Essays and Observations about Places
Essays and Observations about Places
As others have noted, Discovery Cove (part of the Busch parks chain, previously Blackstone-owned, now Seaworld, listed as SEAS) is more of a resort, and less of a typical theme park. The Discovery Cove experience is an all-inclusive ticket to swim, play, eat, and interact with the various animals there. You can watch the marmosets, feed the numerous species of birds (who are fiercely friendly, I might add, and will land on your shoulder or even on your head), snorkel with the rays and fish, and swim with the dolphins.
I went in November. Even at 18% body fat (which I was measured to be by my gym), I was having a pretty uncomfortable time. The reef and the dolphin experience are not heated – of if they are, are heated only at low temperatures that are probably pretty toasty for the non-human animals. They do provide wetsuits, so don’t be like me and pridefully refuse them.
Besides the dolphins, for my fiance, the unlimited buffet breakfast, lunch, and snacks was a key selling point. Her smile could not have been wider when I informed her of this policy.
For an office animal like myself, watching other mammals in general is a mystical experience. Their actions are vaguely familiar. From somewhere deep within your phenotypical memory, you can decipher some of what they do. And its even more mystical when a 600-pound mammal interacts directly with you, eating from your hand, waving its fins, displaying its vulnerability by flipping itself over for you, responding to the signals of other humans (trainers). This higher intelligence puts it above the realm of fish, who so coldly just swim around, oblivious to you.
Be forewarned, in case you were thinking otherwise, that the dolphin swim is a 30-minute experience. And it is a controlled experience. It is not a free swim, like the ray/fake coral/tropical fish snorkeling experience is. On a first-come, first-served basis, you are allotted a time to interact with your well-fed and well-trained, and as the trainers wasted no time in telling us, ultra long-lived dolphin pal.
The experience consists of petting its skin, so slick that it could not have been made by men, giggling at its sounds, feeding it some portion of its 20-pounds a day diet, watching it wave, splash water, jump, kissing it, and best of all, riding it a distance of about 20 feet. This last part was profoundly moving (ha!) for me. You can feel her power underneath you, a force that I remember as being gentle. Is it her being gentle? Is it compassion? Am I (us) just assuming dolphins to be gregarious and playful and sympathetic to humans because of behaviors that I am misinterpreting, much in the way we assume their mouths are shaped in a smile? Is this coincidence? Is the joke on us? Those sounds that Clipper was making, was it really just ‘so long and thanks for all the fish’?
Universal Studios and Disney are the two best theme park ‘brands’ in the world. Although there are major differences. Disney eats Universal’s lunch in every major theme park market, dividends of a half-century of literal brainwashing of entire generations of children (although as a businessman I mean this in the most reverential way possible). A Disney park is literally magic. When children go to a Disney park, there is a certain magic that transports them into a land of their fantasies. When parents go to a Disney park, there is a certain magic that descends on them and compels them to open their wallets. It is a win-situation for all.
Anyway, enough about Disney. In that context, Universal is the other media content engine that tries harder, is more relevant to certain audiences, and in my opinion, has better theme parks. Whereas a Disney park is a template that is stamped on world markets above a certain size, and in some markets, hasn’t really reinvested in any new ride for over a decade (Orlando), Universal parks are immersive, multi-sensual experiences with outsize, almost cartoonishly themed environments, cinematic scores that almost bring to you tears (here I raise my hand), and have better rides in general.
Islands of Adventure is the second half of the Universal Studios Orlando resort. You can just tell it is a well-run park. Its guest experience is superb. Its theming is over the top. You can see the focus it places on the guest experience, with single-rider lines that leave no cars running empty (maybe you should take a hint, Disney), the truly amazing theming it expends on the details, and the rides that in my opinion are among the best rides in the world. And, best of all, the LED boards that it places strategically around the park, informing you of wait times at the various rides. That’s another hint for you theme park operators around the world.
Hogsmeade (Harry Potter) is at Islands of Adventure. The theming here is excellent. You can see that when they initially designed it, they didn’t realize how popular certain elements would be. The longest line I saw at this park when I visited was not for any particular ride. It was in front of the Ollivanders magic wand shop demonstration. Elsewhere in this land, the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride is probably among the best 5 theme park rides in the world. The pre-show uses superb visuals, the ride is surprising and novel, is a veritable man-eater that swallows 4 person cars (benches?) every few seconds, and is probably best described to other uninitiated muggles as a ride that, if you’ve seen the movies, makes you feel like you’re riding a Quidditch broom. And I don’t say that lightly. I’ve never had the desire to ride a broom or for that matter, watch more than 1 of the Harry Potter movies. But this ride is as close to being in a freaking movie as you can get to. The other fact: my phone, which had been working fine before it, was completely zapped when I exited this ride. Meaning I had to replace my entire motherboard the next day. Exhibit A: during the ride, Hermione kept placing magical spells on us. Are those two facts mere coincidence? I think not.
The other ride here that was quite excellent was the Amazing Adventures of Spider Man. It’s slightly older, but built on the same basic platform – a dark ride with a moving track that brings you into different scenes. A few elements really stood out – the flaming jack-o-lantern, the freefall scene (really, really cool). I was riding in a car with a few other people who into it, and that made the difference. We (not me) were screaming and hollering the whole time; that kind of getting into it is the goal of a theme park in general. As I’ve written before, good experiences don’t go obsolete.
First, the two non-China related books:
From the Chinese books:
Reposted from my Quora blog:
As part of my job I need to visit theme parks, and I recently got a back of the scenes tour of the Angry Birds Park in Jiaxing, China. It’s the only Rovio-authorized one, and thought it was interesting enough to share with this group. Besides that, I feel more comfortable posting on Quora than on other places. If there’s enough interest I’ll post other interesting places as time goes on.
1. The first point about the 10,000 square meter (approx. ~100,000 SF) park is that, as many have alluded to or suspected, it’s not really a theme park. It’s a playground, with this jungle gym the large centerpiece of the whole thing. From this view it looks like the slingshots fire directly into the whole edifice, like in the game, but (to my mild disappointment) there is no launch function to them – they’re static photo ops
The jungle gym is actually of a pretty high quality construction; not sure if this was mandated as part of the licensing agreement or not. In the background you can see the yellow half-ring, which is some sort of interactive game.
2. There is some interactivity. The below game wasn’t in use at the time; in fact, there was no one here when we visited, so I don’t know how it works. Presumably you throw those balls at targets. In other pictures I’ve seen children organized into teams for this; that would seem to limit the number of kids who can play this.
I really wanted to throw one of those balls but I was in a suit and with clients so I refrained.
I think that this part might be the ‘parkour’ area being promoted by the park.
3. The background of the picture below shows what I think might be one of the best parts about this park. It’s located right next to one of the main viewing stations for the twice-daily, massive aquatic phenomenon known as a tidal bore. The tall building is a temple of a sea god (or goddess, I don’t remember which).
The Silver Dragon – Qiantang River Tidal Bore
4. The pricing structure is interesting, and oriented around children in a way that it prohibits adults from entering on their own, kind of like Kidzania. It costs 80 RMB for a single child, and 130 RMB for one adult and two children. So if you’re reading this, you’ll likely need to either take or make a kid to get in.
5. There is a 4D show here – however, the show itself is not related to any sort of Angry Birds-licensed content. The shows are nature-related. That’s the theater, behind that huge rock.
Overall, I thought it was interesting how the license was implemented.
Why do Chinese people cut in line? In my last two years in China, I’ve watched this phenomenon happen repeatedly right in front of me, with a mixture of seething rage and curious observation. The most egregious example was when I was at the famous Chimelong Park, waiting an hour to go on their ten-loop roller coaster. I was the second in line, meaning I was guaranteed a spot in the first car. When the gate opened, a small kid flew (to this day, the image of him airborne, both legs in the air, bounding like a gazelle, cannot be erased from my brain) past me, from about ten people back and nabbed my seat, in a very soul-crushing moment.
You can go through a laundry list of sociological and cultural explanations: Chinese people are individualistic, they have little trust for authority, the economic trajectory of the past twenty years has rewarded only the quickest of them all. But I’ve determined two things during the course of my anthropological survey:
1. When there is rampant line cutting going on, the cutters are taking advantage of an ambiguity; people don’t just cut regardless of context.
2. Perhaps most of all, people in China cut lines because they are allowed to.
Because the people who do end up cutting do so in nuanced and insidious ways. It’s basically a demonstration of the uniqueness of their case. It arises out of ambiguity. For example, for people whose train is going to leave in five minutes? For people who are transferring somewhere, but there is no clearly posted sign as to which counter to use? For people who do not clearly understand what the posted signs even mean? For when there is no clearly observable beginning to the line? Overall, when there are no clearly posted directions as to how to deal with a given situation.
From these cases of uncertainty arise the men nodding to each other, 哥们儿, 哥们儿 (bro), as they plead their cases about trains that left yesterday; the straddlers that stand between two lines at the same time and insidiously cross between them as necessary; the men and women who walk straight to the beginning of the line and yell questions at the clerks behind the counter; the slithering beings who appear out of nowhere and form an invisible line next to you, and slowly creep their way up.
Lines are most often cut when they are forward-facing, it allows cutters to ignore the people behind them, and pretend not to hear anything. When lines snake around, like at theme parks, I’ve seen people get actively chased out of lines because its harder when you are staring right into the faces of people you’ve cut in front of.
Which leads to the second point, which is that Chinese people let other people cut in front of them! When I was going to school in Philadelphia, my sister came to visit me (once). At the train station, we lined up to get a cab. I then saw a woman accidentally wander into the wrong end of the line, at which point the denizens of the city of Brotherly Love, of which there were about ten, collectively shouted down the woman with a barrage of ‘get in line!’, ‘learn to look’, ‘what the f***’, as well as the relatively tame ‘it’s back there lady’. I turned to my sister and welcomed her to Philadelphia.
Even though not all places in America are like Philly, where there always seems to be the probability of being punched in the face by someone, lines are self-enforcing in the US. In China they are not, and there could be several reasons why. First of all, people do not seem to feel the threat of violence, whether verbal or physical or in the form of assault weapons. People are a little more accommodating towards one another. The second is that in China, the people think of themselves as governed, not as the government. They won’t self-enforce and assert themselves as the voice of authority, because that is the heavy-handed government’s job. When the overall economic ethos is to do-everything-and-as-much-as-possible-until-you-get-caught, why begrudge someone else when at some point, you might do the same thing?
I was in China earlier this year, standing in Wuqing Station, located between Tianjin and Beijing. It was about -500 degrees because it was the middle of January so I couldn’t feel my ears, and my cheeks felt like razors had been drawn over them. I was standing like that, shivering, and then a 300 kilometer per hour bullet train went through the station with a sound like I’ve never heard before. It was the sound of impossibly fast metal, of compressed air, like a factory moving through a tube. A colossal building collapsing sideways. It sounded wrong. It wasn’t yet factored into my human experience. And it sent chills down my spine.
The infrastructure in China all looks like it’s been built by the same invisible hand – an imperial hand, not a competitive one. Its train stations and airports have the same building ethic, of colossal concourses, polished white floors, the same fonts on the signage, the same lighting. The same central mind directed all this construction. In the future, you’ll be able to look at these buildings and place them exactly as having all been built within the same decade, during its post-WTO, early 21st century building boom.
The Shanghai South Station on a low day:
Here it is from the Intipunku, or the Sun Gate at the tail end of the Inca Trail. Admire it in the distance.
Admire the craftsmanship of the city as you get closer to it. Notice the terraces. They were built that way, of course, to increase the arable land – BUT, the stones actually stored heat and thus raised the ambient temperature levels, allowing crops from lower altitudes to be planted here. I don’t know how the Incans developed that technology, but that is genius.
Admire the fact that the stone blocks were shaped so the contact surfaces of each stone are mirror images of one another and fit together like a puzzle, so precisely, that they’ve held up for half a millennium with no mortar or cement, and you wouldn’t be able to slip anything between them.
There is a still-working irrigation system here, although I saw some suspicious-looking pumps in the vicinity of the trail. No matter – the water still flows through the city, although only these llamas drink from the various fountains there.
Look at how low those clouds are – or actually, how high up the city is. When you think about Machu Picchu, it’s not an imperial city with all sorts of monuments meant to inspire awe in its subjects. It wasn’t built as a seat of the empire. That was Cusco. Machu Picchu is so high up, and so prohibitively far away (a distance of a few days from anything) that you can’t help but think of it as special. As most historians have. The city is an offering. It’s an offering at the intersection of the heavens and the mountain that has risen up to meet it.
This was a nice grassy knoll from which to think about such matters.
That was Machu Picchu. But if you’re traveling to Peru, don’t do as I did and be blinded by only Machu Picchu. It’s remarkable and beautiful, yes, but it’s not the only mind-blowing site. Don’t do as I did and skip the other areas of the Sacred Valley entirely. Spend more than a few days there, spend a day or two in Ollantaytambo, and explore Cusco in some depth.
It was only AFTER I had visited that I regretted not getting a proper guide or buying one of those travel books beforehand. I stayed in Ollantaytambo for a night and spent most of my time on top of the ruins taking a series of pictures like these:
You see that orange line? I thought it was lava, that this whole area was some kind of Mount Doom-like area where the lava flowed continuously. I spent about thirty minutes telling myself that until I asked a guide on the way down and he said it was fires that had blown out of control.
That’s a side point. The main point is that Ollantaytambo, as I later found it, is built in the shape of a lllama, with a sun temple where its eyes are (which symbolically open at the winter solstice when the sun shines directly onto it), and storehouses for grain where its reproductive organs would theoretically be (obvious symbolic reasons). It overlooks a valley that’s been shaped to resemble a perspective-shifted pyramid when viewed from an opposite hill, with two ‘anchors’ or ‘windows’ carved into its base. And again, at the winter solstice, the sun shines a beam through the mountains into one of those exact windows, thus anchoring the heavens and the earth to each other. These and other mind-blowing facts of the Sacred Valley, like the city of Pisac which is shaped like a condor, and numerous monuments that only activate themselves and awaken into myriad shapes at certain times of the year. Everything you see in the movies where the sun aligns with certain areas and things become revealed or opened, that comes from the Incans!
1. In any case, do some research or read a book beforehand, or hire a guide. It’ll be well-worth it.
2. Look beyond Machu Picchu.
3. Stay away from a travel agency called Cusco City. They issue fraudulent tickets. I lost $60 on this scam. If you book your ticket through them, you can kiss that money goodbye. The only legitimate source is through an actual travel agency or through the government site directly (http://www.machupicchu.gob.pe/).