An abandoned amusement park hides along a river in the Treptower forest of East Berlin. Known today as Spreepark, it was originally the Kulturpark when built by socialist East Germany in 1969. Declining attendance and tight government controls contributed to the park’s demise, which created financial insolvency and forced Spreepark to permanently close in 2001. In the meantime, attempts by the city to auction the property have failed.
A contractual guarantee protects the park from developers until 2061, but little is protecting Spreepark from nature and vandals.
cover photo courtesy lightsniper
In its first iteration, Spreepark was known by the name VEB Kulturpark Plänterwald when it originally opened on October 4th, 1969, as a celebration of the 20th anniversary of the GDR (former German Democratic Republic).
The Berlin entertainment park was so named because it was situated in the north of the Plänterwald locality, along the river Spree, in the Treptow-Köpenick District of East Berlin.
Kulturpark – or “Kulti” to its fans – was tremendously popular and hosted over a million visitors annually.
Among its trademark attractions were the Riesenrad (Ferris wheel) and its thirty six guest cabins. In October of 1989 the Riesenrad was upgraded to carry 40 cabins and stand 40 meters tall (in celebration of the 40th anniversary of the GDR).
The following month the Berlin Wall came down, and so did the attendance numbers at Kulturpark. Suddenly bigger and newer theme parks were accessible and attracted the former GDR tourist currency.
Kulti’s novelty had appeared to run its course; by 1991 attendance had fallen by a third.
The state, responsible for Kulti’s operations at the time, was not interested in continuing to attempt to operate an unprofitable theme park. After the 1990 reunification of Germany, the Berlin senate privatized the park and wished to transform it “according to Western standards.”
In 1991 the contract to run the park was awarded to the Witte family’s Spreepark Berlin Company GmbH., one of seven applicants. The leasing contract for the 74 acre property stated the land may only be used as an amusement park until 2061.
Family patriarch Norbert Witte was an experienced park operator and showman. By most accounts he was capable of playing the part of respectable businessman, which despite a previous conviction of a carousel accident on his record (see below), may have helped boost his proposal’s chances of selection by the Senate committee.
Witte went to work expanding the park and modernizing with upgrades sourced from liquidations of other parks (such as Mirapolis in Paris).
Norbert added an amphitheater with a daily stunt show and a central lake tied in with a network of canals. He also included a wild west village and a Picadilly Circus tent.
[ In 1981 Norbert Witte was involved in the biggest fairground accident in postwar German history: A carousel crashed into a crane in Hamburg, killing seven and injuring another 15 people. The carnival operator was attempting to repair the ‘Katapult’ rollercoaster in Hamburg in 1981. Witte was sentenced to one year probation. The blemish on his record prevented him from officially owning Spreepark, which was listed under the name of his wife Pia instead. ]
In 1992 the newly-renamed Spreepark had more westernized rides and brought more crowds. By 1993 the park was peaking at 1.5 million visitors annually, a good number but shy of the 1.8 million estimate promised by Witte to Berlin.
Spreepark in better times:
The numbers wouldn’t improve.
Before long the park’s novelty would seem to run its course once more, and by the turn of the century Spreepark Berlin was again teetering on the brink of financial solvency.
By 2001 the turnstiles at Spreepark were spinning less than 400,000 times per year. The culprit for the decrease in attendance numbers varied depending whom was asked.
Watch: Video of Spreepark crowds in 1992
According to Witte, the primary problem was the lack of adequate parking, which drove away out of town visitors (the park is surrounded by a protected forest, which disallows expansion).
“If we had known [we wouldn’t have been allowed to expand parking], we wouldn’t have ever invested here. There was nothing about that in the contract. They deprived us of the foundation of the business.”
– Norbert Witte
On November 4th, 2001 the Spreepark closed its doors for the final time.
Within days Spreepark Berlin Company GmbH filed for bankruptcy protection, leaving an aging park with rides in need of repair and debt approaching €15 million Euro.
Peruvian Smuggling Operation
In January of 2002 Witte packed six of his best rides (Baby-Flug aka Baby Flight, Butterfly, Fliegender Teppich aka Flying Carpet, Fun Express, Jet Star, and Spider) into shipping containers and with his family and closest associates, relocated to Peru.
Norbert was able to deceive authorities by shipping the rides under the guise of having them repaired. Instead, his goal was to open a Lunapark in Lima.
But his dream for a Peruvian theme park failed to see success; several rides were confiscated by customs, others damaged during shipping. Witte managed to get some repaired, but he was in greater debt than before.
Desperate for money, Norbert decided to smuggle narcotics to Germany. Together with his son Marcel (Witte’s Luna Park SAC CEO, pictured above right), Norbert shipped the remaining rides from Peru back to Germany.
Unbeknownst to Marcel, hidden inside the rides were drugs. Again Norbert had attempted to use his ruse of sending rides overseas for repair, but this time his ploy failed to fool authorities.
In 2003 customs officials arrested Witte in Germany after finding 400 pounds (181kg) of cocaine neatly packed in 211 packages hidden inside a carousel. The cargo was worth a reported €15 million Euros.
At the 2004 trial, Norbert was ailing from reported heart problems. He was sentenced to eight years in a German prison and would ultimately serve four before returning to his previous life in Berlin. Norbert was reportedly living in a caravan inside of Spreepark until April of 2014.
Son and CEO Marcel was not so lucky; while Norbert was arrested in Germany, Marcel was arrested in Peru. Today Marcel is still languishing in Lima’s Sarita Colonia prison, serving out the rest of his 20-year sentence for his involvement in the same scandal.
“I’m responsible for it. My son would have had nothing to do with such people or at all with such a thing. I have to live with that for the rest of my life.”
– Norbert Witte
Marcel doesn’t outwardly show anger, but he’s understandably upset with the events that transpired. According to his version of events, he knew of the smuggling about ten days before the arrest.
In an interview, Marcel Witte reflected:
“When I was little, my father was my hero for me. Today, I can only smile about it. A real father brings his son not in such a situation.
That’s just been inhuman! There are two emotions that keep you alive: love and hate. So you can go through a lot of things. The first years it was with me the hate. “
Until recently Marcel had hoped he could be transferred to Germany to serve out his sentence. However Peru lacks an extradition treaty with Germany, and drawing a hard line, refused to interfere with its own state court ruling.
By the time Marcel gets out of prison, he will have spent nearly half his life behind bars.
While in Peru Norbert and Pia separated. She has not forgiven him.
photo set courtesy urbanoutfitters.co.uk
The city assumed control of the park after Witte departed, and had already amassed a large maintenance bill for its preservation and protection of the forest and park.
More appealing than trying to fix the park was selling it to another amusement park operator. But complicating matters was the desirable location of the park next to Plänterwald Forest, which had in recent times witnessed property values appreciate considerably.
“obviously the city cannot afford to run its own funfair.”
– Berlin city spokesperson
To the surprise of many, the few bids that were received were rejected.
What deterred additional suitors? Possibly the immense €30 million in debt the park had accumulated or the €600,000 in unpaid taxes. Some speculate the city wanted to retain ownership so that apartments could be constructed on the grounds after 2061.
Yet after suitors withdrew their bids, the common denominator was the parking shortage for any potential redevelopment. On the parking issue, all bidders and businesspeople alike agreed with Norbert.
The insolvency hearing was terminated in 2008 when the last of the potential buyers dropped out. By law the estate was returned to its original owner, Pia Witte (recall Norbert was unable to officially own the park due to his prior incident).
From 2011 until April of 2014 the park was legally accessible via guided tours offered by Christopher Flade (pictured above), under permission of the Witte family.
Norbert’s daughter, Sabrina (pictured at left), used to run a snack shop on site. She would lead visitors on a journey of what it was like to grow up at Spreepark and the type of things only kids with after-hours access could do with the rides.
“If I won the lottery, I would buy the whole thing immediately.”
– Sabrina Witte
The park has even appeared on TripAdvisor, and has received high marks from previous guests.
By July of 2013 the former Spreepark had been foreclosed upon and went to auction. Despite the fact the city re-arranged the terms to allow forgiveness of €30 million in debt, investors stayed away.
Said head of competitor Europapark, Roland Mack:
“There is no way I will be participating in this auction. The conditions related to nature protection, visitors, and parking spaces are a big problem.”
At one point there were rumors that Denmark’s Tivoli amusement park would sign a deal, but the negotiations fell apart before it could be finalized. Once the Danish group looked at Spreepark’s numbers, they were not confident the amusement park could turn a profit again.
One investor who didn’t stay away was best-selling Swiss author of alien books, Erich von Däniken. The author wanted to build a UFO landing pad next to the Plänterwald forest. This proposal was rejected by the city of Berlin, possibly because extraterrestrials don’t pay taxes.
Bidding reached €2.5 million Euros before being cancelled. The park was de-listed from auction, and in March of 2014 the Berlin city council purchased the site (through Liegenschaftsfonds Berlin) for two million Euros.
In the interim, the leaseholder contractual obligation to maintain an amusement park on the site until 2061 has likely stunted possible redevelopment growth; there are only so many amusement park operators in Europe.
As a last-ditch effort, the city attempted to sell the lease on eBay, but there were no takers.
End of the Witte Era
The Wittes vacated the premises on April 30th, 2014. Afterward, a newer fence was erected and security patrols established. Official tours were no longer allowed.
Estimates have the park has suffering an alarmingly high five hundred burglaries per year. Owners took efforts to post “Do not enter” signs in both German and English – but these are constantly stolen as souvenirs.
Some of the thefts were amazing or bizarre, such as the swan boats (“Schwanenboote”), the Till-Eulenspiegel fountain, or the bumper cars. “No, not just a car, the full ride,” says former park guide Christopher Flade.
Almost all the copper has been illegally stripped by recyclers.
“I don’t understand why we have all these illegal visitors, who hurt their hands climbing over the fence or waddle through the undergrowth like wild boars. There’s nothing to see here any more.”
– Wolfgang Schilling, site manager
(click thumbnails to enlarge)
photo set courtesy Thilo Folesky
On the evening of August 10th, 2014, trespassers set multiple fires to the kiosks with thatched roofs in the former “Old England” section of Spreepark.
One hundred emergency personnel responded and spent hours battling the blazes, which ultimately destroyed the western-themed addition originally opened in 1999.
Fortunately nobody was injured, but Spreepark’s location was 1,500 meters from the closest water hydrants – and those were in poor condition. Service boats had to be summoned to pump water from the Spree river.
“Old houses and scenery were burning… Due to the very difficult water supply situation several police and fire service multipurpose boats were alerted.”
– Fire & Emergency Services
The fires, which was estimated to have been started around midnight, were finally extinguished by 4:30 a.m. Among the items lost in the blazes were the bulk of the “Old England” town, Picadilly Circus (which included the remains of the tent – itself originally lost in the winter of 2009 under a snow load), and the “horror zone.”
Also lost were Zeke’s Snack Shack and the two thatched-roof kiosks, one of which contained a former pirate-themed shooting gallery and the other a claw-game with stuffed animal prizes. The log flume and the Riesenrad were spared.
Watch: Fires in Spreepark
Initially investigators assumed the culprits were motivated financially, one official immediately announced his theory “it wasn’t just youths playing around.”
However just days after the fires the police arrested four young men ages 19, 20, 21, and 29, who indeed claimed “it was all just for fun.” Ironically, the four young men were allegedly having a party to celebrate the eldest’s last night of freedom before reporting to serve an impending prison sentence for burglary.
Before & After
Among the activities for their evening were starting multiple car fires and then torching Spreepark. According to Tagesspiegel, the perpetrator only received the sentence for burglary because he failed to pay the original punitive fine.
At the time the property had no outstanding insurance policies, leaving no large payouts or potential financial motive.
Over the years the park has surrendered to bushes and trees. The old roller coaster and tunnel are still there, in some places barely visible underneath the overgrowth; however the roller coaster is in danger of collapsing.
Walking through the park, it is easy to get lost in a daydream of how the park must have felt during its heyday.
The Riesenrad still moves when there’s a breeze, although these days it’s followed by a loud rusty creak. For a split second you think the ride is open again, but the absence of laughing kids with exhausted parents in tow reminds you this park is closed.
The swan boats are scattered, some sit arranged out of water while others appear permanently entrenched in the canal. One of the Schwanenboote is yards away from the old Viking ship, today run aground, and with its dragonhead bowsprit now decapitated by vandals.
Dinosaurs are knocked on their sides. The once-proud T-Rex is covered in graffiti, lying on his side, and missing his tail. One night in May of 2014, the famous mammoth disappeared. Archaeologists have yet to recover its fossils.
Spreepark’s history appropriately brings a cult-status among Berlin explorers. The scary-looking psychedelic cat (pictured below) has easily become the abandoned theme park’s most-familiar icon.
Recently a 90 year-old woman had to be rescued after she sneaked in to the park and got stuck on the Ferris wheel. Apparently the wind had taken her gondola up, but not brought it back down. She later apologized, and offered:
“This used to be so beautiful here. I just wanted to [ride it] again.”
Crazy as it sounds, she’s one of many to get stuck in the old and rusty Riesenrad. It happened often enough to warrant authorities dismantling of its access bridge to prevent future trespasses.
In the case of the Riesenrad it is a safety issue: Heavy oxidation and a decade of unmaintained joints have left the wheel in poor condition, increasing the risk for structural failure due to exposure.
(click thumbnails to enlarge)
photo set courtesy Thilo Folesky
One regular visitor was also one of the unlikeliest. According to park managers, Playboy has, on occasion, rented the park for private events that involve scantily clad women lounging around the park and climbing on the dinosaurs.
“There are people in Berlin who think it’s only a matter of time until Spreepark opens its doors again, and then everything will be fine again, like in the old days. That’s not going to happen.”
– Wolfgang Schilling, site manager
And after all this, what bothers Norbert more than anything? Reading that Spreepark’s natural surroundings have “recovered.”
Witte takes exception to this, asserting “I broke up the sea of concrete that was here myself, planted the greenery and captured frogs for the lakes.”
Will we see Spreepark return? Let’s hope they solve that parking situation.
(click thumbnails to enlarge)
photo set courtesy abandoned berlin
In the Media & Press
The park has enjoyed some publicity via film and television. In 2011 scenes from the film Hanna were shot amid the Spreepark grounds.
Visit the Spreepark Website