I don’t know what other parts of Germany feel like, but Berlin was not how I imagined Germany at all. It was quirky, hipster-y, cultured and eccentric. It had a grungy vibe, full of history and interesting stories, many of which I had never heard.
On our second day, we decided to go off the beaten path a little and do some “urban exploration.” We had no idea there was a name for this until we exited the metro and met a nice ex-pat family living in the Netherlands that inquired about our past “UrbEx” experiences. We had none, but attached ourselves to them anyway since they had a map and seemed to know more than we did.
After registering for the Spreepark guided tour online (the only way you can legally enter the abandoned park), I understood the tour would be strictly in German. Albeit the language barrier, I figured it would still make for great pictures and a unique experience, even if we didn’t understand a thing. Besides, it’s where the movie Hanna was filmed and I really liked that movie and its unique sets, so that was incentive enough for me.
After walking about 15 minutes down a dirt path through a secluded, shadowy forrest, we found the big iron gates open and eagerly awaiting our entry. Upon entering, we saw an old map of the amusement park and large dinosaur figurines, some headless, with moss and plants growing over and through them.
The tour began and, sure enough, not a lick of English was spoken, so Spencer, the ex-pat family and I hung around the back of the group taking photos and making guesses as to what they were talking about.
Luckily, a young woman named Sabrina was standing near us and we overheard her say something to one of the park’s guard dogs in English. We asked if she could translate for us, and very kindly, she did.
Turns out, she knew the story of the old theme park quite well. A story we never would have found buried in the unfamiliar German language or behind the lens of my Canon.
Sabrina’s parents were the owners.
She explained that show business was her family’s business for many generations. The family was extremely wealthy and she and her siblings grew up believing they would never have to work a day in their lives. At its peak, Spreepark, which sits on the edge of Spree River in Plänterwald forest, welcomed about 1.7 million people through the gates every year until the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. After 1989, attendance dwindled, the government intervened by removing 3,000 parking spots, bad decisions were made and the park went bankrupt, closing for business in 2002.
In an attempt to find a new beginning and dig themselves out of the $21 million hole in which they were trapped, the family moved to Peru with six of their rides. The plan was to open a new theme park upon arrival, but it was a bust. Her mother quickly realized what an atrocious decision they had made and fled back to Germany with four of her five children.
Nearly one year later, Sabrina and her family received shocking news.
Her father and brother had been arrested for smuggling 67 pounds of pure cocaine (worth $14 million) into one of the family’s rides. Her father was kept in a low-security prison for four years, and her brother, who knew little to nothing about the cocaine, still remains in one of South America’s most dangerous prisons. He has approximately seven years left.
Because the park is tainted with so much debt, the city of Berlin was completely uninterested in paying for the upkeep and renovations and gave the rights back to Sabrina’s mother. The park has now become a hotspot for vandals that jump the fence (which is why three of the below pups are released every night to guard the premises) and destroy what remains.
Although Sabrina and her mother held tightly to the park with hopes to make a comeback, she told us they have finally lost the brutal battle. She said we would be one of the final groups to see the Spreepark, as early this year, the government will demolish the remains and turn the property into riverfront housing developments.
Sabrina told us she will hold on until the very last day. “This is where I grew up,” she said over and over again. “It is where my heart is and always will be.” She insisted that she will be the last one to let go, even if it means sitting in a tree or on top of a ride protesting the demolition with everything she has.
Spreepark has a magical, mystical and slightly eerie energy pouring through it. Sometimes, I could almost see the colorful balloons that accidentally escaped from a child’s grasp floating beyond the rides into the abyss. I could almost hear the squeals and shrieks and thrills from people riding what were Berlin’s best roller coasters. I could almost smell the classic amusement park food near the remains of the concession stands.
But then I would notice the vandalism, the wild wires, the rust and the weeds and suddenly I could sense the loneliness and sadness excreted by the park and its family as it endures its final days.
I expected to get a few cool photos from this tour… nothing more, nothing less. But as the ex-pats, Spencer and I exited the iron gates, sun setting behind us, we couldn’t stop thinking about the park and family’s riveting story. And I couldn’t help but feel extremely lucky and a little bit sad to have been one of the last to hear the story and walk the grounds before it is Spreepark no more.