Never in my life had I visited a more bizarre theme park. Twelve years of blogging about roller coasters and thrill rides had brought me to exotic locales like Perth, Australia, Kaatsheuvel, Netherlands, and Santa Claus, Indiana. I conquered the infamous “dog fart” coaster at BonBon-Land in Denmark. I survived the Abyss at Adventure World that’s so crap-your-pants scary they literally have underwear dispensers waiting for you at the ride’s exit. Yet nothing had prepared me for the craziness that is Happy Fun Land. And no, it wasn’t crazy because I saw other guests pissing and shitting on the sidewalks in plain daylight like when they opened Shanghai Disneyland. No, this was a different kind of crazy altogether.
The adventure began when I received an invitation to attend a “sneak peak” preview of Happy Fun Land before it opened to the general public. China’s amusement park industry was booming and the newest themed entertainment mecca was about to come online. In order to ensure a successful launch, they were looking to build world-wide buzz through any and all media outlets. They reached out to reporters, journalists, columnists, podcasters, bloggers, vloggers, and theme park nerds from all over the world, including Thrills and Chills, to come visit their resort. The preview event would occur over the Chinese New Year holiday before the grand opening celebration. The idea of being the crash test dummy for what would surely become a world-renowned vacation destination was quite thrilling while sitting at home in rural Ohio. It didn’t take long for me to begin wondering what the hell I had gotten myself into.
My adventures began when I landed in China’s Shanghai Airport. I scanned the crowd of dark-haired strangers and saw a smiling, twenty-something year old holding a white placard and in big black letters was scrawled ‘NIKE FARMINGTON’.
“Hello!” I waved as I greeted him. “I’m Nick, N-I-C-K, nice to meet you.”
“Hello. I’m Eric. E-R-I-C,” he said with reasonably good English, ignoring the fact that he spelled my name wrong.
“That’s a very authentic Chinese name you have there.”
“My parents named me after their favorite musician: Eric Clapton.”
Eric would act as my guide and interpreter over the coming days. He was assigned to me as I spoke no Chinese or had any clue where I was going, as this was my first visit to the enormous country. And perhaps he was supposed to keep an eye on me as well.
The Happy Fun Land resort was located in New Suzhou, which is about an hour-and-a-half east of Shanghai. Unfortunately, our travel situation was pretty much fucked from the start. I wasn’t allowed to drive because foreign and international drivers’ licenses are not recognized in China. I would need a Chinese driver’s license, passport, and a residence permit before being legally allowed to operate a vehicle. Eric didn’t own a car so driving ourselves wasn’t an option.
“Why not take the train?” I asked. Eric informed me the railways would be exceptionally busy due to the holiday. “The Chinese New Year is the world’s largest human migration. Millions of Chinese workers travel home to their families. The trains are so overcrowded travelers wear diapers for their multi-hour long journeys home.”
“No thank you to that,” cringing as I pictured being trapped in a hot train car packed nutts-to-buttswith adults crapping their pants. Side note: I’m going to attempt to actively avoid toilet humor here, but holy shit is it going to be hard. Crap, already screwed it up! Dammit. Porcelain! Fuck!
“So, what’s our best bet then?” I asked, dreading the answer.
“Taxi,” was Eric’s one word answer. And thus I got to experience the trip’s first thrill ride - the drive to New Suzhou.
“The way I see it, traffic in China is a free-for-all,” my redneck cousin John had explained to me over a beer the night before I left the US. He had spent a year overseas for his job in the automotive manufacturing world and attempted to give me an idea of what to expect. “There appear to be no road rules at all, and if you survive the day, you’ll do it all again the next day. The stoplights they do have must only be for decoration. You know how around here they’re taking out every traffic light and replacing them with fucking roundabouts? They don’t have traffic circles in China. Traffic circles only function if people follow the rules, hence they don't work there. A roundabout would only add to the chaos.”
“I’ve been on the tallest and fastest roller coasters in the world, I’m sure I can handle it,” I said.
“Just you wait and see! Taxi drivers drive in the middle of two lanes so they can swing into either one of them as needed.” he said, wildly driving an invisible steering wheel for emphasis. “The most dangerous cars are green and driven by the Chinese.”
“According to your made-up insurance statistics.” But I was about to find out if there was a hint of truth to his joking.
After navigating us through the sprawling terminal building, Eric took us outside to where we could find a taxi. I had been to Australia and dozens of countries in Europe and had never once felt culture shock. Let me tell you, stepping out onto that street in China was sensory overload. There was overwhelming action and movement everywhere. Cars, bikes, and people all speeding past me, and often times into me, from every direction imaginable. And the smells! Food, something burning, stale sewage, and God knows what else. My senses were overloaded.
Thank goodness Eric had been sent to guide me. He flagged down a taxi cab and negotiated the rate with the driver. John’s warnings were ringing inside my head “as soon as you climb into a taxi, the very first thing you do is fasten that seat belt, pull it as tight as you possibly can, and grab onto anything that feels or looks sturdy.” Well, to my delight, this particular cab didn’t have a working seat belt. Great. I had barely sat down and closed the door when we suddenly veered out into the street into the chaos of traffic. As we darted around cars and bikes pulling wagons piled ten feet high with baggage I was left with clutching onto the seat in front of me until my knuckles turned white.
Eric must be used to the traffic as he cracked many jokes with our driver in rapid Chinese, some I assumed were at my expense. I thought that was about as funny as ejector seats in a helicopter. I had to quickly put it out of my mind as we veered across another street and nearly died for the sixteenth time this trip. In America, roller coaster nerds like myself are always touting the safety of theme parks by using the same old quote “you’re more likely to die on the way to the amusement park than by riding any roller coaster.” I quickly realized this might be even more true in China.Luckily, we arrived at the Happy Fun Land Welcome Center in one piece. It took enormous restraint not to fling the door open and kiss the ground, like I had just reached solid land after being tossed around in a typhoon on a leaky boat. Unfortunately for me, this short trip turned out to be one of the easiest and most uneventful travels of my wacky, eye-opening “vacation”.