Inside Joyland: China's Brazenly Fake 'Warcraft' Theme Park

'Warcraft' Theme Park - H 2016
Abid Rahman

On the heels of Legendary Entertainment's $160 million epic becoming the highest-grossing video game adaptation in history, the Hollywood Reporter takes a tour of an audacious live attraction dedicated to the popular title.

A few years ago, while traveling through Western China, I found myself in the city of Kunming. Speaking to local expats, I heard rumors of something quite spectacular in the city that I simply had to see. No, it wasn't the fabled and thoroughly distasteful Kingdom of the Little People, a theme park entirely staffed and featuring shows by dwarves. Instead, it transpired that some enterprising retailer, cashing in on surging local demand for the fruits of the West, had built an entirely fake Apple store.

The products, sourced from the grey market, were real but there were replica fixtures and fittings, a fake Genius Bar and the staff, possibly unaware that they weren't working for the Cupertino giant, were decked out in Apple uniforms. A few weeks later, the story of the fake Apple store made world news and the owners were ultimately shamed into closing. 

The fake Apple store episode came to mind as I boarded the high speed train out of Shanghai for the city of Changzhou in search of a theme park officially called CC Joyland, but unofficially known as a brazen — and likely illegal — rip-off of World of Warcraft. Opened in 2011, CC Joyland has become a source of online curiosity and ridicule (especially on Reddit), thanks to the fact that it appears to have no official licensing agreement in place.

And so, as Legendary/Wanda's screen adaptation of Activision/Bizzard's Warcraft continues to cut a swathe through China's box office ($205 million so far), it seemed like the time was right to visit Joyland to see firsthand just how closely it hues to the original video game, and now big-screen blockbuster. (THR reached out to Wanda, Activision and Legendary for comment about the park's legitimacy  — or lack thereof — but only the latter responded, offering simply that they are aware of the park but "are not involved at all in this 'venture.'")

Accompanying me on my journey was my plucky assistant and translator Sisi, a student at a Shanghai university who was recently volunteering at the film festival. As the train made its way to Changzhou, Sisi was kind enough to relay her own views on Warcraft, revealing that she hadn't seen it herself yet but she was taken with the idea of heartthrob Daniel Wu voicing the film's villain Gul'dan. Sisi also explained the phenomenon of netcafes, giant gaming venues where Chinese youth spend much of their free time playing games like World of Warcraft or "World of Magic Beasts" as it is known in the country. It is because of netcafes, which are said to number over 100,000 in China, that WOW boasts 5 million players in the country.

After the hour on the train, we then took an hour cab ride to CC Joyland. Walking to the entrance in 104 degree heat, Sisi is the first to notice the revolving globe that greets visitors. "It looks like Universal Studios," she says.

Welcome to Universal Studios?

Upon entry, what's immediately striking is how empty the park is. There seemed to be more staff than actual patrons. I consider myself something of a veteran when it comes to strange Chinese theme parks having visited Minsk World (a militaristic theme park set on a disused Soviet aircraft carrier, because why not?), Window of the World (hundreds of faithful yet miniature recreations of the world's great monuments) and Foreigner's Street (a theme park dedicated to showing how "foreigners" live), so I've seen a lot of odd things but even I was taken aback by the strangeness of Joyland. Moreover, the park seemed like a copyright lawyer's dream, with a host of potential infractions. Transformers, Doraemon, Hello Kitty, Garfield, DC and Marvel characters all make appearances at Joyland, but all seemed to be questionable approximations at best — or outright fake merchandise and decorations at worst. The staff at the retail outlets had no idea either way. 

"Official" merchandise and IP use could be found throughout Joyland

Though not an especially large park, Joyland featured nine different zones, but the Warcraft homage was focused on three in particular: the World of Legend, Fairy Lake and the Terrain of Magic. The owners of the park were clearly little bothered with accusations of copyright violation as one of the first attractions in the Terrain of Magic was titled the "Path to Warcraft" interactive experience. This largely deserted zone was littered with statues of orcs, wizards, demons, wolf hounds and warriors as well as rides with names like "Orc Blood Journey."

When THR later contacted CC Joyland by phone for a statement, staff insisted that the park is in no way based on or related to World of Warcraft. Instead, they said, it is "based on animals." Curiously, I couldn't detect any consistent animal theme in the park — unless you count the gigantic Transformers-style panda.

How to interpret this mighty beast? Kung Fu Panda-Transformers crossover?

Queuing up for "Splash of Monster Blood," a water ride, Sisi and I spoke to a group of college girls in their early 20s. All were aware of the game Warcraft as well as the film currently in theaters, but were only marginally interested in the movie. Would they see the film? Most likely yes, since, as one of the girls pointed out, "there's nothing else to see" at the moment. Indeed, the film's releases was carefully orchestrated by Dalian Wanda, the giant Chinese conglomerate that owns the country's biggest theater chain, Wanda Cinema Line. Warcraft opened at a particularly beneficial time, just before a holiday weekend, and in its first two weeks experienced virtually no competition. Perhaps unsurprisingly the film opened in a record-setting 67.5 percent of all theaters in mainland China, where there are some 39,000 screens.

The mighty dwarf bridge, perhaps the only major feature at Joyland that is inspired by but has no direct correlation to Warcraft

"Splash of Monster Blood" weaved in and out one of the most spectacular creations at Joyland, the stone guardians seen in the main picture to this story above. Now, as someone who isn't a diehard Warcraft fan, I was confused as to whether this was a rip-off too, but later realized that the statues owed more to the The Gates of Argonath from The Lord of the Rings. Similarly, the imposing dwarf bridge that connected Terrain of Magic to the World of Legend zone seemed to lean more heavily on Tolkein's vision than on anything from the video game — although, for once, this feature didn't seem to be directly lifted from existing IP.

After getting thoroughly wet on the water ride with, presumably, orc blood, we pop into the theme restaurant "WOH", which is not, as one would assume, an acronym, but rather, as the staff would tell us, a reflection of a the exclamation 'woh!' With the restaurant empty, the staff, including some of the kitchen crew, had lined up at the entrance to greet us. (Regular visitors to China will know that restaurants, hotels and other public buildings are often bewilderingly overstaffed and WOH was no different.)

Upon ordering drinks that looked like potions, Sisi was able to interrogate the staff on the overt likeness of Joyland to both Warcraft the game and movie. One of the kitchen crew wasn't sure that the park hadn't opened first and that the movie hadn't copied it. Another staff member who had seen the movie said the likeness was there, but that it didn't matter, only that the visitors loved it and that fantasy was very popular in China.

Silvermoon City 

We next made our way to the World of Legend zone, past the Fairy Lake zone where there were rides with names like Silver Moon Kingdom and Silver Moon's Pride — seasoned Warcraft fans will know these names are clearly inspired by Silvermoon, a forested region of WoW.

The structures in the desolate World of Legend zone were so blatantly a rip-off of Silvermoon City, the capital of the blood elves in WoW, that one could only admire the audacity. Here, hiding from the sun, Sisi and I spoke to a number of patrons at a cafe. Li, a 20-something student from Shanghai, described himself as a gamer and spoke of the countless hours he had lost playing Warcraft and other popular Chinese fantasy games. Li said he wasn't surprised by the success of the film, which he had seen, as the game was so wildly popular in China.

Fairy Lake

With the heat becoming unbearable, we made towards the exit but not before Sisi noticed that we had missed a whole zone, Universe of Starship, which later research revealed to be a "tribute" to Starcraft, Blizzard's other incredibly popular space-based military strategy game. But with the overwhelming evidence of plagiarism, a serious case of heat stroke and creepy deserted nature of Joyland, it seemed unnecessary to retrace our steps to confirm more audacious fakery.

Instead, a slow, pained trawl through the gift shop was in order — and a constant wrestle with my conscience. Strangely, there was no Warcraft-inspired merchandise in sight, but an Ironman mask caught my eye. Knowing it's almost certainly fake, do I buy it? The design was spot-on and it seemed to be made of high-quality hardened plastic. It was only $13. Sisi thought I should buy it. I was incredibly tempted since it would make for a fitting reminder of my time at Joyland. That's when a closer look revealed some fine print on the box... Perhaps this would reveal that the product was, in fact, legally licensed from Marvel after all?

"Can not at all than other superheroes in American Ironman in thunder. Many Hollywood star are Iron fan. Such as the number one superhero fans Nicholas Cage, Tom Cruise, of course, finally got the role of Ironman Robert Donny. But now the Chinese fans finally have the chance to see this one scale. Ironman fans has a special liking for the iron mask is love."

Perhaps not this time. 

Blood elf architecture abounds in Joyland