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

10 thoughts on “Surreality

  1. This reminds me of watching fishing shows. I’m not a fisherman- I joke that if fishing shows were realistic, you’d catch a fish about every other season.

  2. Riding around the safari in Animal Kingdom made me want to do a safari for real. It’s not going to be as comfortable, of course, but the upside of amazeballs will be so much greater.

  3. The most surreal part of this post is learning that someone other than my wife knows about and likes gjetost. Didn’t know that it was also sold as Ski Queen, though.

      1. Oh man, I so did not like the gjetost I tried at a Norwegian friend’s house. And I’ve never met a cheese I didn’t like 🙁

  4. What!? Now that I’ve started an Italy savings fund, you tell me that “Italy” Epcot is better? 😉

    I honestly have no desire to go back to Disney – and the last time I went there I didn’t have kids!

  5. I think it depends on the kind of traveler you are. IE, if you go to Africa, are you *just* interested in the safari & animals? Or also seeing life in a different country?

    Also, does a vacation mean comfort & pampering, or adventure and experiencing new things even if they’re uncomfortable. (For me, it’s the former. I have a post brewing about this, too.)

    I LOVED visiting Singapore. I joke that it’s the Las Vegas version of Asia – clean and sanitized for your protection.

  6. I also have been on safari in Africa and visited Italy and several other countries represented in Epcot. When my children were smaller and we visited Disney a few times in as many years, I realized that I LOVED the fake, controlled environments they create. The sights, the sound, the smells are wonderful mood enhancers. And like you say, with all the necessary conveniences at a much lower cost of time, money and effort. That being said, I am now looking forward to visiting some real locations again either without our children or with them as willing, cooperative young adults – no squirming toddlers or, worse, surly teenagers. Eating in the restaurant In Epcot’s Italy does not come anywhere close to eating in a piazzo in Italy, drinking local wine and soaking in the sights and the language. Yum. Something to look forward to.

  7. For me, a lot of the charm of travel is getting to experience a different culture, and learn about how they approach life. Now, I suppose there is a case to be made that Disney is a culture unto itself… but I think I need to real thing. For instance, one of my lifetime highlights was going to Easter Island. Sure, seeing the big stone heads was really, really cool. But what was even cooler was seeing how the culture on that island had survived and thinking about how it was changed by the calamity of the loss of trees, and by interactions with other cultures. Disney or Vegas could recreate the big stone heads. But they can’t recreate the people and their culture.

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