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Revisiting Postwar Honeymoon Resorts, “the Greatest Theme Parks of Heterosexuality”

Since the 1950s, the Poconos’ kitschy honeymoon resorts have held up a funhouse mirror to American attitudes toward sexuality.

A champagne glass tub at the “Roman Tower Suite” at the Pocono Palace Resort (Image via Roadtrippers)

In a 1971 photograph advertising the “Roman Tower Suite” at the Pocono Palace Resort — a lakeside honeymooners’ retreat in northeast Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains — a woman lounges in a seven-foot-high jacuzzi tub shaped like a giant champagne glass. From her cloud of bubble bath, she gazes down longingly at a man in a heart-shaped pool below. Roses, candles, mirrors, faux Corinthian columns, champagne bottles, and wall-to-wall red carpeting adorn the couple’s private love nest, where they’re enjoying their sexcation of choice — perhaps a honeymoon, Valentine’s Day, or a romantic weekend away to ease the troubles at home.

The image illustrates the old maxim that sex sells — and that straight sex really sells vacations. It’s just one example drawn from a rich, decades-long history of the Poconos’ kitschy honeymoon resort advertisements, which, since the 1950s, have both reflected and helped shape American attitudes toward sexuality, romance, and marriage.

Despite the increased efforts to welcome LGBTQ communities through pride packages and ad campaigns, these resorts were built and are still rooted in a specifically heterosexual experience. Through symbolic inclusion, they seem to provide a glimpse into how mainstream America continues to view queer culture through a straight lens. With more and more people visiting these spaces for Instagrammable photo ops, the resorts ask to be looked at through the history of their imagery and how it has informed how we view these spaces today.

A heart-shaped bathtub at the Penn Hills Resort, a honeymoon getaway in the Poconos Mountains. (Image via Flickr)

By the 1950s, honeymoon resorts were bringing in thousands of tourists. Niagara Falls was already a cultural icon — a self proclaimed “honeymoon capital of the world.” After presenting their mandatory marriage certificate at check-in, newlyweds would hang their “Do Not Disturb” signs and hop into their round beds, only to ignore the sublime landscape beyond their suite. By the end of the decade, this new typology of pleasure-zone architecture expanded with full force as developers in the Pocono Mountains began opening resorts and constructing an image of romance of their own.

The Poconos offered more than just hotel suites. The resorts’ sprawling campuses resembled erotic summer camps for adults, with equal emphasis placed on social atmosphere as on privacy. Group fitness classes, dances, dinners, “and more!” were all a part of what couples signed up for. As historian Karen Dubinsky writes in her book The Second Greatest Disappointment, which details how the rise of the honeymoon has shaped heterosexual identity over time, “They would be treated like honored guests and showered with free gifts, roses, and complementary cocktails. With PR like this, who wouldn’t want to be straight?” Through forced interaction, the resorts stressed a sort of public affirmation of their participation in the collective practice of heterosexual matrimony and the greater casualness about sex was often seen as freeing the bride from the “embarrassment” they felt when being on a honeymoon.

In the 1960s, as the advent of the birth control pill helped usher in the era of “free love,” the public pressured the Pocono Mountain resorts to open their doors to non-married couples, which transformed them into spaces that were more synonymous with hedonism and pleasure, and less with traditional American family values. This shift was most explicit in the evolution of resort advertising. In 1971, Life magazine illustrated a suite in the Cove Haven resort and wrote that the room symbolized America’s entrance into an age of “affluent vulgarity”. The photograph shows a young couple with locked lips, bathing in a heart-shaped tub surrounded by mirrors. Reflected in one mirror is a tripod and camera provided by hotel management so that customers could hold onto their memories forever.

A bubble bath at Penn Hills Resort in the Poconos, circa 1970s. The room features shag carpeting and floor-to-ceiling mirrors. The resort closed in 2009. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

The Life feature emphasizes these resorts’ strong relationship to the image—whether it was still, as in promotional materials, or moving, as in the homemade sex tape. It’s not about the couples kissing but what they are kissing in: the heart-shaped bathtub, an object that quickly became symbolic of the whole region. Invented in 1963 by Morris Wilkins, the tub helped establish the promise that it was “better in the Poconos,” just as the resorts’ advertising promised.

The suites were extreme in their interiority (even the four-level Roman Tower Suite lacked exterior windows), but they were also theatrical and devoted to display and voyeurism, obviously inspired by film sets and Hollywood narratives of romance. Sightlines were situated between props and interior windows carefully framed the guests’ actions. Wilkins, and other honeymoon resort entrepreneurs, believed that the stage-set-like décor would help the couples reveal themselves to one another, physically and emotionally. In this Playboy-esque environment of fantasy, role-playing was encouraged—creating actors, directors, and audiences out of anyone who was interested.

Cove Haven Resorts are still flourishing, cranking out new advertisements every year. Billboards still line the shoulder of I-80 West, claiming that despite the passing of decades, life and love is still better in the Poconos. The majority persist in featuring a white, heterosexual couple lounging in a champagne-glass whirlpool.

It would be false to say that Cove Haven hasn’t tried to market to more diverse audiences over the years. Recent promotional imagery includes a smiling interracial couple feeding each other strawberries in bed, two men smelling yellow roses in a bath, and two women sipping mimosas over brunch. On their website, they announce themselves as an LGBTQ-friendly resort, complete with “exclusive” discounts during Pride month, weekend drag shows, and all of the other amenities from which the queer community has historically been excluded.

Screenshot from CovePoconosResorts.com

The image of the lesbian couple at brunch, in particular, emphasizes what the standard of a nice, approachable lesbians should look like: slim, white, and femme. If these resorts were originally places where heterosexuals learned what was expected from them in entering public sexual culture, today, they are now places where queer people see (again and again) what mainstream sexual culture expects of them. Advertising for the resort’s exclusive Pride month deals features two white men photoshopped into a pink champagne tub. Under the tub layer is a rainbow flag with a wood texture, an innuendo that pops up in various places throughout the hotel. A heart-shaped outer glow is placed around the couple, finished with the top layer, text reading “LGBT Love”.

Everything about these images presents a very straight vision of queer culture, more celebratory and capitalistic than transgressive. These ads exemplify a rainbow capitalism, a copy-and-pasting of queer cultural iconography onto a straight background. They communicate the critical issue of an assimilation of the LGBT+ community into mainstream culture, a move that continues to contribute to the disappearance of unique queer spaces.

Screenshots from CovePoconosResorts.com

Of course, the lack of understanding of non-normative sexualities is nothing new. In the 1990s, as a way of gaining back business, Cove Haven Resorts were sometimes rented out for fetishist conferences, perhaps one of the first examples of the resorts being “queered”. Lawrence Squeri writes in his book Better in the Poconos: The Story of Pennsylvania’s Vacationland, “With prying eyes banished, the fetishists would do their thing. Cross-dressing men held conventions, impersonating famous women. Spankers and masochists had also come to the Poconos.” This sentence provides an inadvertently humorous conflation of drag culture with BDSM sexual practices. Following up on the bad press regarding these conferences, Robert Uguccioni, director of the Pocono Mountains Vacation Bureau, claimed that the Poconos were for families, couples, and groups. The “spankers and masochists”, he said, did not “fit into the mix.”

It might be that the majority of LGBT people visiting the Poconos do so to affect a camp sensibility or a postmodern parody of a heterosexual spectacle. Expecting to find humorous photos of young people queering up the place, a dive into the resort’s Instagram hashtag proves just the opposite. Images uploaded show mostly straight guests seemingly having a jolly romantic time: posing on the beds, kissing their spouses, and horseback riding with their fellow lovers down the hall. No irony to be found here.

The main shift here is that now, instead of privately documenting their intimate moments with cameras provided by hotel management, guests use the resort as a selfie opportunity, an excuse to publicly advertise their romantic lives (or sense of humor) on social media. Once a place inspired by film, now these resorts have become literal backdrops to liven up the average Instagrammer’s feed, almost more so than their sex lives. More professionally equipped videographers have staged intentionally kitsch pin-up shoots, music videos, and, of course, porn, behind the doors of Cove Haven, but the hotel remains largely frozen in time.

Honeymoon resorts have always been seen as places of fantasy and escape — places for guests to be freed from the everyday life that awaits them as soon as they pull out of the parking lot. Yet the resorts still communicate very conventional ideas of sex and gender, as well as contemporary culture’s obsessive consumption of images. These mirror-laden heterotopias have never taught couples about themselves nearly as much as they’ve taught them about expectations, rituals, and the appropriate level of sexual expression in American society. They remain, as Karen Dubinsky puts it, “the greatest theme park of heterosexuality.”

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