‘Adventureland’: Hooked by Travel Writing and the Adventure of Summer Jobs

Travel Blog  •  Eva Holland  •  04.14.09 | 12:06 PM ET

Publicity still via IGN

I can tell you the exact moment I came off the fence and really fell for Adventureland, the theme park-set comedy romance that hit theaters last weekend.

Early on, not long after starting his grim summer job as a games operator at the local amusement park, protagonist James tells love interest Em what his earnings are for: he wants to move to New York City, complete a master’s in journalism at Columbia University and become a travel writer. But, he’s quick to add, he wants to write travel stories about “real life,” like Charles Dickens.

I’m not far removed from my own dreamy undergraduate perusals of the Columbia website, and I love a good real-life travel story, too—so naturally, I was hooked.

I soon learned that there was a lot to love about “Adventureland” beyond the main character’s taste in travel lit. Frankly, it’s one of the more evocative re-creations of a time and place that I’ve seen in a long while—and made all the more impressive by the banal familiarity of the scene it conjures up so faithfully.

The story follows the summer employees at Adventureland, a tattered theme park on the outskirts of Pittsburgh, in the summer of 1987. It was shot at 111-year-old Kennywood, an alternate location that writer-director Greg Mottola settled on after learning that the Long Island theme park of his childhood memories was no more. As Mottola told the L.A. Times: “A lot of amusement parks are very corporate these days. They have a lot of cartoon character affiliations with Disney or Warner Bros., and we didn’t want that. We were looking for that one amusement park that hasn’t changed much over the years.”

They may be increasingly rare these days, but I think most of us can still recall a ratty theme park or local fair from our youth. Mine was Ottawa’s grandly named SuperEx, an annual August blow-out of rip-off carnival games, junk food and nausea-inducing rides where I (don’t laugh) served up deep-fried pastries for three high school summers. “Adventureland” had me thinking back to my SuperEx days for the first time in years, and what struck me was the transitory nature of the whole scene. The carnies, of course, were always on the move, packing and unpacking the rides and games at fairs and carnivals across North America. The buskers that roamed the grounds were nomadic, too, most of them with a year-long slate of street festivals to attend. As for the crew of local teens that staffed the ticket booths and pizza stands, well, most of us were saving our measly wages for trips to Europe, or the Warped Tour, or Cancun.

Here’s hoping that Greg Mottola is wrong about the vanishing theme parks of decades past. Beyond providing cheap thrills, sugar highs and upset stomachs to the masses, old theme parks are also (as “Adventureland” makes so clear) home to a roving community of memorable characters—and yes, to more than their fair share of those “real-life” travel stories, too.

Eva Holland is co-editor of World Hum. She is a former associate editor at Up Here and Up Here Business magazines, and a contributor to Vela. She's based in Canada's Yukon territory.

9 Comments for ‘Adventureland’: Hooked by Travel Writing and the Adventure of Summer Jobs

Sophia Dembling 04.14.09 | 12:45 PM ET

For me it was Palisades Amusement Park (“swings all day and after dark”).


Jenna Schnuer 04.14.09 | 5:11 PM ET

Adventureland was kind of sort of a perfect movie. I thought it would be good but it went far beyond good. Smart flick.

My Adventureland was Fantasy Island, which was down the shore (for those of you who don’t know, that means the New Jersey shore). Since that time, they’ve prettied the place up but, back then, it was…well, ew. And I loved it. There was nothing better than an evening at Fantasy Island, my pocket full of quarters for Centipede and pinball. For anybody who wants to visit it now:


Grizzly Bear Mom 04.14.09 | 8:18 PM ET

Mine was Great Adventure (no NJ natives dont call its Six Flags!)  I used to work the games.  For my own amusement I would call little kids over to play for free.  It was great fun as well as a good opportunity to learn marketing.  I can’t gelieve we have three NJ postings in a row.  And no it isn’t the armpit of the universe.  I would live there instead of DC if I could have afforded it.

Jenna Schnuer 04.14.09 | 8:24 PM ET

Grizzly Bear Mom—Great Adventure was my runner-up Adventureland! I’ve been thinking I need to visit it again this summer. As for Jersey, I promise, as long as I write for World Hum, the state will always have a defender on the premises:



Eva Holland 04.14.09 | 9:46 PM ET

Sophia - That is a fabulous tagline.

Jenna and Grizzly Bear Mom - Jersey seems to be a good spot for vintage theme parks! Seems like a reason to visit all on its own.

Here’s another good one from my childhood, Story Book Park:


Jennifer 04.15.09 | 8:17 AM ET

I have to admit, the first time I saw a preview for Adventureland I thought to myself, “Oh no, not another teen movie”!  But….before the preview was over I was sold.  It just looked different!  Now that I know that the movie takes place in the 80’s and the protagonist is an aspiring travel writer, I’m definitely interested!  Can’t wait to see it and thanks for the post! 

As long as we’re all listing the Theme Parks of our youth, how about King’s Island near Cincinnati, Ohio?  As long as I can remember it always had a “corporatey” feel (but really, as a kid, who pays attention to that?) with areas like Hannah Barbara Land for the kids, etc., but the memories of riding Dino in the Flinstones ride or the boats on the Smurf Ride (which was the best), it doesn’t get any better than that!!

Jenna Schnuer 04.15.09 | 9:03 AM ET

Jennifer—Adventureland’s definitely not just another teen movie, at least not in that teen movie sense. And as far as it being a travel movie—it was also a huge trip back in time. I was 17 in 1987—when the movie takes place—and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie that captured the feeling of being in that age range in the late 80s anywhere near as much as Adventureland did.

pam 04.15.09 | 10:27 AM ET

The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Indoor minigolf, a rattling wooden roller coaster, the overhead gondola ride from one end to the other so you could have your own little party 20 feet into the air. I have pictures on my fridge taken in a photobooth there—NOT digital ones—taken 15 years ago on a visit after I’d been away for 10 years, and it seems like time had stopped then.

Ramble ramble. Tacky amusement parks. What’s not to love?

Sophia Dembling 04.15.09 | 11:17 AM ET

Oh, is it the Santa Cruz boardwalk that has Laffing Sal? My grandma used to totally creep me out imitating then when she told stories about Coney Island.

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