Kids don’t need much to be entertained. For most toddlers, a fancy new toy holds less appeal than the cardboard packaging that came with it. With just a little imagination, wood blocks turn into skyscrapers, sticks into magic wands and plates into fire engine steering wheels. The less the design, the greater the appeal; it’s the flexibility of simple objects that elicits sustained fascination. And yet, amusement parks promising a space where imaginations run wild still get built. Mumbai’s amusement park developers suggest that no childhood is complete without them. But do they compete with the traditional park of slides and swings? We decided to take our twin four-year olds to test them out.
It takes a bit of imagination to appreciate the globally themed Vardhman Fantasy in Mira Road. Located in an area lacking open space, the designers neglected the less-is-more philosophy of park design in favour of overdesigned theme zones such as “Texas Cowboy”, “Greek Village” and “Viva Las Vegas”, accompanied by cheap-looking replicas of world monuments. Where an open field would have sufficed, Vardhman’s developers produced what looks like a hastily built theatre set that’s aging even before it’s finished. Thankfully, the entry ticket costs `2, and the kids don’t mind the wasted space as much as parents do. While it’s advertised as an amusement park, a different logic is at work. This is an attempt to upgrade a public park. The municipal corporation “turned the park over to us, and we’ve made improvements”, says a manager. Rides like paddle-wheel boats, inflatable slides and a toy train kept the kids amused while the parents desperately plotted their escape.
Taking the amusement-parkas- public-amenity theme further is Yazoo Park, located in Virar West. Yazoo sells the idea of carnivalesque childhood fantasy wrapped in the logic of middleclass living. “Joy comes to you in a complete package” declares the website, alluding not just to the rides—the typical Ferris wheel, toy train and bumper car line-up—but to the adjacent, halfbuilt Rustomjee Global City. Its temporary appearance makes it look as though Yazoo Park was built solely to allow developers to proudly assert that “[e]very child’s home should have a Disney land [sic] attached”.
A scary thought, but ironically the appeal of Esselworld, the only Mumbai amusement built anywhere close to a Disneyesque scale, lies in its humbleness. The rides are outdated, paint has chipped off the signs and the amenities are barebones. The only new addition— a Café Coffee Day— incongruously sits amidst this landscape of pre-liberalization austerity. But this misfit with mall and multiplex Mumbai is what makes Esselworld appealing. For one, it is well thought-out.
A colour-coded map guides visitors to neatly arranged ageappropriate rides. There are separate bumper cars for toddlers and older children – a muchneeded innovation for a potentially aggressive ride. Our kids especially loved practising their conductor routine on the nicely laid out toy train. The Churchgate- Virar theme extended to the more popular rides with daunting lines. Nevertheless being “smooshed” by rambunctious school kids waiting for the go-kart ride was but a small price to pay to fulfil racecar- driving dreams.
Despite its significant ticket price, Esselworld caters to a wide-ranging clientele. Diverse in a refreshing way, it’s not only for the chauffeur-driven, but for the Sunday-night-Juhu-beachrevellers. Completely lacking pretense and the glitz of the new, Esselworld is like the grandparent of amusement parks: softspoken, slow-moving and nonthreatening. While adults might see a rusting ground, it’s precisely because it is past its prime that it works.
By Jonathan Anjaria on May 05 2012
Photos by Mohnish Dabhoya