Theme parks are among the most divisive travel destinations. They’re expensive, crowded and can feel like you’re constantly being sold something. Still, despite the proliferation of immersive, IP-driven theme park lands, there’s a homogeneity to them. You’re probably heading to Florida or California (no disrespect to parks in Ohio, Texas or wherever else), getting a hotel far from the park and spending half the day waiting in lines — unless you give in to the constant upsell and pay for the privilege of waiting in a shorter line.
Stepping under the upside down, pagoda-style roof that announces Katmandu Park, which is guarded by a 20-foot white yeti, I felt the push-pull of what it wants to be. The first-of-its-kind theme park in the Dominican Republic wants to both be like those other parks and something entirely different. It announces itself as a topsy-turvy adventure from the moment you approach, and that feeling extends beyond the fantasy narrative, which is spun throughout the new park.
Katmandu, a part of the Meliá Resorts complex in Punta Cana, touts itself as a park with big thrills and a small footprint. It’s not the county-wide experience of a Disney World, but a compact, steampunk-themed park designed to look like a fairy tale version of the Tibetan city. But the experience can be a little confusing because it feels like it’s always two things at once. It’s open to the public, but it’s also part of Falcon’s Resort by Meliá. It’s a theme park, but it’s a compact experience. It’s filled with characters and stories but none you’ve heard of before.
A Small Park With a Big Story
Two entrances, one for resort guests and one for everyone else, merge at the head of the park’s main thoroughfare. To enter, would-be adventurers meander past Boro the Yeti, entering an elaborate, if short, avenue of shops. Stores hawk steampunk fanny packs adorned with golden gears and furry yeti hats with ears that move, a carnival-style shooter game offers prizes and a storefront calls out the opportunity for an old-timey photo with the family.
Katmandu Park leans hard into its steampunk-in-the-Himalayas theme. There’s no doubt it delivers on the small footprint, yet it is as ornately decorated, just as any major park. Characters from its story roam the street, narrative Easter eggs are abundant and the queues — with separate lanes for an English or Spanish language experience — are laden with details ripped from the story like talking portraits and cracked plaster from the inter-dimensional disaster (more on that soon).
That story is the key to elevating Katmandu Park above a state fair. Starting at Legend of the Desirata — the park’s dark ride — visitors find explorer Kilgore Goode, whose voice sounds strikingly like What We Do in the Shadows’ Matt Berry. He’s discovered a gem called the Desirata, which triggers the opening of portals that allow terrors to enter Katmandu. It is the chaos that has been unleashed — literally turning parts of Katmandu Park upside down — that is the focus of the attractions and decor. There’s a quest afoot.
At times, the IP-thirsty story feels inconsequential. These characters live here and almost nowhere else — with the exception of some world-building that Falcon’s Beyond, Meliá’s partner in the park, is attempting with mobile games and a surprisingly fun role-playing card game. (Falcon’s Beyond has one Katmandu Park in Mallorca already, but it doesn’t have rides like the new one in Punta Cana.) It begs you to care about the tale, without which the experience is lessened.
It’s easy to expect the world to feel chintzy. It’s a story crafted for a theme park, after all. Yet, it surprises. It was constructed with a level of care that allows you to give yourself over to the charms of Kilgore and his sidekick, Busby the Robot. It, of course, is a theme park, so it also wants you to care enough to purchase its steampunk-themed wares. As at any theme park, you will exit through the gift shop.
7 Simple Rules for Surviving the Family Disney TripPlus, where to go outside the House of Mouse
The dark ride itself is fine. It can’t compare to similar dark rides at, say, Universal’s Wizarding World. The thrills are smaller. Still, the story of invading robot bugs and ghosts, omnipresent in every facet of the park, adds stakes. It elevates the park beyond mere carnival attractions.
The park has a total of nine attractions, four of which I’d say are true rides. EtherQuest takes you through a funhouse of shooting games, with each room asking you to defend the fantasy Katmandu against invading robots and baddies, culminating in a mirror maze. Here and in the park’s Challenge of the Mad Mage — a theater ride where visitors compete to shoot chess pieces on a theater-sized screen — the technology is impressive. The blasters display an accuracy and video game level of fun that isn’t always present on similar rides, such as Men in Black: Alien Attack at Universal.
Voyage of the Fathom Wanderer is a suspended theater attraction, lifting you up into the air with 3D glasses as you join Kilgore and Busby on an undersea adventure to save a mermaid village. Elsewhere, you can hop aboard an elaborate carousel, climb through a towering ropes course or take in 32 holes of themed mini golf that has you scale a mountain with impressive views across Katmandu Park. Though, like any theme park, the narrative doesn’t add up to much. It’s there to draw you in, not provide any kind of resolution.
Staying for the Full Experience
It’s open to the public, but guests staying at Meliá’s new Falcon’s Resort have access to Katmandu Park located just steps away from the property. The company has a handful of resorts in the complex, but Falcon’s is the one promising — shudders — resortainment, possibly the worst portmanteau in the English language. To its credit, it delivers on the promise of combining a resort experience with entertainment that keeps you inside its campus.
Many of the activities aren’t novel for a resort. You’re not likely to wander into resorts that skip spa experiences, kid activities or a variety of wellness options like a spin class or yoga on the beach. That’s the case at Falcon’s Resort, to be sure. But its effort to lean into being a one-stop-shop for entertainment in Punta Cana is impressive.
The complex contains an Olympic-length pool with a swim-up bar, swim-up suites, 12 restaurants (its steakhouse, Karnica, is particularly good), a small waterpark, a drop-off daycare for parents searching for alone time and other activities that add value to the stay. You might find a band playing near the pool, karaoke in its sports bar, DJs spinning late into the night or even a pop-up market showcasing local artisans. And, of course, a stay comes with free tickets to Katmandu Park, just a short walk or a couple of minutes on a shuttle from the resort’s front steps.
In many ways, it’s a familiar resort experience. Yet, it’s undeniable that the resort has upped the ante. Representatives said that it plans to bring much more of the Katmandu experience into Falcon’s Resort. The park only opened in the spring, and it’s clear that expanding its narrative to the touchpoints around the resort is a work in progress. For instance, the drop-off daycare — with different rooms and activities for a variety of age groups — doesn’t have a character in sight. That’s going to change as the resort attempts to cash in on what makes it unique.
It’s almost hard to say what Katmandu Park is on its own. It doesn’t feel like you’re at a resort inside the resort’s theme park, making it an appealing escape from the inescapable claustrophobia of resorts. Yet, it’s entertaining enough to invite inevitable comparisons to other theme parks. There, it falls short.
But if you’re looking for resort options, Katmandu winds up being a game-changer, something to seek out among the many Caribbean resorts. It functions as a sort of day trip, a five-hour excursion rather than the focal point of a journey that so many theme parks demand. Yet, the thrills aren’t big enough to make Katmandu Park stand on its own as a destination outside of the resort experience.
This article was featured in the InsideHook newsletter. Sign up now.