Designing Amusement Parks Is Big Business

Associated Press

Fun is MichaelJenkins’ business.

He and his staff of architects, designers, researchers, illustrators and planners at Leisure and Recreation Concepts design and build amusement parks all over the world.

They may have the only conference room in town where you can get fresh popcorn from a gilt-trimmed popcorn wagon.

“We pop it fresh every morning,” Jenkins said during an interview, scooping out a boxful.

Far-Flung Projects

Jenkins presides over his far-flung projects from a modest office with a Mickey Mouse telephone and a stained glass rendition of the famous rodent in his classic role as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice.


His wife, Bee, a vice president at the family-owned firm, said Jenkins often answers the phone at home by imitating Mickey’s voice. He doesn’t do a bad Donald Duck either, she said.

When it comes to amusement parks, Jenkins said, “You’ll never see anything better than Walt Disney World.” But he is no slouch himself.

Leisure and Recreation Concepts is currently designing China’s first amusement park and is a partner with the British company Alton Towers in the redevelopment of the huge Battersea power station on the River Thames in the heart of London.

At any one time, Jenkins said, he is involved in more than 30 projects, in capacities ranging from feasibility studies to design to operational training and consultation.

It keeps Jenkins, 43, on the road much of the time and has made him an expert on everything from the most advantageous place for restroom towel dispensers (away from the sink so people use fewer) to the latest novelty food (pizza on a stick) to how to tickle a Chinese funny bone (gently).

His business has presented Jenkins with some offbeat problems.

In Lagos, Nigeria, the opening of the country’s first amusement park was beset by an unexpected glitch. During the night, residents of the area had snuck into the park to do their laundry.


Worst Miscalculation

“We had to take eight forklift loads of clothing out of the boat ride before we could get it working again,” he recalled.

The Lagos project was also the scene of what Jenkins calls his worst miscalculation.

“We missed in Africa on the concept that people would stand in line,” he said.

In Shantou, on the southern coast of China, the company’s team had to revamp ideas of what the public wants out of rides, at least as far as the Chinese are concerned.

“The rides are not very thrilling,” Jenkins said. “They want things where nobody will be embarrassed by showing their fear.”

The Dragon Lake park, part of a mixed-use development that will include a 300-room hotel and a shopping center, is a milestone for the company--a gateway to a vast market ripe for amusement, Jenkins said.

Amusement Center

Also in the design stage is the $50 million transformation of the Battersea power station into a retail and amusement center.

Jenkins unrolled plans and sketches, enthusiastically describing how the old power station, which is the length of two football fields and 15 stories high, will enclose such delights as hot air balloon rides and an ice skating rink, as well as shops, restaurants and theaters.


He paused, his ever-present smile widening, to consider the audience for his latest palace of delights.

“They love to have fun,” he said of the British. “But they don’t want anyone to know it.”

But it is back home that Jenkins, a veteran of more than 400 projects, including two world’s fairs, confronts his toughest audiences.

He and his research staff track demographic data carefully, searching for trends that can affect their industry.

As consumers of fun, he said, Americans are sophisticated, demanding--and easily bored.

Saturation Point

Jenkins believes the U.S. market is approaching the saturation point for large theme parks and scream-producing rides. “The arms race in the (roller) coaster business is basically over,” he said.

Jenkins started his company as a one-man band “with a typewriter and a desk” in 1970 after leaving Six Flags Over Texas, where he was a vice president.

His company has a permanent staff of more than 25 and access to a host of experts in various fields.