ALBUQUERQUE — If there's a place that symbolizes pre-interstate America, it's Route 66, built to connect Chicago with Los Angeles, which John Steinbeck dubbed "the mother road."
From Depression-era migrants to returning GIs to family vacationers, motorists on Route 66 rolled past Vegas-style neon hovering over low-rise diners, motor courts, and gas stations in designs so distinctive they gave rise to the term "roadside architecture." They're also known as pueblo-deco, art nouveau lite, and, simply, kitsch.
Now these structures — many of them long vacant — are reopening as trendy hotels, restaurants, microbreweries, and bars along a part of Route 66 through Albuquerque called EDo, or East Downtown, that fill with patrons far too young to remember the onetime allure of the highway as a frontier of the freedom of the open road.
It's a small but significant example of the way nostalgia increasingly is driving travel, as visitors seek to recapture their own childhoods — or at least a world they recall as, or assume to have been, simpler, safer, and an escape from the conformity of modern-day chain hotels and restaurants.
"People are longing for a simpler past, for a time when the world wasn't so complicated and we didn't have so much doubt and insecurity and maybe had more unity as a country," said Don Usner, author of "New Mexico Route 66 on Tour: Legendary Architecture From Glenrio to Gallup." "Even that era of the dust bowl and people migrating has become romanticized. It's a terrible story, but a romantic story about people overcoming hardship at the end of the road. It represents the notion of something authentic in the midst of an increasingly cheap urban environment."
Nostalgia has brought crowds in an age of video games and virtual reality to line up at the very oldest attractions during this 60th anniversary year at Disneyland. It's inspired retro welcome ceremonies of hula dancers and brass bands to greet the growing fleet of cruise ships that dock in Honolulu, meant to evoke a time when many tourists arrived there by sea. It's led to the re-launch of a hotel in Lake Tahoe that was a favorite of the Rat Pack, and is quickly filling group tours to Cuba — newly reopened to American travelers but not yet transformed by Starbucks and McDonald's.
"Certainly circumstances are changed, but some of the essence of the culture — the music, the charm of old Havana, the cars — those haven't changed, and that's something that's really special," said Greg Geronemous, co-CEO of smarTours, which organizes trips to Cuba.
Of course, the good old days often weren't — at least, not for everybody. Even the people who promote the idea of revisiting the past concede it's often sentimentalized. Many of the farmers who drove west on Route 66 during the Depression were turned back at the California border, for example, the frozen-in-time charm of old Havana is in large part the result of the American economic embargo, and the Hawaiians who met ocean liners from the mainland were often otherwise marginalized on their own islands.
But the nostalgia trend also recognizes that a big population of travelers — namely, baby boomers — are looking to relive their childhoods.
"One of the neatest parts of sending our clients to Cuba has been that some of them have stories about when they used to go there in the '50s, whether they went with their parents when they were teenagers or as young adults," Geronemous said. "They remember walking through Havana with their parents and now are coming back 55 years later and seeing it relatively unchanged. It's like going back in time."
That also fuels attendance at shrines of another sort: halls of fame, which are booming as visitors of every age seek to recapture moments of glory.
"We see it every day here, where people or families come to rediscover a past memory and what they end up finding is their own past," said Brad Horn, vice president of education at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. "That emotional quest that seems pervasive in the American spirit at the moment plays very well here. There's a romanticism where they can transport themselves back in time to when things were less complicated, more idyllic, and when they were maybe 12 years old and carefree."
This sensibility has driven the revival of tourist destinations closer to home, too, including Edaville Railroad, now Edaville USA, under renovation by new owners. The 1928 carousel that survived Paragon Park on Nantasket Beach in Hull attracts new generations of children. Benson's Wild Animal Farm in Hudson, N.H., has closed, but some of its original buildings have found new life as part of a public park and playground. And throwbacks from Water Wizz in Wareham — given a new boost by the movie "The Way, Way Back" — to Funtown Splashtown USA in Maine remain implausibly popular.
Disneyland, which is commemorating its 60th anniversary through September, still boasts a surprisingly long list of vintage, technologically old-fashioned rides that have operated there uninterrupted since the day the park was opened in 1955, and visitors still line up to see them: the Jungle Cruise, Mark Twain's riverboat, Peter Pan's Flight, the Mad Tea Party, Mr. Toad's Wild Ride.
Most have been remodeled, and a few attractions have been tweaked; the Swiss Family Treehouse transformed into Tarzan's Treehouse in 1999, and the Submarine Voyage became the Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage in 2007. Parents still subject themselves to the iconic audio-animatronic ear worm that is It's a Small World and even listen to and laugh at barbershop quartets in straw hats cracking corny, G-rated jokes.
"There are classics, if you will, like the Jungle Cruise, that adults know so well that they've probably memorized the spiel," said John McClintock, a Disney spokesman who takes his own grandchildren to Disneyland.
"There is an element of nostalgia that is actually part of the design of the parks," McClintock said. "For example, when you enter Disneyland, you enter on Main Street USA., which is representative of a turn-of-the-century midwestern main street, and that has changed very little over the years. The vehicles are the same and the castle at the end of Main Street has stayed essentially the same."
Tourists gravitate to things like these because "they're nostalgic for their own childhoods," said Kirsten Møllegaard, a professor at the University of Hawaii at Hilo who has studied the revival of Boat Days, the ceremonies in which hula dancers and musicians playing ukuleles met arriving ocean liners to Honolulu in the golden days of sea travel.
The ritual was reincarnated and renamed Boat Days Again to welcome cruise ship passengers to Aloha Tower, a tourist market near where they dock.
"There's also a broader sense of going back to something that feels more secure, that's safe, in particular nowadays in a world full of terrorism," Møllegaard said. "It caters to that nostalgia of arriving at a harbor with the band playing, and hula-dancing. It is sort of cushioned, very nice and clean, with no reference at all to the very real debates going on right now about Hawaiian sovereignty and other things like that."
This kind of escapism also draws visitors to old-school destinations such as New York's Finger Lakes, which promotes itself as "a place where you can go and have an old-fashioned family vacation," said Mike Linehan, chairman of the regional tourism council. "I sound like ["National Lampoon's Vacation" 's] Clark Griswold when I say that, but we have so much stuff here where we can help a family reconnect: You can sit on the shore of a lake, rent a wonderful cottage. The kids learn how to make s'mores, make a bonfire, climb a waterfall, tell ghost stories."
It's a nostalgic vision of a 1950s or 1960s vacation, Linehan said, "and there are places all over the country that are positioning themselves to provide that."
Places like Lake Tahoe, where the Cal Neva Lodge, once owned by Frank Sinatra and frequented by his fellow members of the Rat Pack, is reopening this year.
"It's really kind of a tribute to the Sinatra era," said Andy Chapman, CEO of the local visitors bureau. "There's not only that nostalgia for a time before, but also an affinity for going to these places that the entertainment legends came to."
Back then, said Chapman, something else was different, too. "When people would go out for the evening, they'd dress up. It was a see-and-be-seen kind of thing," he said. "There's an element where people want to do that. It's one of the things I think we miss."
Jon Marcus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.