Yongma Land, a closed amusement park at the east end of Seoul, is like a hidden gem of the capital, to be discovered by only those with knowing eyes.
With no big promotions to advertise the place, visitors should do some online searching and walk 10 minutes uphill to reach this small theme park abandoned more than 20 years ago.
Behind the rusty gate, a wear-and-tear merry-go-round stands still in the middle of the park, and on the right are an eerie-looking deserted octopus-shaped ride and a rotating “Disco Pang Pang” ride.
The rides that have seen better days sit dormant. Bumper cars draped in spider webs are deserted in the grass and a dust-covered miniature railroad and space fighters stand motionless as if frozen in time. The unfinished five-story building in front of the theme park, abandoned during construction with its steel beams exposed, adds to the bleakness and emptiness of the scene.
Sitting at the foot of Mount Mangu on the edge of the bustling city, the derelict theme park with its forlorn beauty has earned a second life as the hottest photoshoot site for urban explorers, cosplayers and those fashionistas who want to shoot special vintage photos for social media.
“We have 50 to 60 daily visitors during the weekdays and over 100 on weekends, regardless of weather, even if it is cold or rainy. The number of visitors has remained stable for years because they like the unique mood it gives,” said Yongma Landowner Hyun Jun-su, a theme park planner and ride maker who has owned the place since 1995.
“Since it is a closed amusement park, we cannot actively market this place and only those in the know come here. But many people visit again and again. Currently, we have more foreign visitors than locals.”
All are welcome in Yongma Land, after paying a 10,000 won entry fee.
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Yongma Land, which opened in 1985 during the heyday of theme parks when they were found throughout the country, was one of the trailblazers in local theme park history. With only two major amusement parks _ Seoul Grand Park and Everland _ up and running, it was a rare theme park with an outdoor swimming pool and the largest snow tubing hill of its time.
Overseas travel had been rare up until the mid-1990s, so Yongma Land was a popular domestic tourist destination. Hyun, who acquired the place in 1995, has increased the number of rides and upgraded them.
Although people call the park abandoned, the rides we have here are high-end machines. After I acquired the place, I brought in high-tech attractions including ones that can give virtual reality experience through imaging devices, nearly two decades ago when people didn’t know what virtual reality was.
The carousel here is also a very pricy one made by America’s Chance Rides. Except for us, it is only Lotte World that has the same brand carousel. It is a pity that with all these attractions, we can’t operate the rides.”
Although the renovation of the theme park was completed, the construction of the five-story sports complex building adjacent to the park stopped in 1999 due to the financial crisis that hit the country hard.
As the city canceled the license for the sports complex, the license for the theme park which was filed together with the sports complex was canceled as well in 2012. “In 2012, Seoul revoked the permit saying there was no hope,” said Hyun, who rented the land and made a great investment in the theme park.
He now needs a new license but the process has been bogged down as negotiations with the land-owning family have been in a stalemate.
The park is no longer allowed to do anything more than turn on the lights, but thanks to its unique nostalgic mood, music videos were shot here in 2013 for singer Baek Ji-young’s song “I Hate It” and Crayon Pop’s “Bar Bar Bar.”
Since then the place has been featured in numerous music videos and album covers for K-pop singers including EXO, BTS, and GOT7, as well as a shooting place for dramas and films, attracting global K-pop and K-drama fans.
Through the photos posted and shared on social media, all sorts of artsy people visit the place, even couples looking for creative wedding photos.
Rediscovering beauty in decay
“In Hong Kong, we have places like Ocean Park or Disneyland but we don’t have a place like here, looking old and nostalgic,” said fully dressed-up Angelica Ng, 19, from Hong Kong, visiting the place with her younger sister.
“This place reminds me of my childhood memories of visiting a funfair with my family. I’ve seen the photos of this place on social media and thought it was very beautiful. Since there are just a few people around, it is really good to make various poses without being concerned with others.”
Yongma Land, an amusement park that stopped operating in 1995, has a special value in the country where buildings are established and renovated fast to have more modern aesthetics. Here the rides are allowed to age, offering a rare post-human atmosphere showing what the world might look like without human activity.
The old rundown amusement park has become a sort of sandbox for artsy people. A swimsuited model posed on a staircase in front of a bleak background, and a couple hopped on carousel horses to pose for photos.
Urika Lao and two other friends from Macao horsed around in a shopping cart and took photos around the theme park. Parts of the park were covered in a thin layer of unseasonable snow, actually refined salt used for shooting winter scenes for the upcoming tvN drama “Nine Rooms.”
Three teenaged K-pop fans from Hong Kong walked toward an old black piano left exposed to the elements, and one started to play the theme song of Japanese animation “Castle in the Sky.” A cat dozed under the shade of rides and pigeons sipped water from a big puddle beside the miniature train.
Despite the scorching heat, the number of visitors keeps rising, thanks to photos shared on social media, according to Hyun Jun-su who has owned the place since 1995.
“After China’s ban on Korean cultural products, hallyu has nearly disappeared for some time. I think this theme park if activated has more potential to become a great tourist spot for hallyu fans than Namiseom, the small island that became a popular tourist destination after being featured in Winter Sonata,” said Hyun, who rented the land and invested heavily in the theme park but couldn’t officially open the park after failing to receive a license.
“It’s a pity I cannot promote the closed park and with the little money I make I cannot invest in amenities for tourists,” he said.
But he says his happiest moment is here and now. “After many years of being ignored, now people come to visit and say they are happy to find this place. Although the rides aren’t operating, they say they like this place and I’m happy to hear that,” he said.
“Although I didn’t know anything about photography before, visitors say they’ve entered photo contests with photos taken here, and I feel good knowing this place contributes to art to some extent,” he said wearing a big smile on his face.
Experts say Yongma Land’s rise as a tourist destination should be interpreted in the context of the recent popularity of old alleys in areas like Ikseon-dong, Seongsu-dong and Mullae-dong.
“Those people just go to Yongma Land for the best photos explains just a little part of its recent popularity. Those old alleys and Yongma Land give visitors a time-traveling experience, where people can escape the fast-changing and competitive present for a moment and relish the comfort that something old can give,” said Kim Joo-hee, an assistant professor at Dongduk Women’s University.
Ryan Berkebile, a 38-year-old American English teacher living in Korea since 2005, says he is a frequent visitor to the place. “Yongma Land is a fascinating place visually.
The fading, bright colors on dormant rides or mannequins with missing torsos capture my imagination. Each time I go there, I always find a new fascinating object, whether it’s an old arcade game or ride I hadn’t encountered before.
I’m left with more questions than answers which is why I like urban exploration,” said the analog camera fanatic whose hobby is documenting the rapidly changing urban landscape of Korea.
The recent popularity of Yongma Land is in line with the global phenomenon of “dark tourism” in places like Chernobyl, where people pay to risk their health to spend a few hours in a contaminated ghost town, he adds.
“As for exploring abandonments in Korea, I feel they can be like time capsules. It offers a glimpse of Korea from the past while inspiring questions about the effects of Korea’s rapid economic development,” Berkebile said.
Source: The Korea Times