Monthly Archives: May 2012

My magical, illegal, debatably unethical infiltration

That verdant landscape and pristine bodies of water between the parks? Really a parking lot.

All day long I was fixated on the map. I was sure there was a way to get from boring Universal Studios to the much more exciting Islands of Adventure. A way, of course, that didn’t actually involve paying for a ticket.

My family wasn’t listening to me. They were happily going from Jaws to Spongebob Squarepants 3D and back. My 10-year-old brother, Andrew, did desperately want to see the recently built Hogwarts Castle, home of the high-tech new Harry Potter ride, but my frugal father (who had snagged our deeply discounted passes off some Disney-scamming black market) would not oblige him. My husband, James, didn’t believe it was possible.

There was a part of me that wanted to put the “adventure” into Islands of Adventure, a part of me that was just as cheap and subversive as my father, and a part of me that felt there was something ironic about the idea of infiltrating a microcosm of our manufactured society. It felt like something David Foster Wallace would write about.

It was almost evening. I felt guilty about ditching the family on a family vacation, but sometimes people have to go and make their own path. Over some deep-fried amusement park fare, I again studied the map. In the space between the two parks there was a painterly terrain of green vegetation and a large blue lake. I assumed that the periphery of the park was guarded with a tall fence, perhaps barbed wire and surveillance cameras. I would have to crawl through acres of wilderness and take cover under what looked like low-lying trees if a helicopter were to pick up the trail, then climb an imposing fence.

I begged James to walk over to a far back corner with me just to scope things out. He reluctantly agreed.

We stood for a minute watching families take pictures in front of a large façade mural of the New York Public Library. There was a chain-link gate surrounding a ride to our left. James tried the little steel latch. It opened.

We walked through, thrilled at this first bit of luck. Suddenly, we were in what was apparently an employee parking lot — not, as the map had led to me believe,  undeveloped Floridian wilderness a la Lord of the Rings. There were small nondescript buildings, a few parked cars, and regular people walking about. “Act casual,” I hissed. “If anyone asks, we work at Dip ‘n’ Dots.”

No alibi was necessary. No one looked twice, presuming we were off-duty park workers. We passed a corner security office, guards standing out front. We turned left, then right. We didn’t know where we were headed, seemingly guided by an invisible Cheshire cat.

We crossed the street into another parking lot, bizarrely adorned at one end with a large funhouse mirror. A guard walked directly in front of us, and we followed him nervously. He was heading into the mirror! At the last minute, he stepped through a small, hidden hole beside it, through a gate hidden by greenery.

We stepped through after him and looked up to see the impressive entrance of Hogsmeade, the whimsical village leading to the great Hogwarts Castle. Happy families crowded into quaint-looking shops to buy overpriced wands; others lined up to buy pumpkin beer from fake wooden street carts. Magical.

“I can’t believe it!” We exclaimed, while still looking over our shoulders. Perhaps they were observing us on a security system and would pounce at any moment! I considered buying an overpriced Grinch sweatshirt as a disguise, but settled for putting on a hat. We threw our things in a locker and began hitting the rides with exuberant, triumphant glee.

But my family was still over at Universal Studios, wondering where we had went. I texted my older brother and urged him to join us. He bravely said he was on his way.

Meanwhile, James and I were having a blast. We rode in a log down a waterfall and snagged an awesome drop picture. We went on the giant green Incredible Hulk Coaster, screaming as we went upside down, feeling like teenagers. We got soaked on the Jurassic Park River Adventure and air-dried as we ran through Toon Lagoon.

Then my brother called – he had made it to Hogsmeade! We met up at the Hogwarts Express and I began eagerly telling him about all the awesome rides we should go on. “I’m going back to get Andrew,” he said, and to my disappointment, immediately left. I did very much want Andrew to ride the famous Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, which I was saving for last. I hoped he would make it before the park closed for the night. But I wasn’t about to test my luck.

As we continued our coaster spree, I kept eagerly checking my phone. Finally, I got a call. My brothers had been apprehended. Apparently having a child with you is a red flag; grown adults, presumably, wouldn’t engage in such infantile, unethical behavior. My poor little brother spent the rest of the night locked in a security office, getting grilled and sobbing. My brothers were banned from the park for a year.

What could I do? I was in line for Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, and it was an hour ‘til closing. I couldn’t leave without hitting the creme de la crème, the crown jewel, the grand finale. And it exceeded all my expectations.

By the time I emerged from Hogwarts Castle, it was night. The park was lit up and ethereal. I lingered at the colorful, fantastical Dr. Suess Landing, marveling at the dreamlike scenery. I didn’t ever want to leave.

But all great journeys must come to an end, and so I allowed myself to join the satisfied hordes heading for the exit. But I’ll never forget the sensation of stepping into a wonderland; a wonderland made, it seemed, just for me.


Go for the glass

I just finished watching the 2009 documentary Tapped, which delves into the bottled water industry to uncover some surprising facets.

1) Commoditization — The film points out that the masses have been manipulated — through propaganda — into thinking that bottled water is safe and clean while tap water is not. This is not always the case and often, tap water may be even cleaner than bottled water. A classic folly is exposed: giant corporations (think Pepsi and Coca Cola) are pumping out groundwater, bottling it, and selling it to local people who should have it as a free right.

2) Environmental catastrophe — Heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch? It is a miles long mass of man-made debris, largely plastic particles, floating out in the ocean gyres — where it degrades into small particles that then enter the food chain. Similar patches exist in the Atlantic Ocean and elsewhere. While plastic is recyclable, the film points out that only a small percentage gets recycled and reused — the rest end up in landfills and in the ocean, where it never goes away but ends up harming life forms, infinitely.

3) Health consequences — Which brings us to the next point. Plastic has been proven to leach detrimental chemicals like PCB and BPA which are known to cause cancer and a host of other problems. Bottled water is exposing humans to these chemicals in two ways: via leaching from plastic containers (especially when reused or warmed), and when it degrades to minuscule amounts and then enters the food chain.

Note this excerpt from a New York Times article:

“But once it does split into pieces, the fragments look like confetti in the water. Millions, billions, trillions and more of these particles are floating in the world’s trash-filled gyres … PCBs, DDT and other toxic chemicals cannot dissolve in water, but the plastic absorbs them like a sponge. Fish that feed on plankton ingest the tiny plastic particles. Scientists from the Algalita Marine Research Foundation say that fish tissues contain some of the same chemicals as the plastic. The scientists speculate that toxic chemicals are leaching into fish tissue from the plastic they eat … The researchers say that when a predator — a larger fish or a person — eats the fish that eats the plastic, that predator may be transferring toxins to its own tissues, and in greater concentrations since toxins from multiple food sources can accumulate in the body.”

The plastic byproducts end up in us.

Other issues are explored: how the bottling plants affect local communities, and the potential for future water scarcity and corresponding exploitative practices by those who control the water supplies. I suggest you watch it if you haven’t already (view it instantly on Netflix).

I recently purchased a glass water bottle by Lifefactory. I paid around $22 at Whole Foods but there are similar ones for $10 at Target. There are many other glass bottle options on the market. I have to say, the taste of water from a glass container is much better than from plastic. I swear I can taste the difference.

While they still may not be perfectly footprint-free, they are pretty close. The bottles are not petroleum based and are infinitely recyclable; the wide-mouthed screw cap is BPA-free polypropylene. They come in a variety of pretty colors and are easy to clean. Do it for the taste, for your health and for the earth … and lets all recycle all plastic products whenever possible (and avoid when possible as well).

Chex or Cheerios?

The great 21st century cornucopia.

Did you know that the average American child can name more corporate logos than common flora and fauna? “Young children are ready learners and are learning about their brand environment just about everywhere,” says T. Bettina Cornwell, a professor of marketing and sports management at the University of Michigan in this ABC News article.

“What Kids Know: McDonald’s, Toyota, Disney” details a study that found preschoolers, children ages 3-5, can often recognize brand logos before even becoming fully literate.

You don’t have to be a trained sociologist to realize that when the average kindergartener has already logged close to 5,000 hours of TV time – and spends an average of only half an hour a day outside – they are going to have absorbed quite a bit of commercial messaging into their malleable mind.

In a poignant, prescient Adbusters piece from the same year, Mike Weilbacher writes:

“And the geographic world they wander is collapsing like a black hole into their laptops; the typical kid today roams a world only one-ninth the size a child of the ‘70s did. I wandered Long Island’s rapidly decreasing pine forests in the ‘60s, biking and hiking unthinkable distances, alone and with friends, with neither a cell phone nor a dime to make a call. Because inside our houses were the adults, and who wanted to be there? Every last child was outside, in the street, in the yard, on the corner, at the 7-Eleven.

But letting kids go into a forest alone today is unthinkable, heretical …This radical retreat from the great outdoors, now called ‘nature-deficit disorder,’ a phrase coined by journalist Richard Louv in his groundbreaking book Last Child in the Woods, is the greatest health catastrophe facing Western kids. Ever.”

He continues by noting the skyrocketing rates of obesity, ADD, asthma and diabetes; that enjoying an active childhood in the great outdoors is essential to proper emotional and mental development and is even tied to higher test scores later in life.

But hey, adults need the wild too. It’s call has been paved over by asphalt and concrete and drowned out by cars and cellphones and the sirens of shopping malls and the latest iPad and “making it.” Our outside time is too often relegated to our freeway commute, our scenery marred by billboards. The average person is exposed to 3,000 marketing messages a day.

You might not be fully aware of how much this consumer culture has permeated your psyche and informed your habits. That’s the thing about brainwashing – you don’t actually realize it has occurred. And it doesn’t mean we are literally programmed to unthinkingly drive through the nearest Mickey D’s just because we pass some golden arches and a redheaded clown. But we may be inspired to pay more because we recognize that Apple, or D&G, or name or shape or insigna and all the myriad connotations it carries.

You are a better student than you have realized. You have learned your lessons so well they are second nature, embedded deep into your memory. Seashells represent gas; a bell means tacos; bunny ears mean sex. Take this quiz to see if you are truly an ‘A’ student.

But of course, you know what you like. Do you prefer Colgate or Oral B toothpaste? Dawn or Joy dish soap? Tropicana or Dole juice? You might be surprised to learn they all have the same parent company, and that many products you consider green and scrappily independent are actually owned by the big-names. Burt’s Bees by Clorox, Naked Juice by Pepsi, and so forth.

It’s not all terrible. And for better or worse, it’s the way things are today. But it definitely doesn’t hurt to be a little bit more aware of the products you are incessantly being peddled — and to maybe start saying ‘no’ a little more often.