Several years ago, a Swiss friend of mine told me excitedly about a new theme park that was under construction near the city of Interlaken. He sent me a magazine article about it, and even went so far as to buy me a 10-Franc stock certificate for the park, giving me some trivial sliver of ownership in this hot new property. Ever since then, Mystery Park has been on my list of things to write about, but for one reason or another it had never managed to percolate up to the top of the list until now. Which is a pity: the park closed permanently on November 19, 2006, due to a shortage of visitors (and, therefore, money). At least I no longer have to wonder how much that stock is worth today: that and a couple of euros, as they say, will buy me a cup of coffee.
I’d like to say, at least, that it was interesting while it lasted. That, I’m sure, is a matter of opinion—and, clearly, not enough people’s opinion to make the park profitable. Nevertheless, Mystery Park was nothing if not unique, and its story is worth telling.
The Gods Must Be Crazy
Mystery Park was the brainchild of Erich von Däniken, a Swiss author perhaps best known for his 1968 book Chariots of the Gods?, which alleged that aliens visited Earth thousands of years ago, bringing with them the technology needed to create such artifacts as the Nazca lines, the Antikythera mechanism, the pyramids in Egypt, and the statues on Easter Island. Although the book was popular, no one with any scientific credentials took it seriously, and von Däniken was immediately pigeonholed as, shall we say, a fringe theorist. (On the other hand, the book did provide the inspiration for a number of science-fiction movies and TV shows, including Battlestar Galactica. So clearly some good came of it!)
The lack of credibility didn’t stop von Däniken from authoring more than two dozen additional books and selling tens of millions of copies worldwide. After a few decades as a bestselling author, von Däniken had some cash to play with, and he decided to design a theme park that would explore the world’s great mysteries. Not just any mysteries, of course, but those for which von Däniken implied the answer “aliens did it.” The park, built on the site of a former military air base, would be an interactive, hands-on way to spread his ideas in the guise of history, science, and entertainment. Planning began in 1997, and Mystery Park welcomed its first visitors on May 24, 2003.
The park, which was tiny as theme parks go, consisted mainly of seven pavilions or “theme worlds” arranged in a ring. Each pavilion focused on one particular ancient culture and its mysteries. The Vimanas pavilion explored flying machines said to be used in north Indian temples. In the Maya pavilion, visitors learned about the Mayan timekeeping systems, which von Däniken believed to track the calendars of other worlds. The Orient pavilion examined the construction of the Great Pyramid of Giza, while Megastones looked at Stonehenge. There was also a Nazca pavilion, a Contact pavilion about cargo cults, and a Challenge pavilion dealing with space travel to Mars and beyond. An elevated sphere in the center of the park served as an observation tower.
Although von Däniken repeatedly asserted that the park’s goal was to provide questions, not answers, he certainly tried to steer visitors toward accepting his interpretations of things. He helped design the attractions, sold his books at the park, maintained an office on the premises, and regularly interacted with visitors. Critics pointed to his well-known biases as a reason the park didn’t draw more people; even to the extent that some of the exhibits were reasonably objective, skeptical would-be visitors frequently assumed they’d be getting a full dose of UFO mania and little more.
After trying unsuccessfully to stave off creditors for months, the park eventually declared bankruptcy and closed. Analysts blamed everything from an underperforming stock market to the fact that the exhibits never changed, discouraging repeat visits. But a large part of the reason for the park’s failure seems to have been that there’s only so much to say about von Däniken’s theories and so many people who will listen to them, no matter how entertaining the multimedia presentations may be for their kids. There’s still a chance, however remote, that the park may reopen at some point—under new management, presumably, and with significant changes. But I wouldn’t hold my breath.
Since I never got to visit Mystery Park myself—and haven’t read any of von Däniken’s books—all my opinions have been formed second-hand. To be sure, I’ve got to give props to anyone with the resources, vision, and influence to create his own theme park. As for the content, what can I say? I liked The X-Files as much as the next person; conspiracy theories and stories of alien visitors are nothing if not entertaining. But I enjoy those stories as fiction, and I hope I know enough to separate entertainment from reality. It sounds to me as though that’s exactly where von Däniken failed with his Mystery Park. Or it might have been sabotaged by aliens. You just never know. —Joe Kissell