The path to the abandoned theme park slowly deteriorated as we went on. Moss broke through the cracks in the pavement. Grass crept onto its edges. A thick canopy leant us shade. Despite the four other students with me, I felt strangely alone.
We heard the theme park before we saw it. A constant screech, grating and shrill. The cause of the sound soon became apparent through gaps in the trees: a Ferris wheel. The wheel itself was enormous and painted red, with cute little passenger cabins painted a variety of colors: green, red, yellow, blue. Propelled by a slight breeze, the entire contraption spun slowly, painfully slowly.
We soon arrived at the edge of the theme park, marked by a large metal fence, painted the same garish red as the Ferris wheel. “Private Property: Keep Off,” a sign on the fence said. The five of us ignored the sign and looked for an entryway—a gate, a hole, a low part of the fence. Unfortunately, the few holes were covered with barbed wire, as were the low points in the fence. After searching fruitlessly for a while, we finally just boosted ourselves over with the aid of a tree.
The inside of the park was strange. The remnants of the theme park were still discernible: paths, rides, booths. But everything was also overgrown, obscured, and broken. From where we stood, we could see the small train that once carried visitors around the park. It was painted bright turquoise with red and gold lines. A hideous color combination. Its tracks were narrow and rusted, disappearing around a corner into dense vegetation. The whole setup looked like a baby’s first toy train set had been enlarged and placed awkwardly into a forest. It just didn’t fit. Simultaneously spooked and fascinated, the five of us decided to head deeper into the park.
The “Spreepark,” as it is commonly called, was built in 1969 in East Berlin by the communist GDR government. It was the only constant entertainment park in East Germany, hosting some 1.7 million visitors at its peak, according to Der Spiegel, a German news organization. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the park was sold. For the next decade, the park deteriorated and accrued debt due to a combination of bad luck and bad management. Finally, in 2001, it shut down for good and its owners moved to Peru, along with six of the park’s rides.
Since then, the park’s history has only become more bizarre. In 2003, the park owner and his son were arrested for “attempting to smuggle 167 kilos of cocaine to Germany inside a ride called ‘The Flying Carpet.’” The park was put up for sale on eBay for 2.2 million dollars, though that never went through. Finally, in March 2014, the Berlin city government purchased the lease to the park, and it has been in a kind of bureaucratic limbo ever since.
The five of us—all Princeton students taking a summer class in Berlin—decided to venture further into the park, following the overgrown pathway that must have once served as the park’s main thoroughfare.
The first major building we discovered looked like a former restaurant, perhaps a cheap fast food joint. It was painted in lurid red and yellow colors, though many graffitists had added their own drawings to its décor. Its windows were mostly smashed in, and the floor was covered with broken glass. A small room in the back, which I assume was once the bathroom, sported a large reddish brown stain on its tile walls. I felt like I was on the set of a horror movie: the shrill screech of the Ferris wheel ever in the background, the broken glass crunching underfoot, the faces of spray-painted characters staring luridly back at me. While it all felt very creepy, it also struck me as somehow beautiful. The shack had taken on a life of its own, become alluringly disfigured.
We left the restaurant and continued silently on. We passed a few more buildings, including one that looked like a cartoonish prop from some Western flick, the words “National Bank” displayed prominently on its façade. We also passed the log ride, still complete with its flume and boats, though both were covered in dirt and spray paint. Finally, we arrived at the roller coaster.
Once considered the largest roller coaster in Europe, the big ride was now just a rusted track overgrown with trees. The two-story wooden building that once served as its loading area was falling apart, and we didn’t dare climb its stairs. From below, we could see the roller coaster cars sitting patiently on the track, as if awaiting the next set of passengers.
I traced the path of the roller coaster with my eyes. It began at the loading dock and slowly inclined from there, until suddenly plummeting down into dense vegetation. From there, I lost sight of the track, which twisted into and out of the forest until it ended in the fanged mouth of cat. This gaping hole—the entrance to a long, dark tunnel—was undoubtedly the most harrowing feature of the site. It towered into the air, its top slightly obscured by trees. It was entirely painted blue, except for its eyes, which were a haunting, angry yellow. Its fangs, which had seemed small at a distance, were at least the size of my arms. Covered in graffiti, overgrown with trees, and coated with grime, the once fearsome creature now struck me as out of place, like an ancient temple in the jungle.
When we finally managed to peel ourselves away from the roller coaster’s tunnel, we visited the park’s largest attraction, the screeching Ferris wheel. It was built on a small island, surrounded by a moat of swampy green water. The water was so thick and muddied it resembled turf more than water. Just to test it, we threw a stick into it. The carpet of algae, mud, and refuse rippled and the stick sank.
In front of us, the enormous Ferris wheel towered into the air, rising nearly fifty meters into the bright blue sky. Below it, stuck awkwardly in the muddy water, was a small swan boat. The once white and regal swan was now dirtied and crumbling, with large green plants growing where its seats should have been. Standing there—surrounded by the thick, encroaching forest and the grimy, broken swan and the squealing, spinning Ferris wheel—I couldn’t help but find the abandoned park beautiful. I’m not sure why.
Maybe the park’s allure derived from its atmosphere of danger: the sign “private property: keep off”; the sense that this place was out of bounds, secretive, spooky.
Or perhaps the abandoned park’s beauty stemmed from its history, from what it once was but is no longer. Watching the Ferris wheel spin ominously and emptily around and around, I inevitably imagined it filled with people. I could see them smiling and laughing. Some wave at the people below. Others just enjoy the moment, gazing out over the Berlin cityscape. Maybe that’s what made the park beautiful and alluring—the fact that it was once so alive and happy and is now so dead and silent.
Or perhaps the theme park was beautiful because it was such a perfect symbol, such a perfect reminder of life’s transiency. Staring into the crumbling, spray-painted depths of the roller coaster tunnel, I couldn’t help but realize that some day my own world would be a ruin much like this one.