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I'm feeling grateful for theme parks today...

2007-12-06

By Robert Niles: I'm feeling grateful for theme parks this morning. And if you take a ride with me on the stream of consciousness, I will tell you why.

Surely you've read by now of the killings in the Omaha shopping mall yesterday. That story hit close to home for me, literally, because it happened at the mall that stands closest to what was once my home. I lived on the west side of Omaha for four years in the mid-1990s, while my wife and I wrote for the local newspaper, the rather pretentiously named "World Herald." We shopped frequently at the Westroads Mall, and had our last meal in the city at the TGI Friday's there, before moving to Denver in 1996. My thoughts go to my former neighbors, because I know what heartache they are enduring and will endure in the months to come.

Why? This isn't the first mass murder/suicide that's happened within spitting distance of one of my homes. In 1992, a gunman shot and killed two students in the dormitory where Laurie and I lived in graduate school. The gunman then took his own life. A couple years later, another young man, who had been fired from the Chuck E. Cheese restaurant in Aurora, Colo. where my wife had worked in high school years earlier, returned to that pizza shop to shoot and kill five employees.

And in 1999, as my wife and daughter sat in a Starbucks a block away, two students killed 12 classmates and a teacher at Columbine High School outside Littleton, Colo., about a mile from where we'd moved to... after we'd left that home in Omaha.

I asked my wife this morning, should we be scared that we are some sort of statistical freaks, doomed to live near future mass murder sites? Or, is it scarier that we are not? That these tragedies are common enough now that many Americans like us have lived within a short distance of one or more?

She didn't have answer. All she could conclude was that in all cases the shooters were young men. Each felt disconnected from society, most having recently lost a job, a girlfriend, or both.

And that... is why I am grateful for theme parks.

"Huh?," I can envision you saying to yourself. I am grateful for theme parks because, more than almost any other form of entertainment, they bring people together. To go to a theme park, you have to get out of your home and stand, wait, walk and play among thousands of others who share at least one common interest with you. (That they like the same theme park!)

Following tragedies like this one, community is essential. The people of Omaha, like the people of Denver before them, need to know that other Americans, do, indeed, feel their pain. That they do not bear the burden of this tragedy alone.

And community can help prevent tragedies such as this from happening in the future. When young people, especially young men, feel connected to their community, when they do not feel alone, they become far less likely to engage in such destructive acts.

I love theme parks, in part, because they bring people together, in community. Yes, you might curse the crowd of hundreds who are keeping you in an hour's-long line for Millennium Force. But how many chances do we anyone to just hang out and talk with people? (Heck, that chance is one reason why I love Web communities like TPI so much.)

So, next time you are in a long line at a theme park, pay a moment of karmic respect to the people of Omaha. Talk to the folks in line around you. Especially if they are those "scary looking" young men that so many theme park visitors have complained about. Think you don't have anything to say to them? Think again. You both, obviously, are interested in the same ride. Ask if they've ridden before. Ask what other parks they've visited. Talk about air time, wait times and the rides you've always dreamed of riding. Talk about all the stuff you write about here.

And make a connection. If only for a moment. But what yesterday's tragedy ought to teach us is... we all need more connections to the people around us.

Readers' Opinions

From Iris Hernandez on December 6, 2007 at 2:05 PM
Amen to that! Thank you Robert....I will be taking you up on that advice from now on.
From Gareth H on December 6, 2007 at 6:00 PM
Please don't move to Florida Robert.
From Robert Niles on December 6, 2007 at 6:09 PM
Too late. Already lived there. Year and a half in S.W. Orlando. Right across the street from... Universal Orlando.
From Anthony Murphy on December 6, 2007 at 7:12 PM
Excellent post Robert!
From Gareth H on December 6, 2007 at 8:46 PM
Don't move back here then, lol.

Were you near Conroy Windermere by any chance?

From Melissa Faulkner on December 6, 2007 at 10:17 PM
You know Robert, I have thought the exact same thing before. Standing in a long line, waiting for a ride I have looked around me and thought that for that brief time thousands of us are all enjoying the exact same thing, doing the same thing, eating the same things. It is an amazing feeling when that dawns on you. My heart and prayers go out to these families.
From matthew romick on December 7, 2007 at 3:58 AM
wow, robert that is advise I'll have for ever.
my hart goes out to the families in Omaha.
From Lawrence Smith on December 7, 2007 at 5:37 AM
Excellent and heartfelt post Robert. My deepest condolescenses go out to the families of those who lost their lives in this senseless act of violence. This past summer, my best friend & I were at our at local home park (Six Flags America) and struck up a conversation with a nice young lady & her daughter. To make a long story short, we all became the best of friends. We found out we all have a love for amusement parks & have made several trips together to parks, as well as, played cards together, had dinner together, etc.
From tony barker on December 7, 2007 at 6:41 AM
Hi, thanks for sharing your thoughts. Here in the UK we don't have quite the same issues with guns, but it is on the increase and is an obvious worry. Any violent act, no matter what "device" you use, is unnecessary and I agree that these kids obviously feel something is deeply wrong to have to go to these lengths.

It's very easy for all of us to stereotype those we don't understand, but by very simply communicating with each other things can get better. It's not a perfect world and never will be, but we can all individually make a difference. How many of us know how our neighbours are, or how they are?

Perhaps it's time we checked and rebuilt our communities for the better of all of us, including the younger generation who will be around the reap the benefits.

From Mark Hollamon on December 7, 2007 at 6:50 AM
Outstanding post Robert. It is sad that many times it takes great tragedy to make us very thankful for what we have. We have become so techno-isolated that the art of conversation and interaction is so often lost in the shuffle.

I myself really do not even know my neighbors' names and I have lived in my home since 2003. They are going to think I am nuts, but I am going to introduce myself to all this weekend.....and go to Epcot!

From Don Neal on December 7, 2007 at 7:26 AM
I really enjoyed reading your thoughts and perspective on this Robert. You make a lot of great points. Community is what we make of it and it will be as large or small as what we invest into it. And most of the time people underestimate what a friendly smile, saying hello, holding a door for someone, or just small talk will do for people. Thanks for the great read!
From Matthew Baker on December 7, 2007 at 8:06 AM
Good read, and true. Good advice too, although it applies mainly to majority base-personalities. I'd do this--if I were such a majority. But making random conversation really isn't within everybody's capacity. Not necessarily from shyness or similar affliction, but simply having a base-personality that isn't conducive to it. I'd encourage those who are "prone to" spur-of-the-moment interaction to try it out on those who look like they aren't. Not random chit-chat--keep it on topic. You'll find that a lot of us will enjoy the company, might have a lot to offer in return, and might even enjoy having a new "playmate" for a while. (It's been my experience that people at theme parks are nearly always in a group of their own, and only interact with others within the group, with little or no interest in anybody else outside of the group. For me at least, being alone in a crowd is a very typical circumstance.)
From Barbara Boyer on December 8, 2007 at 7:07 AM
My respect for this forum has increased tremendously while reading these comments from my fellow theme park adventurers. My tears are flowing as I write this, for the families who have lost loved ones, and for all of us, who wander through life hoping to make connections with others - thank you Robert, for bringing us together like this, in this time of extreme sadness.
From Mike West on December 7, 2007 at 10:19 AM
Thanks Robert,
Things like this give great cause for reflection.
And I am always the talker to strangers...everywhere I go.
In line(It helps when you wear your ACE jackets). I've talked to fols from around the world, and it;s so uplifting.
Believe that we are one community, one civilization. Behave as though we are, & that's most of what we need.
Thank goodness we don't (yet)live in a country which has completely cut us off from one another.
In a political year, I'd like to remind everyone to watch the attitudes of politicians when it comes to issues which separate rather than be inclusive to people in our country.
From Karin S on December 8, 2007 at 7:27 AM
Well said, Robert and particularly well timed, considering the Season. We really need to slow down and re-connect with people - even strangers standing in lines with us - whether it be at a themepark or shopping center. An act of kindness or a laugh shared can do so much to lift someone out of a slump.
From Robert Niles on December 8, 2007 at 1:11 PM
Thanks for all the kind responses. Best wishes... and thanks for reading TPI!

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