September 08, 2008

Sociology on Vacation


By Bradley Wright

Last week I took my two sons up to a big amusement park (this is New England, so unfortunately we don’t have Disneyland). Each summer we try to buy season passes to a different fun place, and this year it was an amusement park. The boys really enjoy the rides and the water park. Me? I kind of have fun being a sociologist and watching what goes on at the park because a lot of what goes on fits with sociological principles. These include:

clip_image002Social Stratification is a social system that ranks people in terms of a hierarchy. Sociologists usually talk about it in terms of class, caste, and intergenerational mobility. Well, this amusement park had its own class levels. At the bottom were the regular people like my family who just buy a ticket and go on rides. Next up is what they call a “super flash pass.” This pass works like magic. When you go to one of the popular rides, and there is a long line, you show this pass and you get put into a much shorter line for the ride.

Cool, but the “super flash pass” starts at $50. At the highest level is the “very important you” experience. With this you go straight to the start of the line, you get to park your car close to the entrance, you get a private tour of the park (though, I don’t know how private it is with thousands of people around you), and you get a private autograph session with one of the park characters. Okay, as far as I can tell, the characters can’t talk, and they are really alienated teenagers dressing up like cartoon animals for minimum wage, so I’m not sure why someone would pay extra for the autograph of an irritated, silent young person. The price for this highest level of “service”? $250 per person with a minimum of four people. That’s $1,000 to be top dog of the amusement park.

The conflict theory of crime holds that laws are passed to favor the wealthy (I know, you probably find this idea shocking), and it too was in evidence at the park. Being rather cheap, I don’t like paying $15 for the regular parking at the amusement park, so I pay $10 to park at a nearby restaurant that is actually a little closer to the main gate of the park. In speaking with the owner, I found out that the city is working hard to make it illegal to park there for the amusement park. So, if you want a bite to eat at the restaurant, go ahead and park your car. But, if you want to walk 100 yards to the amusement park, forget it.

Why would the city outlaw parking outside the park? Well, it’s a small town, and the amusement park is far-and-away their biggest tax payer. The amusement park makes approximately 1-trillion-dollars-a-day (their concession stands are really expensive), but they also want the less than one-thousand-dollars-a-day that this off-site parking place pulls in. The park, having lots of money, has lots of influence with the city government. The city government, eager to please the park, tries to pass an ordinance that doesn’t make much sense and only harms the average Joe looking to save a few dollars.

clip_image004Another sociological observation involves the young people we saw at the park. Studies of youth culture note how young people find their own, distinctive ways of doing things, and this culture works best when it is different than what boring-old-people are doing.

Well, walking around the park, I noticed a unique style of dress. Scattered about were clusters of high-school-aged kids who were dressed virtually identically. They all wore oversized athletic shoes and relatively new blue jeans. Around their necks, they wore white t-shirts twisted with a bandana. This bandana was folded so that, if they wanted to, they could pull it up over their mouth to hide their features. (“Hey, you guys want to go rob a train?”). The kids had similar haircuts, and they wore brand-new ball caps, turned about 90 degrees to the side.

Now, these kids carried a bit of an “I’m tough” scowl on their faces and had a tough guy swagger to their walk, but to me they looked downright silly. I honestly thought that they were park characters when I first saw them (“Hi, can I get your autograph for $1,000?”) More than anything they reminded me of little kids dressing up like cowboys, which didn’t fit with the tough persona they were trying to project. Okay, if I were younger, a lot younger, maybe I would think they are cool, so I’m not trying to impose some middle-aged standard of appropriate dress. Instead, these “outfits” they wore illustrate the powerful influence of youth culture.

So there you have it; in addition to offering roller coasters, water rides, and overpriced hot dogs, amusement parks serve up sociology as well.


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I relate easily to this experience, as I used to an hour away from an amusement park (Six Flags Magic Mountain). Comparing my experience to my mother's experience when we used to go when I was a child is fascinating to think about. I was always interested in finding the character's running around the campus, and my mother would sit on a local bench and "people gaze" as an extreme variety of people would be walking around the park. It is easily noticeable to pick apart the higher class people from the lower class while strolling throughout the amusement park. Those dressed in theme park attire and assorted with souvenirs stand out from those who are dressed in cut offs and without "special passes". No matter where you go these days, it's almost recognizable to pick apart those around you by defining levels of characterization. Attending a public recreational area such as an amusement park or even a shopping mall, you are entitled to witness a crowd of unique people who you share something in common with, which is having interest of that designated location.

If you ever have a chance you should take your kids to a Great Wolf Lodge. I took my kids there and they provide a ton of different organized activities. I thought it was pretty interesting to see how the kids interacted with the other children in an "adventure/competition based situation". Definitely brought to mind some of the old terms from my college sociology classes. We stayed at the Wisconsin Dells Resorts version, but there are a bunch of them spread out around the country. Definitely would recommend it.

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