I did not spend a lot of my youth traveling. I didn’t fly in an airplane until I was 20 (aside from a vague memory of flying to upstate New York to visit family when I was small enough to worry about having to put my baby doll on through the security scanner). I ventured beyond the east coast for the first time last year on a trip to Colorado. I went on some Spring Break trips to South Carolina beaches and North Georgia mountains with my friends in high school, but the only vacations my family took were to visit my grandparents in Daytona Beach, Florida.
This was because of finances; after the 2008 recession, my middle-class childhood morphed into a lower-class adolescence, and we couldn’t afford expensive family vacations. But because there was a free place to stay and the drive was only eight hours long, we went (and still go) to Daytona often, at least twice a year. However, every so often, this routine trip would become an exciting vacation. On special occasions, we would drive out to Orlando for the day to go to a theme park like Disney World or Universal Studios.
I can still remember how exciting I found these trips. Because I couldn’t travel to major cities or destinations overseas, my new experiences were found in theme parks. I loved the novelty, how each section of the park felt like its own little world, how much detail was put into each of the rides — even down to the waiting areas! There was just so much look at and enjoy, and for someone from Winder, Georgia, these experiences felt huge.
I have been fortunate enough to have the financial stability to be able to prioritize travel in my young adulthood. In the years since my theme park days, I have been to Canada, Mexico, Honduras, Puerto Rico, and I have plans to go to overseas to Europe for the first time later this year. And I have come to realize that “proper” traveling is a much more fulfilling and expansive experience than a theme park vacation.
I recently visited my family in Florida and went back to Universal at the suggestion of my dad. The allure of the theme park has definitely worn off with time — as an adult, you’re more attuned to the hot and sticky crowds, exorbitant prices, and the cross-promotional, late-stage capitalism of it all (there’s currently a ride inspired by “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” for some reason). Even though it was less fanciful than in my youth, I still enjoyed myself. I was able to spend time with my family — something I value more as an adult than I ever did as a child — and the trip gave me the perspective of nostalgia. Reminiscing on how much I used to enjoy theme parks reminded me of the good fortune I now have; I can travel to places I never dreamed of as a kid, and that is something I shouldn’t ever take for granted.
To be able to travel is a gift, a privilege that, unfortunately, not everybody has access to. When we discuss travel as a means of expanding our understanding of the world that exists outside of the bounds of our hometowns, we have to also recognize that travel is expensive and time-consuming, and the most accessible place for many people to visit is a theme park. If we value travel, we must then also value ample paid time off for all workers, as well as a more even distribution of resources that allows for everybody to have some discretionary jet-setting funds if they so desire.
I am grateful for the traveling I’ve been able to do in my adulthood, but I’m even more grateful for my humble theme park roots, as they are a reminder of my family, my childhood, and the fact that I don’t need to travel to the most exotic destinations to find joy.