Rising above a sea of asphalt parking are the stubby turrets of Russia's first-ever foray into the theme-park business. At first glance, the complex in Moscow bears a slight resemblance to Disneyland, the American amusement park that Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was not allowed to visit in 1959, but hoped one day to reproduce at home. Now, after several false starts, Russia finally has its own amusement park: Dream Island.
With none other than Russian President Vladimir Putin on hand, joining Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, the park was opened to the public on February 29.
Officials are hoping millions of visitors from Russia and abroad will pass through the turnstiles annually, lured by Dream Island's attractions scattered over its 30 hectares, all enclosed under glass domes to keep out the Russian capital's notoriously harsh weather.
Russian officials are quick to note that the $1.5-billion theme park is the largest in Europe and Asia and to predict it will be a key part of the legacy Sobyanin leaves behind. The opening was delayed twice: once in 2018 and again in December 2019.
Many Russians, not least those active on social media, are skeptical to say the least with many lampooning what they see as a boondoggle and a poor imitation of the Disney original. Many lament the forest that was chopped down to make way for the park and the enormous expanse of parking. Others note the shady background of those involved with the project.
Perhaps more than anything, ticket prices at the park have been a lightning rod for criticism.
Tickets on the weekend cost 11,000 rubles ($163) for a family of four. The average monthly wage in Russia last year was just over 46,000 rubles ($683). And inflation continues to take bites of that. Overall, in 2019, about 14 percent of Russians lived on less than $160 per month, the official poverty line.
"According to the official site of the new Moscow park: 'Dream Island is a socially significant site for the Moscow region.' An entrance ticket for anyone over 10 years old costs 2,900 rubles [$44]. That means, it costs at least 8,700 [rubles, or $131] for a family [during the week]. The mayor's office has a strange idea of 'social significance,'" lawyer and moderator for the nationalist Tsargrad television channel Stalina Gurevich wrote on Twitter.
Others have taken issue with the $1.5 billion price tag. Twitter user Sakt points out that the Burj Khalifa, the needle-shaped, 830-meter skyscraper that dominates the skyline in Dubai, cost roughly the same, suggesting the United Arab Emirates got more bang for its buck.
Some are aesthetically appalled with what they consider a poor rip-off of the American theme-park icon.
Vasily Oblomov, also on Twitter, juxtaposed Dream Island and Disneyland.
"Today in Moscow the amusement park Dream Island is opening. One photo shows the pathetic foreign version. The other, the unique, Russian original. I think it won't be difficult to figure out which is which."
Сегодня в Москве открывается парк развлечений "Остров Мечты".— Vasily Oblomov (@VS_Oblomov) February 29, 2020
На одном фото изображена жалкая заграничная подделка. На другом - неповторимый отечественный оригинал.
Думаю, вы без труда разберетесь, что где pic.twitter.com/ri8AjwkOWg
Another Twitter user, identified as Kolya Shvab, also was less than impressed with Dream Island's castle: "What a mess. One look is enough to know that the person who designed this blindingly ugly barn with turrets, never in his life saw a real castle."
Another Twitter user gave builders credit for taking a bad idea and making it worse.
"It was horrible from the beginning, but the builders managed to screw it up even more. All the rounded elements were made square. It's not a 'Dream Island' but an island of shame," he writes.
That message of disgust with the design of Dream Island was echoed by Twitter user, Sofiya, who identifies herself as an "architect" and "designer."
"Dream Island is the ugliest thing I've ever seen in my architectural life. This is hell for an architect. But my son is 13 years old. That means I'll probably go there soon as a loving mother, and while my son enjoys the attractions, I'll be suffering."
Остров Мечты - самое уродливое, что я видела в своей архитекторской жизни. Это ад для архитектора.— София🦄🥂🌈 (@SherylKamelot) February 27, 2020
Но моему сыну 13 лет.
Это значит, что скоро я пойду туда как миленькая и, пока сынуля наслаждается аттракционами, буду эстетически страдать. pic.twitter.com/12nXRjgoJC
Others were perplexed by the massive parking lot stretching out for acres in front of the park entrance, wondering why it couldn't have taken up less space by being built underground or as a multilevel complex.
"Are we correct in thinking that for the Moscow authorities Dream Island is parking in front and beautiful scenery in the background so that parking wouldn't be so boring?" asked Twitter user Gorodskie Proekty.
Even before its opening, the theme park was targeted for criticism, not least from those living near the site, who were among the loudest complaining after a forest was chopped down to make way for the project.
Twitter user Interesting Moscow posted what appears to be satellite imagery of the area before and after the park was built.
Нагатинская пойма ДО и ПОСЛЕ появления московского диснейленда "Остров мечты". pic.twitter.com/9NZ6AItTij— Интересная Москва (@streetofmoscow) March 2, 2020
Others couldn't help but notice the opening just happened to coincide with a demonstration in the Russian capital to commemorate Boris Nemtsov, the Putin critic who was shot dead near the Kremlin five years ago. Many used the event to protest proposed amendments to the country's constitution. Critics say the planned changes are aimed at extending Putin's grip on power after his current presidential term ends in 2024.
Twitter user Borrelia persica said half of Moscow was at the Nemtsov march, the other at the opening of Dream Island.
The owners of the complex are Amiran Mutsoyev and his brother, Alikhan. The two are the sons of Zelimkhan Mutsoyev, a shady businessman and former State Duma deputy from the ruling United Russia party with alleged ties to organized crime figures.
Whether any of that will matter to Russians considering a visit to Dream Island remains to be seen.
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