Stakes are high for Transylvanian theme park

Wednesday, October 24, 2001

SIGHISOARA, Romania -- Mist shrouds the Casa Vlad Dracul, where tourists sink their teeth into bloody chops drizzled with Dracula sauce -- red and spicy -- and wash it down with bottles of Vampire cabernet.

Over at the medieval main square, pallid-faced actors film a scene for "Dracula Resurrection," a new B movie. Down in the dungeon-like Dracula video arcade, teen-agers zap virtual vampires while their elders belly up to the bar for a Bloody Mary.

Bleeding the Dracula myth for all it's worth is a way of life here in the Transylvanian birthplace of Vlad the Impaler, the cruel 15th-century count whose penchant for turning his enemies into human scarecrows was the inspiration for novelist Bram Stoker's legendary vampire.

But for the town of 38,000, the stakes are about to get much higher.

'This town is numb'

Next spring, construction is set to begin on Dracula Park, a $30 million theme park that people here hope will bring cash and celebrity to a corner of Romania that seems frozen in time.

"This town is numb -- it's a city asleep. Dracula will wake it up," said Emilia Butnariu, 76, who barely gets by on the $50 a month she earns selling paintings of Sighisoara.

The Disneyesque project is to be built by a consortium of German companies. Sighisoara's mayor, Dorin Danesan, says the financial blueprint will be complete in November and the first phase is to open sometime in 2003.

Although details are still being worked out, Danesan said the park will be open year-round and feature amusement rides, a golf course, a Gothic castle wired with spooky effects, a zoo, horseback riding, restaurants and shops, all encircled by a miniature train line.

"We don't want it to be a kitsch," he said. "But this government wants to do business. We're not afraid to exploit the Dracula myth to save a town that's a national monument."

'A model of justice'

Townspeople see 3,000 new jobs for a region battered by 50 percent unemployment, and talk excitedly of as many as 1 million visitors a year. Already, new hotels are going up, and property prices have soared.

Dracula Park will be built about four miles outside town in the brooding fir forests where bears, wolves and wild dogs still prowl and howl.

Lying among those forests are the fabled killing fields where Vlad executed up to 100,000 people -- mostly Turks -- by impaling them on stakes.

But the Impaler was less a villain than a man of valor who took a big bite out of crime, insists Nicolae Tescula, a researcher at Sighisoara's museum.

"He was renowned for stopping highway robbery and murder," Tescula said. "For Westerners, he's a man of darkness. But for Romanians, he's a model of justice like Washington or Jefferson."

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