Florida Splendid China
Things are not always as they appear in the world of Central Florida theme parks: trees are made from fiberglass, Presidents turn out to be robots, and the park that appeared the most serene was actually the most controversial.
Florida Splendid China, a $100 Million theme park which opened in 1993 on 76 acres just West of the main entrance to Walt Disney World, brought to visitors the beauty and landmarks of China in miniature form. Accurate scale models of some of that China's most interesting architectural and cultural sites, peopled with a motionless ceramic population, were scattered along the park's curving and well landscaped (if not particularly shady) paths.
The miniatures included replicas of The Great Wall of China (this version was half of a mile long and built brick by brick), The Terra Cotta Warriors of Xi'an, The Leshan Grand Buddha Statue (in 1/8th scale), The Forbidden City (including a miniature Emperor's wedding procession), Potala Palace (the spiritual center of Tibet and traditional seat of the Dalai Lama) and more than 50 others representing the diversity of cultures within the region.
Although all of the miniatures were meticulously done, some were more effective than others. The Yurts of Mongolia, for example, were on so small a scale compared to the surrounding grass that they appeared like nothing so much as upended dog bowls. It only took a few years for a few of the scenes to begin showing cracks and other wear, with some of the small figurines that populated them broken or missing entirely.
In addition to the miniatures there were shows scheduled throughout the day that included a review of Chinese culture and music and troops of acrobats doing truly amazing things with jars, hoola-hoops, and their own bodies.
Aside from the show schedule, visitors were free to wander the grounds and look at the scenes, or to just sit, relax, and enjoy the view. A large play structure, Panda Playground, was built to entertain kids when the slow pace of the park got too boring. Florida Splendid China had no rides, no bright lights, and no frenetic action and flashy stunts like you find at the other theme parks in the area. It was designed for relaxation and contemplation of the beauties of the Orient. On the surface, the park was serenity itself -- but in the background, if you listened, you could hear the sounds of protest...
Florida Splendid China presented a peaceful picture of China as it had once been -- the temples populated by quaint, colorful monks, no troops stationed in Tibet, and no tanks in Tiananmen Square. Protestors charged that Florida Splendid China was a tool for propaganda rather than entertainment, and they often staged demonstrations outside the park, and also worked to end school field trip visits.
The park's critics charged that depictions of Tibet's Potala Palace, Mongolian Yurts, and other landmarks from other cultures as being within China were attempts to legitimize Chinese Communist occupation of formerly independent areas, that the multiplicity of religious sites gave a false impression of religious and cultural tolerance within China when those religions were being oppressed, and that the park was actually owned and operated by the Chinese Government through China Travel Services and was in violation of the Foreign Agents Registration Act. Park officials denied that there was any political purpose to Florida Splendid China. The vice president of China Travel Service told The Orlando Sentinel: "We're a theme park. Nothing more."
Americans never embraced Florida Splendid China. Unlike its sister park in China, Shenzhen Splendid China, which has been a major success with thousands of visitors each day, the Florida park was rarely crowded. It seemed to have been built for a much greater volume of guests; several restaurants built within the park remained empty and closed. If it was propaganda, the message wasn't getting out as widely as first planned.
As the park deteriorated in the Florida sun, Sunny Yang, once President of the attraction, attempted to negotiate a sale of the park in 2000, but was recalled to China and placed under house arrest, in part because of allegations of financial mismanagement from his handling of the attraction. In 2002 the Orlando Business Journal called Florida Splendid China "the theme park equivalent of a ghost town." Compared to the other theme parks of Central Florida, it didn't seem so splendid, after all.
On December 30, 2003, the following appeared on the park's website: "FLASH!!! Florida Splendid China Theme Park will discontinue operations in Central Florida as of the close of business on December 31, 2003. This determination was reached primarily due to the continued downturn in the tourism economy, as evidenced by the closing of other tourism-dependent businesses in the area. Despite several years of attempting to achieve successful theme park operations, the company has concluded that it could not longer continue to incur significant losses. To our friends and supporters, we express extreme regret that this action has become necessary."
The park is now closed. A general auction that began on Thursday, December 9th, 2004, saw the selling off of all park assets.
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Photos (taken on a visit in 1999) copyright 1999 and 2003 by Robert H. Brown.
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