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Thrills ‘n Chills in Asia : Southland Is Home of First U.S. Theme Park; Now It Exports Fantasies and Fire-Breathing Dragons for Future Far East Playgrounds

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

On a large construction site near Seoul, South Korea, workers and machines are racing to finish a fantasy land complete with a 15-story fairy tale castle and a 60-foot-long fire-breathing dragon.

Welcome to Lotte World--a $750-million project with indoor and outdoor theme parks, a 350-store shopping mall and a 500-room hotel--that is scheduled to open in time for the Summer Olympics in Seoul.

Thanks to booming Asian economies and the success of Tokyo Disneyland, Lotte (pronounced Loh-tay) World is one of at least a dozen theme and amusement parks in the region that are under construction or on the drawing board. If builders have their way, parks will rise from such exotic and unexpected locales as a 300-acre tract in the Malaysian rain forest and the 55,000-square-foot rooftop of a Seoul department store.

And when help is needed to design and manage these attractions, Asian investors usually head for the spot known worldwide for its amusement parks--Southern California. As a result, about 10 or so amusement park design and engineering firms stand to cash in on the boom.

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“Everybody in the business in Southern California has been flying to Asia,” said Nick Winslow, president of Torrance-based Harrison Price Co., an economics consulting firm that works with amusement park builders.

‘A Lot Going On’ in Asia

Japan and West Germany may claim large makers of amusement park rides, but the United States has the market cornered in the design and engineering of theme parks and sophisticated attractions.

“There isn’t too much competition,” said Winslow. “We are way ahead of the game.”

Lotte World, for example, was designed by Battaglia Associates of Irvine. Battaglia, in turn, has subcontracted out design and manufacturing work to about 30 other U.S. firms, many in Southern California.

One, AVG Inc. in Valencia, engineered and built the 60-foot dragon that breathes fire--and costs $500,000. “This is really our first contract in Asia,” said Hugh Knowlton, executive vice president at AVG. “We are expecting to do additional business there. There’s a lot going on.”

Projects in the works include Samaworld, a $125-million theme park and resort in Malaysia. The grounds of an old Singapore estate will be transformed into Haw Par Villa, a $30-million project. A $70-million resort on the southeastern shore of Taiwan will feature a water and amusement park. But most plans for amusement and theme parks in Taiwan, Thailand, Indonesia and even China and India, remain just that--plans. “It’s just a lot of talk yet,” said one industry executive.

Still, interest in building theme parks in Asia comes at a time when the need for new American parks has diminished. “People are looking to new markets--the U.S. is saturated,” said Richard Battaglia, president of Battaglia Associates.

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The introduction of these multimillion-dollar projects coincides with the economic boom that has spread through much of Asia. “They’ve got the people, and their income levels are coming up to a point where they have discretionary income,” Battaglia said. “And they are willing to spend it.”

The United States got its first theme park in 1955 with the opening of Disneyland, which was divided into areas with attractions, shows and amusements tailored to fit a certain “theme.” Small-scale theme and amusement parks began appearing in Japan during the late 1970s. But for the most part, “everything else was like a parking lot carnival,” said Craig Hanna, marketing director of San Dimas-based Ride & Show Engineering Inc., which is designing a $20-million park for the rooftop of an eight-story Seoul deparment store.

What sparked interest in full-fledged theme parks was the opening of Tokyo Disneyland in 1983. About 11 million people visit Tokyo Disneyland annually, and patrons spend an average of $40 to $50--about twice the amount reported at Disneyland in Anaheim.

“There’s a whole lot of bucks in it and that attracts a lot of attention,” said Dave Schweninger, president of Sequoia Creative, a Sun Valley design firm.

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The potential profits have lured large Asian firms to the theme park business. Lotte World is being financed by the Lotte Group, a South Korean conglomerate involved in everything from chewing gum to petrochemicals. In Singapore, Frazier & Neave--a major soft drink and beer distributor in Asia--has commissioned Battaglia to design Haw Par Villa.

“In the last year, we had a tremendous amount of requests for information from Asian countries,” said Lindy Russell, company rela tions secretary at Walt Disney Imagineering, the Glendale firm that creates Disney amusement parks and rides. “They are people who are interested in finding out how we build our parks.”

In designing parks for Asia, firms have learned they must blend popular Western thrill rides and attractions with an Asian twist.

To design Samaworld in Malaysia, Sequoia designers acquainted themselves with the country, its cultures, traditions and architecture. A portion of the park is split up to represent each of the nation’s 13 states. The section devoted to the state of Selangor, for example, features Selangor craftsman making pewter objects and satay--a marinated and barbecued meat served on a skewer with spicy peanut sauce.

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When it came to the design of Ferris wheels and roller coasters, the firm opted for rides that aren’t so wild. Malaysian “parents are much stricter,” said Amelia Gordon, who leads the Samaworld design team. “They would not let their kids get on these rides.”

Gordon adds, “We need to design a park . . . that is fun for those people--not our idea of what should be fun.”

‘Gut-Wrenching’ Scene

At Haw Par Villa in Singapore, Battaglia will build the park around thousands of statues that depict scenes and characters from Chinese myths, which are popular in the predominantly Chinese ethnic island nation. Western visitors, however, maybe taken aback by some of the more graphic legends, including scenes from the “Ten Courts of Hell.” Said one executive familiar with the scene: “It’s really gut wrenching.”

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Sometimes language forces some changes in the game plan. For one of its Lotte World shows, Battaglia had to change the name of Princess Guinevere, the wife of King Arthur. The reason: “The Koreans can’t even say Guinevere,” Battaglia said.

Such attention to detail avoids mistakes, amusement park designers say. Many cited the failure of a string of amusement parks in China as an example of bad planning and design.

The parks consisted of Japanese-built rides plopped in the middle of open fields. “They thought that thousands of tourists would come because these rides are here,” said Winslow of Harrison Price Co. “But one park in one location will no tdo it.”

Winslow also noted that the rides were spread too far apart to generate the festive hustle and bustle that makes the theme parks come alive. “They did not understand that the parks have to be done on a human scale.”

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