Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Of Sand and Spam

By C.J. Hirschfield

Children’s Fairyland, which opened in September 1950, was the first storybook theme park in America. Many other themed attractions followed, and over the decades the number of theme parks and specialty museums has exploded. Museums celebrating sex, the Mob, chocolate, spies, prison and Biblical Creation regularly draw crowds across the world.

I want to note two new entries into the field: the world’s largest indoor theme park, which opened last week in Dubai, and a museum devoted to Spam (the food, not the annoying junk mail) that opened a few months ago in Austin, Minnesota.

The Spam Museum in Austin, Minnesota. Photo via Meat + Poultry.

Fairyland’s admission fee ($10), square footage (435,600) and attendance (220,000 a year) put us squarely between these two newcomers. But we’re far less commercial than either of them. Our nonprofit mission includes ensuring that all of our community’s kids have access to our literacy-rich free-play zone.  

On the small end is the 14,000-square-foot Spam Museum, which is free to the public but isn’t shy about its commercial mission: It proudly celebrates the 79-year history of the canned pork meat and the quirkiness of the brand. It hopes to welcome 125,000 guests each year.

I love some of the themes of the museum’s 10 galleries. “Supporting our Troops” tells the story of how more than 7 billion cans of Spam were distributed to military personnel during World War II. The “Spam 101” gallery features an interactive game that allows guests to fill, bake and label cans while wearing hard hats and production frocks. “World Market” illustrates the seven areas of the globe where Spam is particularly popular: the Philippines, South Korea, the United Kingdom, China, Japan, Latin America and Hawaii.

The "Supporting Our Troops" gallery in the Spam Museum. Photo via Southern Minnesota Scene.

Retail plays a key role at the museum. The Spam shop features hundreds of Spam-branded items: apparel, kitchenware, cookbooks, key chains and more than 15 varieties of Spam for purchase, including classic, low sodium, with bacon, with cheese, jalapeño, teriyaki and garlic. “Please don’t eat the exhibits” advises a sign at the museum, but it’s OK to eat the “Spamples” – small bits of toothpick-skewered Spam offered by volunteer guides, known as Spambassadors.

Meanwhile, in the category of “Go Big or Go Home,” we have IMG Worlds of Adventure in Dubai (United Arab Emirates), weighing in at 1.5 million square feet, an admission fee of about $83 per adult guest (about $61 for children), and an anticipated annual attendance of 4.5 million.

IMG Boulevard at IMG Worlds of Adventure. Photo via Behind the Thrills.

IMG – the Ilyas and Mustafa Galadari Group, a family-owned corporation – has corralled some very popular, internationally recognized brands and features, including Marvel, Cartoon Network and animatronic dinosaurs. Attractions include an Avengers Battle of Ultron 3D dark ride, the Powerpuff Girls–Mojo Jojo’s Robot Rampage interactive spinning ride, and the Velociraptor roller coaster (which accelerates from zero to 62 mph in 2.5 seconds).

I read through IMG’s 15 pages of rules and regulations. Like Fairyland, the museum has a policy of “no adult without a child, and no child without an adult.” But it also has rules relating to indecent clothes, and many pages dealing with the use of the website. Retail is clearly king at IMG: no fewer than 18 stores are tied to the branded themes.

Dinosaur carousel at IMG Worlds of Adventure. Photo via Huffington Post.

And the parks keep coming.

Austin, Minnesota, doesn’t just have the Spam Museum; it also boasts a speedway, a disc golf course, a bicycle museum and the Spamtown Belle boat cruise. Legoland Dubai is slated to open next month. In the Bay Area, Great Wolf Lodge is in discussions with the city of Gilroy to open a huge water park.

Children’s Fairyland is pleased to have survived 66 years of ever-increasing competition for families’ leisure dollars. We’re happy to report that our choice to go noncommercial and low-tech/high-touch continues to resonate with our community’s families.

But if I’m ever in Austin, Minnesota, I definitely plan on getting Spammed. With bacon.

-- C.J. Hirschfield has served for 14 years as executive director of Children's Fairyland, where she is charged with the overall operation of the nation's first storybook theme park. 

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