At This Theme Park, It's Scarlett, Not Mickey
VILLA RICA, GA. — MARK DRISCOLL looks through a clearing in the piney woods here and sees goose bumps. That's what he predicts people will get when they come upon his soon-to-be latest creation: Gone with the Wind Country - a themed attraction based on the epic 1939 movie.
``Visitors will come through the woods in horse-drawn wagons, and they'll stop right here,'' says Mr. Driscoll, pulling his four-wheel-drive vehicle over near a bluff where the park will sit. ``They'll hear the music [from the motion picture] filtering across the lawn. It's a Kodak moment, and we're going to let them take it in.''
The planned attraction, which will re-create elements of ``Gone With the Wind'' such as Tara, the famous southern plantation, represents one of the latest trends in theme parks in America.
The 1960s and '70s belonged to massive attractions like Knotts Berry Farm, Six Flags, and Disneyland. At the time, 10 parks a year were being built from Massachusetts to California. But the market for big glitzy complexes - particularly ``destination'' resorts - is now saturated, say analysts.
As a result, many companies are moving toward building smaller, less costly attractions. One idea is to devise parks that cater more to regional visitors but still have international appeal.
``Most of the major players - Disney, Universal, Paramount, as well as independent companies - are looking at building smaller entertainment facilities in urban centers,'' says Jim Harmon, a principal with Management Resources, a Los Angeles-based consulting firm for the leisure industry. ``A lot of them are indoors or are more regional-oriented parks.''
Of course, designers of big parks today face more problems than just too many roller coasters chasing too few riders. Walt Disney Company last fall dropped a plan to build a giant, history-oriented theme park in Virginia in the face of opposition from Civil War buffs and citizen groups.
Here in Georgia, no similar revolt has surfaced. Frankly, Atlantans hope it will give them a hand. Indeed, the Atlanta Convention and Visitor's Bureau is hoping it will solve one of the most-often asked questions: Exactly where is the road to Tara?
Tourists ``want to capture the romance of that novel and when they learn there is no Tara, it's somewhat of a disappointment to them,'' says Bill Howard, vice president of public relations at the bureau.
The excitement of tourist officials is understandable. Theme parks can be big business for local economies: Consider that last year alone, the 10 biggest parks drew more than 65 million visitors (top 10 theme parks, right).
SET on more than 900 acres of rolling southern pine 25 miles west of Atlanta, Gone With the Wind Country is scheduled to open before the 1996 summer Olympics. Workers will break ground in February.
The park won't be a megacomplex with high-tech rides and razzle-dazzle shows. Instead, it is intended to meet two expectations that Driscoll, the developer, says visitors to Georgia seek but don't find: the ``Gone With the Wind'' experience and Southern culture.
``People believe Atlanta is the capital of the South,'' says Driscoll of Landmark Entertainment Group, a North Hollywood, Calif., firm. ``They expect to see the mansions, the porches, the southern barbecue, the hooped skirts, the balls, the romance of the South. The problem ... is they're not going home fulfilled,'' because many of these things don't exist in the modern metropolis of Atlanta or even in the surrounding countryside.
The park will bring these images to the public on a parcel of land in Villa Rica, a small town not yet swallowed up by Atlanta's suburban sprawl. The attraction will create a movie-studio atmosphere and includes four main sections: Tara; Old Atlanta, complete with Belle Watling's Red Horse Saloon and Aunt Pittypat's Boutique; Cat Fish Cove, a rustic family play area on a sprawling lake; and Twelve Oaks, the stately columned mansion of Ashley Wilkes.
There will be strolling performers and artisans, displays of props, photographs, and costumes from the movie, and an interactive theater where guests can participate in the making of the movie. At Twelve Oaks, tours will lead visitors through rooms that echo with the voices of Rhett, Scarlett, and Ashley. The grounds of Tara will have barns, gardens, orchards, and slave quarters that replicate scenes from the movie.
``This is an experience where you get outdoors, relax at a lake, eat at an outdoor barbecue,'' Driscoll says. ``It's a celebration of the South.''
The park is expected to cost $50 million and draw about 1 million visitors a year, Driscoll says. Compared with the capital expenditures of major theme parks, that amount is relatively small, Mr. Harmon says. ``When we say major theme parks, we talk in the vicinity of an investment level of $400 [million] to $700 million. Disney or Universal - they're closer to a billion dollars.''
Says Ray Braun, senior vice president of Economics Research Associates, a Los Angeles consulting firm for theme parks and entertainment provider companies: ``We think there will be strong attendance and good market acceptance'' for the park.