World's Strangest Theme Parks
Mickey has one. Dolly Parton has one. Heck, even the Budweiser Clydesdales have theirs. So it should come as no surprise that Jesus has a theme park, too, right? The Holy Land Experience may be in Orlando, but Disney World it’s not; thousands visit the park–cum–living museum annually to witness reenactments of the Passion of Christ, the Last Supper, and the Virgin Birth—all set to music. Weird, you say? Not according to the faithful.
Whatever your interest or taste for fun, chances are there’s a theme park created with you in mind. And Holy Land aside, many of the odder options are located overseas. From re-created 19th-century Dickensian towns to an imagination of Buddhist heaven, offbeat theme parks offer insights into culture rarely found from hobnobbing with life-size characters or riding a run-of-the-mill Ferris wheel.
“Even if you’re seeking out the strange and delicious, theme parks always hold the potential for unique and memorable experiences,” says Gene Jeffers, the executive director of Themed Entertainment Association (TEA), an international organization that represents park creators.
If you’ve hit up all the SeaWorlds and Wisconsin Dells of the globe, why not take a trip to a make-believe town populated by little people? According to TEA, Asia has the fastest-growing theme-park market—with 77.6 million visitors for Asia’s top 15 parks alone. One of the region’s biggest recent openings was the 2009 blockbuster debut of Dwarf Empire, a hilltop park in southern China devoted to—and almost entirely staffed by—people under four feet tall. The park also gained worldwide media coverage for employing many of the country’s height-challenged, who traditionally have had a hard time finding work. Thanks to the park, many of China’s dwarves are now gainfully employed as everything from janitors to crown-wearing empresses.
Thrill-seeking families might prefer a rendezvous down under with some of the planet’s most majestic (and ferocious) creatures—crocodiles. At Crocosaurus Cove in Darwin, Australia, park-goers can see the reptiles up close in the Cage of Death, or choose to tease and taunt baby crocs the old-fashioned way—with bait.
So forget the roller coasters, magic castles, and fuzzy rodents, and tour our list of the world’s strangest theme parks—it’s a different kind of small world, after all.
With four locations covering 250 acres across England, this construction-themed franchise pairs children with heavy machinery. More than 200,000 hoe enthusiasts large and small visit each year, flocking to rides like the Spindizzy, a converted digger that spins around with riders strapped into the elevated bucket. Dump-truck racers must be at least 17 but need only an “idea of how to drive.”
Best of the Strange: The park has its own backhoe stunt team, the Dancing Diggers, which performs private shows.
Suoi Tien Park, Vietnam
Located on a sacred site, this righteous park is meant to simulate Buddhist heaven. Filled with godlike statues (a one-acre-round giant frog, a 300-ton dragon head), it also features an aquarium, 1,500 crocodiles (symbols of victory) in its Crocodile Kingdom, and a Secrets of the Sorcerers Jungle, where visitors encounter evil ogres, monsters, and larger-than-life scorpions (symbols of transformation).
Best of the Strange: Unicorn Palace (a.k.a. 18 Gates of Hell) may sound innocuous, but the mythic creatures are actually gatekeepers to the underworld. The freezing dungeon-like complex includes screams, murder tableaux, and repentant tourists.
Crocosaurus Cove, Darwin, Australia
Nothing says family vacation like a spin in the Cage of Death. At this reptile-themed spot, thrill-seekers can ogle massive crocodiles up close from behind an acrylic barrier, submerged in a saltwater croc tank. Slightly tamer offerings include good old-fashioned croc fishing, where children and adults taunt baby crocodiles with baited fishing poles.
Best of the Strange: After bonding with these dangerous majestic creatures, stop by the shop to purchase an authentic crocodile skin.
Dwarf Empire, Kunming, China
Located on a hilltop in southern China and opened in September 2009, this pint-size park is almost entirely staffed—from entertainers to janitors—by people less than four feet tall. The 100 or so employees live in miniature domed houses and eat on site, but this is no utopia: the for-profit enterprise puts on costumed spectacles (think break dancing, ballet, and gourd instruments) for the hundreds of tourists who flood the place daily.
Best of the Strange: The small town operates like it is, in fact, an empire, complete with an empress and emperor who oversee the commune’s parliament.
Grutas Park, Lithuania
Opened in 2001, this park near the southern Belarus border won the offbeat Ig Nobel Peace Prize for improbable research from Harvard; the two-mile-long playground and zoo is wrapped in an homage to the Soviet regime. Nicknamed Stalin World, it showcases icons stripped of their political power; visitors gawk at the Terror Sphere, featuring statues of Communist Party leaders and imitation watchtowers and trenches. Wisely, the park nixed the idea of carting guests around on a gulag train.
Best of the Strange: The Nostalgia menu at the on-site restaurant offers Soviet-themed dishes, like the Goodbye Youth chop of mystery meat.
Shijingshan Amusement Park, Beijing
At this trademark-skirting park in western Beijing—where a banner over the entrance proclaims: “Disneyland is too far”—there’s a replica of Sleeping Beauty’s castle (with less sparkle and more Communist-brick realism); live character doppelgangers of Shrek, Donald Duck, and Minnie Mouse; and even a copy of Epcot’s dimpled globe. Opened in 1986, the park caught Disney’s attention for its infringements only in 2007.
Best of the Strange: The copycatting is not limited to Disney icons; Hello Kitty knockoffs often mingle with Loony Tunes’s Bugs Bunny.
Harmony Land, Japan
Welcome to popular Japanese children’s character (and lifestyle brand) Hello Kitty’s world, where visitors can check out the friendly feline’s castle, take a boat ride through her friends’ cavernous underground apartments, and soar on a Ferris wheel of character heads. The “Time Machine of Dreams,” a 20-minute 3-D and special effects–filled show, even has scented seats for the full sweet Hello Kitty experience.
Best of the Strange: Don’t miss the classic “Fantasy Night Show,” with fairies, laser beams, and a song about “the importance of life.”
Named after a popular line of Danish candies, this 33-acre amusement park in southern Denmark is rife with depictions of bodily functions—vomiting rats, lactating cows, and urinating ants. The disgusting animal theme may be tied directly to the candy names like “bird droppings” and “dead flies,” but the park’s rides are definitely family-friendly. After all, six-year-olds do have a great appreciation for bathroom humor.
Best of the Strange: Take a ride on the Hundeprut roller coaster, a tame 18 mph ride just 15 feet off the ground. (The name, not surprisingly, has to do with a bodily function.)
Dickens World, England
Ever want to enter a world full of hunger, hackneyed accents, and criminals on the run? This 75,000-square-foot re-creation of a 19th-century Dickensian town, opened in 2007, fits the bill; you can tour the Marshalsea Prison, take old-time photographs at Peerybingle’s Pawnbrokers, or ogle animatronic characters at the modern Britania Theatre with your little literary buff.
Best of the Strange: The most popular ride, the Great Expectations Boat Ride, replicates lovable convict Magwitch’s escape from prison.
Love Land, Cheju Island, South Korea
Located off the southern coast of South Korea, this sex-themed site was conceived in 2004 as a way to teach Korean newlyweds about conjugal love. The island—a longtime honeymoon destination for couples (many of whom have entered into arranged marriages)—draws countless curious twosomes who come to stroll among 140 amorous sculptures, see explicit exhibitions, and watch sex-ed films.
Best of the Strange: Take a ride on an “interactive” self-pleasuring bicycle, jerry-rigged with feathers on its wheel.
Ferrari World, Abu Dhabi, UAE
Slated to open in late 2010, the first Ferrari theme park will also be the world’s largest indoor park—more than two million square feet. Among other high-octane highlights, expect to find the world’s fastest roller coaster (traveling more than 130 mph at 180 feet through the roof and back) as well as the world’s biggest Ferrari logo—a 200-foot-long rooftop sign.
Best of the Strange: Fans can race each other in Ferrari F430 Spider replicas. (There’s a computer override option for overzealous drivers.)
Parque Jaime Duque, Bogotá, Colombia
Built by the Colombian aviation pioneer Jaime Duque Grisales as a gift to Colombians, 37 miles north of the capital, the park has some 30 head-scratching attractions. A sculpture garden showcases 700 bizarre statues, including a giant “hand of god” holding a sphere, amid miniaturized Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and a “Dante’s Inferno” boat ride. Perhaps strangest of all is its phenomenal music venue, which draws top artists like Moby and Guns N’ Roses.
Best of the Strange: Don’t miss the torchless, naked male version of the Statue of Liberty that towers over the ancient icons at the park’s northwest edge.
Holy Land Experience, Orlando, FL
Nothing against religious reenactments, but when a blood-smeared Jesus sings into his head-mike from the cross, things start to get creepy. This park (which lies just 11 miles from Disney) features Celebrate Jesus Karaoke, Caucasian actors playing Middle Eastern street vendors, and colorful dancing fountains. Profiled in the Bill Maher documentary Religulous, it draws thousands of people every year.
Best of the Strange: Tourists can share in the Last Supper with Jesus and his disciples.
Behold Dubailand, a three-billion-square-foot outdoor oasis from Tatweer (a government-owned real-estate investment firm) that improbably marries animatronic dinosaurs with a Tiger Woods–branded golf resort and the world’s largest water park (with man-made beach and reef, of course).
Best of the Strange: Falcon City of Wonders features lifelike reconstructions of the Pyramids, Hanging Gardens of Babylon, Eiffel Tower, Taj Mahal, and Tower of Pisa.