Wonderland Park promised to be a bigger and better version of Disneyland. Until suddenly, construction mysteriously stopped. Here's a look at what happened in the decade that followed as the property turned into a ghost town.
A Magical Success
On July 17th, 1955, the first Disneyland Park in Anaheim, California, opened and nothing would ever be the same. Some visitors couldn't believe their eyes as they entered a fantasyland like never before.
By October of 1971, Walt Disney's dream of a whole fantasy universe came true as Orlando, Florida's Disney World opened for the first time. The entertainment geniuses had another location in Tokyo by 1983 and Paris by 1992. Wherever they went, the one-of-a-kind amusement parks attracted millions.
A Man With a Vision
And The Walt Disney Company's success certainly didn't go unnoticed. It eventually inspired Thai-Chinese businessman Dr. Chanchai Ruayrungruang. The successful investor founded Reignwood Group in 1984, not too long after Disney made its way to Asia for the first time.
But Chanchai wasn't initially in the business of amusement parks. Reignwood Group focused on anything and everything from consumer products and hotels to real estate properties, golf courses, and travel agencies. Ruayrungruang was quite the visionary.
Looking for Inspiration
Reignwood Group owned companies in different parts of Asia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. They were no small business, and Chanchai always had his eyes set on what came next. The hard-working entrepreneur constantly searched for what could be the next big thing.
As all business people do, Reignwood Group looked around them for inspiration. Ruayrungruang and his co-workers often observed what was successful in the West, and wondered if something similar could succeed in Asia. And that's exactly what happened when they saw Disney's success.
Finding the Perfect Spot
Reignwood Group closely observed The Walt Disney Company's unparalleled achievements. Their parks seemed to attract hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people wherever they went - meaning Disney was bringing in millions of dollars, too. Chanchai Ruayrungruang liked what he saw.
So the master investor convinced Reignwood Group to do something similar in China. Disney had yet to open up a park in the country, and Chanchai saw an opportunity to do something just as grand - or even more so. But first, they had to find the perfect location.
Finding the right spot to build was no easy feat. Reignwood Group needed the perfect place to construct a park to beat all theme parks. They didn't look for thousands of acres of land like Florida's Disney World, but they needed at least over 100 acres to compare to the California and Tokyo locations.
Finally, they came across an ideal spot roughly 32 kilometers (20 miles) outside of Beijing. Reignwood Group probably thought it was a convenient location: far enough out of the city to have empty land for building, but close enough to attract urban dwellers. So they bought about 120 acres of property in Chenzhuang Village.
Something for All Ages
The investment company realized one of the crucial aspects of Disney's success was that the theme parks weren't only for children. From toddlers to elderly citizens, people of any age came to Disney and immersed themselves in a world of fantasy and fairy tales.
By the mid-1990s, Reignwood Group put their shovels in the dirt and began building the Disney-imitation park outside of Beijing. They had 120 acres of beautiful land with mountains in the back, and big plans for the attraction, from roller coasters to castles.
The Biggest Park in Asia
Just like Walt Disney carefully chose plots of lands that would fit all of his fantasy visions, Reignwood Group did the same. And it didn't take long for part of their dream to come alive, as a beautiful castle with a fort-like presence surrounded the park's borders.
Dr. Chanchai Ruayrungruang wanted to build the biggest amusement park in all of Asia. He imagined themed rides, interactive shows, and characters walking around just like in Disney World. Little did Chanchai know, things would go far from how he planned.
Lots of Similarities
It was safe to say that Ruayrungruang wanted to mimic much of what made Disney successful. Aside from themed rides and a make-believe land, Reignwood Group also planned to open up themed restaurants and gift shops around the park. And the aesthetic similarities to Disney were undeniable.
The park, which they named "Wonderland," used a font for its sign almost identical to the famous Walt Disney World logo. And that wasn't the only similarity. Reignwood Group even built a castle in the middle of the park that looked like Cinderella's Castle in Florida's Magic Kingdom.
Construction was coming along quite swiftly around the 120-acre property bought by Reignwood Group. A medieval fortress-like structure was completed around the park, a parking lot was paved out of the dirt, and more buildings were well-underway behind the medieval design.
Reignwood Group already had a reputation as a legitimate investment company in China, and buzz started building around Wonderland. People heard that it would be the biggest theme park on the continent and got excited. And then, all of a sudden, construction stopped.
In 1998, a few years after the land was initially purchased by Reignwood Group, construction suddenly came to a halt. Workers stopped showing up to the lot, and slowly but surely, all of the building equipment left the property. Residents of the surrounding areas couldn't believe it.
After all of the progress and money invested into the project, why did it all stop from one day to the next? Reignwood Group was no stranger to successful ventures, so what went wrong this time? The locals of Chenzhuang Village didn't understand why all of the fairy tale castles were abandoned.
Seasons Passed and Rumors Flew
Seasons passed, and as snow covered the partly-built Wonderland, the theme park remained deserted. After a few months of total quiet on the construction lot, rumors naturally started whirring about what went wrong with the project. Locals came up with different theories.
Some people speculated that arguments between Reignwood Group, farmers, and local governments about property costs in the area led to the pause in construction. But as more time passed, the break seemed permanent as the gates to Wonderland stayed closed.
When construction equipment and workers initially made their way out of Wonderland, locals likely assumed that the project would eventually resume. Reignwood Group would settle whatever financial or legal issues that needed sorting and carry on with the park.
But the months turned into years, and people lost hope. Reignwood Group was on to other projects while the would-be amusement park sat barely finished with its fairy tale castles deserted. Little did people know the future that awaited the empty structures.
A Dilapidating Interior
The structures left unfinished were not only skeletons of fake buildings: some of them had construction start in the interior, too. The picture below shows a shot of the dilapidation inside Wonderland's facilities, where vents and a staircase was built before construction stopped.
Residents of Chenzhuang Village eventually became used to the abandoned theme park. The rotting structures turned into another part of the local background, a quirk of the town. But after some time, Wonderland started attracting a group of adventurous people.
A Hot Spot for Explorers
Eventually, word spread about this dilapidating theme park outside the bustling city of Beijing. It didn't take long for urban explorers, who enjoy traversing abandoned or hidden compounds, to make their way to Wonderland. At this point, the place was far from Chanchai Ruayrungruang's vision.
Tree branches lined the broken windows of the deserted castles, cracks formed on the pavement, and snow entered the buildings. Instead of families and people of all ages enjoying the theme park in all of its glory, urban explorers walked around abandoned lots. But Wonderland's story didn't end there.
More and more urban explorers showed up at the abandoned park. And not just people from the surrounding areas of China: tourists from around the world who loved creepy, deserted places planned visits to Wonderland. It even seemed like the building was home to some squatters, with mats and clothes laying around.
Reignwood Group planned a theme park to outshine all theme parks: restaurants, shops, multiple castles, roller coasters, and other rides for visitors of any age. If any place could compete with the Disney empire, it would be Wonderland. But that turned out to be far from reality...
Plenty of Unused Land
Over time, Wonderland looked less like a theme park under construction and more like a total ghost town. It turned into a creepy lot with spooky-loving visitors coming by. But while urban explorers enjoyed the abandoned structures, there was much more to the 120 acres of land.
After all, Reignwood Group was far from completion when construction mysteriously stopped. So aside from the steel frame skeletons of planned structures and a few nearly-finished castles, there were acres and acres of empty land. But it didn't stay empty for much longer.
Farmers Put It to Use
For some time after Wonderland's construction stopped, no one dared touch the property. Reignwood Group was a powerful company, and locals assumed they would soon be back to reclaim their area and continue building the theme park. But when years passed, and that seemed unlikely, everything changed.
Sometime after Reignwood Group left in 1998, people understood that the property was indeed abandoned and saw an opportunity in all of that empty land. Local farmers eventually made their way to Wonderland and used the soil while urban explorers enjoyed the run-down structures.
The Unfinished Details
In just a matter of time, sections of the 120-acre property owned by Reignwood Group became fertile soil for locals. Farmers planted large corn crops and more around the deserted buildings. They even dismantled some of the smaller structures, like an unfinished power tower.
But other edifices were harder to take down. A group of farmers could take apart some small things, but other parts of Wonderland were much closer to completion and would require actual bulldozers to take apart. So the farmers left these structures alone. But they had a surprise coming their way.
An Abandoned Food Court
One of the places that ultimately filled with crops was Wonderland's would-be food court. Construction workers had practically finished setting up the hall's framing when all of the equipment mysteriously disappeared. And in a somewhat ironic turn of events, farmers used the cafeteria to grow food instead.
Wonderland's edifice slowly began to crumble. What once looked like a gleaming light of hope for an immersive theme park turned into a haunting ghost town. And then, suddenly, things took a turn and people finally learned the truth about what happened.
Learning the Truth
After years of abandonment, Wonderland was a ghost town "trapped in limbo," as artist Catherine Hyland put it. "A hybrid space between the 'real' and the artificial, this environment induces a sense of transformation or manipulation that appears to permeate and displace the realm of fantasy," she said.
"Tamed by the locals, the uncompleted remnants of Wonderland become the antithesis of everything it was supposed to be, its value altered permanently," Catherine added. And just when things couldn't seem to get any creepier, people learned the truth about why construction came to an end.
The Rumors Were Right
Locals speculated that issues between Reinwood Group, farmers, and local governments led to the sudden stop. And it turned out that those theories weren't too far off. A representative for Chanchai Ruayrungruang's company finally spilled the beans on what went down almost a decade later.
The Reignwood Group rep said that a 1998 flood led to a government policy protecting the property because much of the 120-acres of land were still forested. And the organization also faced issues with local farmers, not-so-surprising news considering who later took over the abandoned lot. And then, construction suddenly resumed.
Giving It Another Shot
Roughly a decade after Wonderland's progress mysteriously stopped, the Reignwood Group reappeared. They cleared up the rumors surrounding the halt and announced some big news: construction would finally resume, and China's Wonderland would be finished.
Accompanied by construction equipment and employees, the company was ready to restart building since the issues from ten years earlier had been largely forgotten by many. Chenzhuang Village would soon be home to the largest amusement park in all of Asia. Or so they thought...
It didn't take long for conflicts to arise once more between Reinwood Group, governments, and farmers. So just as they picked up and left in 1998, the company did the same thing in 2008. It seemed that as quickly as the equipment arrived, it made its way out.
Urban explorers, filmmakers, and farmers all returned to the creepy lot to make use of it in their own ways. Squatters also made their way back, and photographers intrigued by the eery property met children who they assumed lived there and saw wild dogs running loose. But that all changed a few years later.
It Was Demolished
Wonderland never became the fantasyland it promised to be, one that competed with the likes of The Walt Disney Company. Instead, it became home for some, a creepy place to explore for others, and fertile soil for farmers. But Reignwood Group still owned the property, and they didn't want it wasting away.
The company had already spent millions on land and construction. But in 2013, they came back with the opposite of intentions from before: Reignwood Group brought bulldozers and employees who demolished most of what was left of the dilapidated structures. But the lot didn't stay empty for long.
Another Kind of Magical Experience
In May of 2013, it became official: China's Wonderland was now a long-gone dream. The wannabe Disney was torn apart by the same people who planned it, and a "comprehensive luxury product supermarket" was promised by Reignwood Group instead. Fortunately, they pulled through on it.
Roughly two years after demolishing Wonderland's skeleton, Reignwood Group opened a shopping mall on the land. The Badaling Outlets just outside of Beijing provided luxury shopping at high-end stores and delicious restaurants. But one old structure still haunted the new construction.
What Was Left Standing
After more than ten years of hope, mystery, and then some more hope, the theme park's story finally ended. The Badaling Outlets were far from Reignwood Group's original vision, but they successfully attracted many shoppers. And not too far from the luxury mall stood a Wonderland relic.
The Cinderella Castle-inspired architecture was located a reasonable distance away from the outlets but still visible from some parts of the mall. What would've presumably been the pride and joy of Wonderland got a fresh coat of paint and became a quirky landmark.
The Dream That Never Was
With the sun setting in the background, it wasn't too hard to see the magic that could've been Wonderland. Some considered it a rip-off of Disney World because of its similarities to Magic Kingdom's landmark structure, but there was no denying that it could have been a popular place in its own right.
But alas, unlike Walt Disney, Chanchai Ruayrungruang's dream of a theme park like no other didn't come true. And not too long after the Badaling Outlets opened, The Walt Disney Company made its way to China and opened Shanghai Disneyland. But luckily for urban explorers, other abandoned parks remained in the country...
Not the Only One
About a ten-hour drive from Chenzhuang Village, another amusement park was on its way. Ironically enough, the attraction was named Sino Wonderland and was being built around the time Wonderland's ghost town was torn down. Developers said Sino would be ready by 2014.
But just like the Wonderland outside of Beijing, promises of a magical opening went unfulfilled. Financial resources reportedly ran out, and investors had no choice but to leave the project unfinished. But Sino Wonderland still received some curious tourists.
Gone to Waste
If Reignwood Group's Wonderland was a gem for urban explorers, Sino Wonderland was arguably a goldmine. The theme park was almost completed when funds were depleted and construction stopped. So nature had plenty of material to turn its wrath towards.
The property was filled with roller-coasters that never got to thrill visitors, Ferris wheels that stayed empty, and more. It wasn't long before all of the sunshine, rain, and time without any maintenance made Sino Wonderland look even more hunted than its predecessor. And urban explorers loved it.
Another Ghost Town
It might look like a mix between an apocalyptic movie set and a ghost town to some, but others saw a real treasure. Since its shutdown, hundreds of adventurous visitors have traveled to Sino Wonderland and explored its rotting rides and temple-like structures.
As for what awaits the abandoned park? As of this article's writing, that remains unclear. Perhaps it will have a comeback like the Reignwood Group's Wonderland almost did, or maybe it will be replaced by another shopping mall. Or, if urban explorers get lucky, it'll be left to fall apart in nature.