Dreamland decay: The final moments of a forgotten theme park

Story highlights

  • Japanese theme park Nara Dreamland was abandoned for a decade before being demolished in 2016
  • Photographer Romain Veillon captured haunting images of the park in its final moments
  • His photography is featured in his book "Ask the Dust"

(CNN)"We're all fascinated with post-apocalyptic visions," says Romain Veillon.

And while flicking through the Parisian photographer's portfolio, it's easy to see why.
Veillon has traveled the globe in search of abandoned buildings and monuments, capturing fascinating images of forgotten worlds once they are free of human presence.
    Whether it be a lost African town consumed by desert sand or the slow decay of Soviet-era monuments in Bulgaria, he says each scene serves as a reminder that time is finite.
    But one particular location stands out amongst the photographer's body of work -- his images of Nara Dreamland, a failed Japanese theme park that was left abandoned for a decade before ultimately being demolished in 2016.
    At first glance, it seems like a childhood dream come true: an entire theme park full of colorful roller coasters and fantastical castles left entirely to one solo explorer.
    But in Veillon's photographs, we see the creeping decline of the park's rides and structures, watching it concede to mother nature as it's consumed by ivy and vegetation.
    CNN Style speaks to Romain Veillon about his experience photographing Nara Dreamland, the post-apocalyptic nature of his images, and what makes this project particularly special.
    CNN: How did you first come across Nara Dreamland?
    Romain Veillon: I am passionate about photographing the abandoned heritage man leaves behind: castles, houses, churches, factories, cinemas hospitals...any location where human life once was and where dereliction has taken over.
    I had seen several reports about this famous abandoned theme park in Japan. I had wanted to travel to Japan for quite some time and when I finally made my trip over, Nara Dreamland was the first stop on my list.
    CNN: Was it difficult to gain access to the abandoned park?
    RV: It was quite simple to be honest, I entered by the front door as the public used to.
    I'm pretty sure it's a restricted area, but it's been abandoned for ten years or so, and therefore there were no guards or anyone telling me to leave.
    CNN: What were your first impressions when you walked into the park?
    RV: It was amazing. I had seen earlier images of the theme park, but by the time I made it out there the vegetation had really consumed the rides and structures, which transformed the atmosphere.
    As I walked through the park I would think about all the good memories that had been made by visitors when it was still open.
    It makes you almost feel nostalgic. It makes you want to hear the sound of children screaming and families having fun. There was an incredible sense of wonder.
    CNN: Which photograph is your personal favorite, and why?
    RV: Definitely my image of the roller coaster with the large spirals because you can see the vegetation slowly consuming the roller coaster, like it's almost eating it.
    I also love the circular formations of the image -- it places the viewer in the middle of the photograph, making it seem like you're actually riding the roller coaster.
    CNN: What was the biggest challenge you experienced when photographing the park?
    RV: Climbing an abandoned roller coaster is not easy and it's definitely a bit scary. You don't know how long the structure has been untouched or how sturdy it actually is, and with everything covered in ivy some locations are particularly hard to get into.
    But as a photographer, the biggest challenge is that you have so much to photograph, it's impossible to get everything you want.
    CNN: How many abandoned locations have you photographed around the world?
    RV: I've never really counted them, but would be somewhere around 200 to 250.
    I'm not too concerned with how many locations I visit, I'd rather take my time to photograph one single old manor than rush to several places in a day.
    Without time, you can't really enjoy yourself.
    CNN: What do you think is the allure of photographs of abandoned places?
    RV: When I encounter such places, my goal is to go on a trip through the past and allow viewers to make up whatever stories they want to along the way.
    They can let their imaginations run wild as to why this place was abandoned, what happened to its owners, what used to happen in this room?
    It brings out this inner child, letting your imagination run wild, and each... story is different from another, and that's what I love.
    To me, my pictures act as a new kind of "Memento Mori"; they are here to remind us that everything has an end, and that we should enjoy it while it lasts.
    CNN: How did your experience in Nara Dreamland compare to other locations you've photographed?
    RV: Well, it's not everyday that you can explore an abandoned themepark.
    Some of the abandoned locations I explore can be quite sad and gloomy, but this was quite joyful and magical.
    CNN: How do you hope viewers will respond when they see your photographs?
    RV: I've recently started concentrating on photographing vegetation and capturing how the earth is regaining control.
    There is definitely a strong underlying theme about the environment that reminds us how powerful nature is and how beautiful it can be when man is not around.
    We're all fascinated with post-apocalyptic visions, and in all my photographs you have a sneak peek at what the world would look like if humans disappeared from earth.
    Maybe we need to witness a bit of that to enjoy what we do have and the time we have in front of us.
    Romain Veillon's work will be on exhibit at the GADCOLLECTION gallery in Paris from March 9-26.
    This interview has been edited for length and clarity.