Special Section - Europe, Middle East, Africa Region - November 2018

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While Spain’s Wild West theme parks served as settings for famous Hollywood Westerns in the 1960s and 1970s, they are still used in productions today. Fort Bravo Texas Hollywood recently served as a set for the 2018 Western “The Sisters Brothers.” (Credit: Fort Bravo Texas Hollywood)

Movie Cowboys on the Mediterranean

Once a production site for ‘Spaghetti Westerns,’ Spain’s Tabernas Desert is now home to a trio of Wild West amusement parks

by James Careless

A dusty, bone-dry Wild West street scene, sits under the blazing noon-day sun. 

Rickety 1800s-vintage wooden buildings line the streets. They stand as silent witnesses to angry gunfighters with pistols and rifles, blasting away at each other. 

The winners stride away; their gun barrels still smoking. The losers lie still on the desert streets.

Inside the saloons, there are gamblers and women dancing. Outside, there are cowboys and horses—and tourists. Lots of tourists. And why shouldn’t there be? 

After all, this Wild West theme park—known as Oasys MiniHollywood—was once the set for many famous Hollywood Westerns, including Clint Eastwood’s “For a Few Dollars More” (1965) and “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” (1966). Today, tourists buy admission tickets to see Wild West fantasies brought to life on these old movie sets by the shore of the Mediterranean Sea.

Welcome to the Tabernas Desert, a living land of American Wild West nostalgia in Spain. That’s right: The hot, arid Tabernas Desert that so resembles the legendary U.S. Old West is actually located in the southeastern Spanish province of Almería. 

“This was Hollywood’s cinematic paradise during two intense decades, the ’60s and ’70s,” says José María Rodríguez Linde, Oasys MiniHollywood’s manager and technical director. “The beautiful landscapes of the Tabernas Desert allowed it to evoke the lands of the American Old West—but at cheaper prices than in Hollywood.”

These “cheaper prices”—both for locations and for film crews—motivated Italian film director Sergio Leone and many other directors to shoot Westerns in the Tabernas Desert, along with some of Hollywood’s other blockbusters. This picturesque, arid setting served as a backdrop for “Cleopatra,” “Lawrence of Arabia,” and “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” among others. The lower prices also allowed producers to build the sets they needed as actual Western villages (inside and out), and to leave these villages standing for other productions long after the original ones were done. 

The sets are now the hearts of Oasys MiniHollywood, and two additional parks: Fort Bravo Texas Hollywood and Western Leone theme park. 

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Guests can ride with cowboys at Fort Bravo Texas Hollywood. (Credit: Fort Bravo Texas Hollywood)

The Prelude 

Their origins were humble. Between shoots, tourists would come to see the empty sets and—for a fee—local guides would show them around. 

“Later, the vigilant started to offer drinks, water, and sandwiches to the tourists,” says Rafael Molina, manager of Fort Bravo Texas Hollywood.

In the case of Fort Bravo Texas Hollywood, the sets were purchased by cowboy movie stuntman Molina and his partner Paco Ardura. They began business in the 1980s by charging visitors 25 Spanish pesetas for admission to the set.

“A few years later, I took over management of the company and started to introduce the first Western shows,” says Molina. “I used my experience in different movies with fights, gunshots, and horses to create action shows for the visitors.”

A similar evolution played out at the other former sets, resulting in the creation of Oasys MiniHollywood and Western Leone (originally built for Leone’s movie “Once Upon a Time in the West”) as Tabernas Desert theme parks. Western fantasy worlds made for movies became viable theme park worlds viable for profits.

These theme parks plunge guests right into the heart of an old-fashioned “Spaghetti Western”; whether by watching the fistfights and gunfire out in the streets following a bank robbery or enjoying the can-can dancers inside the saloon before a brawl breaks out. 

In this way, visitors get up close and personal with the down-and-out movie mayhem these classic Westerns offered on the big screen. Bolstered by period costumes, well-trained staff actors, old movie sets, and the backdrop of the Tabernas Desert, it is literally fantasy brought to life. 

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The Tabernas Desert provides a realistic Wild West setting for Oasys MiniHollywood. (Credit: Oasys MiniHollywood)

Bringing the Wild West to Life

As one might expect, the vast majority of visitors to the “Spanish Wild West” are European. At Oasys MiniHollywood, for instance, about 60 percent of its visitors are Spanish, while most of the other 40 percent are from other parts of Europe. 

“The English and Germans are the most abundant, but we have also noticed increasing visits from French, Italian, and Portuguese guests,” says Rodríguez.

Despite their non-American heritage, these visitors are die-hard Wild West fans.

“For many Europeans, the Wild West is a different world, and the American cowboy is a fascinating character,” explains John Gerner, managing director of Leisure Business Advisors LLC. “The result is a place they like temporarily escaping to, just like many Americans enjoy medieval-like fantasy environments with knights and royalty.”

Europeans certainly know what they want to see in an “authentic” Western theme park. Some of them might even argue that European “Spaghetti Westerns” (a name derived from Italian-language or Italian-produced cowboy movies) are truer to the actual historic American West than Hollywood’s sanitized version. 

“The ‘Spaghetti Western’ shows the real gunslinger in the Wild West,” says Molina. “The costumes, the dialogue, and the backgrounds are closer to the lives of real bandits and gunslingers, who were often dirty and antiheroes like Don Quixote.” 

It is this aesthetic that guides the Wild West shows in the Tabernas Desert’s theme parks. Don’t expect Roy Rogers, complete with white hats and singing cowboys. Rather, the cowpokes here are rough and ready for anything—many are professional stunt people—whether they wear a sheriff’s badge or not. 

“These stunt people are by and large Spanish,” Molina says. “It has not been difficult to find the staff we need for stunts since Spain has a lot of talented stunt people to choose from. They not only appear in Spain, but work all over the world.” 

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In addition to its Wild West town, Oasys MiniHollywood has a water park, pools, and the “Zoological Reserve” with more than 200 different animal species. (Credit: Oasys MiniHollywood)

More Than Just Movie Sets

Of course, the same tourists who want to live inside a Wild West fantasy want to do more than watch stunt people punch each other. This is why all three Western theme parks offer more than movie sets to keep guests happy.

For instance, all three parks have on-site photo studios where guests can dress up in Wild West costumes and have their photos shot in a 19th-century style. Horseback rides are also provided, allowing guests to trot down the streets of these Western sets just like the movie cowboys of old.

Moreover, Oasys MiniHollywood has a museum tracing the development of cinema. Its collection of antique projection devices covers everything from kaleidoscopes and “magic lanterns” (early slide projectors) to zoetropes (a spinning device that, when combined with sequentially shot photographs, creates an illusion of moving pictures) and early film projectors. The Oasys MiniHollywood museum also has more than 200 historic movie posters, while a second museum showcases a collection of historic horse carriages and stagecoaches used by actors such as Clint Eastwood, Gary Cooper, and Lee Van Cleef in major cowboy movies. Meanwhile, in keeping with the Tabernas Desert climate, the theme park has a cactus garden, featuring more than 250 cacti drawn from four continents.

Beyond its Wild West town, Oasys MiniHollywood has a water park fully equipped with modern slides and swimming pools, and the “Zoological Reserve” with more than 200 different species, according to Rodríguez. 

“Our plans for the future are to continue growing both in the expansion of our cinematographic sets, as well as expanding our zoological reserve collection to become one of the most important parks at the international level,” Rodríguez says.

Fort Bravo lets its guests watch the sun come up in the Old West by offering rentable bungalows and various sizes of cabins for overnight stays. Although these cabins play to the visitors’ nostalgic fantasies, they don’t skimp on modern amenities. Rural cabins within Fort Bravo are fully equipped with air conditioning, heating, comfortable bedding, televisions, refrigerators, and bathrooms. A modern pool allows guests to cool down in the desert heat. Looking ahead, Fort Bravo’s expansion plan calls for serving trailers and RVs, and adding bungalows to let more guests spend a few days in the Wild West.

Movie Magic Still Matters

Compared to the old days, movies are not the big thing they once were in the Tabernas Desert. For starters, electrical towers and urban housing are now affecting the vistas of this once wide-open land. Plus, budget-minded movie producers have since moved on to Morroco and Turkey, where they can get convincing Western scenery and crews for less than they’d pay in Spain.

Still, there is production here from time to time. For instance, Fort Bravo served as a set for the 2018 Western “The Sisters Brothers” with John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix, the 2016 TV series “Penny Dreadful,” and the BBC’s “Doctor Who” in 2012. Recently, Oasys MiniHollywood was the backdrop for a Mercedes-Benz advertisement and a The Wanted Zin wine commercial. Western Leone has also been used for various movies, TV commercials, and music videos.

Even without major motion pictures shooting here, the world’s continuing nostalgia for the American Wild West is still the attraction at Fort Bravo, Oasys MiniHollywood, and Western Leone theme parks. While Clint Eastwood once play-fought Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach for imaginary gold in the Spanish desert, there is real treasure to be won from eager European cowboy fans.