America as Fan Developed Theme(park)

Miniland USA tells a semiotic narrative—that is, a story in symbols— of a modern nation at play rendered as a collection of scenes from largely affluent, urban, coastal areas. What unifies these discreet sections of Miniland into a representation of America is the visitor himself. Moving from one regional depiction to another transforms the tourist’s body into the connective tissue that knits the miniature nation together.3 Similarly, the visitor performs a simulation of national tourism, visiting each area of the Minilandscape in a manner that mimics the experience of travel in the jet age. Tourists in Miniland, like tourists in the life-sized U.S., can go directly from New Orleans to Las Vegas or from New York City to California without having to traverse even a simulation of the “flyover country” in between. The United States of Miniland is an archipelago of tourist destinations bound together by its “American” theme.

This America is encountered in a concentrated form (the miniature) in a space of concentrated experience (the theme park), rendering a heightened emotional effect on the beholder. Gaston Bachelard (1884-1962) in his Poetics of Space describes the relationship between miniaturization and time as one in which time slows down, asserting that one lingers over the miniature in order to savor its delicate detail.4 However, in the setting of the miniature theme park, promotional literature touts the expediency of being able to see a variety of exhibits/replicas/environments in a condensed period of time, implying that the experience of the replica environment is more efficient than the real world.5

By definition, the miniature is a representation of something that already exists in larger form elsewhere.6 The fidelity with which the model maker reproduces the referent structure, to be instantly recognizable to those familiar with its large-scale counterpart, is one of the measures of his skill.7 The miniature America of Miniland USA assumes such familiarity on the part of its audience with the structures and landscapes represented and, accordingly, presents representations of those structures and landscapes most recognizable to the largest number of potential visitors.8

Geography is likewise manipulated to rearrange the literal landscape of the nation and bring far-flung metropolitan areas together. Given the vast geographical area of the United States, this spatial collapse is considered by designers and visitors alike as a value-added element, enabling attraction-goers to “see” more of the country by going to the miniature park than they would be able to if they literally, physically traveled to each destination portrayed. This idea that an ersatz version of a nation would be preferable to the “real thing” is a notion that recurs frequently in literature regarding tourist attractions and themed environments.9

Contemporary domestic tourism envisions the United States as several distinct geographic zones, differentiated by metropolitan centers and regional characteristics (primarily climate, food, and dialect). Tourist guides and maps reinforce this configuration, highlighting roughly the same delineation of regions: The Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, Southeast, Southwest, Midwest, and Pacific Northwest.10 Echoing this conception of the national itinerary, LEGOLAND California’s Miniland USA contains miniature versions of six different American locations: New York City, Washington DC, “New England,” New Orleans, Las Vegas, and California.

Notably, each of these areas in the country at large is itself a popular tourist destination, which undoubtedly influenced its choice for inclusion. In order to fully appreciate the fidelity with which the LEGO replicas were reproduced, the visiting public would need prior acquaintance with images of the landmarks depicted. Thus, structures with images already circulating in the popular imagination as representative of specific American places would be most suitable for simulation in Miniland, and the mechanism of tourist imagery, its creation and circulation, would work to represent those areas as desirable.

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