Splendid China (Gone)
In the goofy 1968 film Battle Beneath the Earth, diabolical Chinese Communists tunnel to plant nukes under America's cities. If you believe the critics of Florida Splendid China, a theme park near Disneyworld, the '90s invasion techniques of Red China are far more insidious.
Florida Splendid China is a $100 million version of China in miniature, spread over 76 intricately landscaped acres. The park includes a half-mile long replica of the Great Wall, 60 scale replica Chinese temples and palaces, a big cat show, and scads of contortionists.
Since its opening in late 1993, Florida Splendid China has at times been besieged by human rights protesters, displaced Tibetan monks, and human chains objecting to missile tests (off mainland China). There are persistent accusations that the park is entirely (if indirectly) owned by the Chinese government, a propaganda tool lodged in the belly of the Mouse. Some opponents even say that it serves as a base for spies (stealing our "eatertainment" secrets, perhaps?) and is China's bid to "spruce up its image" and influence the schoolchildren of Florida.
All this is a far more interesting backdrop than you'd find at most "worlds in miniature. " The barely seen workings of a repressive regime should enhance any low-budget faux-China vacation . . .
The Long March
The first quarter of FSC is actually free -- central Florida's own fabricated "Chinatown," complete with street vendors, gift shops and restaurants. It's deserted during our visit (though revives in the evening). Map in hand, we enter near the Stone Forest, a natural wonder of China, surgically scaled and rendered here in fiberglass and Gunite. Large Buddha statues rear up in artificial grottos; the Leshan Grand Buddha is 35 feet high, impressive except when compared to the real one -- over 250 feet high.
Miniature scenes are arrayed along serpentine walking paths, and it's a long sweaty trek to the back, a formidable mall-walk. It's no wonder Florida Splendid China appeals to the seniors/snow bird crowd. You can also wait and ride a tram festooned with tinkly bells. Softly lilting nose flute music plays from speakers hidden behind trees and bushes. The transcendental mood breaks only when the music CD starts skipping, and no one fixes it for 20 minutes.
The miniatures are insanely detailed -- the Imperial Palace stretches over a half-acre and includes hundreds of tiny figures. The Dalai Lama's Potala Palace is in the back of the park, sprawled over a tiny hill ringed by thousands of tiny acolyte, priest and peasant figurines. Potala is the focus of much anger -- protesters occasionally mass outside the back park wall, marching with ten-foot tall Tibetan flags.
A quarter dropped in coin boxes at select exhibits triggers a motorized animation -- tiny hoses spritz, a mandala rug is rolled by tiny priests. After thirty or forty miniature scenes, though, you're ready for a change of pace.
Chinese acrobats at the Pagoda Garden, perhaps? Watch the acrobatic antics of 7-year old Feng-Feng. The spunky youngster performs with a troupe from mainland China, spinning jugs, while her comrades wave fans and balance trays of drinks. In the Golden Peacock Theater, a midday "extravaganza" show features act after act of contortionists, Chinese vaudevillians, and musicians. Scores of retired gents shift restlessly in the audience as yet another comely contortionist crosses her knees behind her head.
The park has added the "Magical Snow Tiger Adventure," in a retrenching attempt to attract families normally sucked away by SeaWorld's undertow, or entranced by Gatorland Zoo's Jumparoo Show. A conspicuously non-Asian pep squad of animal handlers pours out into the amphitheater with a progression of reptiles. A boy from a school group is covered with tarantulas. A half dozen audience volunteers skeeve when they have to hold 15 feet of albino boa constrictor.
Then, out come the big cats, a leopard, a native Florida panther, a lion (alleged to be the animators' living model for the Lion King) and the snow tiger. The snow tiger has just given birth to this season's endangered media darlings -- the snow tiger cubs! The big cats do a few halfhearted jumps and stretches. Nothing on the order of Wilbert Behn's Big Cat show, but then, nothing shields this crowd of several hundred if anything goes wrong.
The Terra Cotta Warriors excavation is recreated at half-size in a dim cave under the Great Wall. In real China, thousands of the warrior statues guard the grave of a long-dead emperor. In Florida Splendid China, it's a good place to escape the sun for a few moments (Back in the Chinatown section, you can buy miniature reproductions of these miniature reproductions).
The Great Wall is FSC's largest spectacle -- a half-mile long and containing 6.5 million bricks. It's a miniature, of course, but if you take your snapshots without any bystanders for scale, it's as if you were at the real Great Wall.
In contrast to the Disney megaplex and Kissimmee/Orlando's loud offerings, Florida Splendid China is delicate, out of step. This extremely intricate detailed attraction is probably lost on its intended audience, who are accustomed to far less in the way of craftsmanship. Still, it's a novel tiny experience of a giant foreign land (though the fear of Cultural Reconditioning and brainwashing subsides almost too soon).
A hefty admission price for Roadsiders, too -- about 2/3rds the cost of a park day pass at the accursed Disney....
May 2005: Property has been purchased for redevelopment. Don't expect anything as splendid...
December 2004: CLOSED, contents auctioned off Dec. 9-11, 2004
December 2003: CLOSED - Splendid China closed forever on Dec. 31, due to the post-Sept. 11th depression in attendance. Their official web site explained: "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."