Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but it is also highly lucrative. Imitation is an ironic hallmark of an industry that on one level is predicated on destinations’ ability to offer a unique experience. Tourists seek novelty for its potential to grant a sense of discovery, but it does not take long for entrepreneurs to recognize a good idea and attempt to replicate it as nearly as possible. Along with tourists’ restlessness when the extraordinary becomes mundane, imitation is a prime reason for tourist destinations to embellish their attractions or reinvent themselves. Early railroad-age travelers hoped to see “real” Indians as a way of eluding the reach of crass, market-oriented America (symbolized by the industrial cities from which many tourists hailed), but their very presence brought the modernity they sought to escape. By the turn of the 20th century, tourists found railroad-hired Native American guides and artists who peopled a tourist-attuned western landscape from Glacier National Park to the Grand Canyon.

Despite travelers’ need for discovery, pioneering destinations offer models sufficiently powerful to spawn numerous imitators. Those with capital and imagination survive competition by molding themselves to changing consumer expectations. Las Vegas is a case in point. The spread of legal gaming in the United States – first to Atlantic City and now to dozens of locales from coast to coast – offered competition for the desert resort city, but Las Vegas refreshed its image again and again. Other iconic destinations featured in the essays in American Tourism: Constructing a National Tradition have a history of setting “best in class” examples that inspire countless imitators. Such powerful “brands” as Chautauqua, Colonial Williamsburg, and Disneyland also come to mind.

A century ago, Luna Park opened on New York’s Coney Island and quickly established itself as the Disneyland of its era. Indeed, it is well known that Walt Disney studied the Coney amusement park when creating his California theme park. In their respective times, Skip Dundy and Frederic Thompson (Luna’s originators) and Walt Disney took existing forms of amusements and added value to the point that they created something accepted as new and original. Fifty years before Disneyland updated the Luna Park idea for a new generation, in 1905 the Coney Island attraction began spawning numerous knockoffs that even appropriated the name and iconic entrance gate design of Luna Park. Thrill-ride inventor Frederick Ingersoll of New Jersey built dozens of them in places like Pittsburgh and Cleveland.

The images below suggest the Coney Island park’s role as a touchstone in American tourism a century ago. What examples of successful tourist-attraction imitators have you encountered in your travels?

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