Hidden among the soaring glass and steel towers of southeastern Seoul is a wormhole, a portal to a land that physically exists within the Songpa-gu dimensions of time and space but which could seemingly secede and declare a sovereign one block corporation-state at will. Behold, ladies and gentlemen, the People’s Republic of Lotte.
You don’t even need to exit the station to cross its event horizon, so seamless is the boundary between its world and ours. And once inside you could conceivably never have to leave. You could live at the Lotte Hotel World; buy provisions at Lotte Mart; purchase clothing and dry goods at the Lotte Department Store; acquire alcohol, tobacco, and Chanel No. 5 at the Lotte World Duty Free Shops; procure entertainment at LotteCinema or Lotte World Adventure; take in a show at the Charlotte Theater; and eat and drink at Lotteria. Presumably the only thing the Republic is unprepared for is your departure, as there is no Lotte Funeral Home.
Lotty and Lorry the raccoons are benevolent overlords, though, and with the chill of a Korean winter beginning to hit with full force you may find yourself embracing their gay regime, particularly since it’s entirely indoors.
The Lotte World complex’s main attraction, Lotte World Adventure, is in fact the world’s largest indoor theme park at 82,650 square meters, and you can get to it (and everything else in the Republic) by heading for (though not out of) Exit 4. You’ll first pass by a plaza with a replica of Rome’s Trevi Fountain. The one here has improved on the original by adding multicolored lights in the basin! Of course there’s a Lotteria in the plaza as well, and on the opposite side is an entrance to the department store. From there you’ll walk down a long hallway flanked with more stores, and if the number of people under one meter is increasing you’ll know you’re headed in the right direction.
Standing in line for tickets, confetti-and-sugar amusement park songs blasted out of overhead speakers and I asked my intrepid (over one meter) companion if they would be playing the entire time we were inside as well. She said yes and I began to have second thoughts. At this point, though, there were people behind us in line. Like in countless action movies the door behind us had closed, and there was only one option left. Forward.
Tickets in hand, we stepped onto an escalator, the music only growing louder as we ascended until we arrived at the top, smack in the midst of one of the park’s twice-daily parades. It was October so the song was beseeching us to join the ‘Halloween party tonight,’ over and over again, as the parade revolved in an oval around the center of the park. The employees were dressed as mummies or vampires or just in what I guess you’d call Victorian gothic. Oddly, almost all of the employees in the parade were white people. Granted, I’ve never seen a Korean vampire, but it seems to me the situation is just begging for an undead class-action discrimination lawsuit. There were some sexy Ghostbusters too (some of which were Korean), and all I could think was ‘Thank God Dan and Bill didn’t wear outfits like that.’
When the parade stopped and I had a chance to look around I found myself rather impressed. The park is a notable example of the utilization of space; it may be the world’s largest indoor theme park, but it’s still indoors, which means that options are limited. Lotte World overcomes most of these limitations by stacking rides and other attractions on multiple floors, but still having the majority of them visible from the main floor. A number of rides also have their entrances on the main floor, but their structures hidden behind the outer wall. This takes away the ‘Oooh, I want to ride on that’ factor, but on the other hand it preserves a bit of the mystery of what you’re getting yourself into. Other rides make use of the space in the air – there’s a monorail that loops through the park, and gondolas designed to look like hot air balloons pass around above, hanging from a track in the ceiling – and on the ground whatever nook isn’t taken up by rides or arcades or restaurants is occupied by a game stand or ice cream stall. All of this sits under a giant glass dome that lets in lots of natural light, which adds a feeling of openness.
There are a couple downsides to all this, though. One is that all the rides inside feel a bit miniaturized: tiny flume ride, tiny teacups. If you’re only a meter tall, though, that’s maybe not the worst thing. The other is that even more than most theme parks, Lotte World can drub you with sensory overload and a feeling of compression. An area with a Wild West theme sits flush against some European-y buildings with wooden flower boxes, which are both just below a wall of Egyptian statues and hieroglyphics.
Now, with space at such a premium, you wouldn’t expect there to be a giant hole in the floor. But there is. Smack in the middle of the park is a giant hole that looks down on the ice skating rink two stories below. What the hole actually does, though, is give the park some breathing room and make it feel more open. The empty space gives the light a chance to spread out and provides some structure for what might otherwise just be a crush of buildings and rides and vendors. It also provides a convenient route for couples on dates to stroll.
At one of the oval’s ends is the Garden Stage where occasional performances are held. I happened to catch a mini-concert by the Charlotte Band, basically an all-girls marching band. Dressed in red and white uniforms with gold trim and white boots they went through Girls’ Generation and 4-Minute numbers, as well as the Ppororo theme song. Let me tell you, you have not truly heard ‘Hoot’ unless you’ve heard it the way it was meant to be played: on a sousaphone.
Lotte World Adventure, isn’t all empty calories, though. There’s also a small nature center where a variety of plants grow and kids have the chance to hold frogs as a guide explains their mysterious amphibian ways. There’s also a collection of aquariums containing several species of fish, pools of crabs, and glass boxes holding crickets, grasshoppers, and stag beetles. Near the gift shop is a large bowl of dirt where kids can sift through and look for Japanese rhinoceros beetle larvae (장수풍댕이). One boy that was busily digging through was collecting his findings in a quickly growing pile.
Not all of the amusement park is inside, however. A walkway connects the indoor portion of the park to Magic Island, set in the middle of the western part of Seokchon Lake. Much of Lotte World feels like it borrowed just a biiiiit too heavily from Disney World: the name; the Magic Kingdom Island designation; the fuzzy, big-eyed, white-gloved, tuxedo-wearing mascot, and the centerpiece of the Island, the Magic Castle, is a dead-ringer for Sleeping Beauty’s castle with a more modest construction budget. (Cinderella’s place, of course, being a knock-off too, of Mad King Ludwig’s Neuschwanstein.) The castle is, according to a sign on its front, ‘considered a masterpiece of gothic architecture of 16th Century Germany.’ Given that it was built neither in the 16th Century nor in Germany, this seems dubious. More believable is the claim that it ‘will give you the most memorable experience you’ve never had!’ You may now chew on that one for a while.
The outdoor section of Lotte World has more serious rides than the indoor section, and correspondingly the demographic skews a bit older. Inside are lots of kids and parents; outside you’ll see more teens and adults, many of them couples on dates. A word on the Lotte World dress code: couple style here is, while not quite de rigueur, at the very least heartily embraced. Matching t-shirts or hats are commonplace. I even saw one couple that literally had the exact same outfit on: shoes, pants, hoodies, bags, everything. The other dominant Lotte World trend is putting ridiculous things on your head. Most often this takes the form of oversized bows, but can also be bunny ears or seasonal decorations bobbing on the end of springy coils.
The entire Lotte World setup, like any good amusement park, is a temple to screaming, eating, game playing, and being spendthrift. I had been highly skeptical of the whole affair and the only reason I went was for research (or at least that’s what I told myself). Despite having a tendency to be a bit of a crank, however, I actually found myself having a pretty good time at the place. A lot of this can probably be attributed to the company I had, the beautiful weather, and the limited time I spent there, but all in all Lotte World ain’t bad.
Of course, the risk of amusement park-induced rage is always present, particularly if you visit in the winter and the outdoor section is closed. Fortunately a couple of pressure valves are built into the system. Tucked away in a corner of Lotte World’s second floor is a smoking room. Give the kiddies a fistful of 500 won coins, tell them to play nice, and go light up.
Those unfiltereds not doing the trick? Leave the park and head downstairs toward the skating rink. Just off the ice is the entrance to the Lotte World Shooting Range (롯데월드 권충실탄사격장), marked by the posters of handguns plastered around the doorway.
Stepping into the range’s reception area, a half-flight of stairs below the rink, is a singularly weird experience. The walls are covered with pictures of firearms, gun-wielding heroes and villains from TV and movies, and also a few signed pictures of Korean celebrities who’ve come in to shoot off a few rounds, including Tablo from Epik High and his wife 강혜정, who starred in Oldboy. Assault weapons are bolted to the walls and copies of gun magazines take up table space. Pretty run of the mill stuff if you were in your Texan uncle’s den, but this is Korea, where seeing a firearm outside of the military is about as common as sighting a tiger in the wild.
Despite being American I come from a non-hunting, non 2nd Amendment-worshipping family and had only fired a gun twice. The opportunity to squeeze off a few in Korea was one I couldn’t pass up, though. Want to do it too? Here’s how: Walk up to the counter, give the attendant your ID card and 20,000 won, point to the gun you want to shoot. That’s it. Almost as easy as getting a semi-automatic back in the States. I chose a Glock 9mm ‘cause I’m street that way.
When my turn was up I was ushered into the shooting range where one employee strapped a bulletproof vest on me and pointed me to a second employee who was waiting by my lane. That guy pointed out how to hold the gun, where to aim, and where to pull the trigger. Then he gave me a pair of noise-muffling headphones to put on, loaded a clip, and let me fire away. Ten shots later my clip was empty and the target zipped back to the booth where the attendant unclipped it and showed me how I’d done: one bullseye, eight other holes scattered across the target, and one way down in the corner that had missed completely. The target was only about ten meters away. I’m not a very good shot.
And that was it. So how did I feel afterwards? Powerful? Sated? De-stressed? Like I’d channeled my inner Slim Charles? Well…mostly I felt that it’s a damn fast way to blow through 20,000 won with nothing put a paper full of holes to show for it.
Back outside, the skaters on the ice rink glided on, completely unaware of the pulpy carnage I’d just unleashed. The Lotte World Ice Rink is one of the most popular places for skating in Seoul, and if you’ve never skated before it’s a perfectly fine place to try it out; there are always plenty of beginners slowly shuffling around clinging to the outer rail. If you’re as at home on blades as you are in sneakers that’s good too – as a public rink in a popular entertainment mecca, the sheet here is always a mix of all different levels. The inner section of the rink is sometimes used for figure skating practice, and I watched a handful of aspiring Kim Yu-Nas landing some pretty impressive jumps as the crowd circled around them.
As nurturing and providing as the People’s Republic of Lotte is, you may find yourself wishing to defect back to the real world at some point. And after so much stimulation, you may be looking for something a bit less manic. Head out Exit 3 and walk straight, past the giant neon raccoon, to Seokchon Lake (석촌호수). (If you turn right at the raccoon it’ll lead to you the Charlotte Theater (Not Charlotte as in the South-Atlantic financial capital; Charlotte as in 샤롯데, as in Char-Lotte, as in ‘Don’t you forget who owns this.’) where ‘Cats’ is currently playing.)
The lake is split into two parts by Songpa-daero (송파대로) and is especially popular for the walking track that runs around its circumference. In the afternoons and evenings it’ll be full of mostly middle-age and older Seoulites taking some exercise, and after the sun goes down young couples start to join the procession. This all happens in a very orderly clockwise direction, which makes you wonder why the city’s whole ‘Walk on the Right’ campaign is so roundly ignored while the one-way traffic here is so strictly observed.
The two halves of the lakes have significantly different characteristics. Though both are pretty, with lots of trees, the east half is markedly more serene. You may even spot a heron standing stoically near its banks. This contrast is due to the fact that Lotte World’s Magic Island sits in the middle of the western half, so your romantic evening stroll will be regularly pierced by the screams of roller coaster riders and the wheezing hydraulics of the Bungee Drop. What it takes away in calm it makes up for in entertainment value, though.
More entertainment is occasionally provided just off the lake’s northwest corner at the Seoul Norimadang (서울놀이마당). This open-air theater hosts dance, music, drama, and martial arts exhibitions, mostly on weekends and mostly of the traditional variety, though I have seen b-boying performances held there as well.
The west side of the lake has one more item of note – right near its entrance is Samjeondobi (삼전도비), a pair of large stone turtles – one bearing a stele, the other with its stele missing – that are designated Historic Site No. 101. The monument was erected at the request of Taizong of the Qing Dynasty to commemorate his victory in the Second Manchu Invasion of 1636.
Across Songpa-daero’s ten lanes from Lotte World is a big hole in the ground where yet another piece of the Lotte empire is set to rise, as the construction of the Lotte World Tower is underway. Walking past I paused to watch as a handful of giant cranes moved their loads about and sparks showered from a welder’s platform. It was bound to be one more in the neighborhood’s collection of big shiny glass and steel towers that dominate the area. Banks, convenience stores, and chain coffee shops occupy their ground floors while up above people fill their apartments or toil in their offices. A block or so north the Number 2 train rumbles by on an elevated track not that far overhead, breaking up the monotony a bit. Another point of interest tucked between Lotte World and the neighborhood’s modern towers is the series of sculptures of athletes performing various Olympic sports that dot the median on Olympic-ro (올림픽로), recalling when Seoul hosted the 1988 Summer Games.
If Seokchon Lake isn’t enough of an escape, you can head out Exit 6 and hoof it a kilometer to Hangang Park (한강공원). Jamsil-daero eventually brings you to the Jamsil Bridge (잠실대교), which you’ll want to go partway up before descending down a circular ramp to the park. If it’s near sundown and you can tolerate the cold and the noise of the passing traffic, you may want to pause in this unlikely spot to take in what can be a pretty spectacular sunset, as the changing deep blues and pinks silhouette the 63 Building, N Seoul Tower, and the mountain ridges to the north and west.
In the park down below some evening joggers and bikers passed by as I listed to the rush of water coming from a spot below the bridge where the river tumbles about a half-meter from one level to another. The park is much sparser here than in many other places, the only real amenities being a few picnic tables, making it a good area to have a catch come spring.
Stroll west a short ways, however, and two attraction spring up side-by-side. The first is the Nature Learning Center (자연학습장), an area of flower gardens, fruit trees, and other plants designed for the educational benefit of school kids. Next to that is what they’ll probably find more interesting: a swimming pool. That, however, they’ll have to wait for.
Lotte World, Lotte World Adventure, and Magic Island
Towards Exit 4
Lotte World Adventure Hours
Monday – Thursday: 9:30 – 22:00; Friday – Sunday: 9:30 – 23:00
Ticket information available on at website
Lotte World Shooting Range (롯데월드 권충실탄사격장)
Weekdays: 9 – 21:00, Weekends and Holidays: 9 – 22:00
Fee: 20,000 won for 10 bullets
02) 414- 4013
Lotte World Ice Rink
Weekdays: 10 – 21:30, Weekends and Holidays: 10 – 21:30
12 and Under: 7,500 won, 13 and up: 8,500; Skate rental: 4,500
Seokchon Lake (석촌호수) and Samjeondobi (삼전도비)
Eastern Half: Exit 2, Western Half and Samjeondobi: Exit 3
South on Songpa-daero (송파대로)
Seoul Norimadang (서울놀이마당)
South on Songpa-daero (송파대로), right on Jamsil-ro (잠실로)
Hangang Park (한강공원)
North on Songpa-daero (송파대로) to Jamsil Bridge (잠실대교)
Parts of this post first appeared in the December 2011 issue of SEOUL magazine.