Better Than The Original

Eds. Note:

Replica mania for a zero decade that downshifts to the speed of the counterfeit.
- A & M Kroker

"Stroll through Central Park. Ride the kind of rollercoaster that made Coney Island famous. Shop along Park Avenue. And visit the Statue of Liberty. All without leaving Las Vegas."

This announcement 1 exemplifies a fast-growing trend -- the Great Places Replica. This recent contribution to a hassle-free life -- a basic human need the business world, luckily, is meeting -- cancels at one stroke vacation annoyances such as long airplane trips, jet lag, passport and customs headaches, unfamiliar languages and currencies. Now you can travel without traveling thanks to the two world Replica capitals, Orlando and Las Vegas.

In Las Vegas, New York is ready for you at its namesake -- a recently inaugurated hotel-cum-city featuring, says its Internet ad, "twelve New York-style hotel towers extending 48 stories and 525 feet, featuring replicas of the Empire State, Chrysler, ATT and Century Buildings". The copies -- a common characteristic of the Great Places Replicas -- look much better than the original.

Once you have done New York, you can hail a cab to Venice without leaving downtown Las Vegas. At the Venetian Hotel, 2 "the world's most romantic city is now at the heart of the world's best destination location". The hotel is a faithful replica of the Doge's Palace, featuring imposing halls, grand corridors, mosaics and decorations, majestic furniture and thick carpets. Again, it is an improvement on the original, since its builders could take advantage of construction techniques unknown in 1309.

You can then go to Paris 3 -- the Paris Hotel -- and "stroll down the cobblestone sidewalks of the Rue de la Paix shopping district", with the Eiffel Tower looming in the distance. Luxor, Egypt, 4 is right around the corner, with a 30-story pyramid and "King Tut's Tomb and museum."

But Orlando, Florida, has even more to offer. No need, for instance, to go to Portofino, the romantic fishing village on one of the Italian Riviera's most beautiful bays, long the playground of the likes of Aristotle Onassis, the Dukes of Windsor, Liz Taylor and Richard Burton. Now an improved version is available at Portofino Bay Hotel, 5 courtesy of the Loews Hotels corporation. "Escape to a romantic Mediterranean seaside village nestled around a small bay recreated at the Orlando Vacation Destination for the 21st Century" says the Internet ad. Just a five-minute ride from the Universal Studios theme parks, Portofino 2 offers 750 guest rooms -- possibly more than those available at Portofino 1 -- not to mention "two Bocce Ball Courts". Again, the immaculate replica looks much better than the worn-out, weather-battered original.

But the densest, most mind-boggling group of Replicas is the one at Disneyworld's World Showcase. 6 There, Canada, China, France, Germany, Italy, Mexico, Morocco, Norway, the United Kingdom, and "Adventure America" are all gathered in one place. In the last Replica -- as it happens for Las Vegas's New York -- America is made available in America. No need to travel there.

In Japan, "the torii gate welcomes you to a beautiful land of finely manicured landscapes and ancient pagodas". In Mexico, "lush vegetation grows all about an imposing pyramid that houses a charming village inside". In China, "the Disney version of Beijing's Temple of Heaven welcomes you to a land of exotic mysteries". In Morocco, "magnificent mosaic art and stonework are the hallmarks of this winding world of courtyards, shops and street markets".

In Norway, the stand-out is a replica of the monumental Stave Church, built entirely of wood. "This curiously intimate structure," says the Internet ad, "is styled after the Gol Church of Hallingdal, which was built around 1250 AD". Not even the sacred escapes Replica-mania.

Paris and Venice seem to be the world's most duplicated cities. In Disney's Italy, "the Doge's Palace in Venice is the centerpiece of this incredible reproduction of the sights and sounds of Italy" (mercifully, not the smells). Next door, "the charming streets of France are recreated right down to the sidewalk cafes, quaint boutiques and the Eiffel Tower off in the distance". This makes for three Doge's Palaces and three Eiffel Towers in the world -- two of each replicas.

Each Disney country features a specific tour. One leads to the discovery of "Mexico's architecture and art as you take a guided walking tour of the Mexican showcase". Another offers "the inspirational music and stunning panoramic views of France, in relaxing comfort" (the theme of painlessness is reiterated).

Other Replicas are certainly in the offing, taking advantage of their Great Places in the collective imagination. But what is the point of giving a resort the patent of nobility conferred by a world-famous place thousands of miles away? Why couldn't a hotel be just a hotel? Why is this collective fiction going on, with both the corporation and the visitor knowing that this is not the real thing?

What can this tell us about a culture where everything is easy, painless and transparently smooth? Where even travel comes only with its rewards, without effort and sweat, sanitized, hygienic, made familiar and comfortable, and reduced to entertainment?

If travelling is the best way of learning, what can be learned from a stay at the replica? Isn't this the equivalent of other shortcuts -- like the resumes of Great Books in cassette, for easy listening during the work commute?

And isn't social class playing a role here, since the well off indeed are at the real Marrakesh, Portofino and Paris, while the middle class has to be content with the copy? Perhaps the Replicas have this to tell us -- that the authentic is for the few, while the many must make the most of the fictional, and pretend there isn't anything more to life.








Edoardo Bellando works as a freelance writer for Italian dailies and magazines, and since 1985 has worked as an editor for the United Nations, first in Nairobi, now in New York.