WAKAYAMA'S PORTA EUROPA

Adventures in suspended reality

by Joseph A. Lieberman

Porto Europa, just outside of Wakayama City, is without doubt a playful place to visit and offers a wide range of entertainment, action rides, cuisines and new technology games, but don’t expect it to duplicate your last sojourn overseas.

It sits on a man-made island that is part of a larger post-bubble development complex known as Marina City, which includes high-rise condos, canal-side homes and, naturally enough, a marina. The original site was developed for the World Resort Expo of 1994.

Any theme park pilgrim intent upon exploring the full range of Porto Europa attractions will find this to be a mission that can be accomplished within a single day, provided that day is not a school holiday. Unlike some of its larger cousins, Porto Europa is just extensive enough to ensure diversion without overexertion. There is a decent mix of enticing experiences to please a wide variety of thrill seekers, without being repetitious.

Seafari is a motion-simulator machine, similar to Disney’s popular Star Tours ride, but with an underwater theme. Both are based on flight-training simulator shuttles, but are enlarged to hold 40 passengers. The entire shuttle is supported by six hydraulic legs, each of which can move in multiple degrees of motion and telescope in and out. Although your capsule never leaves the room it’s in, it can be programmed to generate the gravity thrust of a jet plane at take-off. Fasten your seat belt.

For those who don’t mind a good splash, there’s a high-dive water slide that passes through a castle filled with monsters. Both the Virtual Reality game using goggle helmets and the full body-armor Lasertech gun fest are thoroughly interactive. In the latter, you join one of two teams competing for points by trying to zap neon targets and one another inside a two-story obstacle course.

On the Park Pacifique side of a dividing canal, there is a giant Ferris wheel and a jet coaster which doesn’t turn somersaults but rather spins each pair of passengers in random circles at every bend. If just reading about it makes you queasy, put this experience on hold.

Train rides, cartoon shows, a 3-D movie and restaurants almost complete the circuit. Of course Porto Europa also has its own set of cute characters and souvenir shops for eager fans.

Not all of the attractions are so innocuous, however. One is the Terrors of America fright house, whose debatable contribution to U.S.-Japan accord is self-explanatory. The other is Viking Adventure, a major production at Porto Europa.

The latter combines a spectacular Universal Studios live stuntman show with an episode of “Columbo.” The premise is that a Viking pirate ship floats into a quiet Wakayama harbor and three ice-encased brigands (two male, one female) are awakened from their 1,200-year hibernation within when they are slammed against a dockside cannery. Only a local cop and his dim-witted assistant stand in the way of immediate chaos.

The stage set is brilliant, the exploding props excellent and the acrobatics superb. The problem is those darn barbarians. The stunt people playing uncivilized, caricatured marauding Westerners are downright embarrassing. The Vikings shout memorable English phrases such as “You stupid!” and so forth. I suppose this is fair enough for a limited-English audience, and appropriate for slapstick, but their one-dimensional characters add little to the reputations of foreigners here. The detective and his helper, on the other hand, emerge from their initial ineptitude as quick-witted karate-empowered champions who save Wakayama from an unwelcome immigration dilemma.

On another matter, I asked one of the park’s managers why the place is called Porto Europa, since this title contradicts a lot of the American/Pacific references, and why they position futuristic games amid medieval architecture. His answer: “Well, old-style buildings don’t get old. Twenty years from now, Porto Europa will still not look outdated.”

Some would argue that talk of political correctness at an amusement park spoils all the fun, and this may be true. But for those who prefer reality and common sense, theme parks have a way of making cynicism as enjoyable as the thrill rides and arcade games.

You needn’t be an arcade junkie to get a kick from the occasional visit to a theme park, but you do need to suspend all sense of reality.