You may be familiar with a lot of iconic themed lands found throughout many parks in America. Diagon Alley, Cars Land and Pandora are some of the most immersive lands many theme park fans in the nation have experienced. However, there are plenty of great themed areas found across the globe that rival what the US offers. In this list, I’ll be counting down my picks for the top 10 themed lands at international parks. This is a follow-up to the list of top 10 theme park lands in the US, which can be found here. To include as many different lands as possible, Hogsmeade at Universal Studios Japan will be omitted from the list, as Hogsmeade from Orlando was featured on the US list.
Honorable Mention: Rookburgh at Phantasialand
Steampunk is a popular theme for attractions and areas at theme parks such as Time Traveler at Silver Dollar City and Discoveryland at Disneyland Paris. These two and others, however, are all overshadowed by Phantasialand’s newest area, Rookburgh. After traveling through a tunnel tucked in an alley of the Berlin area, guests stumble into the world of Rookburgh. Three-story facades, lined with golden trims and iron ornamentation, surround the perimeter of the land. Under paths, you’ll find vents, structures and furnaces that produce the misty clouds seen all over the area, putting the “steam” in “steampunk.” Adding to the experience are countless props and decorations that immerse guests into the cramped streets of the fantasy city. The Charles Lindbergh hotel and Uhrwerk restaurant are also tucked into the edges of the land.
The centerpiece of the area, F.L.Y, is a new style of Vekoma’s flying coaster model that winds through the land. Parks in the US typically keep coasters in their own plot of land, away from guests and paths. Phantasialand, however, embraces the challenge of winding a coaster through theming and guests — and does it perfectly. The supports match the steam-pumping cylinders that line the rooftops, and the maroon track is a perfect accent to the many dark colors throughout the land. The only thing holding this area back from the rest of the list is its size, but the experience is undeniably immersive.
10. Tomorrowland at Disneyland Shanghai
The Tomorrowland area that Walt Disney designed for the original Disneyland envisioned what the future could look like sometime in the ‘70s or ‘80s. It’s now safe to say the ornamented sci-fi style of architecture, which has now been featured at three other Disney parks, is certainly not what the future looks like. Disneyland Shanghai crafted a much more modern and realistic vision of the future. Instead of streets lined with sleek white buildings and green lights, guests walk on long sloped paths surrounded by gardens.
The values modern designers focus on today, and likely in the future, are present throughout the area. Paths are long and sloped for standard ADA compliance. Shops and attractions are placed in multistory structures to reduce square footage, and the large gardens provide a connection to nature.
Instead of a Space Mountain clone, TRON: Lightcycle Power Run’s massive gridshell structure creates a large backdrop to the land. The building is reminiscent of the Heydar Aliyev Center by Zaha Hadid, an architect known for her forward-thinking designs. At night, the TRON building, water features and plants are lit up in bright blue and green lights, paying homage to the original Tomorrowland.
9. New Fantasyland at Tokyo Disneyland
The New Fantasyland expansion of Tokyo Disneyland combines narrow paths and dense patches of trees to create a forest of fantasy for guests to explore. Most of the buildings are derived from the Beauty and the Beast animated film, and all use a style of warped architecture to give structures a cartoony look. The use of color is well-executed, as many of the fences, curbs, buildings and plants use vibrant warm hues to keep the vibrant spirit of animation in the land.
Two headlining attractions in the land include “Enchanted Tale of Beauty and the Beast” and “Mickey’s Magical Music World.” The Beauty and the Beast ride features some of the most high-tech figures that look just like they do in the film, further incorporating the animation theme into the ride. Imagineers spared no expense when it came to creating Belle’s castle, as it stands an impressive 98 feet tall. While a land for Disney Princesses may not be my cup of tea, this area undeniably has detail and creativity that makes it one of the best areas in the world.
8. Deep in Africa at Phantasialand
While Rookburgh does an incredible job immersing guests with walls of facades, the Africa section of Phantasialand uses impressive landscaping and rockwork to form the authentic-looking area. The African area, though small, is filled with top-tier quality and an impressive coaster that interacts with the theming and guests. While there are only a few paths for guests to explore, the Sahelian-style buildings in the background increase the scale and depth of the area. There is an impressive amount of detail in the materials used for the buildings and rockwork, including paintings and decorations that can be seen wherever you look.
What makes this land most impressive is how the fantastic B&M invert Black Mamba winds over and under the terrain and guests. Even though the rugged landscape is mostly artificial, Black Mamba is easily one of the best terrain coasters on the planet. The loop that winds around the bridge leading to the hotel is one of the most picturesque coaster moments.
Speaking of places to stay, Hotel Matamba features a quality of theming on par with the Animal Kingdom Lodge in Orlando. Though guests not staying on property won’t get to experience the hotel, it still provides a fantastic backdrop to the area. As a park with little room to spare, Phantasialand designers have left no square inch of the area untouched.
7. Mediterranea at PortAventura
Guests entering PortAventura are welcomed by the peaceful oasis of the Mediterranea. Inspired by the Catalonian coast, the main path that loops around the land is flanked by coastal Italian facades and a lagoon. The journey through the area starts with the entrance of the park, which consists of small Italian streets and a festive town square. Just past the square, the area opens to the lagoon, with two of the park’s coasters in view: Furius Baco to the right and Shambhala looming off in the distance. What makes this land so impressive is the peaceful setting and dedication to the coastal theme. Rocks and sand dunes create a seamless transition from water to the paths. Boats of all shapes and sizes line the coast.
Numerous shops and restaurants make for a lively boardwalk setting, and the on-site resort adds more facades in the distant background.
Furius Baco may have a wacky theme, but the setting and station both add to the countryside feel of the This unique Intamin wing coaster features an 83-mph launch and a large banked turn over the lagoon, providing great views for guests. The station is themed to an Italian farm, and the large vineyard next to the path is an excellent touch. Guests staying at Hotel PortAventura get an expanded experience as the hotel is themed to an Italian village and is attached to the park’s entrance. Mediterranea may not provide large facades or feature a highly immersive attraction, but the peaceful setting and attention to detail are what make it so impressive.
6. Arabian Coast at Tokyo DisneySea
DisneySea is regarded by some as the best-themed park in the world. The Oriental Land Company, which owns and operates the Tokyo Disney Resort, wanted Imagineers to have no limits when creating the park that opened in 2001. The result was a theme park like no other that would have cost over $4 billion today. The Arabian Coast is themed after the movie Aladdin but still provides a very realistic feel to the harbor. The design of the land benefits from its massive footprint, which features a street, Bazaar and main square.
The street that covers the show building for Sindbad’s Storybook Adventure is comprised of tall three-dimensional set buildings, unlike most show building skins that use two-dimensional props. The Bazaar features a winding alley surrounded by highly decorated shops and restaurants, reminiscent of the market street in Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge.
The Palace Courtyard is a massive square featuring attractions such as The Magic Lamp Theater and the Caravan Carousel. Despite having a high quality of theming throughout the land, what keeps this entry away from the top five spots is the lack of a star attraction in the land. In my opinion, Sindbad’s Storybook Adventure looks like a different take on It’s a Small World, a ride I don’t enjoy very much. The other attractions are either a standard flat ride or a theater. Still, the architecture alone is tremendous enough to land the Arabian Coast at the number six spot.
Perhaps in the future, we could see an Aladdin-themed multi-launch coaster with flying carpet trains? Maybe not, but a coaster enthusiast can dream, right?
5. Mysterious Island at Tokyo DisneySea
Tokyo DisneySea strikes again with the park’s central land, The Mysterious Island. Disneyland Paris tried an entire Jules Verne-themed land first, spearheaded by the visions of Tony Baxter. However, that land was still formatted the same way most Tomorrowland areas are, leaving limited room for new designs. Imagineers designing DisneySea were given a blank slate to design another Jules Verne-inspired land. What resulted was perhaps the greatest centerpiece of any theme park: a massive volcano that houses a steampunk naval base and two attractions.
The Volcano is visible from anywhere in the park and even changes texture depending on where you are viewing from. While inside the Land, you’ll find light green steel structures scattered around the base of the volcano, surrounding the water below. There’s also tons of life inside the area. Boats full of travelers can be seen traveling under the main pathways, vehicles from the main attraction soar above guests and the volcano even erupts once in a while.
Aside from the impressive rockwork complemented by the green steel, there are two heavily themed attractions — Journey to the Center of the Earth and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Though the latter doesn’t provide a thrilling experience, it does immerse guests into an underwater adventure through submarine-themed vehicles and dark sea-inspired set pieces. Bubbles projected onto the windows give the ride an extra layer of immersion. Arguably the headliner attraction at DisneySea, Journey to the Center of the Earth is a high thrilling ride that uses the same system as Test Track. Guests board a steampunk-themed car before winding through colorful set pieces and passing by a massive animatronic. The experience finishes with a 47-mph acceleration around the volcano, giving guests overhead views of the island.
4. Mediterranean Harbor at Tokyo DisneySea
The third Tokyo DisneySea entry on this list is its largest area, themed to the Italian coast. This area differs heavily from the entrance of Port Aventura, feeling more like a city than the countryside. The large “V”-shaped entrance leads to two wings, one inspired by Venice and the other inspired by Italian Villas.
On the Venetian side, guests will find the Venetian gondolas. Guests board a boat, steered by a live gondolier, and sail around a small canal, before heading into the park’s lagoon. The boats travel under bridges full of passing guests, all within view of the surrounding facades on the Hotel MiraCosta. The level of immersion is so impressive that some guests may never have to consider a trip to Venice. This attraction is truly as relaxing and immersive as boat rides get.
On the other wing of the land is another version of Soaring: Fantastic Flight (yes, with a “G”), as well as the Zambini Brothers restaurant, which is tucked into a small and immersive street. There’s also a station for the park-wide transit steamer line. Here, guests can board a boat that can transport them to other areas in the park. With two solid attractions, several shops, countless restaurants and an enormous amount of theming, the Mediterranean Harbor is perhaps one of the best entrance areas of any theme park, if not the best.
3. Treasure Cove at Disneyland Shanghai
Imagineers took a vastly different approach to typical castle-style parks when designing Shanghai Disneyland. Instead of Adventureland, which usually offers attractions like the Tiki Room, the Jungle Cruise, Pirates of the Caribbean and a treehouse, Imagineers created Treasure Cove, a land entirely dedicated to pirates.
The area utilizes the large and open design of the Shanghai Disney Resort, leading guests to the land through long paths submerged in the trees. The layout follows the shape of a “C,” around a lagoon with a small island, emphasizing the feel of the Caribbean. Surrounding the main path is a fortress that houses the main attraction, Pirates of the Caribbean: Battle for Sunken Treasure, countless shops, and a theater. The large fort is inspired by early Spanish naval strongholds and is large enough to pass off as a life-sized fort. The shops are made with Spanish Colonial style typically seen in other pirates-inspired areas but are organized into an alleyway to create a sense of immersion. In contrast, the stunt show theater features a neoclassical façade that still manages to fit with the theme.
The attractions in this land are a mix of innovative technologies and unique and immersive experiences. The most popular ride is Pirates of the Caribbean: Battle for Sunken Treasure. Unlike other versions of Pirates, this ride focuses on a naval battle between Jack Sparrow and Davy Jones and takes guests through large physical set pieces mixed with well-positioned screens. One of the coolest effects has to be the water surrounding the boat perfectly meeting the water on many of the screens to create a seamless horizon between the physical and digital show.
There is also a life-sized pirate ship exhibition for guests to explore, as well as canoes for groups of visitors to sail around the lagoon. While the dark ride is impressive, the canoes capture the perfect feeling of immersion by letting guests steer their own ship through a lagoon surrounded by a pirate village and docked ships. The architecture, layout and a stunning dark ride are all great aspects of the land, but the feeling of adventure and exploration is really what makes this area so immersive and exciting.
2. Super Nintendo World at Universal Studios Japan
The newest land to open ranks above all but one. When Universal released the first concept image of Super Nintendo World in 2016, I thought the art could have only been an exaggerated rendering of the land. I was wrong and happily amazed. The land may not have the largest footprint, but every square inch is covered in as much detail as possible. What I’m really impressed with is how every major façade or point of interest is smoothly incorporated into the background. There’s a hodgepodge of different buildings and biomes depicted, but they all flow together so seamlessly.
The kinetic energy in the land is unparalleled. Coins, Piranha Plants, Yoshis, Goombas, Koopas and Thwomp Blocks are all objects you can find constantly moving throughout the area. No matter where you look, something is always moving. There’s also a new interactive feature included with the power bands. Guests that spend an upcharge for the wristband can access mini-games and activities throughout the land, and they can keep track of their score with a smartphone app. These mini-games and activities all activate physical props, such as light-up blocks or animatronics.
The signature attraction, Mario Kart: Koopa’s Challenge, features innovative Augmented Reality (AR) goggles to create virtual effects among the physical sets throughout the ride. There is also an interactive feature that allows guests to shoot shells at targets throughout the ride. While the attraction certainly looks impressive, I only wish Universal had instead used the AR technology on an actual racing go-kart attraction.
After multiple leaks and minor details, it seems the land will also get an eventual addition inspired by Donkey Kong. The expansion will feature even more interactive features as well as a new type of roller coaster.
1. Klugheim (Mystery) at Phantasialand
Rookburgh and Deep in Africa are two stunning lands to behold. However, the top spot on this list may be a good enough reason to book a trip to Germany right now. Phantasialand blew the minds of countless theme park fans when they unveiled their Klugheim expansion to the mystery section of the park and established themselves as one of the top theme parks in Europe. The launched Intamin blitz coaster and a dark fantasy village set in an unbelievable sculpture of rockwork was something that caught the industry by storm. As I mentioned, Phantasialand has done a spectacular job with intertwining coasters, restaurants, theming and guest walkways in areas such as Rookburgh and Africa. Klugheim takes those design strategies and amplifies them to a new level.
The scattered buildings inspired by Scandinavian and Northern European styles may seem like a hodge-podge of structures, but up-close they are blended perfectly into the rocky landscape and pathways. Shops and restaurants are just as visually impressive on the inside and provide great views of the area while grabbing a bite. I should also clarify that the Mystery section includes the previously existing medieval experiences built before Taron, with Mystery Castle and River Quest. Mystery Castle is an indoor Intamin drop tower that features a light show before dropping riders. River Quest is a multi-story rapids ride that is often regarded as one of the best of its kind in the world.
What elevates this land above the innovative and technologically impressive Super Nintendo World is its staple attraction, Taron. While some of the other lands on this list have impressive dark rides, nothing beats a well-themed, world-class roller coaster. Taron is a web of track that winds its way around, over and under buildings, rocks and the family Vekoma boomerang coaster, Raik. Taron features over 4,300 feet of track and reaches a top speed of 73 mph. While many people debate whether or not its fellow Intamin Blitz coaster Maverick is better, the layout and theming of this ride certainly make it one of the best attractions in the world.
While I enjoy seeing fiction franchises brought to life in parks, such as Harry Potter or Avatar, it’s also nice to see originality. Klugheim is an entirely original concept, not based on an intellectual property (IP), which makes the land even more special. As mentioned before, Phantasialand is limited in available space. This forces designers to make the most of every square inch. I think other attraction designers can learn a lesson from this park. While a number of Disney and Universal parks have large plots of land to build new attractions, Phantasialand is nearly landlocked. This forces the designers to focus on much smaller areas and put in as much detail and effort as they can into those spaces. Klugheim tops this list for its excellent design of intertwined buildings, rockwork, rides, guest paths and original concept. Klugheim, along with the other areas of Phantasialand, should make this park a top spot on every theme park enthusiast’s to-do list.
Super Nintendo World’s 2021 opening was just a small glimpse into the future. Other themed lands coming soon to parks around the world include Fantasy Springs at Tokyo DisneySea, Frozen: World of Arendelle at Hong Kong Disneyland and Zootopia at Shanghai Disneyland. Walt Disney Studios Park in France also has plans to build a Galaxy’s Edge, Avengers Campus and Frozen-themed areas. Along with those, Universal Beijing will open this year, consisting of many new themed areas based on Transformers, Kung Fu Panda and Jurassic World.
What is your favorite themed land at a park outside of the US? Did we leave any out? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below. And don’t miss our list of the top 10 theme park lands in the US!
About the Author:
Zachary Culp is an undergraduate architecture student at the Pennsylvania State University pursuing a career in themed entertainment. He enjoy parks that provide fast and intense coasters as well as great ambiance and atmosphere. His dream is to one day take part in building rides that make advances in technology, thrills, narrative and scenery.