‘Adventureland’: Hooked by Travel Writing and the Adventure of Summer Jobs
Travel Blog • Eva Holland • 04.14.09 | 12:06 PM ET
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.