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Sink into history, buy the perfume



In Orlando you can go on rides that simulate earthquakes, faulty elevators and runaway trains. Public appetite for safe, controlled near-death experiences seems to be limitless. It was only a matter of time before the Titanic joined the "you are there" ranks of disaster-related fun.

Titanic: Ship of Dreams at the Mercado doesn't have a ride; you don't get seat-belted into a dining-room chair and find yourself hurtling thousands of feet under the pretend North Atlantic. In fact, the most attractive part of the attraction are the 200 pieces of actual Titanic artifacts. It's unsettling in a different way to face the personal effects of the dead, things buried under miles of water for 80 years that outlived their owners, telling about the last elegant days before their one night of hell.

There's a ticket from the Turkish bath. A deck chair. Tile from the smoking-room floor. A life jacket. A log book dated Nov. 20, 1911, through April 15, 1912, kept by Edward Brown, a salon steward who couldn't swim but survived the disaster. A message in a bottle stating that the writer didn't think they would survive.

It's awesome to hear the stories these objects tell, in the same way you realize a star you're seeing now actually burned a million years ago. More bizarre is realizing that something as meager as a Turkish bath ticket survived when so many people didn't.

What Titanic: Ship of Dreams does to give you that "you are there" feeling (not that you really want to be on the Titanic) is use actors in period costume, and offer walk-through small-scale re-creations of parts of the ship, including the Verandah dining room and the grand staircase. The re- creations are very much like those used at the Florida International Museum in St. Petersburg, where some Titanic memorabilia was displayed last year.

But additionally, Ship of Dreams has actors who interact with the crowd to tell the story. You begin to get the idea here when someone in period dress asks you, "Are you one of the investors, then?" or something like that. Some people get into this whole make-believe thing right away. Others -- and I'm afraid I fall into this category -- cannot stand to be acted at. There is a certain feeling of being cornered when you find yourself suddenly cast in a play when you didn't even audition, and one feels that if one is expected to be part of the show, one should be drawing a salary.

Further on there is a gallery devoted to movies, songs and art work inspired by the tragedy, including the costume worn by Leonardo DiCaprio, and records like "Be British," a tribute to English courage underwater.

Finally there's that greatest of all Florida institutions, the gift shop. At this one you can purchase a version of the legendary jeweled heart ($200), a book called "Last Dinner on the Titanic" ($24.95), including recipes and advice for appropriate clothing and atmosphere for the different passenger classes, or a bottle of Titanic: The Fragrance ($24.95). It does not smell like mortal fear. It smells pretty good.

Titanic: Ship of Dreams brings home the stories of the people who didn't make it into the movie. The I-Drive traffic you have to face to get here is the only real disaster.

In the Mercado, 8445 International Drive; 248-1166.

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