Tuesday we sent my in-laws to the demilitarized zone for the day. They were eager to go — though not, perhaps, quite so eager until they had spent several days in close confines with three jet-lagged grandchildren. Did we consider joining them? Heaven forfend. If the first classic blunder is "never start a land war in Asia," the second is surely "having ended a land war in Asia, never visit its demilitarized zone with a patholigicaly mischievous child." So we didn't.
Instead, we took the kids to Lotte World.
On a . . . we'll, let's call it on a lark, we took the subway. Now, Seoul's subways are almost creepily clean, efficient, quiet, and swift. But at nine on a Tuesday morning they're ridiculously crowded with quiet, impassive people — people whose morning calm is just sitting there like a crystal vase, waiting to be shattered by noisy kids. The ride took one transfer, about 22 stops, forty minutes, and innumerable hissed instructions to cut that out. For most of that they were standing, in close quarters. We got many, many unknowable glances and even stares. How do the people staring feel about foreigners raising Korean children? Hard to say. This morning one Korean woman — visiting from California, where she lives with a child — used her modest English to thank and bless me for raising these kids. Though I offered my usual response — that we, the parents, are the ones who are blessed by the kids — such sentiments are much easier to swallow from Koreans than from the Americans who gush that our children are so lucky. I never claimed to be even-handed.
Anyway: Lotte World. It's the Korean Disneyland. Sort of. First, it's much smaller. Thank God for that. Second, half of it is indoors, contained in a vast dome, like a Disnified Logan's Run:
The Jamsil subway stop dumps you directly into the bowels of the place; you have to wend your way through several levels of stores to get to the under-gate.
The third difference — and this is really more about Korea vs. America than it is about Lotte vs. Disney — I couldn't find any obese people. I've slimmed down quite a bit from my peak, but I was still the largest person there. There was hardly anyone I'd even describe as pudgy. At one point I thought I saw a gentleman of my stature, but as I got closer I realized that he was a costumed character, a bear with a plastic smile and possibly some sort of glandular condition. All of this is, of course, in violent contrast with Disney, where I go to feel comparatively waifish. Do Koreans all exercise more? It seems unlikely. There are a hell of a lot of them in Seoul and it's not that big of a peninsula. Is their diet so much better? Well, they drink more than we do per capita, and their food vendors sell heavily breaded deep-fried hot dogs on street corners. Maybe it's all the fish and seaweed.
A fourth difference: no disrespect to Lotte World, but Uncle Walt would give them a smirk and a condescending pat on the head when he saw their relatively feeble grasp of separating people from their money. There were a handful of sort-of-barely-recognizable characters, but they were not emblazoned upon every surface of the place, and there was not a shop selling their memorabilia every ten feet. What was sold was expensive but not gold-rush-price-gouging expensive. There were a number of ride exits that did not spill into the middle of gift shops. And the music! My friends, you've got to be constantly playing the music from your movies and cartoons so the kids will scream for the CDs and DVDs and so on. I was charmed to hear Su! del Nilo al sacro lido, but the kids aren't going to be bugging me to buy muzak versions of Aida any time soon.
Also, Lotte World is a whole lot more laid back than Disney. There's a militaristic air about Disneyland that makes it a bit easier to believe the urban legends about the detention center under Main Street; even the keep-off-the-grass signs come off all shouty. Lotte World's signs are more, like, "hey, keep an eye out, you don't want to get beheaded or anything, I guess; but have a good time!"
Anyway, the kids loved Lotte World. Evan and Abby insisted on trying to make me hurl right from the first ride:
We then cast about looking for rides that Elaina might like. There was an "Adventures of Sindbad" ride. We pondered. Sinbad's a sailor and general adventurer. That's likely to involve scary stuff. But then a teacher led a huge troupe of preschoolers clad in identical yellow uniforms into the ride, and we thought, how bad can it be? Answer: very. From the video playing on the monitors facing the line (featuring a noticeably topheavy princess and a Sindbad who the grace to look profoundly embarrassed by his awful fake mustache), to the dark, extremely noisy, smoky, scary ride, everything terrified Elaina and Abby. Another difference: Disney may have taken steps to make the Pirates of the Caribbean ride more politically correct, but Lotte World sees no need. That was clear from the villains leering at women in silks (the villains all Anglo, the women all sort of Asian) to the rather gruesome Cyclops eating a guy's leg, a trail of gristle leading from his mouth to the thighbone. Even thought it was awesome.
Chastened, we sought out and found more appropriate fare. We took the monorail through the indoor park and over the outside park, and took fake hot air balloons to see everything from near the ceiling. That got us out of the way during one of the parades, the theme and organizing principle of which seemed to be "characters we don't have to pay to license":
The kids enjoyed it all, including the play areas and things to climb upon:
Evan pulled me towards an attraction called the "Tomb of Horrors," but I pointed out that, primus, we've already scared the wits out his sisters today, and secondus, I've got this character up to 41st level and I'm not going to scrap it because some sociopath thinks it's funny to put a sphere of annihilation in the third room. He didn't get the second part — yet. He's only a proto-geek.
We had a sort-of Western lunch in a deserted "steak house," and later snacks. Katrina dared me to have a peanut-buttered roast squid.
What will I get if I do that, I ask. A kiss, she says. Hey, I love you, but you're a damn liar, I say, because I've lived with you for 15 years and I know you aren't going to kiss me after I eat a squid, let alone a peanut-buttered one. I had an iced tea instead. I can live with being safe.
After only four or five hours, we'd all had enough. We splurged on a taxi (also ridiculously clean, cheap, and efficient in Seoul, though they drive like maniacs). The inevitable quickly happened:
No dinner expeditions — sandwiches in the room (and a good Korean beer for me).
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