Tourist Trap Time Warp into 80s and 90s Nostalgia

In an attempt to add an extra dimension to the blog portion of this site, I’ve decided to spend time talking about places, events and everything in between that may have had some sort of impact on my art; even if that impact is hard to immediately place as is the case with today’s foray into 90s nostalgia. Before I get into the phantom memories of a tourist trap called Skull Kingdom, I’d like to talk about my childhood association to Orlando.

If you lived in Florida in the 80s or 90s (and probably still today), Orlando was pretty much where the majority of the theme parks congregated, bound together by some unspoken pact. There were a few rogues (most notably Busch Gardens in Tampa) but whether you were the king of Florida’s theme parks (Disney World) or a paltry pauper tourist trap, you wanted to be in Orlando or possibly even on the periphery somewhere, like Kissimmee. Some of my favorite childhood memories involved my entire extended family piling into 2 or 3 cars and heading up to Orlando to hit up one of the big theme parks and a dodgy tourist trap or two along the way.

The Gateway to Plastic Magic

The guardians at the gates of this veritable Pleasure Island were actually two rather uneventful monuments, at least in my experience. One of these was the restaurant Medieval Times where you could eat a chicken leg while watching knights joust. The other was possibly the dullest idea ever conceived for a theme park, Boardwalk and Baseball. One of my childhood friends loved Boardwalk and Baseball but I always dismissed it for its sub-vanilla blandness. I wasn’t much of a sports fan so it’s hard to say if I’d have held Boardwalk and Baseball in higher regard otherwise. Yet, its looming white roller coaster signified our temporary descent into a sprawling landscape of bizarre magic so its flat greeting was still cause for excitement. 

Boardwalk and Baseball: possibly the most boring idea for a theme park. 

Unregulated Tourist Trap Terrain

While Disney World regulated their magic pretty tightly, they had no control on what a periphery tourist trap was doing so there were plenty of opportunities for the magic to get creepy. I vaguely remember my older cousins totally freaking out in a wax museum but I was too young to fully process what was happening. As my family drove from hotel to restaurant to theme park to tourist trap I would do whatever I could to score a seat in whichever car my cousins were riding in. I distinctly recall them covering my eyes and shouting “Oh my God, it’s Bugs Bunny walking on the side of the road!” I would frantically try to break free from the human blindfold to no avail. They’d let me go and say “Oh, man, you didn’t see Bugs Bunny?” and I’d feel like I’d missed something truly incredible. I’m not sure why they opted for Bugs Bunny over the much more convincing Mickey Mouse but I still believed it. I never held a grudge over these slights because there was just too much going on to care.

Bugs Bunny taking a twilight stroll along the Florida Turnpike...

Possibly on the same trip, we got sucked into a roadside tourist trap that I believe was called Bible Land where we watched a recreation of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. I remember it being near-silent with the exception of some sobbing and synthetic thunder crashes. No one else in my family seems to remember Bible Land so maybe it didn’t happen quite like that. I guess there’s a more recent Christian theme park in Orlando called The Holy Land Experience but I’m pretty sure Bible Land was something completely different. I’ve found it mentioned here and there in forums so I’m pretty sure at least some of my memories of Bible Land have to be valid accounts.

Where to Eat in Other Dimensions

In retrospect, it’s difficult to imagine my grandparents coming with us on these family trips to Orlando but they must have accompanied us as I remember eating with them at Shoney’s one night, absolutely exhausted from a day at Disney. Shoney’s was really specific to the Orlando experience because I can’t really recall ever eating at one outside of Orlando. I could barely keep my eyes open as we waited for the food but I specifically remember looking at the red stained glass lamps hanging above our table in the crowded restaurant on that summer night, lost in their cheap glow.

Skull Kingdom; the Ghost of 90s Nostalgia

While I’d have gladly told you a few weeks ago that my memory of Skull Kingdom must have taken place in the 80s, it seems that the fleeting memory of the haunted castle is pure 90s nostalgia since it doesn’t seem that it even opened until 1993. Skull Kingdom was actually the catalyst for this post; a bizarre half-memory staring mysteriously at me through my hotel window somewhere on the infamous tourist trap free-for-all that was International Drive. Like Medieval Times and Boardwalk and Baseball, Skull Kingdom was never a place my family actually hit up on our travels to Orlando. In fact, I don’t think I really paid the castle with the giant skull entryway any attention. Rather it was just another drop in the ocean of overstimulation that constituted a childhood trip to Orlando. Yet, the other day a vague memory of Skull Kingdom popped into my head and I found myself scouring the internet for “skeleton castle Orlando” to find, unsurprisingly, that Skull Kingdom had been demolished to make way for some condos. Looking through what little I could find in memorial to the tourist trap, it seems it was your garden variety year-round haunted attraction…but even that basic concept seems so alien now. Had my family actually gone to Skull Kingdom, I’d probably have dismissed it from my memory, letting it be swept away in the currents created by the void in a lack of mystique. But the fact that I dismissed it at the time brought it back to my mind with such novelty. Thinking of that janky skull watching over International Drive with glowing eyes, my memory was forced to contemplate, “What the fuck was that?”

Skull Kingdom - memorable in passing. 

The strange thing is that I can barely remember any of my experiences at Disney World, but I still find myself prone to momentary flashes of 80s and 90s nostalgia via some insignificant glimpse at a passing tourist trap in the Orlando summer twilight. I’m sure Disney World was awesome but what stands out in my mind was my father talking his way out of a speeding ticket with Skull Kingdom looming a stone’s throw away, the spotlights in the distance over the yet-to-be-disgraced Sea World, or brochures in hotel lobbies for places I’d never go like Wet ‘n’ Wild, Ripley’s Believe-It-or-Not, or the Mystery Fun House. I can’t say how this applies directly to my art but there was so much magic caught in the cracks between those cheap novelties and gimmicks. It almost seems impossible to put into words.