Why you should care
Because amusement park thrills can enrich the mind — after scrambling it.
I am staring at the Ferris wheel in the distance when I feel a tap on my shoulder. A group of local youths want a photo with me. Wandering Jakarta as a white foreigner makes you a C-list celebrity, so this is neither the first nor the last time I will be so approached. But it is the most apropos. “We had to ask because of the sign,” one girl says, a tad sheepishly. So we all grin for the camera while standing at the foot of a wooden bridge and under a placard that announces the beginning of this section of the theme park: “Amerika.” I might as well be an employee in a Goofy costume.
It’s a strange time to be an American overseas and see the wider world’s image of your country. My ride to Jakarta’s Dunia Fantasi (Fantasy Land) theme park was summoned with Uber, and Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles” was playing on the radio as I climbed in. Once the driver discovered my nationality, he naturally asked me about Donald Trump. The theme park’s fun-house mirror version of the United States is at once strange and familiar, focused on the Old West.
An odd attraction called “tilt house” leads me down a slanted hallway in which I struggle to keep my balance as I pass a saloon with anachronistic modern liquor bottles. A familiar-feeling log flume ride floats by animatronic Native Americans drumming. Forest-green cactuses and bleached-white steer skulls abound. Trying in vain to make the shooting range figures dance, I put on a riflery performance so poor as to be un-American, while schoolchildren on a field trip gawk.
A founder of Dunia Fantasi, which opened in 1985, once called the park “a pressure valve to relieve the stress on urban life” and to give local youngsters an exotic experience on the cheap. Some of the seaside megacity’s most notorious slums still reside a ring’s toss away. The Ancol complex includes a golf course and a knockoff SeaWorld, among other attractions, and requires a fee of a little less than $2 just to get on the wider grounds. A $14.50 park admission provides what amounts to a junior varsity Six Flags, complete with movie tie-ins. One of the biggest draws is the Ice Age experience, an overly air-conditioned water ride built in partnership with 20th Century Fox. In addition to Wild West America, there are Greek ruins, Turkish ice cream scoops and Taiwanese street snacks. It’s unclear which culture puts cheese cubes in its chocolate waffles, but let’s hope the practice does not spread.
On this Wednesday afternoon, the park is overrun with schoolgirls. They giggle. They gossip. They take selfies relentlessly. About all that separates them from their American counterparts are their headscarves. As the roller coaster hits its summit, with Jakarta Bay stretching out below, the screams require no translation.