In China it is not uncommon for a city park to have a few amusement rides, upfront and fancy if the park caters to a well-heeled clientele, but if you go exploring an off part of town, you may part the tall grass and discover the fastest bumper cars you’ve ever seen outside a freeway pileup. I went twice before I dusted the rust off my pants and figured I should stop pushing my luck. In another park my boys, Chase and Porter, discovered some monstrosity that spins on three axes, and the operator said she’d run it if there were at least eight riders. I don’t do spin, so the boys ran through the park recruiting poor souls until they’d collected the necessary number of persons unable to resist two foreign kids speaking Chinese. The operator kept her word, and at the end everyone disembarked a little shaky and green, which is a highly mysterious version of fun. Spinning notwithstanding, I do like amusement parks, maybe too much. In Suzhou we had a good friend who had been in China working as an engineer for years, and he had seen enough corner cutting to forbid his children from ever getting on any amusement park ride. He’s a smart guy, and I really should have listened, but I didn’t so I have stories to tell.
We’re Disneyphiles, so we had annual passes to Hong Kong Disneyland which may be my favorite of all the Disney Parks, in spite of being one of the smallest. It has its own city metro train all decked out with character statues and Mickey handholds. You exit the train onto a beautiful, shady platform and take the escalator up to where you begin the long pleasant walk to the park entrance. We liked to stay at Disney’s Hollywood Hotel with its grand piano shaped pool and the waterslide hidden in a rocky grotto, everything so lovely and enchanting. But this is Hong Kong, don’t get used to it.
We watched with great interest as they built Shanghai Disneyland, and on the second day of the grand opening, gladly marched through the gates, passing folksy signs such as: “When ya need to go just hop on over to the nearest toilet.” Sage advice which speaks volumes about the difference between Hong Kong and mainland China. But that day could be a chapter on its own, and mainland or not, Shanghai Disneyland is still paddling in the Disney fantasy, so it’s time to get real.
It took years to build Shanghai Disney, and Hong Kong was a flight away. To amuse ourselves a little closer to home we headed for Changzhou, to a barrel of weird called Dinosaur Park. I wish I could illustrate the whole shebang, but there’s only space for a thumbnail sketch. Perhaps we should start with the name, which probably could have been much longer: Dinosaur, Steampunk, Wizards, Candyland, King Kong, Haunted Science, Space, with Disney Rip-Offs Park. Rolls right off the tongue doesn’t it. We had an annual pass.
To be fair, I’m sure it started out as dinosaurs because the anchor display areas that looked to be part of the original plans are resolutely traditional dino, with graceful brachiosaurs standing in bodies of water, chewing vines, and so forth. But as you proceed though the park, things start to get a little murkier, steampunkish with some fantasy, and many as yet undiscovered dinosaurs standing upright, wearing armor and holding strange weapons.
So far it’s Dino, Dino, and Funky Dino, but then something shifts again, and you get the sense that the marketing and design departments had a nasty falling out over a game of Go and haven’t spoken to each other since. I blame the steampunk armor. Once your dinosaurs are holding weapons, it’s easy to branch out into wizards, and from wizards to scientists. The genesis of the Candyland bits are a mystery I never fully explored. It was as if somebody said that dinosaurs have a shelf life, and we have to keep it relevant for the teenagers, who, incidentally are only available during Chinese New Year and for six weeks in the summer, and their parents are at work. If you didn’t know this you would travel China and conclude it is largely populated by very small children and their grandparents, because almost no one else is visible.
We probably rode the Pterodactyl Coaster the most because it’s an indoor coaster that can run even when it’s raining, which it often is in the winter. A colossal outdoor rollercoaster dominated the park skyline, but we never once got to ride it because if the sky was so much as gray, it was too dangerous to open, possibly a tacit nod to what our engineering friend surmised. The Pterodactyl Coaster was fun and easy to describe: Space Mountain on the back of a prehistoric bird cycle, planets and everything.
Two things stick in my memory about this ride. First: Make sure to arch your back so the wispy little attendant doesn’t ratchet down the restraint until you can’t breathe, because she can’t believe anyone is actually as big as I am. Second: The curse of the cubbies. If you have any kind of bag, even if it’s tiny and securely attached to your person, they want it removed and left in an open cubby, just before they tie you down and send you shooting off into the dark. Now, in China I’ve been in stores that put security devices on packs of gum, if that tells you anything. To be fair, all Chinese amusement parks do this for safety reasons, and I truly am all about safety, except for the part about raising my kids in a third-world country, but the setup at this ride left my purse particularly vulnerable. The reality is Chinese amusement parks are not set up for parents to ride with their kids because somebody should probably stay outside and hold the bags. I risked my purse, but it was always the most dangerous part of the day.
If you’re not up for pterodactyls in space, there’s always the thrill of King Kong and his banana breath. It’s mighty impressive to see, very Universal Studios, and the idea for banana breath came up while design and marketing were still on speaking terms, so it in all the ads. Just imagine this gargantuan gorilla lifting a train car to his face and putting it down; who doesn’t want that movie experience? So you get on . . . up banana scent down, up banana scent down, up banana scent down. It’s time to get off and your purse smells like banana because they know the ride is so lame they let you keep your bag.
Dinosaur Park had two haunted houses, or rather, one haunted house and one haunted cave. Forget the Haunted Mansion, Dinosaur Park’s haunted house was surrounded by chain link, and when approached from the back looked just like an industrial mental asylum, heapy creepy. Oddly enough the front sported the two iconic windmills and façade of the Moulin Rouge, so I don’t really know what they were going for, but I guess you could add a little Paris, France into the park’s title, right after Candyland. The attraction was also eighteen and up, and since I hold serious haunted houses right up there with spinning rides, I figured I’d give it a miss.
The haunted cave was actually the scariest haunted anything I’ve ever been in, not because of what I could see, but because of what I couldn’t. It was definitely a cave, a huge cavern really, but the center displays were pure mad scientist with large scary machines and test tubes you just knew could do, uhm, nothing in particular except burble and glow. I think someone may have belatedly realized that they needed to up the fright factor, so if enough employees are on shift, people in hooded robes might jump out, because no mad scientist lair would be complete without a menacing monk or two. But remember I mentioned it was scary, and I wasn’t kidding. The real terror of the haunted cave was the lights, because there weren’t any. Well, there were those burble and glow machines, but the main lighting had no preset levels, so whoever was on duty set the dial. It was a total crapshoot; you might see every test tube, or you might be feeling your way in the pitch dark over very uneven cement cave floors, and past rugged cement walls that jutted out unexpectedly. My daughter, Abby, and her friends ended up single file, holding onto each other and groping their way out together. Porter and I enjoyed a similar experience on a separate occasion and it was literally blind luck that everybody escaped without scraped knees or bloody noses.
The last ride I’ll mention might seem an odd choice, but Chase and Porter found it interesting. They were strapped into a dinosaur themed chair attached to a tall pole, then with their own arms, pulled their chairs up the pole via a pulley until they reached the top and the chairs came fluttering down. Not exactly high tech, but maybe refreshing because it wasn’t. The only reason we noticed the ride at all is because it was open, which brings us to the final caveat.
At Dinosaur Park it helps to speak Chinese because you need to ask the crew where they might be going next, and how long they’ll be there. Remember the haunted cave where employees may or may not jump out at you? It all depends on how many people were scheduled to work, because in China the manager can get up in the morning and decide a skeleton crew is plenty. All you need is a single soul to stand guard at the entrance of each attraction, wearing giant pouffy gloves and waving his or her hands in a bizarre parody of anime, indicating that the ride in question is not open, so go someplace else. Don’t be lulled into believing that cheery little full price entrance ticket in any way guarantees you’ll always be in the right place at the right time to get a full day’s rides. That’s not to say you can’t get it, but it does take a bit of ingenuity.
Actually, it’s not always bad when you can’t find something to toss you around or breathe bananas. It’s nice to take a moment to sit on a bench, listening to the Disney music, and munching squid on a stick, which is squid pounded flat and rolled in spices before being deep fried. The tentacles are pretty good, but the body gets to be a bit much. I actually hate seafood, but squid on a stick is standard amusement park fare in China, which at first made zero sense to me. But after smelling the spiced squid long enough, it stopped seeming so bizarre, and I actually gave it a go. Dinosaur Park is a bit of a squid on a stick, and I absolutely recommend it.