Although there is some truth to both characterizations, I discovered that Everland bore the strongest resemblance to Busch Gardens Williamsburg, both in its mixture of animal and themed attractions and in its stunning beauty. As for the latter, it certainly helped that my wife and I chose to visit in the autumn, as the tree-covered slopes of Yongin's rolling hills were beginning to light up in a fiery array of colors. Its surroundings aside, Everland is plenty gorgeous on its own terms, with intricately detailed and impressively scaled theming throughout the park, as well as plenty of real estate devoted to perfectly manicured European-style gardens.
Money doesn't seem to be a problem when it comes to grooming Everland, which is operated by Samsung Everland – a division of South Korea's Samsung conglomerate, best known to most people for its televisions. The investment has paid off. Everland began life as Farmland in 1976, but has since become one of the most-visited theme parks in the world. In 2013, it ranked 15th in attendance with more than 7 million visitors, just behind fellow Korean park Lotte World.
How to Get There
Everland's vast expanse of beauty (unthinkable within population-dense Seoul) comes at the cost of travel time. It's a mighty long journey south to this park, especially if you require public transportation. Although a newly constructed light rail line connects the Seoul subway system to the park, we found that sticking only to trains would take much more time than if we used a combination of the subway and bus systems. The good news is that both are ultra-reliable. The bad news is that the quickest route available from downtown Seoul to Everland still lasted about 90 minutes.
For those curious about specific details, we took a subway train to the Gangnam station, then went above ground to catch the 5002 bus to Everland. The bus makes only a few stops on its way to the park, and the route is mostly highway. Buses run every 15 minutes (both ways) from early in the morning until past midnight, which is why we found this option better than the more expensive chartered buses (which still take 90 minutes and offer strict return times). All told, the round-trip journey cost us the equivalent of about $7 U.S.
The bus dropped us at one of the Everland parking lots (the same one that serves as the terminus for the rail line), where we were able to board a free shuttle to the park entrance. It was during this winding journey that we began to appreciate the enormity of the Everland complex, which includes the Caribbean Bay water park (not operating in the chilly fall weather) along with hotels and an art museum.
Once we arrived at the actual park gates, we found the ticket booth specifically created for foreign visitors (which tend to speak English, Chinese or Japanese). Not only did Everland ensure that an English-speaking worker could communicate with us about our tickets, we were also given a discount. A print-out coupon on Everland's English-language website gave us 20% off admission (just for being from a country other than South Korea), lowering the ticket price to 37,000 Won. That's about $34 each for a full day at one of the best-attended theme parks in the entire world – not bad.
After purchasing our tickets it was just a few minutes before park opening at 9:30 a.m., and we waited with a few hundred visitors outside the park's entrance land, called Global Fair. The area is a mish-mash of mostly European architectural styles, with Russian spires placed across from Italian bell towers (such as a replica of St. Mark's Campanile – just like Epcot's). And in the Disney tradition of entrance lands, Global Fair is light on attractions, but heavy on shops and restaurants. After turning left and out of the area, you see the rest of Everland in the valley below, with a giant Ferris wheel (that no longer works, but still lights up at night) in the middle of it all.
Beyond this multi-ethnic gateway are four lands that slope into the valley below. There's American Adventure, which highlights frontier elements in one portion and, elsewhere, emulates a modern-day urban atmosphere with American street signs, stoplights and diners. There's a double Viking ship attraction called Columbus Adventures and some extreme spinning rides that reference rock 'n' roll. I particularly enjoyed the New York-themed Hurricane attraction (too soon for Sandy survivors?), which inexplicably included a painted picture of Epcot's Spaceship Earth in the midst of Manhattan landmarks.
On one side of the park, just past American Adventure, is Magic Land – mostly devoted to kiddie rides. The area is home to the painstakingly designed Aesop's Village, a pretty little fairy tale land with a children-friendly coaster to boot. Magic Land takes on its share of public domain fantasy characters, including Peter Pan (a spinning ride featuring boats as ride vehicles) and the Wizard of Oz (an old-timey, slightly beat-up carnival fun house).
In a nice touch, Magic Land also features moving walkways, which makes the journey back uphill much easier for little ones (or, more likely, their exhausted parents). In other areas of the park, visitors can ride ski lifts as an alternative to descending or ascending the steep inclines that pervade Everland.
Everland's other side is home to Zootopia, which – as the name implies – is something resembling a zoo, with an impressive variety of animals on display (including tigers, bears and elephants), camel rides and live shows featuring predatory birds. Amidst all that are the land's marquee attractions: two rides that take you into the animal habitats (which I will discuss in more detail below).
At the bottom of the valley is the park's largest, prettiest and most impressive, area: European Adventure. From one end to another, this land emulates the look of a number of different countries, ranging from a German alpine village to the streets of Holland to a Greek landscape. The area claims huge, seasonally themed gardens as well as Everland's world-class roller coaster, the T-Express.
T-Express: If there's one reason to visit Everland, it's the T-Express, South Korea's first wooden roller coaster that's frequently ranked as one of the best in the entire world. Constructed by Intamin (with an assist from Rocky Mountain Construction), the gargantuan coaster opened in 2008, and its park's attendance levels have been skyrocketing ever since. For those interested in stats, the T-Express ranks in the Top 10 in every extreme category. When it comes to wooden coasters, it's the world's second tallest, third steepest, fifth longest, tenth fastest, and has the seventh-longest drop.
Those rankings are impressive on paper and even more so when you're on board this massive attraction. At an angle of 77 degrees, the T-Express's first drop is insane, and then comes and endless run of dips, turns and drops. There's just no quit in this ride. Plus, like Six Flags Great Adventure's El Toro (one of the main inspirations for this coaster), the T-Express features a prefabricated track that ensures the smoothest of rides.
Although a sign listed a 90-minute queue, we actually waited for about 2 hours to take our turn on the Express. We were happy to find that it delivered. If I hadn't been so curious about the rest of Everland, I would have considered waiting in line again.
Side note: Everland offers the Fastpass-esque Q-pass reservation system for T-Express and some other in-demand attractions. However, we visited on a Thursday and – even though it seemed to be a high attendance day to me – the system was not in operation. The park appears to save it only for weekends, holidays and summer weekdays.
Safari World and Lost Valley: The marquee attractions in Everland's Zootopia are these two rides, in which visitors board a vehicle for a trip through the park's animal habitats. Safari World is the older of the two experiences and was the first one we queued up for, waiting about 40 minutes to board a bus painted like a white tiger. Then we were off to various gated areas featuring lions, tigers and bears. Oh my – I wasn't prepared that a number of these creatures were essentially trained circus animals.
At one point in the ride, our bus driver stopped at a series of brown bears who had been taught to stand or sit in place (all day, I'm guessing?) and perform their designated trick for bus after bus, as each driver tossed them a few crackers. These huge creatures made praying motions, walked next to the bus or put their paws on the driver's open window as our fellow travelers laughed and clamored for snapshots.
I do not consider myself an animal activist. I do not have any issues with animals being in captivity – as long as they are treated with the care and respect they deserve. But my trip into Safari World was a soul-crushing experience. I left feeling sad for the animals and upset that the park can't showcase the natural behaviors of these bears instead of making them perform for visitors.
I approached Zootopia's other animal ride, Lost Valley, with more than a little trepidation. Fortunately, we discovered a much more worthwhile (and much less disheartening) experience there, beginning with a well-designed queue that winded around various small animal exhibits, making the 40-minute wait time feel shorter. At the ride station, we boarded a DUKW (or "duck," which makes me think of the Wisconsin Dells) that would take us through the attraction's land and water-based track, past elephants, zebras and giraffes.
Kilimanjaro Safaris it's not, but Lost Valley is an ambitious undertaking with wide areas for the animals to wander, some well-crafted temple theming and a little extra excitement in regard to the amphibious ride vehicle. At one point the ride worker did interact with a giraffe, but it was merely to feed it a few leaves of lettuce and not in exchange for any carnival tricks.
Global Village: As with Seoul's Lotte World, Everland is no stranger to Disney imitation, the most obvious example being Global Village, an indoor boat ride that takes visitors on an international journey with lots of little dolls all singing one gleeful, repetitive song. I guess it really is a small world after all. For a total rip-off, the attraction is impressively scaled and beautifully detailed. But the real fun comes in the form of bizarre additions to the "Small World" theme, including trips to outer space and the North Pole as well as little German kids joyfully swilling beer. But how do the Koreans represent the U.S.? Cowboys and football players, of course.
K-Pop Hologram: We let the wonderful weirdness continue by visiting this theater show, in which some of Korea's biggest pop stars "perform" as "holograms." The filmed, 15-minute shows, which sort of look like 3D without the glasses, rotate among three acts, including Psy, most famous for the international novelty smash "Gangnam Style." We happened to be near the theater in time for the boy band BigBang – a fivesome so flouncy, they make the Backstreet Boys look like N.W.A. There were some impressive digital effects (in the course of performing two songs, the members seem to gain control of the Matrix), and if you can stand the sugary sweet ballads, you might enjoy the goofy spectacle of it all. The K-pop fans in our audience certainly shrieked their approval. And then we got the opportunity to buy a bunch of Psy merchandise.
Rotating House: With a name as plainly descriptive at this, there's not a lot of mystery as to what's going to happen inside this ride. You're going to go into a house and it's sure going to rotate. (What if Space Mountain was called Rolling in the Dark – wait, is than an Adele song?) However, the experience is not as Spartan as the title. The attraction is designed as a wizard academy – perhaps the Title 1 version of Hogwarts’s – in which an evil wizard and a good wizard take the guises of animatronic gargoyles and then battle it out by turning the main hall forwards and backwards. The main effect of the, ahem, rotating house, is pretty cool. Sets of benches swing back and forth in time with exterior walls that swivel, to create the illusion that the entire room is being turned topsy-turvy.
Rolling-X Train: For being a park that appeals to Seoul teens with its thrill rides, Everland only claims four working roller coasters, and two of them are kiddie rides. (Eagle's Fortress, which was South Korea's first suspended coaster, sits rusting at one end of the park.) After riding the wonderful T-Express, most thrill junkies seek out this steel coaster with four inversions, built in 1988 for the Seoul Olympics. Unfortunately, any time I was in the vicinity, the posted queue length for the Rolling X-Train was a prohibitively long 90 minutes. Having found that most of the wait times were longer than what was posted, I chose to skip this one – consoled by the complaints I had read and heard about the coaster's short length and rickety feel. But, as the (distant) second-best coaster at Everland, it deserves a mention.
Now here's where Everland's comparisons to a Six Flags park are appropriate. No, that isn't a compliment.
It's not that the park doesn't offer a variety of cuisines, it's just that most of the options looked greasy and unappetizing to us. I was forced to ask myself, "Do I want a gross version of Chinese food, a gross version of an American burger or a gross version of spaghetti and meatballs?"
On this day, the last option won. We ate dinner at Venezia Restaurant, a counter service Italian restaurant that was out of half of its items at 6 p.m. We settled for the aforementioned spaghetti and a pizza that bared little resemblance to the pictures or plastic food display outside the restaurant. It seemed to us that the cooks had thrown whatever was left in the kitchen on the pizza, including a balsamic reduction that didn't really mix with the other ingredients. The best thing I can say about our food – which, including side salads and soft drinks, cost us the equivalent of $23 U.S. – was that we were able to eat enough to keep us going until we got back to Seoul later that night.
Instead of sitting down for a meal earlier in the day, we had grabbed small bites as we went – some popcorn here, a mummy-looking bagel dog there (it was just before Halloween after all). My wife passed up some fried squid strips in favor of what looked like a corn dog, but was actually dipped in batter that tasted like bread. Maybe it should have been called a flour dog. Other than that, the "standard" park foods tasted fine, but were unremarkable.
Everland is big on seasonal celebrations. In fact, they have an entire garden (which must be as big as a football field) that they change multiple times a year to suit different holidays and seasons. Seeing as we were there during October, the giant garden was festooned with pumpkins and skeletons, along with many guests taking advantage of the various goofy and spooky photo opportunities. The area got altogether ookier after dark, when the flame towers lit up and the fog machines kicked in.
But that's not all that Everland does to celebrate Halloween. The seasonal festivities also included a pair of haunted houses (helpfully called Horror Maze I and Horror Maze II) and a scary version of Zootopia's Lost Valley ride (which, I believe, does not include wild animals). All of those attractions featured an additional charge – about $5 U.S. each. That's not awful, but given my general stance on paying even more money for experiences once I'm already in a park, we skipped those in favor of things that didn't cost extra.
And there were plenty of Halloween-y events that didn't force you to take out your wallet, from a dance party geared to teens to stage shows geared to kids. One area definitely not for kids was the area around the T-Express entrance, which was transformed into a foggy, darkly lit zombie village. Many signs and logos told us that the area was supposed to be themed to 'The Walking Dead' (which, yes, also airs on Korean television), but our hopes of seeing park workers portraying Rick and Michonne were dashed. Instead, we got a bunch of zombie-fied townspeople, including decaying policemen and nurses. The makeup and costumes were pretty good, the ambiance was fabulous and more than a few hundred shrieking Korean teens certainly were having a blast walking with the zombies.
Many of the Everland workers were having just as much fun in the spirit of Halloween, from costumed parade members who took opportunities to interact and dance with the little kids along the route to one ride operator who made up his own Halloween song. Yes, as we exited the T-Express, we were greeted by a man on the P.A. system singing, “Hap-py! Hallo-ween! Holy, holy Hell!” Needless to say, it became our private chant for the rest of the day.
One of the more family-friendly Halloween features was the Happy Halloween Party parade, a short little presentation that mixed cartoony, purple and orange floats with some pretty creepy monsters – from classics like Dracula and Frankenstein to relative newcomers such as Jigsaw from the 'Saw' franchise.
Speaking of parades – as the park continued to get frightfully cold, we decided to cap our day with Everland's nighttime Moonlight Magic parade. Like many after-dark parades, this one certainly owes some inspiration the Main Street Electrical Parade, seeing as it’s loaded with floats and performed covered in tiny lights. But I found Everland's version more creative than most imitators, who tend to depict Disney-esque fairy tale characters in versions just slightly different from their famous animated counterparts. Sure, there was some of that (like the 'Alice in Wonderland' section), but there were also a host of fantastical floats, including one that showed a futuristic, Jetsons-like city in the mountains and another that depicted a Roman warrior's battle with a three-headed dragon. During a different portion, glowing fish zoomed past us – thanks to their roller-skating puppeteers – to the tune of the parade's music, a techno version of 'The Nutcracker Suite.'
In a way, the Moonlight Magic parade was like Everland itself: hardly original, but beautifully crafted and featuring enough surprises and excitement to make the whole experience worthwhile.
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