BUSINESS

Increase in Chinese theme parks pays off for Southland developers

Interest in theme parks overseas means more demand for Southern California developers

Theme park designer Edward Marks and his team of ride developers and artists have dreamed up some of the country's most thrilling attractions — high-tech dark rides, glow-in-the-dark parades and 3-D simulators teeming with mummies, aliens and crazy clowns.

But to cash in on China's theme park boom, Marks is learning that they need more than a creative vision. They must become experts on local folklore and cultural superstitions, and arm themselves with an ample supply of patience.

"We've had to flip entire buildings, move attractions and change elements because of feng shui reasons," said Marks, chief executive of the Producers Group, a Glendale theme park design and construction firm that has doubled its staff over the last few years because of the workload from Asia.

Four-peaked buildings? Don't even think about building one in China, where the number 4 — which sounds like the word for "death" in Mandarin — is considered bad luck, Marks said.

These are welcome challenges for Marks and others in Southern California's thriving theme park industry. An increase in theme park construction in China — 59 projects are in the pipeline — has led to unprecedented demand for Southland designers, who are adapting their skills to foreign interests.

The popularity of theme parks overseas is also leading to more jobs here. Heavy workloads have added six to 12 months of lead time to many projects, and design firms are struggling with shortages of artists, designers and technicians. Marks anticipates his team of 45 could grow to 70 by year's end.

Contracts to complete concept drawings for Chinese theme parks bring in $500,000 to $7 million apiece, with more detailed construction plans priced at up to $15 million, industry experts estimate.

In 2013 alone, Chinese developers spent nearly $24 billion on theme park construction, up from $9 billion in 2011, according to a study by the L.A. engineering firm AECOM.

Gary Goddard, founder of Gary Goddard Entertainment, a North Hollywood company that designs theme parks, attractions and upscale resorts, estimated that about half his work in the last few years has been in Asia and the Middle East. He's hired nearly 60 additional consultants and freelance workers to help his staff of 25 meet demand.

Goddard said his team is also designing projects in China that are sensitive to cultural demands.

A resort casino in Macau, scheduled to open this summer, features a double Ferris wheel attraction that resembles the number 8.

"That was a very deliberate move to make the number 8, because that is considered a lucky number over there," he said.

For a new theme park in Wuhan, China, operators had to shorten the length of a ride called Star Journey after learning that Chinese customers were more easily nauseated by the attraction, which simulates a spaceship blast-off. Similar space-themed rides are in place in parks in the U.S. and Singapore, and last about six and a half minutes. But the ride in China was shortened to less than five minutes, said Aaron Soo, general manager of Wanda Movie Park.

China's demand for theme parks has been fueled by several factors, including China's growing middle class, which has money to spend but few options for leisure activity. A recent move by the Chinese central government to relax building permits for theme parks has also spurred development.

By 2020, AECOM predicts China will outnumber the U.S. in parkgoers. Parks operated by the Shenzhen tourism company OCT Parks China already attract more than 26 million visitors a year, behind only Walt Disney Attractions, Merlin Entertainment Group, and Universal Parks and Resorts in total attendance, according to the AECOM study.

Looking for a piece of the action, U.S. theme park giants are investing heavily in Asia.

The $4-billion Shanghai Disney resort is expected to open late this year with two hotels and a Downtown Disney shopping center. The $1.8-billion Hong Kong Disneyland opened in 2005.

Universal Studios is scheduled to open its own $3.3-billion movie theme park in Beijing in 2019.

Six Flags has announced plans to build and operate several parks in China over the next decade, with one in Tianjin — an hourlong train ride from Beijing — expected in 2018.

In China, the parks draw on themes and stories from Chinese history or fairy tales, while parks in the U.S. and Europe rely heavily on inspiration from movies and books.

Goddard's Kingdom of Poseidon, which broke ground a few months ago in Harbin, China, combines a water park and an aquarium to create the experience of the lost world of Atlantis. When it opens next year, the park will sprawl across about 250 acres, nearly three times the size of Disneyland in Anaheim.

U.S. theme park designers say they are adjusting to the expectations of Chinese developers.

Chinese developers, for example, don't realize it takes years to dream up, design and build a theme park. Many are in a rush to complete their projects to begin generating profits.

"A lot of them have never done this before," Goddard said. "China doesn't have a 50-year history of theme park operations."

Once U.S. designers finish concept drawings and detailed construction plans, Chinese developers typically hire Chinese companies to build the parks.

But many projects in the pipeline will never materialize because some Chinese developers don't understand the high cost of building and routinely renovating a theme park, U.S. designers say.

"Until you know how the sausage is made, you don't know how expensive it is to make that sausage," said Josh Updike, creative director of Burbank-based Rethink Leisure & Entertainment, which is working on several projects in China and elsewhere in Asia.

Some Chinese theme park developers are proposing new theme parks as a backdoor bid for residential development because the government has more relaxed building restrictions on theme parks.

"Most of it is a land play," said Brock Larsen, whose Burbank firm is working on a theme park in Fushun, China.

Whatever the intention, it's paying off for the local theme park industry.

"Everyone I know in town is busy," Updike said.

And the extra work means Southern California designers are spending a lot of time on international flights to Asia. Goddard has racked up 3 million miles on American Airlines; Updike said he has logged more than 200,000 air miles last year alone.

"I now have favorite frequent-flier lounges in Hong Kong and Beijing," he said.

hugo.martin@latimes.com

Twitter: @hugomartin

Times staff writer Julie Makinen in Beijing contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
78°