Amusement parks playing to international audiences

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

For kids -- and parents too -- it may be the ultimate play land: a 10-square-mile, $64-billion zone with amusement parks by Six Flags, DreamWorks Animation and Universal Studios, plus museums, shopping and 55 hotels.

At twice the size of Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., this is a place where it’s hard to imagine getting bored. But if you do, you’ll be able to head to a nearby collection of water attractions situated on an island the shape of a killer whale -- all planned by Busch Entertainment, the masterminds behind SeaWorld.

For all this American-style entertainment, though, be prepared to travel far: The world’s most ambitious theme park project, Dubailand, is being built in the United Arab Emirates.

Twenty-five years after Walt Disney Co. began moving overseas, U.S. companies like Six Flags, Universal Studios and DreamWorks are marching rapidly to the Mideast and Far East seeking new revenue streams and an increasingly global audience.

Major U.S. companies have at least 13 parks in the works in South Korea, Singapore, Shanghai, Abu Dhabi and Dubai. In every case, developers are fronting millions of dollars to buy land and build parks, while the U.S. businesses reap licensing fees for attractions featuring the likes of Spider-Man and SpongeBob SquarePants without financial risk.

“The phenomenon overseas is the perfect storm, basically,” said theme park consultant Gary Goddard. “A lot of factors are coming together at the right time.”

Eight theme parks outside the U.S. posted attendance increases of more than 10% from 2006 to 2007, according to a recent report by Economic Research Associates and the Themed Entertainment Assn. Only one U.S.-based park, Busch Gardens Europe in Williamsburg, Va., had double-digit growth last year.

“This is the natural evolution,” said Christian Aaen of Economic Research Associates.

“There is growth in certain markets in the United States, in Orlando in particular. But in Southern California it’s very competitive, and unless you do a major reinvestment, you don’t really get a lot of growth. What they’re looking at is Asia and the Middle East on an increasing basis.”

Among the confirmed overseas projects:

* Six Flags recently announced its first foreign project in Dubai.

* Busch Entertainment trumpeted its four-park Dubai project as “the most significant news” in company history.

* Universal Studios has parks planned in Dubai and Singapore. It hopes to complete a deal in South Korea by year’s end.

* Paramount Pictures and DreamWorks Animation are opening parks in South Korea and Dubai, respectively.

* MGM Studios is building entertainment centers in Shanghai and Abu Dhabi.

* Warner Bros. Entertainment is planning a theme park, hotel and movie theaters in Abu Dhabi.

Some parks will closely model their U.S. counterparts, with nods to local food and culture. Six Flags promises that its Dubai park will have the world’s tallest, fastest coaster. Executives with other companies said they were planning full-scale parks to meet the expectations of sophisticated globe-trotters.

For U.S. companies, the deals can include annual licensing royalties as well as a cut of attendance, food and beverage and merchandise revenue, Aaen said. For heavyweights such as Disney and Universal, this could mean tens of millions of dollars annually.

“This is cash flow coming in basically to your bottom line . . . without any significant risk factors,” Aaen said.

For Six Flags, growth overseas is key to CEO Mark Shapiro’s plan to turn around the struggling company, which has 21 parks in North America, including Magic Mountain in Valencia. “There’s no risk here,” Shapiro emphasized. “They’re launching a park in our name, which they’re paying us for brand exclusivity. They’re paying us to design and develop. They’re paying us for expertise and know-how.”

Just as the mass of theme parks in Orlando -- Disney World, Universal Studios, Busch Gardens and SeaWorld -- helps drive tourism to Florida, developers in Dubai believe the same will be true for them.

Dubai is already one of the world’s fastest-growing tourism hot spots, with hotel occupancy currently at 85%, among the highest in the world. The emirate has become a playground for Middle Easterners, Europeans and Asians in search of world-class lodging, shopping to rival Beverly Hills and activities such as snorkeling and indoor skiing.

Theme parks are already a proven attraction in Asia. Nearly 14 million people visited Tokyo Disneyland in 2007, almost as many as visited Disneyland in Anaheim. Ocean Park in Hong Kong and Happy Valley in Shenzhen, China, saw attendance climb more than 10%. Samsung-owned Everland in South Korea was the 10th-most-visited amusement park in the world.

In South Korea, executives with Universal Studios said government and business officials were trying to reverse a growing tourism deficit. The country now attracts just over 6 million foreign visitors a year, but 11.6 million residents traveled abroad in 2006.

“Our governments are really fond of anything that will encourage the tourist market,” said Park Se-jin, a leisure industry analyst at Mirae Asset Securities in Seoul.

“From my view . . . we’re putting our name and reputation on the line,” said Tom Williams, chairman and chief executive of Universal Parks & Resorts. “They get the tax roll and the employment base and the prestige that comes with a successful resort operation.”

Universal, in turn, gets more exposure for the likes of Shrek and the Simpsons, goosing sales of DVDs and merchandise -- a model Disney has turned to time and time again.

Disney’s parks have shown that a “big, physical-immersive piece of entertainment” can encourage people to seek out Disney films, DVDs and toys, said Jay Rasulo, chairman of Disney Parks and Resorts. Disney has announced no plans for additional parks and instead is focusing on expanding its cruise lines, time shares and Disney-styled tours in areas without a Disney park.

Though Disney is a role model for other companies, it also provides a cautionary tale. When it opened Hong Kong Disneyland in 2005, residents balked at high ticket prices for a park that lacked marquee attractions such as Pirates of the Caribbean and Haunted Mansion. Attendance at the park slumped last year, dropping 20% to 4.15 million.

“Even Disney found in Japan, Hong Kong and France you can’t just go in and say, ‘We’re Disney, this is the way we do it,’ ” Goddard said. “You have to be careful when it comes to these assets and how to handle them.”

Still, most analysts expect Disney to turn things around as it has in Paris, which also opened below expectations. This month, the Hong Kong park will open It’s a Small World, and attendance from Chinese markets is up in 2008.

In Dubai, even if one attraction fails, another is likely to please the 40,000 daily visitors Dubailand developers hope to attract by 2015. Besides theme parks, construction is underway for the largest mall in the world. The Dubai Autodrome racetrack is open. The Tiger Woods Dubai development will feature a championship-quality golf course, a boutique hotel and 292 luxury homes.

“They’re trying to get enough critical mass to put themselves on the map as a must-see tourist destination,” said Jim Atchison, chief operating officer of Busch Entertainment. “Dubai is a place that can capture imagination and spectacle. . . . It really is an unusual place.”

Times staff writer Bruce Wallace in Seoul contributed to this report.