America's Love Affair With Amusement Parks Continues

ROY GILLIAN looks out over the 33 amusement rides that make up his Wonderland Pier. The summer season is in full swing with more than 10,000 visitors making their way to his boardwalk location every weekend.

Despite the burgeoning popularity of giant theme parks with electric light parades, nightly fireworks, action simulators, and stunt shows based on blockbuster adventure films, Mr. Gillian's park has none of that.

Instead, it has an antique wooden merry-go-round, a 134-foot Ferris wheel, the smallest model metal roller coaster anywhere, a log flume for water enthusiasts, and dancing tea cups.

"Getting something that appeals to all ages is the key to success," says Gillian, who caters to families with children under 12. Last summer about 800,000 patrons headed south past Atlantic City to this dry town established by vacationing Methodists.

Gillian is also president this year of the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA), a trade group headquartered in Alexandria, Va., with 3,000 members in 54 countries. Among the membership are multinational, multimedia conglomerates that own most of the major theme parks. Surprisingly, Gillian credits part of his success and that of other family-owned enterprises to them.

"I think Disney set the pace years ago," he says, inspiring small amusement parks to make things "pleasing and safe."

Landscaping, rigorous attention to trash removal, high safety standards, uniformed attendants, and treating visitors as guests instead of customers has changed the approach of family-owned parks, he says.

With attendance rates growing about 4 percent annually, the amusement industry in the United States generated $6 billion in gross revenues in 1991, according to the most recent figures from the IAAPA.

In the US, 95 theme parks are owned by Wall Street companies. But easily a hundred more are family-owned, often in their third or fourth generation, says Dennis Speigel, president of International Theme Park Services in Cincinnati, Ohio. The theme park construction boom in the '70s, which reached saturation in the early '80s, left the tightly managed family-owned parks largely unaffected, he adds. Gillian's own park was started by his father in 1930 as a way to raise a family away from the crowded neighb orhoods of Philadelphia.

The appeal is different, Gillian says. "I think it's all in salesmanship," for the theme parks, which run promotions, special discounts, and channel video, movie, and high-tech talent through the parks. "With us, people come to the seashore," he says, and take a carousel ride at the end of the day.

"There's a lot of merchandising going on," at theme parks says an IAAPA spokeswoman, singling out Bugs Bunny which Time Warner Inc. is using to promote its Six Flags Great Adventure parks to compete with Disney's Mickey Mouse.

Gillian is unperturbed: "My father's favorite saying was, `No matter how bad times are, a father will always have some money to spend on his kids for a merry-go-round ride.' "

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