If there’s one thing that’s been in short supply over the last year and a half, it’s fun. And that’s a shame because some would argue we need fun as much as we need food. Michael Fridgen is one of those people. What’s the most effective way to have fun? Go to a theme park, according to Mr. Fridgen. WellWell recently spoke with the author of The Ride Of Your Life: 25 Reasons Why Theme Parks Are Modern Shrines about the unparalleled fun of theme parks and how much we need it.
The Ride Of Your Life begins with a Christmas list from the perspective of your childhood self. It represents a larger theme of the book being how theme parks help you embrace your inner child. How do they accomplish this and what are the benefits of doing so?
When children play, it’s all about imagination and up making up a world that they can control giving them a sense of freedom. Theme parks mimic this experience really well. They give you the ability to imagine that you’re in some place different. It reminds you what it was like to be a kid when you were playing and that escape gives you a break from your everyday life.
You write in the book that we need fun as much as we need food. What are the mental benefits of prioritizing having fun?
Well, what’s the point of living if all you’re doing is eating and existing? We need food, water and shelter to survive but love, freedom, fun and power are equally essential. I’m married to a psychiatrist and he’s always saying that when someone loses hope, it’s the tipping point for mental illnesses. I guess I kind of equate hope with having something to look forward to, something that is going to be fun and give your life some meaning.
Having something to look forward to so you don’t lose hope, being able to have fun and enjoy your freedom, these are all things that have been in short supply over the last year plus with the coronavirus pandemic. How much did you personally miss theme parks and how excited are you to have them back as they have slowly begun to reopen to full capacity?
Thank you for asking that question because it’s become kind of taboo. And I get why, you’re not supposed to worry about having fun when people are dying, I absolutely get it. However, because of who I am and how important theme parks have been to my life, I’ve missed them tremendously. The love for theme parks is a huge bond my husband and I share. I don’t want to say it’s been devasting because both my husband and I have been healthy and I’m grateful for that. But it has been extremely difficult not having a trip to look forward to and not being able to share that experience together.
You mention in The Ride Of Your Life that going to theme parks is very much like a religious experience for you. If someone goes to church every week then suddenly is no longer able to for a year, it would be crushing. Was there anything you and your husband did during lockdown to supplement the fun of theme parks?
We tried watching the Disney movies associated with its rides, but it almost had the opposite effect. Disney is just everywhere now; they own like everything. So, when you get these constant reminders of what you’re missing, it just kind of makes you sad. So that wasn’t really helpful. We found it was better if we got in our car and went to a state park. That was a great release for us and helped fill the void.
The string of movies Disney has produced over the last 10 years has possibly given nostalgia a bad rep, but in the book you mention that nostalgia is actually a very magical experience. Can you expand on that a little bit?
Nostalgia is so hard to put into words because it’s like this feeling you get that’s kind of happy and sad at the same time. You’re happy that you’re experiencing it again but you’re sad that you’re not a kid anymore. So, it is this mixture of emotions and I crave that feeling. A lot of my love for theme parks probably stems from my experience growing up as a gay kid in a small town in central Minnesota. Much of that has to do with why I love theme parks and my husband would probably say the same thing. It’s this feeling of nostalgia that this was a place where you could imagine anything and be anything, that’s just so important.
While I do want to stress that Disney excels at this because they controlled so much of the media when we were growing up, they don’t have a monopoly on nostalgia. There’s a lot of people who have really special memories at their own regional theme park. My favorite theme park on the planet is Dollywood. They do a fantastic job in East Tennessee of giving this sort of nostalgic feel. There’s a certain charm that Dollywood excels in that even Disney lacks.
You mention how crucial theme parks were to you as a young gay child growing up in central Minnesota. Were these places where you felt accepted?
We had our park in Minnesota called Valleyfair and it’s still here. I wouldn’t say it’s the best theme park in the world, but I thought it was growing up because it was the only thing we had. But when you went there, you did get the feeling that everyone was equal and everyone was treated the same because the rules are so consistent at a theme park. That’s one layer of it and the second layer is just when you’re on a ride, you can let your mind wander. It can wander to a world where anything is possible and anything can happen. Now at the time I didn’t say, “Oh, I’m in a world where I could be gay” because I didn’t really know what that was. But I could say, “I’m in a world where I don’t have to worry about what I’ve been worrying about at school.” So, it was an escape and everyone was equal. As long as you could come up with $50 to get you through the door, of course.
About Michael Fridgen