In the fall of 2008, my husband and I spent a little over a week in India. One of our adventures involved staying near a major tiger preserve, and going out on Jeep drives with a guide to try to see tigers in the wild. Since lots of people want to do this, and wild tigers are a bit skittish, the park tries to control entry. So a limited number of rides go in, and you draw lots each time to see what section of the park you can explore. The tigers tend to stay in roughly 2 of the 5 zones. So more than half the time, you don’t see them (though you do see other wildlife — sloths, monkeys, etc.) We got lucky and on one of our four bumpy, hot, four-hour-with-one-bathroom-stop drives, we saw four tigers for a few minutes, relatively close. Very cool.
Then we came back to the United States and went to Indianapolis, where our son had been staying with my in-laws for part of the time. We went to the Indianapolis zoo and saw… several tigers. Up close. Closer than we had in India. Without a 4-hour ride. And with multiple bathrooms available nearby.
Now of course, seeing tigers where they naturally live is a special thing — but is it somehow over-the-top better than seeing them in a zoo? Do I have any bucket list bragging rights for having done this the hard and expensive way?
I was thinking about this last week while I was spending 6 days and nights at Walt Disney World Resort with my family. On day one, after flying to Orlando, we went to Animal Kingdom, where the big attraction is the Kilimanjaro Safari ride. The ride is based on African game preserve safaris. On our honeymoon, my husband and I drove around Etosha National Park in Namibia, where we saw lions, elephants, giraffes, water buffalo, etc., an experience we repeated (with professional guides and in a Jeep) a few years later in South Africa. On safaris, you drive around bumpy roads for hours looking for animals, squinting at the horizon, and listening to trackers call in locations on the radio. At Disney, you kind of do the same thing. You get loaded on a giant Jeep-like truck, and your guide pretends to be talking with a tracker who’s radioing in animal locations. You rumble over rather authentic muddy tracks. Of course, this being Disney, you always see all the animals, in less than twenty minutes. The guide knows exactly where all the animals are, because they’re in a small location that still looks pretty natural.
In other words, it was the highlights of Africa without the squinting, or the boring and uncomfortable parts (like, again, no bathrooms. There are bathrooms everywhere in Disney). I didn’t get food poisoning, which I’ve gotten every time I’ve gone to sub-Saharan Africa.
Is Disney on to something? Is surreality better than reality? We sat in “Italy” at Epcot, drinking wine flights, the whole place looking convincingly like the most picturesque piazza in Florence, but a stroller-accessible Florence, which actual Florence is not. Oh, I had moments of feeling snobby, like at Akershus, in the Norwegian pavilion, when I exclaimed in surprise to the woman behind me at the buffet (smorgasbord!) that no one was taking the gjetost (sweet brown goat cheese — sold under the brand Ski Queen at some big grocery stores here. It’s really good!). She asked me “why would someone eat that?” Maybe because we’re supposed to be in “Norway”? Isn’t part of the fun trying something new? But, honestly, we go to great lengths to experience certain things in reality when surreality gets you the highlights without the low lights. I guess part of me feels proud that I’ve experienced the low parts. But I’m not really sure why. After all, my carbon footprint from having flown to all the countries represented in Epcot is a lot higher than if I’d just gone to Epcot.
In other news:
I will be chatting about money and freelancing with James Chartrand of Men with Pens on Wednesday (4/25) at noon, eastern time. To join the call, visit this link and sign up (requires email address). James is a riot and this should be a fun call.
Photo courtesy flickr user ljcybergal