Istanbul’s Ottoman Disneyland cannot be seen from the street. It reveals itself slowly as the shuttle bus winds toward the amusement park’s hilltop entrance in a forgotten corner of the city. First there is the red roller coaster, twisting through the sky. Then a plastic King Kong, who appears to be hunching over a trolley. For a moment, the ramshackle homes of Sarigol, a Roma community situated on a hill facing the park, come into sharp view, before the road twists again and we arrive at the parking lot of Vialand.
The park opened last May to major fanfare. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who lobbied for the project, delivered a speech at its opening against the backdrop of a fairytale castle and a bronze statue of Captain Gaga the Seagull, a kind of top-heavy Donald Duck.
It was just the latest mega development project to arrive in a city bursting with them, and like the others, it projects an image of Turkey the prime minister wants the world to see. That Turkey is proud of its Ottoman past, modern, Muslim, and bigger, better and faster than any other country in region. Like much of Istanbul’s fast-paced development, the park also blots out those parts of Turkey that don’t fit with the glossy image the country’s leaders promote.
The residents of Sarigol, for instance, got the message it was time for them to leave when bulldozers arrived on their hill. Hundreds of their homes have been demolished, and the skeletons of new high-rises are already climbing up from the rubble. Those remaining on the hill can still see across to Vialand and watch the Sky 360 ride contort itself through the air, constantly rotating like a clock.
The park itself is cheerful and photogenic, if still somewhat empty. On one of the first warm weekends of spring, a young bride and groom are using the swing carousel as the backdrop for wedding pictures. Turks and Arab tourists have the run of the place and are being pulled by their children from ride to ride, with few lines to slow them down.
In promoting the park—which also includes a shopping mall, hotel and outdoor theater, and was the biggest retail and entertainment investment in the history of the Turkish Republic—its backers vowed that it would recoup the cost by drawing 30 million parkgoers a year, nearly twice the amount of tourists who annually visit Washington D.C. Park brass say they hope that improving transportation between the city center and this still-downtrodden patch of Istanbul will help boost the so-far lukewarm number of visitors.
Kid World is cute and Adventure Land boasts respectable thrill rides, but arguably the coolest attraction is in the World of Legends, where mass entertainment gets the Ottoman treatment. At the free-fall Justice Tower, Islamic judges deliver harsh sentences to visitors waiting in line: We will all be flung from the top of the tower. In fact, we are not flung, but we free-fall in safety harnesses from 50 meters in the air. From that height, we can steal just a brief look at the dust and rubble of the Sarigol hill. The ride drops, there is terror, and we land safely back in the walls of Vialand.
On the Conquest ride, we pile into boats and drift along a mechanical track through a battle between Byzantine and Ottoman forces. The year is 1453 and the Ottomans, led by Mehmed the Conqueror, break through the walls of Constantinople and take the city—now Istanbul—as their trophy.
In the year 2014, Istanbul is the trophy of Prime Minister Erdogan. Raised in a working-class section of the city, he’s personally driving many of the projects that showcase his dream of a booming, Islamic-oriented Turkey—according to recent corruption allegations, the projects may have been lining his pockets along the way. Before exiting the Conquest ride, a modern animatronic boy tells visitors that we all can be warriors and achieve our dreams.
Beyond the walls of the park, there is tension amid a grinding corruption scandal and continued fallout from the summer’s Gezi protests—triggered by another of the government-backed mega projects upending the city—which exploded two days after Vialand opened its gates. Local elections have just come and gone, but there is still a sense of foreboding in the air. It’s particularly thick in Sarigol, where poor families are packing up and moving away. A 75-year-old woman wants to know if we have any news. Will she be thrown out? Where will she go?
From his office near Vialand, the park’s general manager, Tolga Alisoglu, looks out over a postcard picture view of the park. He’s cooking up plans to expand the brand. Though he grimaces a bit at the phrase Disney-like, Vialand, like the land of Mickey Mouse, will eventually roll out its own TV show and pump stores with its merchandise. Maybe one day more Vialands will open around Turkey and across other parts of the world.
In the one and only Vialand at the moment, it is almost dinnertime and the crowds are thinning out. Some drift toward the towering mall in the distance. I am somewhere between the World of Legends and Adventure Land and scanning the perimeter for a trolley to take me to the exit. I don’t see one, but I do notice an emergency exit built into a bamboo-style wall enclosing a tidy section of the park. A worker cracks it open, and I catch a quick glimpse at crumbling Sarigol before the door closes with a click.