In Germany, a Fantasy Island
Sunday, March 15, 2009; Page F01
It was never supposed to be the largest indoor water park in the world, much less a parable for our times, a cautionary tale on the perils of dreaming big. No one was clamoring for an artificial biosphere so enormous that the Statue of Liberty could stand upright in it or the Eiffel Tower lie on its side. And even if they had been clamoring for it, no one would have built it here, in the German countryside somewhere between Berlin and Dresden.
This was land that the Nazi Luftwaffe once used as a training ground for pilots, that the Soviet Union later turned into an East German military base. It was flat and treeless and abandoned in 1998 when a German firm called CargoLifter purchased it with the stated intention of building a massive hangar. The Kublai Khan-worthy plan: to construct a heavy-lift aircraft, "heavy-lift" as in having a loading bay capable of carrying "a diesel locomotive engine (120 tons) and a humpback whale (40 tons)," according to the book "International Logistics" by Douglas Long, which unfortunately does not go on to explain why you might want to transport both of those at once.
"Wow." That's all my son could say as the bus rounded a bend and an enormous elliptical dome appeared in the distance.
"Yeah, um, wow," I replied, my voice a mixture of awe and profound confusion.
There before us stood hubris of a rare order: 14,000 tons of steel supporting a 700,000-square-foot structure 32 stories high, an aviation Xanadu. Sure, CargoLifter went belly-up in 2002, its business plan disintegrating faster than the several Hindenburgs you could fit inside its stately pleasure dome, but still: You'd expect that a scheme equally grandiose, or at the very least sinister, would have found a home there.
Instead, in 2004 it became a German water park with an English name, Tropical Islands, the moniker apparently lending an extra touch of the exotic for the hordes of Berliners who patronize it. The snow might be piling up against the building's base, but inside is 175 million cubic feet of air kept at a temperature of 79 degrees round-the-clock, 365 days a year, not to mention eight football fields of landscaping made barefoot-friendly by an under-floor heating system.
"Wow," I said, gazing at the acres of palm trees and then up, up past the building's massive steel ribbing, way up to the umbrella-spoke ceiling.
"Yeah, um, wow," said my 8-year-old.
Just beyond the turnstiles, there was a bridge over a swamp heavily stocked with mangroves, and paths leading past thousands of specimens of tropical flora. Densely planted coffee bushes and banana trees conspired to create a remarkably realistic jungle, the effect spoiled only by the sound of flip-flops and the occasional bad European bathing suit.
Deep and dark it was, the palms overhead eventually obscuring the sky, until they stopped obscuring it and a great cerulean-ness came into view. A cerulean screen, of course, dotted with Magritte-style clouds and mounted over a tropical sea called Tropical Sea. Germans of all ages frolicked in the sand nearby, while others camped overnight in canvas tents (just $30 a person for a pallet with high-thread-count sheets). The attraction, in addition to the sea itself, with its stainless-steel ocean floor, is the pair of sandbars floating on it. Both are magically transformed each evening from entertaining schmaltz islands to islands of schmaltz entertainment. (Past offerings have included the show "Myths of the South Seas," which "tells the story of man's bitter struggle for survival and his desire for immortality," in terms that Cirque du Soleil fans will instantly understand.)
Around showtime, three-course meals of guinea fowl, blue marlin and blueberry mousse can be procured at the adjacent Paradiso restaurant, but "we can make you a cosmo or another cocktail right now," said the faux Samoan behind the bar. And so it was that I warmed to the idea of Tropical Islands in spite of myself, its Borneo longhouses and Balinese huts and indoor hot-air balloon ride much easier to take after a martini in the mangroves.
Alas, one martini provided insufficient ballast for the park's spa and sauna area, which occupies a generous one-third of Tropical Islands' real estate. Like the Frontierlands and ToonTowns of other parks, this center of "wellness" represents a clear departure from the adjacent neighborhood. As a bonus, it also provides the occasion for a teachable moment on American prudery.