water too seems to have been altered from its natural state. The water in all of the tanks smells like chlorine - which, while of course a naturally occurring element - is not something that should naturally be found in the environments of dolphins or sharks. We experience at Seaworld something that happens all the time in private gardens, but here it is carried to an even greater extreme. The garden, as Kincaid (2001) suggests through her selection of essays about gardening, is a place in which we both want to display our appreciation of nature and our ability to control it.
This is most certainly the case at Seaworld. We want to show darn much we love the little sea creatures in all their natural glory - and we also want them to be forced to act as entertainment for us. One fourteen-year-old visitor from Lansing, Michigan, said this about the dolphins:
The dolphins are my favorite and I really like coming here to see them because you actually can look at them. My family and I went on a whale-watching boat last year and there were whales and dolphins out in the water but you could barely see them. Everyone was getting all excited about some fins and some tails.
And the boat couldn't get any closer because I guess there are laws or rules about that. But there really didn't seem to be any point to it - it cost my parents a lot of money and we barely got to see anything.
Here we have passes so we can come back and you actually get to see the dolphins. This is what it should be like in the ocean.
A visit to Seaworld consists of a series of stops at different attractions, each of which hosts a single species or a few compatible species along with some of those immaculate flower beds, too few places to sit down, little carts selling drinks, some of them in ridiculous souvenir cups, and gift shops tied to the theme of the closest actual animals.
This is niche marketing at its best, one assumes. If people are inclined to go to look at real-live puffins (and who could resist them - with their fiercely pumping underwater flying, their quick if awkward movements on land, their silly crests) than surely you will want to take home a remembrance of these adorable creatures. A stuffed animal, perhaps. Or a mug. Or some socks or a T-shirt emblazoned with their image.
And people must certainly did flock to buy these souvenirs. This nine-year-old girl bought three stuffed puffins, all in different sizes:
We decided to come here for vacation months ago and I've been saving every dollar I got. I had some Hanukah money saved up still, and I got some money for my birthday and then I've been doing extra chores to make some more money. And I knew that I would spend it all at the puffin shop. We came here last year and that's when I decided that puffins would be my favorite animals. But last year we went to see the dolphins first and I spent all my money on dolphin things.
This year I begged and begged to come here first so that I could spend all of my money here. This way I can pretend that I'm back here whenever I want because I'll have my very own puffin family.
It is all too striking that the stuffed animals that she was buying would remind her not of the natural world, but of the extremely unnatural environment of Seaworld. Stanley suggests that this is one of the reasons that we travel and one of the guiding principles of all successful tourist meccas: That we feel that we have gone someplace essentially different, without having to disturb ourselves more than is necessary.
Seaworld works on the same basic principles as do other amusement parks. But it also works on the same principles that surround us at home, and it is indeed arguable that the reasons that it is so successful (the park was crowded when I visited, months ahead of the high tourist season). Seaworld is in essential ways an extension of what has made the suburb so popular. If the suburb (and we may certainly argue that this is true) is the sanitized version of the farm, then Seaworld is the analogously sanitized version of the jungle and the beach.
To understand why this is so we must first place the suburb in its proper historical context. Once upon a time, of course, there were no suburbs at all. There were towns, which were centers of relatively high population density with a diversified labor force and there was the country all around them. Suburbs are very much a result of processes of industrialization and modernization that have reshaped the physical residence pattern of our lives as well as almost everything else from childrearing patterns to the ways in which we define work and even the way in which we define what work may be considered to be.
Suburbs are in many ways a reaction to industrialization - a process that filled cities with smog and industrial wastes, clogging roads and lungs alike with little regard to the consequences of unregulated industry and untrammeled growth. Suburbs have proven to be especially appealing to young families: Single people may want to stay in a city close to job opportunities (and a social milieu that allows them the chance to meet other single people). But mothers (or fathers) at home with young children want a yard with soft green grass. Suburbs provide the lure of (at least apparent) safety along with…