Variations on Themes : Attractions Adapt to Lure Ethnic Groups

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Almost everyone knows Madonna, Frankenstein and Sammy Davis Jr. But are visitors to the Movieland Wax Museum willing to pay $12.95 to see likenesses of Celia Cruz and Cristina Saralegui as well?

They will if they are Latino, the museum's managers are betting. Though Cruz is a hit in the Spanish-speaking world as "the Queen of Salsa," she is practically unknown in the Anglo mainstream. The same goes for Saralegui, who is a sort of a Cuban-American Oprah Winfrey. The pair will eventually become part of the Latin Hall of Fame at the Buena Park waxworks.

In creating the new section, Movieland joins a growing number of attractions making special efforts to boost attendance by appealing to ethnic groups. Knott's Berry Farm has been featuring mariachis and folk dancers as a part of its monthlong "Fiesta Family Fun Days" pitched to 600,000 Latino-surname families by direct mail. Sea World in San Diego holds a similar event every fall.

Six Flags Magic Mountain near Santa Clarita has plans to make its annual gospel choir concert, aimed primarily at African-American families, a twice-a-year event. And Universal Studios Hollywood not only offers multilingual tram tours but also features Spanish translation scrolls during the narration of its most prominent attractions.

The trend is an outgrowth of the changing complexion of Southern California and increased competition among themed attractions across the nation.

"In the heyday of theme parks 20 years ago, they didn't have to fine-tune their marketing. As the industry matures, they have to do more of this stuff in order to build attention in a more competitive environment," said Ray Braun, senior vice president for Economics Research Associates, a Los Angeles company that does economic studies for amusement ventures.

Beyond California, tourist attractions that are near large ethnic markets are doing the same. Walt Disney World outside Orlando, Fla., where many visitors are Latinos from south Florida and a fourth of all visitors are foreigners, gives its orientation monorail spiel in English and Spanish. The new Fiesta Texas theme park outside San Antonio features a Mexican village at its entrance, instead of the Americanized Main Streets that have been common at theme parks since Disneyland debuted in 1955.

Not all have caught the spirit. Disneyland in Anaheim, for example, hosts no special ethnic events inside the park on a regular basis but does advertise in Spanish-language media. Spanish-speaking guides are available, but spoken Spanish is limited mostly to safety warnings on rides. Still, Disney officials say, they feel that the popularity of their park crosses ethnic lines. Mickey Mouse and Goofy have a universal appeal, spokesman John McClintock said.

Some amusement-park executives say they have discovered the potential of ethnic markets fairly recently. Mark Edwards, general manager of Movieland, said the Latino Hall idea came to him two years ago in a conversation with Cuban-American singer Gloria Estefan, who was at the museum to dedicate her wax figure in the gallery.

"When I was walking with Gloria through the museum, she said, 'Am I the only Latin star?' " Edwards recalled. "I said, 'No, we have Cantinflas,' " a Mexican comic, " 'and Julio Iglesias .' She said, 'That's a shame. There are so many more Latin stars.' "

Edwards said he was already aware of the size of the market because most of the more than 40 weddings held every year on a patio outside the museum are Latino. And he had been looking for a way to use a large section of the original museum that was once a display area for reproductions of artistic masterpieces but had been set side simply for storage.

By the summer of 1994, Iglesias, Estefan and likenesses of Mexico's popular telenovela soap-opera stars will take up residence inside the hall. "We thought it would enhance our attendance and give the Latino community the recognition it deserves," Edwards said.

A re-creation of Da Vinci's "The Last Supper" and a 400-pound replica of Michelangelo's "Pieta" will also be added.

Edwards and museum owner Ron Fong have found, however, that appealing to an ethnic market has risks. Edwards said the two received complaints after the installation ceremonies for Estefan and Saralegui from people who thought that the museum was overlooking famous Mexican-Americans. The goal, he said, is to include celebrities from all of Latin America.

Knott's Berry Farm started appealing directly to ethnic segments soon after the arrival in November of a new vice president of marketing, Bill Dayton. The park's first gospel choir day was in January, though it was all but rained out. The park's first Latino festival is being held on weekends this month. Events for Asian-Americans are planned as well, perhaps next year.

"It's a very ethnically oriented market, and it's going to be more so in the future," Dayton said of Southern California. "We're a family theme park. . . . That pretty much applies to any ethnic segment."

Knott's, with its early California theme and its Mexican-style Fiesta Village, has always appealed to Latinos, who make up about 30% of the population within 20 miles of the park--the core market area, Dayton said.

At the park on Sunday, a Latino dance troupe from Burbank was well received by the crowd, many of whom were Latino.

"It reminds me of my country," said an enthusiastic Carlos Serpas, a Los Angeles high school student who emigrated from Mexico.

Armando Castro of Fullerton, who brought his two daughters for a day at Knott's, pronounced the Latino performances "great" and said of the entertainment, "I think this is going to increase their Latino attendance."

Dennis Krummel, a Glendale aerospace worker whose 7-year-old daughter was one of the dancers, said Knott's realizes that the Mexican heritage "is intertwined with the West." The dancing and other Mexican events, therefore, are an important part of the park's Old West theme.

The same holds true for the New West. Michele Reese, executive vice president of Universal Studios Hollywood, said that every dollar the park has sunk into ethnic marketing over the past 15 years has paid off handsomely.

"We've always been aware of the ethnic makeup of the Los Angeles market," she said. "Los Angeles is really a microcosm of the rest of the world."

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