Russia Gets Its Disneyland, a Cold War Dream Come True


MOSCOW — A young girl finds a magic necklace made of mushrooms, but then an evil gnome steals it. Adventure ensues. According to her creators, Alfreya, the hero of a new children’s book who was conceived for Russia’s first theme park, is “an ordinary girl 10 to 12 years old with large, thoughtful eyes.”

One thing she is not is a Disney character. Opening a real international Disneyland in Moscow would be out of the question amid the current political standoff with the United States.

But Russia’s decades-long quest to build a theme park, which began during the Cold War rivalry with the United States, is finally reaching its fairy-tale ending.

The $1.5 billion Dream Island, when it opens on Saturday, may certainly remind some visitors of Disneyland. In place of Elsa from “Frozen,” there will be the Snow Queen, and in the Russian version of “The Jungle Book,” the jungle is populated by talking dinosaurs. Developers say the park will be inhabited by dozens of fairy-tale characters, all domestically produced.

Dream Island doesn’t mind if you invoke Disneyland to describe the park, but will point out that it has no connections to the Happiest Place on Earth.

“The word Disneyland is on people’s tongues,” said Alena Burova, a publicist for the site. “In Russia, we say Disneyland when we mean just a theme park.”

The park expects five million Moscow residents and two and a half million tourists, mostly from elsewhere in Russia, to visit the animated dinosaurs and haunted houses each year, Mr. Mutsoev said. Tickets on a weekend cost 11,000 rubles, or about $163, for a family of four.

The average monthly pay in Russia last year was 46,073 rubles, or about $683. And it has been dropping in inflation-adjusted terms. The minister of labor recently proposed lowering the minimum wage — because the cost of potatoes had gone down. Over all, last year about 14 percent of the population lived on less than $160 per month, the official poverty line.

But Moscow and its 13 million residents are an exception. The average wage in the capital last year was about twice the national average. The trickle of oil money has already given birth to new businesses, some of the world’s largest malls and what sociologists see as pent-up demand in the Moscow middle class for better government services.

Nadya Soloyeva, a Moscow mother of two daughters ages 8 and 4, said her job in public relations allowed her to afford the tickets, but she wondered whether the new fairy-tale characters would have the same emotional draw as Disneyland’s.

“Everybody is comparing these prices with Disneyland,” which now run $200 per person, she said. “But will they sell emotions, like Disneyland?”

Disney-like medieval towers rise at the entryway. But behind them lie gigantic, rectangular buildings recalling jumbo jet hangars, covering 74 acres. Glass cupolas enclose some areas. The developers say it is the largest covered park in Europe — and the only option for remaining open through Moscow’s long, grim winter.

The theme park has nine zones. Five were created by “Russian artists specifically for Dream Island,” according to a promotional brochure. The others are licensed attractions: Hotel Transylvania, from Sony Pictures; the Smurfs, from the Belgian company IMPS; the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, from Viacom; and Hello Kitty, from Sanrio of Japan. The Cuningham Group, a Minneapolis firm that has designed a variety of theme parks, including Warner Bros. Movie World in Madrid, created all nine themed zones based on the Russian and foreign-licensed concepts.

One of the newly conceived zones drew from characters in a classic Russian adaptation of “Pinocchio.” The centerpiece zone is the Snow Queen’s Castle, ruled by a fierce and beautiful monarch “wielding power over snow and cold,” not unlike Disney’s princess in “Frozen.” Both characters are based on a Hans Christian Andersen tale.

Mr. Mutsoev said he had hired teams of artists and writers and was confident in the pull of his new characters. He has published new children’s books to flesh out the characters and tell their adventures.

“Disney has its snow queen, and we have ours,” he said.

And he said he was glad he had ditched previous Russian ideas of one-upping Disneyland by infusing a park with educational elements: “Not everybody wants to read Tolstoy, especially if you are 8 years old.”



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