The Disneyland Syndrome


El Shrimp Bucket - MazatlanI grew up not far from Disneyland. I loved it. The Magic Kingdom. I guess some might look down their nose at it as an example of capitalist excess, but that's not the topic of this post. I am using Disneyland as the antithesis of real-world travel, as a place where nothing bad ever happens. Where  you can walk with your head in the clouds and not suffer any consequences. Where you can stroll safely late into the night. Where a vacation is a vacation from all concerns (except of course concern for your rapidly diminishing bank account).

There are ways of more or less replicating this "total" vacation: all inclusive resorts, tours, etc. But even those types of travel have risks the moment you leave the resort confines or the tour group to explore on your own. In many tourist destinations, there are areas with extra protections. In Antigua, Guatemala, the Tourist Police will take groups up a trail to an overlook. But tourist police are the exception when you travel, and will only be in heavily touristed neighborhoods. Perhaps you want something more than endless t-shirt shops when you travel. Maybe a restaurant, a shop, a beach with actual locals.

I've traveled a lot in Mexico - where every tourist town has a Señor Frog's bar/grill/t-shirt shop (Wikipedia says: "Señor Frog’s is a Mexican-theme franchised "infamous party scene" bar and grill in tourist destinations throughout Mexico, the Caribbean, South America, and the United States"). Some places are great in spite of tourism - Guanajuato, Merida. And there are places like Cancun that have no redeeming value except beaches and weather. I've made a few visits to Culiacan (academic visits to the Universidad de Sinaloa), a city with zero tourist activity: no beach, no ruins, no museums. The complete absence of tourism there is refreshing. If you want to buy a "souvenir" you're out of luck, but if you want to sit on the plaza mayor or stroll along the riverwalk soaking up local life this is a real town, and definitely not Disneyland. People who have heard of Culiacan are shocked that I enjoy the city. It is the birthplace and locus of the Sinaloa Cartel - one of the world's biggest and most dangerous drug cartels!

So, when you travel, whether it's Culiacan or Cancun, don't fall prey to the Disneyland Syndrome. Travel is not a vacation from potential trouble. Stay alert. No late nights on dark streets, avoid excess drinking, don't bring attention on yourself through your dress or your behavior. Will that spoil your trip? Honest... it is actually possible to enjoy travel and be prudent!

By Kevin O'Neill


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