Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Splendid China, and other long gone amusements.

In surfing through a series of urban ruins sites today, I came across some shots of a singularly unique location. Outside of Orlando, Florida there was once a 'theme park' called Splendid China. I don't know how I missed hearing about it. Apparently it included recreations of some of the more notable sights from that behemoth land across the Pacific. There were replicas of the Great Wall of China, The Leshan Grand Buddha Statue, and the Forbidden City. Visitors were invited to stroll the grounds among these architectural wonders and check out some authentic Chinese entertainment and performances. This wasn't the type of place that you would find thrill rides like roller coasters and dark rides, but rather opportunities for relaxation and contemplation.

If such amusements strike you as incongruously located in the shadows of Walt Disney's empire, then you are certainly not alone. Reports are that it only attracted about 700 people per day. The $100 million dollar facility was opened in 1993, and closed in 2003. But within that time it managed to provoke plenty of controversy. Evidently there were quite a few observers who viewed it as a propaganda machine. Protesters actually demonstrated outside of the park, complaining about the occupation of Tibet, and the idyllic depiction of what amounted to the largest communist nation on Earth. Although it was owned and operated by China Travel Services, there were allegations that the organization received its marching orders from the Chinese government itself.

In retrospect all the hoopla seems kind of silly. Did folks really think that Splendid China should have contained scenes of the Red Army harassing Tibetan monks? Would it have been appropriate to include a cheerful model of the Tiananmen Square massacre? It seems like that would have defeated the purpose. I doubt it would have led to marketing success. It surely wouldn't have delayed the 2004 auction that offered the park assets to the highest bidder. Ultimately I find the park's demise a sad, yet probably inevitable, reality. American families and tourists are much more interested in the type of sanitized experiences that the pavilions at EPCOT offer. There has to be cartoon characters and greasy fried foods, or otherwise it's not really a vacation, is it?

I've often lamented the homogeneity that characterizes amusement parks in the United States. They offer plenty of opportunities to achieve physical disorientation and vertigo. But most of the rides are mass-produced and differ only in their marketing content. The same skeletal structure underpins Garfield's Tunnel and The Little Mermaid's Fanciful Swim. It's all pre-packaged and deliberately targets the lowest common denominator of society. Amusements must be sanitized of any elements that could possibly offend the delicate sensibilities of the average consumer. It's really no different than the Hollywood film industry or basic strip mall culture. Everything is contrived and boring. How can anybody be sentimental about such diversions? Travel across the country and you can find the exact same thing in your back yard.

Maybe it's always been this way. In the bygone days of roadside attractions, there were surely numerous "Mystery Holes", "Reptile Lands" and "Slippy Slides". Still one could still hope to stumble on something truly unique and interesting. Today I discovered this site- Florida's Lost Tourist Attractions. It catalogs an abundance of places that have faded inextricably into the past. These were destinations often reflecting the particular dreams and visions of true eccentrics. Nowadays those guys can't compete with the spectacles of the mega-corporations. Gone forever are the The Upside Down House, the Prince of Peace Memorial, and Tragedy in the Museum. Luckily for us their memory is still preserved on the World Wide Web. At least we can discover what we are missing.

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6 Comments:

Blogger Dagrims said...

Gatorland
Silver Springs
Cypress Gardens

Those three are places that we enjoy going to, that aren't the norm as far as amusement parks go.

I never did get to Splendid China.

If you want to take a look at another place in Orlando that's not your typical park, check out The Holy Land Experience - http://holylandexperience.com/

We haven't been there, either. It's about 15 minutes from my office.

10:01 PM  
Blogger jefg99 said...

It's late, as I'd like to write more on this topic. I am, and have always been, fascinated with amusement parks and rides, as well as roadside attractions. Here are just a few random tidbits:
1. I was to Splendid China twice during its operation. I thought it was very well don, with the less than lifesize scale models of the beauties of China, as well as good performances of acrobats, dancers and musicians. Well worth the prize, especially because it was one of a kind. Anything we can do to learn about another culture is positive.
2. I love one-of-a-kind worlds fairs, though I was only ever to two...New York (in '64 and '65 was great) and Montreal.
3.I bemoaned the closing of Freedomland, an amusement park in one of the NYC buroughs, with its unique rides, and four separate areas much like Disney today.
4. I was thrilled when we visited Storytown near Lake George, NY, and found that they had recovered one of the Freedomland rides and made it their own (a ride through a Kansas tornado). Who was it that was stuck at the top of the ferris wheel for about 30 minutes?
5. I will stop at almost any unique roadside attraction for a once-over.
6. Our photo club's monthly shoot for April is Roadside America, still plugging away through several generations. Dinner family style at Haag's afterwards.
7. I am always saddened when I read of the closing of yet another small family-run park.
8. I do not hesitate jumping on a merry-go-round.
9. I really enjoy finding unusual things from my past, like collections of pinball and other games. I've been to museums in San Francisco, New Hampshire and Florida, to name a few. It's even better when you can play them. In fact, sometime I want to show you some photos of some really weird ones from SF.
10. Always a thrill to find a good ride at the Jersey Shore.
And, lastly, who remembers being told they would skip the rides at the annual Allentown Fair, and instead be treated to a night at Dorney Park, where rides were "safer"?

11:18 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

dagrims,

I'd definitely like to check out Holy Land Experience. It seems like a great place to photograph.

4:46 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

jefg99,

YOU went to Splendid China?! Who'd you go with? Did you take photos?

I often regret that the age of the World Fair is long past.

Tell me a bit about Freedomland...
how was it unique?

I think I remember being stuck in that damn ferris wheel. But it could just be a suggested memory at this point.

You better make sure you call ahead if you expect to take pictures. I was told that I couldn't when I visited.

I don't remember being tempted that much by the rides at the Allentown fair. I loved the insult clown in the dunk tank, and the single "o"s with the freakishly large animals.

4:55 PM  
Anonymous Marc said...

the museum (in San Francisco) that one poster is referring to is the "Musee Mecanique". It is by far one of my favorite places of it's kind. For those of you who remember it's apropos location at the Cliff House (with the Camera Obscura a next-door neighbor...), they've sadly moved, but still have the same amazing collection. Highly recommended. http://www.museemechanique.org/

11:14 AM  
Blogger jefg99 said...

Just some quick comments, with short answers to your questions. I just got back from visiting....ummm...you!

I was at the Musee Mecanique twice, once at the Cliff House, and once in its new location. Certainly the cliff house location by itself added a lot of interest and curiosity. For reasons I won't go into, I wasn't able to spend all the time I would have liked either time, but it was truly fascinating.

Merge, you said: I often regret that the age of the World Fair is long past.
I say: I agree 100%. The best thing about them is the exhibits and "rides" were all truly unique, and long remembered. The New York Fair, which I attended when I was 15 and 16, during both years of its existence, was something that's always stuck in my mind. It was the Epcot of its time. Ford, GE, IBM were favorites, as well as pavilions from many foreign countries.

It was that uniqueness of attractions that set Freedomland apart from the traditional parks. It must have been one of America's true them parks. Somewhere I have the original brochure I got when I went there in the very early 60's. I do remember a large spaceship shaped like a cylindrical UFO, and an area with a civil war fort and a battle. I imagine you could do a search online and find out more information.

Who did I go to Splendid China with? Without being too specific, D and A, with A being able to be my own tour guide for the visit, explaining the cultural parts.

Roadside America confirmed that photography IS allowed, as long as it's not constant lighting for digital movies.

You remember not being tempted by the rides at the Fair. That's probably true when you a bit older (based on the things you've remembered), but it was certainly not the case when you were, let's say, ages 5 to 8 or so.

8:51 PM  

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