A Fiery Farewell to Spreepark, Berlin's Beloved Abandoned Theme Park

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Sept. 9 2014 9:03 AM

A Fiery Farewell to Spreepark, Berlin's Beloved Abandoned Theme Park

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Much to the dismay of urban explorers, forest ravers, and kings of carousels with dreams to build German Disneylands, the abandoned Berlin amusement park Spreepark is at the end of its era. Not only does 2014 mark the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, but with it the fall of one of Berlin's most beloved former GDR pleasure palaces.

Just like the city it inhabits, Spreepark has seen it all over the last quarter century—communism, the end of the Berlin Wall's divide, bankruptcy, drug trafficking, nature taking its hold, gentrification—and now, arson. In the early hours of Monday morning on August 11, Spreepark's "Old England" village, which makes up a significant chunk of the park, was burned down by delinquents who wanted to have one last hurrah on the rundown carousels before one of them went to jail the following day.

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Built in Berlin-Treptow during the communist GDR government's spending spree of the 60s, Kulturpark Plänterwald, as it was called back then, remained a popular attraction until the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. The following year it was bought by Norbert Witte, the descendent of a German "carnie" family, and his wife, Pia, who dreamed of turning the revered state-owned amusement park of the former East into the biggest fairground in newly reunified Germany. After it reopened in 1991 as a 74-acre amusement park, their dreams initially came into fruition as Spreepark enjoyed an early outpouring of success, bringing in 1.5 million annual visitors.

Unfortunately the Witte family then stumbled into a Monopoly-esque "Do not pass go. Do not collect $200" predicament as the city decided to eliminate 3,000 parking spaces to conserve the surrounding Plänterwald forest. As a consequence, attendance dropped sharply and, despite the Wittes' best efforts, by 2001, dwindling ticket sales forced them to declare insolvency. The park closed, and the family packed up their lives—six rides in tow—and moved to Peru for a fresh start.

Across the Atlantic, things went even more downhill in horrific rollercoaster-from-hell proportions. Desperate to recoup his finances after failing in his attempts to open a new theme park, and suffering multiple heart attacks, Norbert Witte and his son were arrested in 2003 when they attempted to smuggle 400 pounds of cocaine stuffed inside machinery of a "Flying Carpet" ride back into Germany. Norbert served four years in a low-security prison in Germany, but his son Marcel, who had little involvement in the fiasco, was caught and imprisoned in one of the world's toughest prisons on the outskirts of Lima, Peru, where he still resides today. After Norbert was released from jail, he lived in a caravan on the rundown amusement park grounds making wooden stalls for public festivals in a former bumper-car ride.

Since the Ferris wheel had its last spin over a decade ago, Mother Nature consumed the park, overturning its dinosaurs, sinking its log rides in swamps, and rusting its carousels and swan boats. Its post-apocalyptic aura caught Hollywood's eye in 2011, when it was used as a location for the action movie Hanna. That same year, Norbert's wife and daughter Pia and Sabrina Witte began conducting €15 ($19.73) tours of the grounds on weekends, along with opening a small café, Mythos, near Spreepark's entrance. They re-opened the Parkbahn, a festive mini-train that chugged along the park's perimeter, charging €2 ($2.63) a ride. Festival promoters even began renting the park out for a few thousand euros a day. Over the years, there's been some interest in acquiring the park, such as owners of former nightlife nightclub Bar25, but everything fell through. As a seemingly last resort, Spreepark was even put up for sale on eBay for $2.2 million in February 2014.

Spreepark's fate was finally decided in March 2014, when the Berlin government bought the lease to the land and ordered the Wittes to dismantle the dilapidated structures, hoping to restore the park to its former glory.

There's no word yet on whether the fire will affect those plans. One thing's for sure though—Spreepark will leave behind a powerful legacy in the countless photos taken by explorers who made it through its fence over the last decade to explore Berlin's cherished "Neverland." Auf Wiedersehen, Spreepark!

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