Well, I know where I’m going on my next vacation: There’s an actual cheese theme park in South Korea. Called the Imsil Cheese Theme Park, it’s located in (surprise!) Imsil, a county in South Korea’s North Jeolla Province that’s known for the cheese it produces. Although I didn’t know that South Korea even had a region known for its cheese until, oh, about five minutes ago, I have now been seized by a burning desire to visit it, because, I mean… cheese theme park, people. It doesn’t get much better than that.
I can perhaps be forgiven for my ignorance surrounding domestically-made Korean cheese; indeed, Imsil’s cheesemaking activity is actually quite a recent development, not having kicked up until after the Korean War. In 1958, a Catholic priest from Belgium, Didier t`Serstevens — who is also known by his Korean name, Ji Junghwan, Chi Chong-hwan, or Ji Jeong-hwan — arrived in South Korea. He settled first in Buan County in North Jeolla, but in 1964, he continued on to the farming community of Imsil County. There, as a means of helping the area’s economy, he began raising goats, eventually opting to try to make cheese out of the goats’ milk.
There were a number of setbacks early on, the priest said to Korea.net in 2015, so eventually, he took a trip to Europe to learn more about cheesemaking — and his research definitely paid off: What began as a small cheesemaking operation eventually grew into a factory, and now Imsil is known for being the birthplace of domestic Korean cheese. According to Korea.net, the county, which only has a population of around 30,000 people, has become the “mecca of Korea’s cheese industry” — and Imsil Cheese Theme Park, which was launched in 2004, now brings in around 200,000 visitors to the region each year.
The theme park’s website is only available in Korean, and alas, most of its text is actually part of various image files, which means that Google Translate can’t actually do much to make the site readable for English speakers. Luckily, though, there are a few descriptions of what kinds of activities it contains floating around the English-language internet — and honestly, the place sounds like a ton of fun.
Here’s what it looks like, courtesy of some drone footage uploaded to YouTube in 2014:
Atlas Obscura describes the Imsil Cheese Theme Park as “a cheese heaven where you can learn about, make, and eat the delightful dairy [product].” Stretching across 130,000 square meters, the theme park is designed to mimic the Swiss village of Appenzell, according to Korea.net — the result of which is like something out of a fairy tale. In addition to a slide that takes visitors “past the goats to the Cheese Playland” and walkways that lead by “cheese-wheel buildings and … cartoon statues,” per Atlas Obscura, there’s also an exhibition space, as well as “cheese experience” centers that let visitors make cheese and other cheese-based food items, a milk processing factory, a specialty shop, a few restaurants, and a lab whose sole purpose is to research different methods of cheesemaking. (There is no science better than cheese science.)
Here’s a look at some of the hands-on classes you can take at the Imsil Cheese Theme Park, including cheese- and pizza-making:
It’s tempting to draw comparisons between the Imsil Cheese Theme Park and la Cité du Vin, the “wine theme park” located in Bordeaux, France — but the two look like entirely different experiences. Although la Cité du Vin is often called a theme park, it’s really more of a museum with a lot of interactive elements; the Imsil Cheese Theme Park, meanwhile, feels a lot more traditionally theme park-esque, with its stylized buildings, colorful décor, and playful feel. I do appreciate that they both have a ton of activities for visitors to take part in, though; in both cases, it turns the experience from a passive one to an active one — and when cheese and/or wine are involved, active surpasses passive every time. After all, what good is going to a location built entirely around the existence of a certain type of food or drink if you can’t, y’know, actually consume said food or drink while you’re there?
For the curious, Chi Chong-hwan still lives in South Korea today; he was finally granted citizenship in 2016. For more information about visiting the Imsil Cheese Theme Park, check out its page on the Korea Tourism Organization’s website.