the happiest place on earth

Admittedly, I've never been to Disneyland. But I understand why the folks with the mouse ears claim to have built the most wonderful, joyous place that the young and young at heart could ever dream of. I have always loved Disney cartoons, and as a child the idea of a journey to that World really was the ultimate dream; watching lucky strangers win trips to the holy grail week after week on Saturday Disney was about as torturous as it got in my life as a seven-year-old.

The thing is, though, while I don't deny the magic that Disneyland creates for children who are lucky enough to get there, for the rest of us it is simply a reminder that we can't go to the Happiest Place on Earth: we're too unlucky, too far away, too poor. Which means that Disneyland, and to a lesser extent, local theme parks like Movie World, are for most of us a slap in the face, taunting us with what we will never have. That we somehow aren't good enough to experience real happiness.

While I'm sure that kids visiting Disneyland do experience a large dose of happiness, they do so at the hands of a global corporation that uses its theme parks to push endless multimedia properties and sell millions of utterly disposable souvenirs, and they also do so at great expense to their parents.

I know at this point I sound extremely cynical, and I could also quite justifiably be accused of killing large amounts of joy. However, I do so only as an introduction to something that I am significantly less hostile towards.

The wonderful place that is Darwin has a little park located just a short drive from its city centre. It has three super-dooper water slides, a large man-made lagoon, a water playground complete with a giant bucket that periodically dumps its refreshing contents onto whomever happens to be standing below it, and plenty of communal BBQs for those all-important meals. While this park, the Leanyer Recreation Park, probably doesn't bring as much happiness™ as the land of the Mouse, I guarantee that it brings a whole lot less unhappiness to children that are aware of its presence. The simple reason is this: the park is free. Open to all. Unlimited, free rides on the water slides. You can slide all day if it takes your fancy. (And in Darwin weather, it just might.) Unlimited opportunities to stand under a giant bucket full of water, waiting nervously for the drop while surrounding kids giddily tell you that you're not allowed to look at the bucket for fear of ruining the gleeful shock of the water dump.

Its well-worn playthings, with their bright, non-corporate colours, are as wonderful now as I imagine they were for the first children that used them, simply because they are free and available to use. Like the toddler who gets more joy out of the cardboard box than the overpriced toy within, kids at this park don't need fancy cartoon characters or overblown gimmicks, they just need a place that facilitates their energy and their imaginations, a place where they can play together without worrying about where they come from or how much money their family doesn't have.

I went to this park earlier this year with my family - me, my older sister, my mum and my dad. Four adults. We all went on each of the three slides at least once, and stood under the bucket together, letting out hilarious cries of suprise when we got drenched (much to the delight of the more experienced nine-year-olds watching on). It was one of the few totally free activities we took part in on that trip, and it was truly one of the happiest. No trademark necessary.

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