The Enchanted Kingdom of Laguna

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Great theme parks are meant to be places where you suspend reality and enter a world of make believe. That’s what Disney’s do, making you believe for a day that “it’s a small world after all”. Most people the world over would equate “theme park” with Mickey Mouse’ parks, and rightly so. No other place in the world does a better job of solidifying children’s fantasies into concrete structures, so much so that people people from here in the Philippines would fly across the South China Sea (or West Philippine Sea to be politically correct) to get to that piece of alternate reality in Lantau Island called the Hong Kong Disneyland, with increasing frequency. But what if you couldn’t fly to Hong Kong?

The Enchanted Kingdom (or EK “eeh-kei”, as most local like to call it) in the Philippine’s Laguna province has been around for quite sometime, and it is perhaps the closest you could get to the Magic Kingdom without going overseas. Mimicking larger world class parks, EK is a maze of pathways meandering through different “theme” zones. Some parts of it look like a scaled down Main Street USA or Fantasyland from Disney, while some look like budget versions of Universal’s New York and Sci-fi City, and still some parts look like an oversized neighborhood playground with automated rides – but small kids tend to love those parts. It’s also got souvenir shops at every zone, with a pretty impressive array of merchandise that would not lag far behind those of Mickey’s shops.

The rides here are quite tame though, by real thrill-seeker standards, but some of them can still scare those who have a built-in aversion to these things, like myself. The place does get packed however, and on weekends two hour long queues for a ride are not unheard of.

I used to not think much of EK, but it has improved quite noticeably since I was there for the first time a decade ago or so. The rides may not have changed much, with only a handful notable ones added since then, but there’s been a noticeable upgrade on more than a few aspects. First is the food. On my previous visits there years ago, food in the park was something you would eat only because there’s nothing else. There are hotdog stands – being the standard amusement park snack – but everything else wasn’t even worth remembering. This time however you will be able to get a decent, inexpensive choice of Chinese, Japanese and Mexican fare, and there’s now even a Dairy Queen and a full-service Pizza Hut. Not overwhelmingly great, yes, but if you’ve seen the food available in the past then you would know what I’m talking about.

Next are the shows. There is live entertainment at intervals in the restaurant area close to the rear end of the park, but it’s not really that great. What I found really good though was the show at the “Brooklyn Place” zone in the evening, starting around an hour or so before the evening fireworks. Talented musicians started singing mellow songs in the “faux” street, like an old musical, while people passed by. Eventually the crowd around them grew thicker as the repertoire became livelier, and by the time the fireworks started the scene was like a mini-street party with people pumping their arms in the air.

Third is the organization in the park. Being a quarter or a third smaller than the Disney in Hong Kong or Universal in Singapore, the place is quite compact and could get cramped in some places. Add to that the increasing popularity of the park (and perhaps the improving spending power of the populace), then the place could be mayhem on weekends and holidays. Good thing that they now have indicators telling people lining up of how long the estimated time is before they get their turn, and they also now have ushers marking the ends of each queue, reducing confusion among people wanting line up for a ride.

Admission to the park has never been cheap, by local standards, and I myself used to think that the price is too much for what you get. But somehow on my last visit the feeling of being ripped-off was no longer there, and now more than ever, I think the park is actually already worth the time and money one would spend there.

It still is definitely no Disney of course, but EK now calls itself a “world class” amusement park nevertheless. While some people my scoff at such “hubris”, I honestly think that if you’re willing to suspend not just reality but also any pretension of being too sophisticated to deserve anything less than the real Disney, and just take the park for the entertainment value it gives – with no comparisons, and you might agree with me that it has now gained the right to call itself such – and that it’s now starting to live up to the “Enchanted” in its name.

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* All photos taken last December 2012, with Olympus E-420 and Zuiko 14-54mm f2.8-3.5.

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