Real or fake? The subjective nature of meaningful travel

by Steve Brock on August 17, 2011

Disney World's Magic Kingdom: Real or Fake? You be the judge.

In their book, Authenticity, authors James Gilmore and Joseph Pine note that experiences fall into four categories: real/real, real/fake, fake/real and fake/fake. The first part pertains to whether the place, person or thing is what it says it is. The second part refers to whether it is true to itself or not.

A dinner out with a loved one is real/real: it is what it says it is: a real experience with a real person in a real place. Moreover, hopefully both parties are true to themselves as is the restaurant, meaning that what the couple experiences is a real experience.

As an example of real/fake, the authors point out City Walk at Universal Studios. It’s real in the sense that you can see the facades of the buildings and they don’t hide that it is like a movie set. But it’s a fake experience in that you’re not really on a movie set and you know it’s just a commercial ploy to get you to spend more money at the stores. Real place, fake experience.

Disneyland, on the other hand, is fake/real. You know it isn’t an actual “Magic Kingdom.” (Sorry to disillusion any of you. I’ll not comment on the tooth fairy…). The whole premise is fake. But they are true to themselves and the magic of the story they are telling and the emotions people experience there are real. Fake place, real emotions.

Fake/fake examples abound: just turn on your TV. Fake situations that engender fake emotions. Another example is Harley Davidson. Surprised? So was I because some people would argue Harley Davidson is an example of real/real: The bike is real and the emotions evoked are real.

Most motorcycle aficionados, however, will tell you that despite the hoopla over a “Hog,” there are far better motorcycles out there. So in that sense, even the product is fake in that it isn’t fully what it says it is. And the experience itself? The average Harley owner rides his or her bike about seventy miles per year. Middle-aged, middle-class males buy their bikes, tell their friends, join the club…and let their motorcycles (nicely polished, of course) sit in the garage. Not exactly real.

As the Harley example shows, this real/fake exercise isn’t science. What’s real to one person may to someone else be as phony as that inheritance your new “friend” in Nigeria tells you about via email.

This approach, however, helps explain why my trip to Green Gables wasn’t as satisfying as I thought it would be. In a sense, it was, to me, fake/fake: The place itself was fake (though built around a real house) and the emotions evoked felt artificial as well.

Our challenge isn’t to go through life evaluating if something is real or fake. Such a critical yet subjective mindset only reinforces our cynicism. Our task is to look for the meaning in places which on the surface may seem fake to others and to find something of value there.

So in the end, am I glad we went to Green Gables? Absolutely. Just being in a place of beauty itself has value. Plus, sharing the experience – red-haired, pig-tailed wig, carriage and all – with my family had meaning, for it is a story we now call our own.

And that is very real.

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