Urban Exploration at a Forgotten Theme Park in Central Taiwan
Encore Garden (雅哥花園) is a now-abandoned theme park on the outskirts of Taichung, the third-largest city in Taiwan. It was opened in 1981 and became one of the most popular attractions on the island. Up to a million visitors would come annually and the park built a reputation as a place to visit for a good day out.
Its downfall was connected to the destructive Jiji earthquake, which struck the country in September 1999. Known locally as 921 earthquake (the exact date was 21.09.1999) and measuring 7.6-magnitude, Jiji earthquake killed 2,415 people, left a further 100,000 plus homeless and caused billions of dollar of damage. It was the worse tremor to hit the country since 1935. Central Taiwan, where both Jiji and Taichung are located, was especially affected by the disaster and many businesses, including Encore Garden, struggled in the aftermath. The park did reopen but it never returned to its glory days. Many of its attractions, including expensive-to-maintain technical ones, were either damaged or destroyed by the quake and eventually financial issues and dwindling visitors’ numbers forced the owners to close Encore Garden.
We had heard about Encore Garden via various websites (including this one, which provided us with a lot of inspiration during our time in Taiwan) and were keen to see it for ourselves. In particular, there were two things we especially wanted to see: the sunken bumper cars and the creepy Chinese opera-style masks, both of which were somewhere in the park.
The main entrance to Encore Garden
We arrived at the main entrance using a combination of public transport and foot power (see the getting there section below) without any problems. We had read that getting inside the grounds could be problematic and that there were security guards who zipped around on motorbikes looking for infiltrators but, much to our surprise, the main gate was wide open and there was nobody on guard. The turnstile entrance looks down onto the park’s main building, which we assumed was once a clubhouse and restaurant, and, before venturing any further, we surveyed the scene before us. The funfair was to our left and, although we didn’t see any signs of life, we did spot a car parked nearby. Having a poke around the amusement rides was top of our agenda (we also assumed it was where the bumper cars would be) but, it made sense to walk in the opposite direction, away from the parked car, for the time being, and so that’s what we did. Soon the car was out of sight and so were we.
Encore Garden is big and it took us about three hours to walk around its entirety. We probably wouldn’t have looked around the other parts of the park if we had been able to make an initial beeline for the funfair so the presence of the parked car actually did us a favour.
The first thing we came across was a large water flume that looked a bit like a bobsleigh track. From there we followed the path into what must have been the gardens. Kitsch statues that would have been more in keeping in the likes of Versailles, for example, lined the paths. Most of them looked kind of eerie and were all covered in foliage.
Water flume, Encore Garden
The gardens, Encore Garden
Overgrown greenhouses and water features followed as we continued along the path in a circular direction. We were up quite high by now and all of a sudden we heard this horrendous screeching noise. We had no idea where it was coming from but it was loud and neither of us could make out what it was. Our first instinct was to move off the road and take cover as we assumed it was either a security vehicle or some sort of boy-racers using the road as a race track. Nothing came our way and eventually, we worked out that we weren’t that far off the mark with our second assumption. We continued walking, albeit with an air of caution, and as we rounded the corner the situation became clear. A short distance away, the other side of the park boundary, we could see some crash barriers and the horrible screeching noise was now accompanied by the distinctive smell of burning rubber. There was a race track nearby and on it, a couple of cars were performing wheel spins, ‘ doughnuts’ and other such shenanigans.
Greenhouse, Encore Garden
Relieved, but still perturbed by the noise (it really grated), we continued to explore the park. Heading downhill, the next thing we came across was a large amphitheatre with huge, rusting floodlights and dilapidated, wooden seats. Apparently, the evening water curtain movies and dancing fountain shows, which were put on here, were the main draw for many of the visitors. Disco balls on polls and a merlion lion, similar to the one in Singapore, were close by.
Above: the amphitheatre section of Encore Garden
A short distance more and eventually, after already spending about an hour and a half in the park, we reached the section with all the funfair rides.
Luckily, the parked car was no longer there and we had (almost) free rein to poke around (*).
(*) We spotted another car parked outside what used to be the aquarium. It looked like it had been there a while but we decided not to chance it and so didn’t venture too close.
We easily found the dodgem cars which, all in a line and slowly sinking in the mud, reminded us of a bunch of wallowing hippos.
The carousel, merry-go-round and rocket ride were equally photogenic. Among other things, we also came across a couple of trays of unopened carbonated drinks in a small storeroom near one of the ticket booths.
Above: The funfair section of Encore Garden
Eventually, we located the Chinese opera-style masks that had both intrigued and attracted us to the park in the first place. There were two of them – one was lying on the floor and the other one was propped up. They were just as creepy in the ‘flesh’ and quite a struggle to reach as both were situated deep in the undergrowth. In fact, later, when we had a chance to read more about Encore, we found out that the grounds are home to the Golden Orb Weaver spider. Apparently, they are one of the largest spiders in the world and they have the potential to eat snakes and birds. I had pushed my way through a couple of spider’s webs in order to reach the masks and didn’t give it a second thought. I’m glad I didn’t know about the existence of Golden Orb Weaver spiders beforehand – the name alone is enough to give me the heebie-jeebies!
Pleased to have found the masks at last (we were getting a little concerned that we may have missed them), we only had the main building left to explore. Inside we found a kiddies play area, a canteen, a more formal dining area and a couple of function rooms. It looked like a scene from Butlins Holiday Camp and you could tell it would have been all about cheap and cheerful in its day.
Above. the main building of Encore Garden
Eventually, we left Encore Garden via the same route we entered. This was the longest we had spent exploring an abandoned location and I think we were lucky to have had so much unhindered time to take it all in. The land and all its contents were acquired by a construction company in 2008 and eventually I assume everything will be dismantled and Encore will no longer exist. What’s taking the firm who now own the land so long to redevelop is not something I can answer but, some work was clearly happening, albeit slowly, as we saw a couple of portacabins and a handful of workmen close to the makeshift racetrack I mentioned above while we were ferreting around outside the park’s perimeter.
How to get to Encore Garden by public transport
Take bus number 21 or 270 from the stop opposite Taichung’s main train station to the district of Dakeng. The journey time is about 40 minutes. You need to get off at the stop on the roundabout (GPS 24.179195, 120.73991) and from there it’s about a 2.3km walk to the park itself.
The walk is mainly uphill but it’s not too steep and the road is quiet and relatively free of traffic. From the roundabout, the way is easy to find and every now and then you will see actual signposts to the park as they haven’t been taken down yet!
The GPS coordinates for the park entrance are 24.175275, 120.7569.
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