These Are Theme Parks That Actually Exist

Last year, The Basement Geographer took a look at some of the world’s strangest museums.  Keeping in that tradition, today we branch the topic out a bit with six of the strangest theme parks you’ll ever encounter.

Haw Par Villa: This park in Singapore is one of three ‘Tiger Balm Gardens’ originally developed in Southeast Asia between 1935 and 1945 by the Burmese-Chinese entrepreneurs Aw Boon Haw and Aw Boon Par, who built their fortunes on the marketing of Tiger Balm, the famous heat rub developed by their father.  Not only were these three parks meant to promote the product, but they were also a way for the Aw brothers to promote the traditional Chinese values they grew up with.  Filled with over 1 000 statues and 150 dioramas representing different aspects of Chinese culture, mythology, and history (and, of course, items promoting Tiger Balm), the gardens at Haw Par Villa are particularly surreal.  Ever needed to see a statue of a crab with a smiling woman’s head?  Or a starving child infected with scabies?  Or a woman breastfeeding her father-in-law?  Most infamously, Haw Par Villa is home to the rather-heavyhanded-in-its-moralism Ten Courts of Hell exhibit, which is filled with life-sized statues of people being tortured, murdered, dismembered, and eaten alive, accompanied by descriptions of the specific sins that lead people to such fates.  Bring the kids!

Haw Par Villa, Singapore

Sample photo from the Ten Courts of Hell exhibit.  Source: R. Herman, http://www.flickr.com/photos/roodee/3327826663/.  Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) licence.

Kingdom of the Dwarves: A recent creation, having only opened in 2009, is the Kingdom of the Dwarves, an attraction within the Kunming World Butterflies Gardens (also translated as World Butterfly Eco Garden) in Yunnan, China.  A few years ago, a mass death of butterflies in the park prompted the owner to reinvent the location.  In an about-face from the facility’s traditional focus on allowing tourists to look at exotic butterflies up close, the park added an 80-performer stage show with songs, dancing, and slapstick featuring cast members exclusively under 130 cm (4’3”) tall.

Certainly, the attraction walks the fine line between making money off of putting a group of people on display simply because they look different and providing work to a group of people who face much discrimination in society.  On one hand, it invites tourists to come and laugh at the little people; on the other hand, workers here generally make more money than they could in their places of origin and are sheltered from much of the abuse they’ve experienced elsewhere.  No matter what one’s opinion is of the attraction, at least the workers are there voluntarily (compare with, say, the Dionne quintuplets of the 1930s in Ontario).

Mukluk Land: Alaska is renowned for its incredible scenery, but its often esoteric roadside attractions also have their own tourist niche.  Take, for example, Mukluk Land, an attraction along the Alaska Highway near the village of Tok.  Certainly any theme park that greets tourists with a giant mukluk hanging over the gate can’t be bad.  Or one whose website lists the top attraction as ‘Large Alaska Cabbage’.

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Founded in 1985 by George and Beth Jacobs, the park is a collection of Alaskan memorabilia (with plenty of Alaska factoids posted throughout the park) mostly played for humour, including collections of outhouses and discarded snowmobiles, vehicles, and machinery (including a section known as ‘Heater Heaven’), and a retrofitted bus known as ‘Santa’s Rocket Ship’, alongside more traditional amusements such as skeeball, whack-a-mole and miniature golf.  All in all, a fun, kitschy way to spend an hour or two.  The weirdest thing at the park may be the room where visitors turn on a light switch, only to see this:

They're All Looking at Me

Note the bear trap on the floor.  Source: Travis S., http://www.flickr.com/photos/baggis/4956084139/.  Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0) licence.

Grūtas Park: In many post-Communist states of Eastern Europe, statues and artworks of Marx, Lenin, and the like were quickly removed after the fall of Communism.  In Lithuania, however, many of these statues ended up at Grūtas Park, where a wealthy farmer and entrepreneur named Viliumas Malinauskas managed to assemble them into an outdoor museum, fenced off with barbed wire and gulag-style watch towers.  Also housing a collection of Soviet-era posters, toys, and trinkets, the park quickly gained the nickname ‘Stalin World’.  Lookalikes are employed as actors for visitors to fraternise with and mock (‘Now we can laugh at our Soviet past’, proclaims the park loudspeaker).  Despite the objections of many who see the symbols as representative of oppression and death and consider a park where Communist iconography is placed next to playgrounds and petting zoos for profit as being in extremely poor taste, Malinauskas states that such a park is necessary to remind people of the dangers of the past and that most of the statues would have been destroyed otherwise.  ,The park is now one of the top tourist attractions in the country.  Upon the park’s opening in 2001, Malinauskas received that year’s Ig Nobel Peace Prize.

1984: Išgyvenimo drama: If Grūtas is not as immersive or as authentic of an experience as you would like, then perhaps another Lithuanian attraction, 1984: Išgyvenimo drama (1984: Survival Drama), just outside of the city of Nemenčinė, is for you.  The park’s website URL, sovietbunker.com, says it all, for the attraction takes place inside of an actual Soviet bunker built in the mid-1980s built to protect an emergency television transmitter in the event of nuclear war. 

While you can visit the on-site museum, most visitors choose to experience the dramatic re-enactment.  You’ll be taken inside the damp, cold bunker for two to two-and-a-half hours, stripped of all possessions (including your money and cameras) while watched by guards and guard dogs, dressed in Soviet-era clothing, and led through the bunker by a uniformed officer.  Once inside the bunker, the re-enactment begins (the performers all speaking in Russian in order to keep the experience as authentic as possible, which can be quite disorienting for locals and tourists alike), where tourists are forced to wear gas masks, undergo intense interrogation from actual former Soviet interrogation officers attempting to get them to confess to crimes they didn’t commit, learn the Soviet anthem and shout propaganda under duress, and even undergo medical examinations with authentic Soviet-era equipment.  Disobeying tourists are removed from the group and put into a dark room for the duration of the re-enactment. The goal of the attraction is to drive home the conditions Lithuanian people lived under during Soviet rule (especially to younger Lithuanians and foreign tourists who did not live through it), and the operators pride themselves on keeping things as authentic as possible.

Hacienda Napoles: At first glance, Hacienda Napoles (Naples House) could be any wildlife park or safari park around the world, with hippopotamuses, zebras, and bison roaming the property and large statues of dinosaurs for children to climb and play on.  It becomes much more sinister when you realise why this property was constructed in the first place: Hacienda Napoles was the luxurious estate of the infamous Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar.

At one time one of the ten richest people on Earth thanks to his control of the cocaine trade between South America and the United States, Escobar plunged unknown millions into his 22 km2 (8.4 sq mi) jungle estate between 1978 and 1993, including building a private zoo filled with exotic animals from around the world, including elephants, giraffes, and kangaroos (not to mention a private bullfighting ring).  After Escobar was either shot, executed, or committed suicide (depending on who you believe) during a gunfight in Medellin with the Colombian National Police in 1993, Colombian authorities eventually wrested legal control of Hacienda Napoles from Escobar’s family.  In the meantime, the entire estate had been looted and ransacked by neighbouring peasants.  Escobar’s vintage auto collection was razed, and Escobar’s 24-room mansion was even stripped of its doors and bathroom fixtures.  Many of the animals escaped and became feral.

When the government took control of Hacienda Napoles, rather than dismantle the property, it redeveloped most of the estate as a theme park.  Most of the animals were donated to zoos around the world that could better care for them, but many of them – hippos, zebras, bison, an ostrich, and a goat – were kept.  The hippos, originally just four but now numbering 25, have flourished and constitute the largest wild population outside of Africa.  Tourists can not only visit the animals and dinosaurs statues, but take tours of what’s left of the bombed-out mansion (now a museum filled with photographs and newspaper clippings), wander past Escobar’s burned-out cars, and even use his swimming pool.  And if that wasn’t surreal enough, the Cessna airplane Escobar used to deliver his first load of cocaine to the US is mounted on the archway that stands over the estate’s gate.

Further Reading

Bunkeris (2008).  1984: Išgyvenimo drama.  Available at http://www.sovietbunker.com/en/.  Accessed 17 August 2012.

Ceaser, M. (2008).  At home on Pablo Escobar’s ranch.  BBC News, 2 June 2008.  Available at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/7390584.stm.  Accessed 16 August 2012.

Deemer, A. (2011).  Beyond the Valley of the Dwarfs: The Strangest Theme Park Ever?  Asia Obscura, 13 July 2011.  Available at http://asiaobscura.com/2011/06/kingdom-of-the-dwarfs-the-strangest-theme-park-ever.html.  Accessed 10 August 2012.

Deemer, A. (2011).  The Creepiest Amusement Park of All Time?  Asia Obscura, 18 September 2011.  Available at http://asiaobscura.com/2011/09/the-creepiest-amusement-park-of-all-time.html.  Accessed 16 August 2012.

Forero, J. (2009).  In Colombia, Tourists Flock To Drug Kingpin’s Ranch.  NPR, 22 July 2009.  Available at http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=106863446.  Accessed 16 August 2012.

Hancox, D. (2011).  Lithuania’s Soviet nostalgia: back in the USSR.  The Guardian, 1 May 2011.  Available at http://www.guardian.co.uk/travel/2011/may/01/lithuania-soviet-nostalgia-theme-parks.  Accessed 17 August 2012.

McLaughlin, K.E. (2009).  In China, it’s a small world after all.  Global Post, 16 October 2009.  Available at http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/china-and-its-neighbors/091016/china-kingdom-dwarves-kunming.  Accessed 10 August 2012.

Mukluk Land (2004).  Mukluk Land.  Available at http://www.muklukland.net/.  Accessed 10 August 2012.

Oddity Central (2010).  Haw Par Villa – The Most Disturbing Theme Park in Singapore.  1 July 2010.  Available at http://www.odditycentral.com/pics/haw-par-villa-the-most-disturbing-theme-park-in-singapore.html#rakGs0VPv3H3Itod.99.  Accessed 16 August 2012.

Palacio, J.G. (2007).  Nápoles, solo ruinas.  El Colombiano.  Available at http://www.elcolombiano.com.co/proyectos/serieselcolombiano/textos/extincion_dominio/oct13/napoles.htm.  Accessed 16 August 2012.

Scheltus, P. (2007).  Hacienda Napoles: At home with Pablo Escobar, the drug baron who lived in a zoo.  The Independent, 26 December 2007.  Available at http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/hacienda-napoles-at-home-with-pablo-escobar-the-drug-baron-who-lived-in-a-zoo-766829.html.  Accessed 16 August 2012.

Singapore Paranormal Investigators (2003).  The Myths of Haw Par Villa.  Available at http://www.spi.com.sg/spi_files/haw_par/main00.htm.  Accessed 16 August 2012.

Victoria Times Colonist (2008).  It’s back to Soviet times at ‘1984’ adventure park.  26 January 2008.  Available at http://www.canada.com/victoriatimescolonist/news/travel/story.html?id=7ce83e34-0d24-4f88-aaf4-fb8ad8caf24d&p;=1.  Accessed 17 August 2012.

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