AmericanaCraziest Vacation Spots09.07.11AmericanaCraziest Vacation SpotsFrom Epcot to Babyland General, an end-of-summer celebration of theme parks, roadside attractions, and more strange places photographer David Walter Banks calls ‘altered theatrical realities.’09.07.11 2:50 AM ETDavid Walter BanksFrom Epcot to Babyland General, an end-of-summer celebration of theme parks, roadside attractions, and more strange places photographer David Walter Banks calls ‘altered theatrical realities.’ Photographer David Walter Banks calls the places he shoots “altered theatrical realities.” You probably just call them “where we went on our vacation.” It’s a know-it-when-you-see-it category that includes conventional theme parks, themed environments such as the Caribbean vacation spot Atlantis, and the mom-and-pop roadside attractions that preceded Disney’s lands and worlds. Banks calls his project “The Fourth Wall,” after the theatrical conceit that the audience is staring through the invisible fourth wall at the actors on stage. Noting that as children we are taught to discriminate between the real and the imaginary—that we learn quite early to build our own fourth walls—Banks thinks that theme parks and their kin allow us to destroy that wall by, as he puts it, “pretending we are in a place or time that we are not.” Goodbye, global warming, unemployment, and love handles. Hello, Renaissance Faire. David Walter Banks1. Weeki Wachee SpringsThis is “old” Florida—meaning pre-Disney—at its best. It’s a mermaid show in this tiny town on the Gulf Coast (even the mayor is a former mermaid), complete with lithe Floridian ladies who don fins, suck on air hoses, and pretend to be mermaids in Peter Pan, Underwater Circus, The Wizard of Oz, and The Little Mermaid. It all takes place inside a giant glass-sided tank. (Hollywood has shot countless underwater scenes at Weeki Wachee.) Over time the proprietors have added a water park, boat rides, and a Misunderstood Animals (snakes, for short) show, but it’s the mermaids whose siren calls still lure you off the highway. David Walter Banks2. South of the BorderIt’s all about the buildup. For 100 miles in either direction on I-95, billboards dominated by Pedro, a politically incorrect cartoon Mexican, implore you to stop at South of the Border, the border being the state line between North and South Carolina. What began in 1949 as a little Dillon, S.C., beer stand has grown into the sprawling temple of tacky that today lures motorists looking for a place to sleep (amid the ghosts of a thousand chain smokers), a bite to eat, an amusement park, a reptile show, a gift shop (fireworks, hats from around the world), an observation tower in the shape of a giant sombrero, or perhaps just a pecan log for the road. It may all be more sizzle than steak, but this is sizzle you ought to see. David Walter Banks3. Silverton Casino LodgeSometimes it seems like everything in Las Vegas is really Something Else. Here we have a faux Airstream trailer inside a casino—sorry, casino lodge (the prime motivation behind all design in Vegas being to get you in and keep you in)—and inside the Airstream is a miniature bowling alley. Inside the casino lodge, besides the pretend Airstream and the usual gaming tables, bedrooms, restaurants, Starbucks, and 117,000-gallon aquarium, is a Bass Pro Shops that—still inside the casino lodge—boasts more than 165,000 square feet of space holding an archery range, an indoor shooting range, and a rock climbing wall. David Walter Banks4. Abandoned CastleIf you build it, they may or may not come, they may not stay, and they may not come back, which is apparently what happened to this turreted, crenellated heap looming like Charles Foster Kane’s Xanadu over a string of motels in Kissimmee, Fla. David Walter Banks5. Atlantis ResortAtlantis, on Paradise Island in the Bahamas, and now in Dubai, sells itself as a sort of cradle-to-grave vacation spot, the idea being to get you there, keep you there, and never let you go. They, too, have an aquarium, a casino, spas, hotels, speedway, nightclubs, restaurants, golfing, and more fake lagoons than you can count. Oh, and as pictured here, a waterslide that starts in a sort of Mayan temple and proceeds to send you (in a tube) through the middle of a shark-filled aquarium. Calling Dr. No. David Walter Banks6. EpcotSon: Let’s go to the Magic Kingdom. Mom: No, I don’t like rides, let’s go to Epcot. Son: Mom! Disney World is all rides. Mothers, listen to your sons. Epcot promises to be more about education than entertainment, but in fact what they’re selling is the idea of education, sort of like those Nova docs where you think you’re learning something about, say, red dwarves, but if someone put a gun to your head 20 minutes after the show was over and demanded that you cough up five facts about astronomy, well, good luck. But we should be polite, because this is “Canada,” one of the 11 “countries” included in the Epcot World Showcase. Wander from country to country (they circle a big fake lagoon), buy souvenirs, sample the various cuisines. At the end of the day, this being Florida, i.e., hot and humid most of the time, you’ll wish it really were a small world after all. David Walter Banks7. Fernbank Natural History MuseumAtlanta’s natural history museum—where the floors are paved with 40,000 limestone tiles, each containing a fossil—features topiary dinosaurs (somehow ancestors of Kermit, no doubt) at the back entrance to the facility, There is also a 65-acre hardwood forest that preserves the original Piedmont landscape (dinosaurs not included) as it existed before agriculture and urban development changed the look of everything. David Walter Banks8. Holy Land ExperienceAn actor playing Jesus welcomes visitors to this Christian theme park in Orlando, which bills itself as “a living biblical museum and a park that brings the world of the Bible alive!” A map on the park’s website lists attractions that include The Old Scroll Shop (“experience first century shopping”), a Scriptorium, where you may study the way the Bible was compiled, a scale model of ancient Jerusalem, and a recreation of the Qumran caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. There are also plenty of places to eat, including Centurion Treats (just down from Calvary’s Garden Tomb) and Simeon’s Corner, where you can grab hot dogs, corn dogs, and nachos. David Walter Banks9. Babyland General HospitalSince Xavier Roberts sewed his first Cabbage Patch Kid in 1976 (they were called Little People back then), millions of his “kids,” complete with birth certificates, have been sold worldwide. Now the kids have their own hospital, a sprawling colonial mansion built on 650 acres in the North Georgia mountains where you may watch Cabbage Patch Kids being helped into this world by “our Licensed Patch Doctors and Nurses.” Cynics will call this a glorified gift shop, but it’s much stranger than that, with its nursery rooms filled with infant dolls waiting for adoption and its detailed mythology in which the “Bunnybees flying all around sprinkle magic crystal dust on the mother cabbages and that magic causes Cabbage Patch Kids to be born in the Cabbage Patch.” So you may call it a threat or you may call it a promise, but “Babyland General Hospital is the only place in the world where you can witness the birth of a hand-sculpted Cabbage Patch Kid.” David Walter Banks10. Johnny RocketsJohnny Rockets is an international chain of retro diners that promises “the food, fun and friendliness reminiscent of feel-good Americana.” And is there anything more reminiscent of feel-good Americana than zombies? Seated at the Johnny Rockets in the Atlanta Underground Mall, these slightly wiped-out looking zombies have just finished the fourth annual Zombie Walk, part of the Atlanta Horror Festival. The zombies aren’t always in residence, but they seem so apt: people pretending to be something they’re not in a place pretending to be 50 years in the past.