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Jump forward five years.
It's August 2003 and I'm planning for the spring vacation trip we'll take in 2004 when my 11- and 8-year-old are released from Horace Mann Elementary School for a week of freedom. Knowing the weather in Chicago after the longest El Nino on record will be dicey at best, and Florida is out thanks to Hurricane Kenny, I consider a family trip someplace more temperate, like Greenland or Alaska.
I've got a handful of brochures and am reviewing them when one in particular catches my eye.
The Museum of American Tort Law in Winsted, Conn., is offering a competitively priced family package with free passes to the museum and lodging at a nearby Motel 7 (renamed a few years back after the Y2K booking fiasco).
The museum, now in its third year of operation, has quickly displaced Las Vegas, Dollywood and Disneyworld I and II as the most popular family educational and entertainment attraction in North America.
Browsing through the brochure, it's easy to see why.
What started out in 1998 as a gleam in consumer activist Ralph Nader's eye (Editor's note: no kidding) has rapidly grown from a humble collection of consumer goods notable for the riches they brought to players in the U.S. legal system into an educational adventure for the whole family.
Many people scoffed at the concept when it was first unveiled, but they just saw it as a boring and tasteless reminder of property damage, bodily injury and the excesses of a runaway legal system. The museum today, in 2003, has expanded into a theme park, informally known as TortLand, that dazzles tens of millions of visitors annually with a combination of down-home fun and high-technology thrill rides.
Of course, the collection still displays such artifacts as a Ford Pinto, Dr. Gore's famous BMW, flammable sleepwear, lead paint, asbestos, latex gloves, silicone breast implants, unfiltered cigarettes and a diorama of the Love Canal waste site, among other original attractions.
But thanks to the wonders of technology, the museum has branched out into interactive exhibits.
Everyone will want to get in line again and again for "Virtual Reality Road," where you can take your turn trying to rear-end a car to make it explode, flip a sport utility vehicle or navigate a sedan that is accelerating out of control. Those who succeed win prizes from the park's many Judges and Juries, which are colorfully costumed cartoon characters. The prizes are playfully referred to as "punitive damages."
Another favorite attraction is "I'll See You in Court," where contestants are equipped with special laser guns and try to tag as many computer-animated targets as possible. Score big points for nailing doctors, major retailers, manufacturers and other targets. Big points earn punitive damages.
You will shake, rattle and roll in the "Hall of Slips and Falls." Here, the object is to be the first to successfully cross a giant slippery floor that shakes, spins and undulates to claim punitive damages on the other side.
But it's not all slick high-tech wizardry. There are plenty of home-spun activities for the family, too.
Children young and old will want to test their mettle in a foot race against plaintiffs attorneys in "Ambulance Chase." First one to reach the ambulance after it picks up an accident victim wins huge punitive damages.
Like other parents, I'm sure I will beam with pride when my kids play "Beat the Comp." Played in a giant maze on the grounds of TortLand, the object of the game is to get out of the system by finding one of several Magic Loopholes or Slick Attorneys.
And don't miss "Whiplash -- the Ride." It may resemble old-fashioned bumper cars, but the object is to be the first to drive a Corvair replica to TortLand Court after being bumped by another contestant. The first to reach the goal wins punitive damages. All players receive a fake souvenir neck brace!
It's breathtaking. The only problem, though, will be persuading my family to go to a museum and theme park devoted to the tort system, when deep down I know their hearts are set on going back to ERISA World.
Editor Paul D. Winston and Publisher and Editorial Director Kathryn J. McIntyre publish columns on alternate weeks.