There are few things I dislike as much as being in a physical space with a gazillion other people who are attempting to do the same limited-resource thing that I am attempting to do. For example, I despise trying to order a drink in a loud, crowded, jostling bar where catching the bartender's attention is pure luck unless you are the sort of pushy forward person to yell at them as they pass, which I find abhorrently obnoxious, but concede that it is a very successful strategy. I'm no more agoraphobic than someone who likes their pencils on their desk aligned is necessarily OCD; those words are too strong, but I certainly have agoraphobic tendencies.
All of this is to preface the telling of the fact that this weekend we took the kids to a goddamn theme park: Parque Warner. I have been to amusement parks before, i.e. those with money sucking carnival games and gut nauseating abnormal-acceleration-based rides. An astute reader may already have guessed my opinion of them. But I don't think I've ever been to a theme park. I've never been to one of the Disney parks, although since becoming a parent, I have heard a lot through the parent-vine about the Disney parks, about how "well polished" they are; e.g. there's a reason every employee down to the souvenir gift shop employee is called a "cast member": they are all acting.
We planned this trip for April of last year, but my son fell quite ill, with moaning and vomiting, and we had to cancel. I had to take him to the doctor to get an official sick notice in order to get a full refund from Airbnb at the time. As for our tickets to the Parque Warner, they clearly said on them that they were "non-refundable" and "for this specific date and no other!", but we called and were told that, yeah, actually, you can come at any later date and we'll honor your tickets. So here we are 10.5 months later, and I call to ask them to please confirm that our tickets are valid before we drive five hours to the park, and they said, "Well, send us an email with the tickets PDF and we'll get back to you." They never did, and I never got through to them again on the phone.
Saturday morning, we get up at 5:30 and manage to leave by 6:30. Just before we got to the park, we were facing an emergency level of lack of gasoline and excess of urine. The freeways of Madrid are just concrete spaghetti like that of any other major city, and every exit we saw was to get on a freeway going really far somewhere else. We finally implemented a "take the first exit until we get off of this wretched rollercoaster – not foreshadowing, but the perfect word – until we found ourselves in a neighborhood that felt very filthy. Trash and litter everywhere. My wife and kids got out of the car to find some place to pee, but 30 seconds later, they hopped back in, no seatbelts, and told me to "Drive! Drive!" A creepy dude had taken an interest in them and all their senses screamed flight.
I drove around aimlessly until we found a clearing, filled with garbage, but with good visibility, a "defensible position", one might say, where we could micturate in peace. With the gasoline light blaring at me, we found another motorway and eventually fueled up, within a few kilometers of failure, according to the car's computer.
Leaning heavily on the fact that in modern times we can just ask a computer to direct us somewhere, we eventually arrived to the theme park. The parking lots were vast, and most of the spots were covered (in the shade) with solar panels, which will come in very handy during their "high season" in the summers. Wait, I got ahead of myself. First we had to get through the parking toll booth. I wasn't sure if we'd prepaid for parking, so rather than get out of the car to get the tickets which I had left in the trunk, I gave the robot my 10€ to get in. It turns out that we had prepaid for parking, but we were later able to get an actual tenner from the customer service lady for our troubles. And of course we were talking to customer service before entering the park because we had this dubious will-they-won't-they Schrödinger's ticket issue. In the end, they did let us in on our year-old tickets.
The fountain that greets you beyond the park gates. That tower in the back is one of those rides that takes you really high up and drops you.
When buying our tickets more than 1.5 years ago, we saw the option to have "All Inclusive Food and Drink", which was defined as "a meal at any restaurant, and one snack or beverage every hour". Our reasoning at the time went something like, "Look, we're gonna be there between attractions, and the kids are gonna be like, 'ice cream! ice cream!', and rather than be thinking about the exorbitant prices, if we buy this, we'll be free to say, 'Sure, kids!'"
L. O. L. The "meal" that was available was a tiny, let's call it Happy Meal™, since it was 100% ripped from a famous McBrand, and the adult meal was a slightly bigger combo, which did include a medium beer.
Because they have a "you can't bring food in, so that we can bilk you at outrageous prices" policy, the lines to order your lunch were an hour long, in a hot, stuffy "Porky's Grill" establishment. Once it's your turn to order, you have to peck your order into a buggy touch screen vending machine, many of which locked up and required a tech to come and reboot it (during the hour I was in the line to observe them). When we got to the end of ordering, the bastard machine wouldn't scan the bar codes on our "all inclusive" bracelets. I sought help and was told, "Oh, no, if you prepaid, you needn't have waited an hour in that Queue Of Misery™; you could just go to the "Groups and Online" cashier to order. "Why you [Yosemite Sam swearing]!!"
The meal itself was worse than any I've had in fast food joints in the US, because they don't operate at this scale. Oh, and also, whenever they scanned my daughter's bracelet, their machine told them "Expired Credit Card", so we really only had three meal tickets. Although the first meal, they let it slide at Porky's.
I'm going to leave out the part where the stupidest little piece of plastic that came as the "toy" in the Happy Meal™ turned into the most prized possession of my son for the entire day until the ill-advised way they were playing with it resulted in it falling down a storm drain later that night.
I got ahead of myself. Upon entering the park, we came upon a faux-Hollywood scene, which was bizarre, but I may have steered us towards the only thing I think WB has produced of value: Cartoon World. The big mistake we made was to go to the first thing of mild interest that we saw. Being an old fogey, to me, Scooby-Doo is not Warner Bros, but Hannah-Barbera, but they had some sort of "mystery house". We didn't know what was in store, but we'd just driven five freakin' hours, so we wanted to be entertained.
We entered the Entrance, and were immediately waiting in line. But the line looked short, like just 20 people until the doorway to the next room. Those of you experienced in the psychology of theme parks are laughing at me now, as I am from my new vantage point. Once we got to the next room, we found.... another room of people waiting in a snaking line to the next doorway with no visual information to be gained. This happened again and again... Because they were trying to be "dark and spooky", there was almost no ventilation, and it got really hot and stinky in there. A full fucking hour later, we arrived to the "attraction". It involved riding in a cart on a track, armed with laser pistols, trying to shoot at "scary" stuff as it popped out at you. I timed it. It was two minutes and fifteen fucking seconds.
"Hey Scoobs, how do we know the ghost wasn't a prank by your best friend?"
Shaggy: "It wasn't me!"
I found the canonical "those meddling kids"!
One quick side note, about how I observed almost all the children I saw in the park. They were, on the whole, extremely well behaved when waiting in excruciatingly boring lines for an hour at a time. There were very few exceptions, but almost no kid demanded their parents' mobile phone to play with, despite the parents not being so strong-willed. There's something about the fact that something cool is about to happen that made them able to deal with the long waits. Because I'm pretty sure it wasn't that they were cognizant of the sacrifice their parents were making...
While we were wandering around the park looking at super heroes and wild west stuff, we came upon the Rio Bravo, one of these rides where they roller-coaster you up a few stories in a "log" and drop you down into water with a big splash. It had been years since I've been on one of these, and I was honestly a little uneasy about it, but my daughter expressed excitement in trying it. All four of us went through the non-existent line – pro tip: right after lunch is a prime time to go to the ride of your choice – but little Ian decided it was too scary for him, so he and his mother skipped the ride. When we sat down, in the front seat of the log, Nora began expressing doubts. I told her I would hold her tight the whole way down (1.0 seconds). To be honest, I really dislike the feeling of free falling for that brief moment, and I'm certain that my face upon impact was just as terrified as anyone's, but the refreshing water that totally drenched us (I was wearing blue jeans) was quite delightful in the 25º C, 77º F, sunshine. Once she recovered, Nora proclaimed to have loved it, and wouldn't stop talking about the experience for a half hour.
One of the more creative attractions, in my opinion, was a room where they turn off all the lights, fill it full of that fake smoke they use at concerts, and then put a mesh of lasers across the room, and you, the participant, have to avoid touching the lasers and touch a series of buttons in order, to "steal the jewels" or whatever, a la the best scene in the 1999 movie, Entrapment. It was very cool, and a clever idea, well implemented. Both my kids managed it without touching a laser, and although one of them was much faster, the "ride" operator very diplomatically declared it a "tie".
Quite damp still, and after a stressful time waiting in line to get an ice cream where our pre-paid bracelets didn't cover any of what anyone actually wanted, we entered an arena to watch a Police Academy show. This was the only thing that I had come with solid recommendations in favor of. The whole "Police Academy" veneer was pretty thin, and the professional drivers did some pretty lame miming as if they were speaking the pre-recorded audio that was playing over the speakers. It boiled down to a stunt driving show, with a weak plot of inept police officers and some badass bank robbers. But it was really all about how these professionals could spin donuts, do motorcycle jumps and wheelies, drive a car on two side tires (the strongest link to Police Academy) and generally do awesome rubber burning.
The Policy Academy arena. In the 20 minute wait for the show to start, I managed to identify every single prop that got used in the show.
The spectacle was spectacular, although they did have one error where a car was supposed to go up the one-wheel ramp to drive on two wheels, but the hit it wrong and the front bumper burst into a hundred pieces. The driver reversed off "stage" and the other cast picked up the pieces and repositioned the ramp. Oops.
After the police academy, we "watched" a battle between Batman and The Joker in front of Gotham City Hall. I say "watched" because there were too many people to really see anything except when a character was up on a side building zip-lining down into the action. What was funny was that, ironically accurate given the comic book origins, all of the BANG! and POW! sounds from the fight were prerecorded, so it was really a strongly choreographed dance we were watching. They didn't always land their punches and kicks on the right beat, but they did a fairly good job.
One of the sections of the park was Wild West themed. I don't recall much reference to either the Road Runner or Speedy Gonzales, the only two "American West" themed WB cartoons. I think they were mainly trying to capitalize on American Culture. There were some saloons, etc.
Look, Ma! I'm in The West. (along with a bazillion other people)
This game was pretty fun. When you shot the targets (with lasers), it triggered some mechanical reaction, some of them involved spraying the shooter with water, which was terrifying the first time and then very welcome every additional time.
"Put down your whisky and empty the till!"
This not-bad-but-not-great dance with unintelligible English performance perfectly summarizes the Wild West area of the park.
After watching the cops take bad man Joker away, we found a place to sit (not easy) for a snack to await the closing ceremony parade. We had a little extra time before the parade, so we went to a small ride where we rode around a track in faux a Model T looking at sad mock-ups of famous places in California. The best part of the ride was the we gave Ian the steering wheel and he took the steering of the vehicle very seriously, which was adorable.
I did get to teach the kids air hockey, although the table being outdoors meant it was kind dusty and not a great experience, but...
They had an old-timey Daily Planet newsroom, with old phones and typewriters inside.
I've never been on a movie set, but the level of shallow detail of some of the places was unnerving. It's a legit real parking meter, though.
The last ride we went on was that my wife and son dared to ride a little kiddie roller coaster. I'm sure I could've done it, but I don't think I would've enjoyed it. So Nora and I decided to not ride and watch. She was certain that Ian was going to have hated it, but he proclaimed much as his sister did after the water ride, "There was one point where I thought I would die, but then I loved it!"
Who's a good kitty??
Good night, Bugs!
By what I imagine are Disney's standards, it was quite lame, with all the costumed characters walking around the park waving. Then it was out the door, to the car, and a surprisingly quick exit. It was only a ten minute drive to our Airbnb rental in Pinto, Spain.
We met and had a lovely dinner with our Madrid cousins in a restaurant very close to our apartment. We were in bed by midnight.
Our fourteen year old cousin had recommended some attractions for our second day, so we went first to a Flintstone's themed "driving school", where the kids, without parents, were shown a video about how to drive, and then let out onto a track, complete with road signs and markings, to drive little Flintstone's cars around very slowly. The kids had a blast!
Stay to the end of the video. I had a moment of inspiration...
Then we went on a little raised track train, which was mainly good for seeing the nothingness panorama of the nearby land.
The next ride was a thing where you had to "put out a fire" on a platform that went up and down. There were some elements of it being sort of like a competition, but it was more about shooting water at a wall where it would bounce back onto you. Nora's conclusion after it was over: "It looks stupid, but it's actually quite fun."
At 1:30pm – that's before lunch in Spain – there was a show that involved Looney Tunes characters, Bugs, Daffy (called Pato Lucas in Spain), Tweetie, Silvester, and [non-canonical in my mind] Lola Bunny dancing to pop music. It was considerably more entertaining than it sounds.
Daffy knows he's sexy.
Because of the beloved toy from the Happy Meal™ that was tragically lost that night, we were obliged to go back to the fast food hell of Porky's Grill. We had only paid the all-inclusive thing for our food for one day, so we were "liberated" to order whatever we wanted. My wife and I chose different lines, a reasonable optimization strategy. We told the kids they could play outside within our sight. About halfway towards the vending machine, thirty minutes in, the kids began fighting and hitting each other. They had been so well behaved the previous day! I thought I was being generous in offering to stay in the hot mess of humanity and let my wife leave her line to go scold the children.
After another thirty minutes, I was two people away from my machine, and the machine broke. A technician came in to reboot it, but it still wasn't working. The woman in front of me who had been holding a 2-year-old for an hour was graciously allowed to pass to another queue, but the people in the other queues were cranky and weren't about to let the rest of us cut in front of them. I called my wife and we decided to abort and head somewhere else for lunch, where we ended up getting two mediocre Spanish ham sandwiches, ironically right in the heart of faux-Brooklyn Americatown.
Of course this decision to not get bad fast food with a little rubber toy was absolutely devestating to Ian. He was inconsolable, and the rest of us were in a pretty shitty mood, too. After my wife and I ate our sandwiches, we decided we'd sacrifice yet another hour just to get that little toy, so we went back to Cartoon Town and my wife boldly went to wait in line. This time it was only 45 minutes before she emerged with some mediocre food in Happy Meal™ boxes, each with a little rubber thing. So we blew two hours of park time just to get some bad food.
I did, however, get to spend the 45 minutes, while my wife was in line, showing my kids around how all the carnival games were rigged. I explained each of them and then we observed as people came and tried to play. We saw how, from where the carnie was on the other side of the barrier, the game was quite easy to demonstrate, but how from the public side, was nearly impossible, or at least very improbable until more than the cost of the prize was spent. I found it fascinating that the rule was that you could not give money directly to the game operator, but you had to put it into a slot; that's how little the park trusts their employees.
Theme parks are expensive, but the waiting in line is such a drain on your (or mine, at least) emotions and mood. Even if it costs double, you're going to get way more than 100% more enjoyment out of the park. For sure I know this opinion is dripping with privilege, but... [rationalizes] ...maybe if the rich pay more, the costs for the less fortunate can remain lower?
After lunch, we had time for one more ride on the roller coaster for Ian and his mother from the day before, and then we bought extremely over prized slushies. So you'd better enjoy the heck out of this photo!!
We hopped in the car and drove 5 hours back home without stopping.
On the drive home, while the rest of the family was snoring, I had plenty of time to think about our experience at the park. I kept coming back to Daniel Kahneman's notion of the Experiencing Self vs. the Remembering Self. You can watch his TED Talk about it here. For a fairly large percentage of the time in the park, I was bored, frustrated, uncomfortable, and sometimes angry, but looking back at it, what is most salient is the joy on my children's faces when they came out of a ride or saw a new, cool thing. What we did was create a positive family memory together, a memory that these photos will help sustain into the future. The Parque Warner goes solidly into the "Glad we did it, but let's not do it again" bin.
Take us out, Porky, you pantsless porcine!