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The Commercialization of Travel

M&Ms World, American Doll Place and more – are kids losing touch with the imagination of travel?

Among the endless parades of mainstream city tourist traps, has piling in the mini-van for a family camping trip or week exploring tide pools and body surfing at the beach become passé? Or is it the unique culture of big cities that I’ve always found so exciting that’s now being replaced by the homogenization of Big Brands?

Traveling used to be special, whimsical, exploratory. Now my friends’ kids beg for trips to M&Ms World, American Doll emporiums, and themed restaurants whose names I can’t remember.

M&Ms World? American Girl Place? As a destination?

I’m nostalgic for the days when vacation meant adventure, of paper maps and the excitement of really sinking my teeth into a new place without having Googled every detail and itinerary beforehand. With Instagram envy and other social media intensity, the days of that one cherished, annual family or couple’s vacation getaway seem to be fading fast.

It’s almost impossible to get a camping permit at Yellowstone or other National Parks, so these treasures are being appreciated more than ever. So what exactly is being replaced by the sojourns to Taylor Swift concerts for $50 T-shirts, or to Times Square for that aforementioned M&Ms monstrosity?

As a kid, I spent many family vacations at good old-fashioned beaches. And yeah, sometimes I was bored. I whined. We always rented a house to really get away, so we weren’t even at a hotel with other kids (and my brothers were useless). But then I’d start digging for sand dollars, watching the fish, or innocently frolicking in the water or mud. And you know what would happen? I actually found sand dollars! And had fun! I wasn’t worried about pricey souvenirs or crowded attractions. The most expensive thing we bought was sticky saltwater taffy in any flavors we wanted.

We ate other candy, too – this was our vacation after all. My mom loaded us up with sugary surprises (and stickers and toys) to get us through the long car ride there. But unlike today’s kids begging for M&Ms World, the silly treats were forgotten once we got to our big adventure.

And when I returned home, my beloved American Girl doll was just fine waiting for me with her original hairdo. American Doll Place is a genius concept – I just don’t think it should take the place of a family trip. And yes, I’ve heard of this happening.

Even the city that was already the most loveably commercial of all—my adult hometown of Las Vegas—has somehow gotten even more commercial. The iconic Las Vegas Strip is phasing out its themed hotels, once charming only-in-Vegas wonders, and one chain after another is popping up to litter the landscape. The Everything Coca Cola factory faces across the street from a giant new, wait for it, M&M’s World attraction. Several doors down is a Cabo Wabo Cantina, a Señor Frogs and several tacky, oversized Walgreens and CVS drug stores. What was once my favorite kitschy pirate-themed free show is now a strip mall. Even the high-end stores are all the same: The tiny, four-mile long Strip has four Tiffany & Co. stores alone! It’s a far cry from the days of classic glitz, glamour and Frank Sinatra. Where’s the imagination? If tourists want a taste of old Vegas and non-chain options, they now have to head all the way downtown, where classics such as the Golden Nugget, The Plaza and Four Queens still operate.

So what’s to blame for some of this commercial excess? Marketing and advertising are in our faces more than ever before. We’re taking in more messages than ever, barely able to pay attention to anything not mass marketed. We’re almost too busy to look for the hidden gems among corporate echelons. Disney has always straddled the commercial and the dreamy (disclaimer: I grew up 10 minutes from Disney World), with annual passes at astronomical fees and gift shops galore, but that magic, too, of that special moment getting your picture taken with your favorite princess. But now you go from Disney to an American Girl destination to a Thomas the Train trip, to New York where the kids want candy instead of the Chrysler Building, Annie. Ah! I can’t take it!

Even less touristy hot spots such as Nashville are fully on the bandwagon. While you’ll find a lot of old-school Southern gems, such as The Bluebird Café, you can’t exit without tables of merchandise offerings in your face. A little ways out, The Loveless Café, has two gift shops filled to the brim with tourists daily, hawking everything from plates to paintings to biscuit mix wrapped in its signature logo. And this is for a café in the middle of nowhere!

There are still plenty of families, couples, and travelers that partake in genuine travel—making the effort to get to that antique shop, hunting down an old celebrity’s decaying mansion, trekking to a historic café. Going off the beaten path keeps our sense of adventure alive. Booking an independent hotel with history, hiking to secret waterfalls, discovering underground caves, exploring and watching something as simple as a magnificent sunset infuses my spirit in a way material things never could.

Authentic vacations can be truly educational and enlightening as well. Washington, D.C.’s patriotic landmarks such as The White House, Washington Monument and the city’s many Memorials teach us about history while remaining unfailingly iconic. A New York City jaunt should include a somber stop at National September 11 Trade Center and Museum, while you can’t visit Arizona without seeing the Grand Canyon. Even the drive along the scenic California coast is a sight in itself.

Kids these days are dying to go into the city to get that one thing that everyone else has instead of traveling somewhere different to see the one thing that their friends have never even dreamed of.

Me, I’m still digging for sand dollars – and traveling the world looking for bigger and bigger dreams.

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