On vacation, give us make believe, not historic facts

July 28, 1998|By Bill Bishop

REPRESENTATIVES of 19 nations met in Canada a few weeks ago to discuss the threat to their cultures posed by free trade with the United States. Their common fear is that Hollywood will overwhelm local cultures and that every country will, eventually, look the same -- that every country will resemble a creation of Mickey Mouse.

Brazil, Mexico, Britain and the others have reason for concern. The Mouse is everywhere. So, I wonder, who's meeting to protect us -- our culture and history -- from Hollywood?

Or, is the game over already? Has Goofy already replaced George Washington as the father of our country?

Summers of old

The traditional vacation once took families to historic sites in Old Virginia. Children stuffed heads and hands through the public stocks at Williamsburg while parents snapped millions of photos with their Kodak.

It wasn't exactly history; Williamsburg was the wealthy, white version of our past. But the buildings were old, and while walking on Duke of Gloucester Street, one imagined what it must have been like to live in those times.

No more. For the past decade, historic Williamsburg has been losing paid visitors, down from 1.2 million a year in the late 1980s to 938,000 in 1996. Restaurants and hotels around Williamsburg have been losing money, $31 million from 1991 to 1995.

In Kentucky, Shakertown is suffering the same declines in visitors and interest. The restored Shaker religious settlement near Harrodsburg had 115,000 visitors in 1997, according to marketing director Marcheta Sparrow, down from 160,000 in 1988.

Most historic sites are being deserted by touring Americans, Ms. Sparrow says. Sturbridge Village and the Hancock Shaker Village, in Massachusetts, are losing patrons, she said, and George Washington's Mount Vernon and Thomas Jefferson's Monticello "also had a rough way to go."

Ms. Sparrow surveyed those visiting Shakertown and "people said they didn't see anything going on . . . It seems that people want to be entertained. They want action, something going on all the time."

The numbers back up Ms.Sparrow's conclusion. The Six Flags group of amusement parks clocked in 38 million visitors last year. The six Disney parks pulled in 86 million.

The historic sites are fighting back with a frenetic quaintness. Shakertown has brought animals onto the farm. Ms. Sparrow says she scrupulously avoids using words like "museum" or "lecture," and, instead, schedules events and activities.

A Williamsburg marketer said the historic site is working to make the place "more interactive, more fun." There are more costumed interpreters and more parades. Last year Williamsburg teamed up with coastal Virginia cities to offer vacation packages, "Revolutionary Fun."

This is all a long way from the redoubts at Yorktown or Washington's winter quarters at Valley Forge. But it doesn't come close to what American travelers want or what the omnipotent Mouse can provide.

The truth, Ms. Sparrow said, is that Disney "has the money to re-create us better than we are." In a strange way, that is exactly what's happening. Disney or Six Flags can take any event, any place and make it cleaner, safer, "more action packed" -- better -- than the real thing.

The results are sometimes incongruous. Disney has remade an African animal preserve on 500 acres of Florida turf. A cruise ship will lure passengers to the tropics with an on-board ice skating rink. Until local opposition killed the deal, Disney planned to re-create most of the country's early history on 3,000 acres within 6 miles of the Bull Run Civil War battlefield. With typical modesty, Disney called the venture the "America Project."

Reality, always a slippery proposition, comes unlashed and begins to free-float. A friend some years ago visited the Disney empire in Orlando, Fla. We asked her what she liked best, and she answered, without a bit of irony, "Oh, we loved Germany."

Williamsburg may not be all of colonial America, but it touched that time. Shakers did live in Kentucky.

Now Germany can be found in Orlando. A scale-model New York has been constructed in Las Vegas. Cruise ships are so large and luxurious and filled with things to do, tour writers have to remind people to go ashore when their boat reaches port. Instead of visiting Fort Boonesborough, Marcheta Sparrow said, tourists "want to see Fess Parker because they saw him on TV. And Disney has figured that out."

Disney's triumph

Disney has figured us out, and what the company has learned should be the subject of international conferences. Because history is, in part, a function of the imagination, and in the new world of entertainment, history truly has ended.

Bill Bishop is a columnist for the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader. His E-mail address is bbjx.netcom.com.

Pub Date: 7/28/98

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