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The Bluest Lagoon

Come on in, the water’s chemically treated!

In the video, even the cloudless, azure sky cannot compete with the unnaturally blue shade of the water. The camera pans in on a couple as they glide across it in a wood-paneled boat. The woman’s white dress and her gratuitous diamond ring indicate that the pair is either headed to or fleeing from their wedding ceremony. Jungle’s “I’ve Been in Love” plays in the background. Save for the boat’s pilot, they are the only people; not even a shadow moves behind the windows of the boathouse in the distance.

You would be forgiven for assuming that this Instagram Reel was shot at some all-inclusive Caribbean resort. Actually, it was filmed sixty miles inland, just north of Walt Disney World, at the brand new Evermore Orlando Resort, a five-star, “first-of-its-kind beach paradise” anchored by an eight-acre artificial lagoon. Filled with seventeen million gallons of chemically treated water and trimmed by white sand imported from Pensacola, the glorified swimming pool is part and parcel of Evermore’s promise to “forever change the way families and groups vacation.” Such is the patented magic of Crystal Lagoons, a company that constructs preternaturally blue lagoons of any size—and the attendant idyll of beachside life—wheresoever a developer’s heart desires.

Evermore is just one of fifty-one similar projects already completed or underway in Florida, and one of over one thousand projects in various stages of development worldwide. But Crystal Lagoons doesn’t just work with luxury resorts; they also offer something called Public Access Lagoons, nominal public amenities intended to spur further development, whether that entails a planned community, high-end retail, or luxury cabana rentals and event spaces. The lagoons are a place for people to come together and spend money. As one promotional video helpfully explains:

We live our lives in three distinct places: home, work, and everywhere else. We need this third place to relax and connect. In recent decades shopping centers have filled this role. But the world around us has evolved. Experiences are worth more to us than things. We want a different place, somewhere with fresh air, sunlight, and nature. And what public space exists today where we can dine, shop and spend time with our friends and family in a beautiful and natural environment? None, until now.

None! Until now! Cue videos of families splashing one another in a constructed lagoon, jet skis zigzagging over eerily clear water, and a full lagoon sandwiched between a highway and a construction site. It has all of the vibrancy of a Martin Parr photograph without any of the spirit.

These unnatural “natural” attractions rely on an assortment of technology—including ultrasonic waves and roving suction devices—to keep the water pristine, free of urine, dirt, and leaf debris. Each lagoon is also monitored 24/7 by the Crystal Lagoons Control Center, which measures water quality and “delivers pulses of small amounts of safe additives in the water of the lagoons in very specific patterns that are determined by their algorithms.”

And key to the company’s pitch: their tech-laden water features are good for the environment! According to their website: “By visiting man-made beaches and seeking entertainment in your area, you minimize the impact on biodiversity” and “by having an idyllic beach close to home, you won’t need to take an airplane or travel by car to a distant beach, thereby lowering the carbon footprint.” These statements strain credulity, especially considering that many of their projects are located in the suburbs of seaside towns.

Jean Baudrillard said that we were living in the time of the hyperreal: a generation of models of the real, devoid of reality and substance. He offered Disneyland as a prime example. Certainly, a sanitized and nostalgia-inducing Main Street USA isn’t too removed from a facetuned lagoon. But these simulated lagoons are more than just a hyperreal tourism scheme; they are directly involved in the destruction of the environment they claim to protect.

Built atop what was one of the largest undeveloped parcels of land in South Florida and just a sixteen-minute drive from the beach, SoLé Mia bills itself as a “city-within-a-city,” featuring retail, restaurants, three luxury rental properties, and a seven-acre lagoon. Though the rental site boasts panoramic views of Biscayne Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, the electric cyan peeking through the floor-to-ceiling windows of the available units (starting at $2,485 a month!) is the synthetic blue of their shared amenity, Laguna SoLé. SoLé Mia offers an exclusive simulated “nature:” a lagoon without sea life, and water impervious to algae or grime.

Laguna SoLé is not, however, impervious to climate change: already, it sits in the zone at the highest risk of storm surge from even a category one hurricane. According to projections of sea level rise, by midcentury, the development will sit like an island, overlooking the submerged mangrove forests of Oleta River State Park. What sort of shortsightedness would compel developers to create a second shore so close to an existing one? And how can such overdevelopment be excused?

In Simulacra and Simulation Baudrillard explains one of the more nefarious aspects of hyperreality: it serves to distract us. “Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real,” he writes, “whereas all of Los Angeles and the America that surrounds it are no longer real, but belong to the hyperreal order and to the order of simulation.” Crystal Lagoons function in much the same way, obscuring the fact that very little, if any, of Florida is still “natural.”

What they are proposing is a “third place” with an entry fee, not including umbrella and lounge chair.

Near the bottom of Crystal Lagoons’ website sits a “webcam” comparison of Miami Beach and their Epperson Lagoon located near Tampa. The most striking difference is the Gatorade blue of the lagoon water, and the absence of inflatable slides and obstacle courses in Miami. This “webcam” is static; it never changes. It wouldn’t be silly to think that we are comparing a fake lagoon to “nature,” but Miami Beach as it exists today is far from natural: it was once a sandy mangrove-filled barrier island before millions of cubic yards of white sand was dredged from the bottom of Biscayne Bay to create the pristine shoreline.

Much of Florida has been terraformed for development; many of the “natural” marshes across the state have actually been constructed, or reconstructed, for use as water reclamation or buffers to protect dwindling wetlands and wildlife. Across the state, real estate developers have constructed finger islands: false phallic extensions of land reaching into the water like equidistant cilia in order to maximize waterfront property, driving up premiums and damaging sensitive wetlands. In Second Nature Nathaniel Rich writes, “What we still, in a flourish of misplaced nostalgia, call ‘the natural world’ is gone, if ever it existed. Almost no rock, leaf, or cubic foot of air on Earth has escaped our clumsy signature.”

According to a study by the nonprofit 1000 Friends of Florida, the state gains a thousand new residents a day—or around the entire population of Tampa every year. At this rate, developed land will increase by three and a half million more acres, or 64 percent, by 2070. The state is set to lose about half as many acres to sea level rise in the same time. This inflation in population is projected to more than double water demand from already overpumped aquifers, according to the same report. Many of these lagoons brimming with fifteen million gallons of water are near springs, rivers, and lakes that are below their healthy levels. Meanwhile, Crystal Lagoons offers developers a better, cleaner alternative to a rapidly dwindling natural amenity, which in turn accelerates that demise of the “nature” it’s simulating. Like an amateur sleight of hand trick, they ask us to look at the shockingly blue lagoon, not at the seawalls constructed to keep the tide from reaching inland, for now.

Crystal Lagoons claims their product will actually help lower the world’s carbon footprint and stall, if not quite reverse, the degradation. According to calculations not presented for public scrutiny, the construction and maintenance of their sand-skirted lagoons will, somehow, be offset by a reduction in the number of people that would otherwise fly or drive to an actual beach. An estimated 180 million Americans make 2 billion visits to beaches every year, and global tourism constitutes roughly 8 percent of carbon emissions. It is difficult to imagine that enough people would consider converting their all-inclusive Caribbean vacations to three day passes at their local fake lagoon to put a dent in such figures.

Even if these lagoons consume less energy and require fewer chemicals than traditional swimming pools and use “thirty-three times less water than an eighteen-hole golf course,” it is still new development which will likely, over its lifespan, produce more CO2 through transportation, construction, and residential consumption. Crystal Lagoons isn’t promising less carbon-intensive or more “sustainable” development practices; their environmentalist credentials derive from optimistic projections of consumer behavior at some vague point in the future. This the same type of mindless development that has terraformed Florida for decades, albeit with some half-assed environmentalist packaging. In a generous light, their claims are wishful thinking. More realistically, it’s the sort of malignance that’s become de rigueur in America: using the language of environmentalism to obscure the expansion of the economy and further development and extraction.

The intention with all of this is simply: profit. Of the “endless ways to monetize” their technology, Crystal Lagoons suggest entrance and membership fees, beach activities and entertainment, concerts, subscription-based day clubs, wedding venues, corporate events, food halls, and trade shows, restaurants and retail, and water sports and cabana rentals. The business model could even extend to racetracks and golf courses. What they are proposing is a “third place” with an entry fee, not including umbrella and lounge chair. In other words, these lagoons offer a sanitized beach experience, where suburban families can swim without fear of marine life, seaweed, or poor people that could be at public beaches.

As Sarah Stodola writes in her history of beach resorts, The Last Resort, mimicking nature “seems central to the concept of the beach resort, and connected to the Romanticists’ sublime. Paradise is not nature; paradise is nature conquered, nature tamed. . . . It gives us the illusion of the sublime, without the part where we confront the terror inherent in nature.” The technology promises to insulate home buyers and beachgoers from the chaos of the “nature” with the predictable control and order of the fake. There’s a real darkness to this sunny vision: isolation from the environment, all the while quickening the destruction of the natural beaches that serve as a model. But the relationship is reciprocal: erosion and sea-level rise threaten those living near the coast, where the bulk of Florida’s population resides. Building a second shore only buys time while lining the pockets of developers.

Though Crystal Lagoons’ headquarters are in Miami, they have projects at different stages of development and negotiation in over sixty countries. One project in development is the new Disney master-planned residential community called Cotino, underway in Rancho Mirage, California—a desert that receives, on average, five inches of rain per year. Created by Disney Imagineers and staffed by Disney Cast Members, it will contain a twenty-four-acre Crystal Lagoon at its heart. Residents will have to pay an extra fee to enjoy it, unless of course they already belong to the Artisan Club (an Incredibles-inspired venue modeled after the house in the Pixar film), which requires a one-time $20,000 initiation fee with annual dues of $11,000. Sales to the general public are set to begin later this year.