Land’s End: The Fun Problem

How much mass entertainment can one county stand?

I moved to Orange County a long time ago, and shortly afterward some friends from Arizona showed up on my doorstep. I hadn’t the heart to turn them away.

It was July and 110 degrees in Phoenix. Their suitcases were heaped poignantly with flippers and beach towels. But when we got down to the water, it was 60 degrees and cloudy. Lathered with sunblock, they planted themselves and hoped the day would brighten, but hours passed and the post-June gloom lingered.

Shivering in the cold sand, they put on their sweatshirts. Then they trudged back to the house, where they bickered before settling for a trip to Knott’s Berry Farm with their toddler. That did the trick. By the time they got back from their roller coasters and chicken dinners, they were so happy it was as if they’d spent the day on a postcard. And thus I discovered the key to successful entertaining in Southern California: Always live in the vicinity of a theme park.

So I can appreciate the buzz about Great Wolf Lodge Southern California, the new indoor water park that’s coming soon to Garden Grove. Far be it from me to doubt the allure of 100,000 square feet of woodsy-themed pools, water slides, and tunnels. Not even in a drought. Not even eight miles from the Pacific Ocean.

Because you never know when you’re going to need a mass leisure diversion. And other than, well, Knott’s and Disneyland and the Orange County Fair and the Irvine Spectrum and Legoland to the south and Universal Studios just up the freeway—oh, and Anaheim Stadium and the Honda Center and the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater and the Sawdust Festival and the Pageant of the Masters—this place hardly has anything to do outside of South Coast Plaza and Fashion Island.

I kid. I’m sure Great Wolf Lodge will be up to its neck in amped out-of-towners. And good move putting it indoors. Thanks to global warming, everyone here is getting creeped out by the sun anyway.

Still, this park, slated to open in 2016, does raise certain questions about our appetite for fun zones. I like a controlled environment as much as the next person (assuming the next person isn’t the architect of Irvine), but how many theme parks do you build before people start to wonder whether you have, you know, a problem? At what point do you find yourself insisting that, honest, you can quit anytime, and after this one you’re over it?

It’s one thing to have a go-to alternative for houseguests, but what happens when your whole county starts to look like the backup? So let’s say it out loud: We’re powerless over this thing we have for predictable mass entertainment. Only a power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity.

And, lo, that power has spoken. For did Disneyland not raise its ticket prices this year and suspend new sales of its SoCal Annual Passports? You know it did, and so do the folks in your guest room. Maybe it’s time to take the hint and step away from the turnstile.

One day at a time, Orange County. Let’s go to the beach. Apparently, it’s free.

Illustration by Brett Affrunti
This article originally appeared in the August 2014 issue.

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