Splendid China: Florida’s Deserted Chinese Theme Park

Splendid ChinaPhoto: Fred SzabriesThe Leshan Buddha: four stories tall and now defiled with spray paint.

It cost $100 million dollars and took over 100 skilled artisans from China two years to build. Now it’s a weed-strewn ruin blighting the landscape a few miles from Disney World. This was China’s failed attempt to transform thousands of years of culture into a theme park.

Splendid China opened in 1993 with great fanfare and even greater hopes; some say hopes of polishing China’s image in the world. More than 60 miniature replicas of China’s most famous landmarks dotted the 75 manicured acres. Just about everything was handcrafted in traditional methods. The diminutive buildings had mortise and tenon wooden joints; no nails or screws.

Splendid ChinaPhoto: Fred SzabriesOne of the larger, permanent displays of the formerly Splendid China. Potala Palace, Tibet, was once home to the Dalai Lama.

Nearly 7 million tiny, hand-laid blocks built a half-mile long replica of The Great Wall. Hundreds of scaled-down terracotta warriors protected an underground cave.

Splendid ChinaPhoto: Fred SzabriesThe Great Wall of China in miniature: Over half a mile long and made with 7 million tiny, hand-laid bricks.

The level of detail and craftsmanship stunned and amazed visitors. And then it bored them. No amount of artisanship alone could compete with that giant rodent – Mickey Mouse – down the road. After all, Splendid China had no rides, no roller coasters, no characters, and no theme other than look how splendid China is. There were acrobatic, cultural and even wild animal shows, but even a white tiger jumping on a ball cannot compete with a 6-ton sea mammal splashing in a pool. The public lost interest in the novelty and balked at the high ticket prices. At its height it cost $28 to feel like a giant as you strolled through a scale model of The Forbidden City. That was only about $10 less than nearby Disney World and not a very splendid bargain considering the offerings of the more famous park.

Splendid ChinaPhoto: Fred SzabriesThe Imperial Palace of the Forbidden City. At 1/10th scale, these buildings are about 4 feet tall.

It didn’t help that the developers of Splendid China also began an ambitious, if misguided, hotel, condominium and shopping plaza connected to the site. Yet, the subsequent financial drain of development and dwindling ticket sales were not what ultimately killed the park. There were rumors that the site was a propaganda tool of Communist China. There was the fact that imported Chinese workers were hired and lived in the neighboring motel. And the final straw was the human rights protestors and Tibetan monks who camped out at the front gates to bemoan China’s dismal human rights record. The protestors were also not happy with the inclusion of sites not technically in China. These included the Potala Palace, which was built by Tibetans and had been the home of Dalai Lamas since 1645, and the Id Gah Mosque and Tomb of Abakh Hoja – cultural symbols of the people of Eastern Turkestan. Nobody wants to breach a picket line for a day of cultural entertainment. With no roller coasters in sight and nasty protest signs hinting at murder abroad, potential park-goers turned away in droves.

So, around decade after it opened, Splendid China closed its ornate gates for good. The displays that were moveable were auctioned off and the ones that were permanent stayed behind to deteriorate in the relentless Florida sun and rain. It became the playground of vandals and skateboarders.

Splendid ChinaPhoto: Fred SzabriesThe Summer Palace. Only mosquitoes and lizards vacation here now. It’s not hard to feel like a giant amongst these diminutive and intricate scale models.

Walking the park today is a sad experience. Everything that can be broken is destroyed. Thousands of delicate ceramic figures are smashed; only their feet remain firmly attached to the ground. Displays that cannot be broken, like the four-story-tall Leshan Buddha, are spray-painted with vulgar scribblings. The site has been sold and a security patrol posted, but the park is a vast 75 acres and it cannot be guarded by one employee alone. Splendid China may have failed and its intentions may not have been as pure as advertised, but it’s a shame to see such truly amazing craftsmanship reduced to splinters and rubble.

Fred Szabries is an author, fine artist, photographer and urban explorer. You can read more about Splendid China in his book The Forbidden Tourist. You can also see his fine art at www.szabries.com. Sources: Orlando Sentinel.