Previously: The Pines Hotel Resort.
In the Yangjae-dong neighborhood of Seoul, South Korea’s Seocho district, there’s a large green space full of sights and sounds that bring the great outdoors to even the most dedicated of city-dwellers. But once upon a time, there was a short-lived and peculiar addition to the space — a theme park fashioned after Alice In Wonderland called, fittingly, Alice Park. It wasn’t a theme park in the sense that’s usually implied by the phrase, though; there were no roller coasters, no dark rides, and no castles. Rather, Alice Park offered series of interactive activities in which visitors could partake for a very specific reason: To learn how to speak English.
Alas, though, Alice Park didn’t last. Open for just seven short years in the mid-2000s, Seoul’s Alice In Wonderland theme park was quickly abandoned — and now, not even a piece of rubble remains of the once-fantastical land.
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There’s almost nothing about Alice Park on the English language internet (which is a little ironic, given what the place’s purpose was). What little I’ve found mostly documents its increasingly decrepit state in the aftermath of its closure — but while that’s, y’know, a major piece of TGIMM’s “Abandoned” features, the lack of any information about the park’s actual history means that these sources, while interesting, can only take us so far.
Thanks to the wonders of modern technology and some good research skills, though, I managed to dig up a bit more about the park on Korean language sites. Now, I don’t speak Korean, so as is often the case when my research is conducted largely in languages in which I’m not fluent, I’m at the mercy of Google Translate’s imperfect English renditions of the sources I find. As such, it’s possible that I made have made some errors in interpretation somewhere, so just… bear that in mind as you read.
As far as I can tell, though, here’s the story of Alice Park’s rise and fall:
“Begin at the beginning,” the King said, very gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”
Alice Park was located within the large green space in Seocho that also houses the Yangjae Citizens Forest and the Seocho Park for Culture and Arts. Both the forest and the culture and art park opened on Sept. 24, 1987, in preparation for the 1988 Summer Olympic Games. Alice Park was often referred to as part of the culture and arts park itself; indeed, its former location is literally right next door to the Seocho Park for Culture and Arts on Google Maps.
But before we can talk about Alice Park in greater specificity, we need to talk about a phenomenon known abroad as English villages. By “English villages,” I don’t just mean villages that happen to be in England; I’m referring to a larger trend that began spreading in Europe and Asia beginning in the early 2000s. These English villages are a specific variety of English language and culture immersion program, often government-funded and residential in nature. Meant as an alternative to costly international travel, these programs take the form of, well, villages — small, mock towns — in which the only language permitted to be spoken is English. But attendees don’t just learn the language there; they also get a crash course in English or American customs, culture, and traditions while they’re at it.
South Korea’s English villages, which were intended to give students hoping to enter prestigious schools and universities a leg up on the competition, were originally subsidized by the government, offering residential programs that might range anywhere from a few days to several months in length. The first, located in Geyonggi Province, began welcoming students in 2004; by 2012, 32 had opened their doors. But these days, there aren’t as many English villages as there were when the trend was its height: According to various Korean news outlets, intense competition for spots in the programs, rising costs for attendance, and questions surrounding how effective they actually were led to their decline in popularity. (As one mother put to the Korea Times, “How much English can children learn in four or five days? It may be better to send kids to private language schools instead.”) Many South Korean English villages have subsequently either closed their doors or moved from government-funded models to privately owned ones.
This — finally — brings us to Alice Park.
“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
Alice Park wasn’t a full-on English village — but it functioned as a sort of scaled-down version of one: Instead of lengthy (and pricey) stays, it offered a day-long experience of British and American linguistic and cultural immersion within a whimsical, Lewis Carroll-inspired setting. A joint effort between Seocho and the borough of Manhattan in New York City, the park was originally intended to open on Nov. 14 of 2005; however, due to some issues with the construction — possibly something about it not being up to code, according to the website Children’s Dong-a (Google Translate’s English version of the article is unclear) — it was delayed a week, finally opening on Nov. 22.
More than 500 elementary school children, teachers, and parents from 20 different schools attended the opening ceremony, after which admission was free for a brief time; then, starting in December, an admission fee of between 5,000 and 10,000 won was required for entry. Visitors could come on their own or as part of a group; there were even family-oriented programs where parents and children could learn alongside one another on weekends. Staff included 12 native English teachers, with support from institutions like Columbia University, and Korean aides and assistants who were also fluent in English.
The main attractions were the five indoor classes, each set in a different and magical location within Alice Park and focusing on a different area of study. In Tic-Tac Clock, also known as the Clock Room, students learned both English and science, studying various scientific principals and enacting experiments while utilizing the English language. Meow-Meow Cat, which took its inspiration from the Cheshire Cat, focused on play culture in the United States. The Sleeping House focused on art and creativity, as well as focusing on sleeping (I assume the connection here is meant to be dreams and dreaming). In Biggie Big Hat, aka the magic-themed Hat Room, the focus was on music explored through British puppetry. And in Green Hair Cave, or the Cave Room, students learned about American cultural traditions and events.
However, there were also a variety of outdoor learning opportunities — eight in all. These experiences focused on communication, repetition, and the practical application of the lessons taught in the indoor classes — that is, they worked to teach students how to take what the learned in the classroom, out of the classroom. Experiences included learning how to introduce yourself to a Talking Flower, instruction in the names and characteristics of various animals with the Funny Frogs, and the opportunity to explore a magical book of English fairy tales in the March Forest. Many of these outdoor experiences also featured group activities, and games, encouraging students both to move their bodies and to learn to collaborate together while communicating in English.
There were even walkaround characters played by live actors with whom students could carry out one-on-one conversational practice. A Tourist character, for example, took the persona of someone traveling to a country where they didn’t speak the language and asked for directions in English. The idea was for students to learn how to converse with actual tourists in similar situations. Other characters, however, were less straightforward; the Quiz Man, for example, awarded a gift to students who concocted “an interesting English quiz,” as NYJ News put it (again via Google Translate).
A few accounts — blog posts and the like — can be found online detailing what Alice Park was like when it was in operation. Here, for example, a user of the Korean social media hub and community Naver documented a trip they took to Alice Park in October of 2011; at the time, there seems to have been an attempt made to tie the park into the live action Alice In Wonderland film Disney had released in 2010. Meanwhile, this set of photos dates back a few years earlier, to 2007. Both blog posts demonstrate Alice Park’s identity not as an amusement park, per se, but as something more akin to a sculpture garden, outdoor art installation, or children’s museum. Even so, though, it honestly looks delightful; I would have loved the opportunity just to walk around the place.
“I’m afraid I can’t explain myself, sir. Because I am not myself, you see?”
But that’s not possible anymore. By the summer of 2012, Alice Park had closed, and by that September, demolition crews had dismantled it. As of 2013, the plan was to restore the area’s original landscaping to integrate it back into the Seocho Park for Culture and Arts and the Yangjae Citizens Forest as it once was.
It’s not totally clear to me why Alice Park ultimately closed, but mismanagement seems to have been a major issue for much of the park’s lifespan. According to Korean news outlet Hankook Ilbo (via Google Translate), which reported in 2013 on the closure of multiple English villages, “management was neglected” due to “management difficulties,” which resulted in the closure of Alice Park.
A few commenters scattered across the internet have also offered a few tidbits of information, although much of it is conjecture and/or unverifiable. Noted one reader of the now-defunct blog Chopsticks, Rice, Us who said they worked at the park in February of 2006, “They closed after a month due to financial problems. I think they got a few investers [sic] again but thing[s] did not turn out well again.” The commenter theorized that the failure might have something with “lackluster programs” and the actual location of the park (they described it as “bad”).
Meanwhile, a commenter at Lindsay Sutton’s blog Lindsay Eryn noted in 2014 that they had worked at Alice Park “up until the day it died.” Wrote the commenter:
“Basically, the Yangjae river flooded the place and caused a lot of structural damage. The owner took out a large loan to rebuild it. It would have been a safe bet, but the company that loaned him the money also insisted on taking over the booking to ensure that the park would have a steady flow of student[s]/customers. The park had always been busy, but the guy’s company dropped the ball on the booking. They went from doing ~80,000 students a year, to less than 20,000. … Then, to make things worse, it flooded again over [the harvest festival] Chuseok. I walked down to the park … and found it under three feet of water. I knew that was the end of the line. Two days later, the owner quit.”
Again, I can’t verify most of this; it’s also perhaps worth noting that the commenter kept referring to Alice Park as having closed in 2011, while the Korean news coverage of it I’ve found peg the closing at 2012. But if the anecdote is, in fact, true, it does further support the idea of the park having closed due in large part to mismanagement.
In any event, all that remains of Seoul’s abandoned Alice In Wonderland park are memories — and photos, if you can find them. There aren’t many of them, but they’re available if you look. You can see what the place looked like in all its former glory here and here; then, for a peek at the state of it between its closure and demolition, head here and here. You can also scroll through the Imgur album here.
And remember: We’re all mad here.
You must be, or you wouldn’t have come.
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