Created by the Chinese Government, Splendid China was accused of being a Chinese propagandistic plot. But was it?
Barely in operation for a decade, Splendid China was a highly interesting experiment. Located off of US Route 192 in the far north-west corner of Osceola County, it was only about a mile from the main entrance to Walt Disney World. As of 2019, the property is the Jimmy Buffett-themed Margaritaville Resort.
Construction began at the end of 1989. That year is an important date in Chinese-American relations well beyond the December groundbreaking ceremony in Florida. Between April and June of 1989, the Chinese Pro-Democracy Movement became public with student-led protests in Tiananmen Square, Beijing. Those protests ended when the Chinese People’s Liberation Army entered the square and attacked the protesters, killing a large number of them (estimates range from 300 to around 3000). Not surprisingly, this was a low point in Chinese-American relations so it was curious timing for Splendid China.
The park opened in 1993. While there were some American partners at the beginning, the park ended up being wholly owned and controlled by the China Travel Service (CTS), the travel service of the People’s Republic of China. The CTS is tasked with marketing Mainland China to the world. Not surprisingly, the CTS is controlled by China’s State Council, which, in turn, controls the country.
The concept was based on a similar park in Shenzhen, China and was about 75 acres (30 hectares) in size. It was made up of dozens of scaled miniature models, of both natural and human-made landmarks in the People’s Republic of China. The postcard collection and souvenir booklet listed below give interesting looks as to which palaces, bridges, temples, and mausoleums were handcrafted by skilled Chinese craftspeople and artisans. Of course, the Great Wall was represented, running about one half mile (0.8 km) in length.
This was not the first time that the People’s Republic of China had been involved in a Florida attraction. One of the original parts of EPCOT Center (opened in 1982) was the China Pavilion, featuring a replica of the Temple of Heaven (also represented at Splendid China). The Disney Company worked with the Chinese Government to assist in the design and content of the pavillion.
The park was initially staffed with Chinese nationals, including performers and artists, but it appears that a good number of them left Splendid China and requested political asylum from US authorities. China responded by partly switching to American staff.
The park was a success, initially. Economically, the mid-1990s was a fairly strong time and Florida tourism was expanding. Splendid China appears to have been able to capitalize on the increasing numbers of tourists coming to the Orlando area. It helped that they were just down the road from Walt Disney World.
Unfortunately, political and social issues connected with the People’s Republic of China began to cause significant problems. There were protests outside the park, some large enough to make the news in other parts of the US. There were actually dozens of demonstrations (for example, the protest on the sixth anniversary of the park was number 32) over much of its operating life having to do either with the Chinese government’s actions in China or with how some displays in the park were considered to be propagandistic.
The protests inevitably reduced the number of visitors and partly led to the park closing in 2003. Another likely determining factor was the September 11, 2001 attacks, which significantly hurt tourism throughout the US. The large parks were able to weather the reduction of attendance figures, but several smaller parks would close in subsequent years.
Easily one of the most controversial attractions in Florida, Splendid China was likely a failure because of it’s direct connection with the leadership of Mainland China. Though the park was beautifully constructed and fascinating to visit, it wasn’t possible for many Americans to separate the park from the country. Ironically, that was probably the goal of the China Travel Service, but not with the consequences that now seem obvious.
For ten years, Splendid China regularly made the news, but not in ways that would encourage paying visitors. When the park closed, a chapter of Florida tourism also ended – one that was as unusual as it was brief.