Unlikely Lessons from an Amusement Park

Vacations are about more than buying stuff. And so is Christmas.

Have you ever dreamed about living inside of your favourite movie? Book? Comic strip?

In Orlando, Florida — a city that prides itself on its world-class theme parks — you can!

Let me give you some context. About a month ago, my wife and I flew down to Orlando for a week-long vacation. My in-laws had rented a condo for a couple of weeks and invited us to stay. So, of course, we went.

It was wonderful to bask in the sunlight, drink some excellent American craft beers and get some much-needed rest, but the real highlight of the trip was our visit to Universal Orlando Resorts. Universal is not Disney World. It’s better. There’s less hype surrounding the Universal parks. Millions of people visit each year, but the crowds are never overwhelming — or at least they weren’t for us.

The two Universal parks — Universal Studios and Universal Islands of Adventure — are essentially massive pieces of artwork that can be walked through and experienced. “Immersion” might be the best word for it — and the marketing team at Universal was plugging “immersive experiences” at every turn.

They weren’t wrong. It does feel like you’re inside some of your favourites books or movies. Do you like comics? There’s a Marvel section. Kids’ books? Check out the Dr. Seuss area. World cities? Visit miniature versions of New York City, San Francisco and London. Jurassic Park? Go to the “real-life” Jurassic Park. The list goes on…

The attention to detail truly was astonishing. An unfathomable amount of money has been spent on these parks, with even the smallest details lovingly restored. This was most apparent in the two newest sections in each park, both based on the extremely popular Harry Potter novels and movies: Hogsmeade, the wizarding village just outside Hogwarts castle; and Diagon Alley, a secret alley in London, England where wizards and witches do their shopping.

Yes, shopping. Convenient, eh?

Hogwarts Castle at Universal Islands of Adventure.

Whether or not you’ve read the books or watched the movies, these areas are breathtaking. In Hogsmeade, the dilapidated architecture of a 17th-century Scottish village is painstakingly recreated, complete with fake snow on the roofs and the imposing outline of Hogwarts castle on the horizon. In Diagon Alley, the shops, inns and pubs from the Harry Potter universe are replicated in all their whimsical glory. To complete the picture, they play music from the films throughout the parks. It feels like you’re “really there.” Sort of.

As the week wore on, the apparent deepness of the immersion began to wane. I started to feel that there was something shallow about it all. Outside of the few different rides created for each area, everything else was a shop, restaurant, or some form of concession stand. Something was off — but I couldn’t quite pin down what it was.

The wonder of stories: A Christmas analogy

Now, over a month since coming home, I think I’ve figured it out. And it strikes me as an excellent analogy for the Christmas season. Here’s my insight: There is wonder in stories — and stories are what connect us as humans.

The details of Orlando’s amusement parks are astounding. I can’t deny that. Each area immerses you in the minutiae of our culture’s favourite stories. Whether it’s Harry Potter, Jurassic Park, Dr. Seuss or Spider-Man, these stories teach us how to make sense of reality — or at least understand it in some way. They spark a sense of wonder within us.

Why is that? It’s because you get to experience something really beautiful. These parks are art! For a few fleeting moments, you can feel like you’re flying on a broomstick with Harry and Ron, touring a real-life Jurassic Park, or soaring through New York with Spider-Man. These are age-old, archetypal stories of good and evil, villains and heroes — they’re wonderful.

A fire-breathing "dragon" precariously perched atop Gringott's Bank in Universal Studios.

But there lies the dissonance I felt. When you look a little closer, you see that a crass form of consumerism has tarnished the wonder — maybe even overtaking it in places. What better way to remember your experience than with a souvenir mug (or two), attraction-themed T-shirt (or three), or perhaps a fridge magnet? When 90% of this so-called “immersive experience” is actually about spending money… perhaps what’s really happened at Universal — and Disney, too — is the creation of a massive shopping centre that’s disguised as an amusement park. At parks around the world, it’s no longer purely about celebrating the wonder of stories.

When we hear the Christmas story, a similar sense of wonder is sparked. “Awe” might be a better word. Isn’t it incredible that God sent a baby, born into the world millennia ago, to become our Lord and Saviour? It really is awesome. The Christmas story is a different kind of story, simply because it’s not fiction or a figment of imagination. It’s a story that transforms lives and has inspired believers to celebrate Jesus’ birth for generations.

How many of today’s Christmas celebrations are actually about celebrating the birth and life of Jesus? Without this message at their core, the wonder is tarnished. The celebrations fall flat.

Now, don’t get me wrong: giving physical gifts is a great way to celebrate with others. There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s a good thing when it’s practiced within reason. But I also believe there’s more to Christmas than just that. I believe that Christmas is also a time to give intangible gifts. Gifts of time and resources. Gifts of attentiveness and hospitality for our friends, family, loved ones — and yes, even strangers. Gifts of peace, love, hope — because good has triumphed over evil. There’s a happy ending coming for those who believe. These are the sentiments I believe echo one of the most captivating stories of our time — Jesus’ birth.

As 2018 comes to a close, I’d like to take an opportunity — on behalf of the Compass team — to thank our wonderful clients, vendors and suppliers for an excellent year. Thank you!

We’re excited to see where the new year takes us! We’d like to wish you all the best and God’s blessings this Christmas. In the meantime, we will be home for the holidays for some rest and relaxation with friends and family.

2018 HOLIDAY HOURS

Please be advised that our studio will be closed at end-of-day on Friday, December 21 until Tuesday, January 1. We’ll be open for business again on Wednesday, January 2.

Written by Dan Galenkamp

December 20, 2018

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