It's a Small World, After All, For US-Style Theme Parks

WHEN Disneyland Paris opened in April 1992, French intellectuals moaned that it would be a ''cultural Chernobyl.''

But the world didn't listen. Led by Disney, American-style theme parks keep coming on line. Local entrepreneurs are fighting back, buying know-how and adding their own comic characters and cultural trappings.

No matter what continent they're built on, thrill rides keep producing bigger goose bumps and whiter knuckles. But the goal now is grander: to provide entire fantasy worlds. And the growing prosperity of many regions, such as Asia, makes spending on leisure more possible.

The new parks come with their own twists. Brazil's entries have ecology themes. In China, retired Red Army brass bang the drum for a park based on Mao's 1930s Long March. Israel's economics minister is trying to interest Jordan and the Palestinians in a Dead Sea park, ''The Lowest Park on Earth.''

In the United States, meanwhile, new rides vie to send patrons flying faster, higher, farther, as well as plunge them into their heads with high-tech ''virtual reality.''

But other trends recognize that baby boomers are ready for something less stomach-churning than loop-the-loops and zero-G free falls.

''Edu-tainment'' parks will help people learn about anything from bass fishing to cooking to the arts in a relaxed environment.

Reports below show that countries are taking lessons from the US but adding their own amusing twists.

French comic vs. Mickey

THE feisty Gallic comic book hero Asterix is fighting it out with Mickey Mouse. To everyone's astonishment, the battle is turning out to be a draw.

France has hardly proved to be fertile ground for amusement parks. After the Walt Disney Company announced plans in 1985 to build EuroDisney, some 40 other theme-park projects were on the drawing boards. The vast majority stayed there.

After some tough times, EuroDisney is expected Nov. 15 to announce its first profit ever for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30. In fiscal 1993, losses were $1 billion; in 1994 they were $36 million. In the past two years Disneyland Paris, as the resort is now called, cut ticket prices by 20 percent and introduced the popular new ride Space Mountain. It is now France's biggest attraction, drawing more visitors than the Eiffel Tower or the Louvre.

But two French amusement parks - Park Asterix and Futuroscope - are also setting attendance records. Asterix offers live shows and street theater, as well as re-creations of Asterix's comic-book village and a Roman city. The Rue de Paris evokes 1,000 years of French history from the Middle Ages to modern times.

The park, which unlike Disneyland Paris closes for five months each winter, drew 1.8 million visitors this year. (Nearly 11 million people are expected to visit Mickey in France this year.) Almost unknown in the US, the Asterix comic books, created in 1959 by Albert Uderzo and Rene Goscinny, have sold 200 million copies and been translated into 57 languages and dialects. The park recreates the world of Asterix, who in the French tradition of the antihero finds himself in the middle of wild adventures in part because of his naivete.

Futuroscope near Poitiers in central France takes the visitor into the 21st century, a century the park's creators say will be dominated by images. Indeed, images are everywhere at Futuroscope: They fill a 1,740-square-foot wall composed of 850 screens. They ride on a ''magic carpet'' underneath the visitor. They can be seen on an interactive screen that allows the viewer to participate in a game by answering questions during the film.

Futuroscope, which opened in 1988, expects almost 3 million visitors in 1995.

- Eduardo Cue in Paris

In Brazil, it's the ecology

'BRAZIL and China are the two [theme park] hot spots on the planet,'' says Dennis Speigel, director of International Theme Park Services in Cincinnati and a consultant for five Chinese and two Brazilian projects. Economic reforms have opened what was once a protectionist economy while lowering skyrocketing inflation from 50 percent a month to 10 percent in the first six months of 1995, the lowest level in 25 years. As a result, foreign investment is pouring in; Brazilians have new purchasing power and consumption is soaring.

Terra Encantada (Enchanted Land) will be built in the upscale Rio de Janeiro beach neighborhood of Barra da Tijuca, 16 miles from downtown, at a cost of $220 million. It is scheduled to open in late 1997 and is expected to attract 4 million visitors a year with a combination of American high-tech rides and Brazilian themes. Instead of Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck, tourists will meet Iara, Princess of the Waters, and her companion, Pira, a pink porpoise who patrols the park's lakes and rivers against polluters.

Ecology will also be the main theme of the $200 million Serra Azul (Blue Mountain) theme park, scheduled to open in early 1998 some 30 miles from the nation's largest city of Sao Paulo. ''Water and green, lots of green will be our emphasis,'' says project director Marcelo Gutglas. In nearby Paulinia, city hall and investors will build by 1997 the $150 million Brazil 500, highlighting 500 years since Brazil's discovery in 1500 by the Portuguese navigator Pedro alvares Cabral.

- Jack Epstein in Rio de Janeiro

In US, innovate or perish

AT the new $12.5 million Waterworld Live, Sea-War Spectacular in Universal City, Calif., futuristic thugs pirouette on jet skis, crash a 30-foot seaplane, and dodge exploding flotsam.

Not to be outdone, nearby Six Flags Magic Mountain has just added $35 million ''Hurricane Harbor,'' 15 acres of water slides and pools. Knott's Berry Farm is packing them in at their $10 million ''Mystery Lodge'' with holograms - three-dimensional images of eagles and Indians that arise and vanish in a blink. And Disneyland across town is breaking 40-year-old records with the $100 million ''Indiana Jones Adventure'' - the most creative use of Disney ''Imagineering'' genius yet.

For US theme parks, it's time to innovate or perish. Thus the costly efforts to hold audiences in a new era of changing leisure patterns, tighter household budgets, and competition from casinos aggressively expanding into the family market.

''The US continues to lead the world in creativity where theme parks are concerned,'' says Paul Ruben, North American editor of Park World, an international magazine for the theme-park industry, based in Britain. ''Theme parks are in a veritable arms race because each one needs to have bragging rights to the newest, most creative, or wildest thing going, just to stay in the ball game,'' Mr. Ruben says. Some 260 million Americans visited theme parks last year, reflecting growth that has stayed at 3 to 4 percent a year since 1980.

To turn that around, America's executors of escapism continue to adapt the latest technologies. Those include flight simulators to mimic actual flying, such as in Universal's ''Back to the Future'' ride where riders sit in 1950s autos to ride from suburban skies to the center of the earth. And they include ''virtual reality'' devices, attractions where participants don Medusa-like headsets to enter and explore computer-generated fantasy worlds.

Theme parks are also fending off a growing challenge from casinos. ''Gambling casinos have flattened the theme-park business in the West and could do it elsewhere,'' says Harrison ''Buzz'' Price, a financial analyst who tracks the theme-park industry. He notes that the number of casino visits by Americans has tripled since 1990, adding $40 billion just last year - compared with $7.5 billion spent at America's theme parks.

''For $600 million, you can build a pretty alluring full-scale resort where dad can play roulette while the kiddies ride coasters,'' Ruben says.

- Daniel B. Wood in Universal City, Calif.

Japan's mini-Mt. Rushmore

KENICHI OMINAMI, a pioneer of the Japanese theme-park industry, is one of those flamboyant impresario types. He adorns one finger with a filigreed gold ring the size of a walnut, maintains a seamless coiffure, and uses an extra-large calculator. You get the impression that the man needs the big buttons to make big deals.

In May Mr. Ominami unveiled a replica of the Mt. Rushmore monument, one-third the original size, at his Western Village theme park north of Tokyo. The cost? $25 million. The reason? ''To show I can make dreams come true,'' he says. The village epitomizes a particularly Japanese sort of theme park - a place where culture of a different time or place is shrunk, sanitized, and turned into a walk-through cliche.

Japan's most successful and best-known park is Tokyo Disneyland, which isn't much different from its forebears, but the country is peppered with ''villages'' devoted to British, Dutch, German, Russian, Spanish, and other cultures. There are also parks devoted to the Meiji and Edo periods of Japanese history.

Aside from being a dream made real, Mt. Rushmore Jr. is clearly an attempt to bring in more customers. The park has had hard times because of Japan's four-year-old recession. The market for amusement is oversupplied: The country went through a theme-park boom shortly after Tokyo Disneyland opened in 1984 and became a quick success.

Yet new parks still open. One of Japan's most successful, Tobu World Square, a short drive from Western Village, is a collection of replicas of some of civilization's most notable encounters with building materials. The pyramids of Giza, the Taj Mahal, the World Trade Center - these and many other structures are reproduced at 1/25th their original size.

The park allows a visitor to tour the world in three hours and then go bathe in a hot spring in one of the country's prettiest resorts, a quintessentially Japanese form of leisure.

- Cameron Barr in Nikko, Japan

China celebrates Long March

IN 1934, beleaguered Chinese Communists broke out of a Nationalist government blockade and embarked on a year-long, 6,000-mile trek that became known as the Long March.

Sixty years later, some Chinese want to commemorate this daring escape that cost half the 80,000-man Red Army and became a heroic saga in Communist Chinese history. They propose a theme park, replete with sound-and-light re-creations of the Long March, a simulated firing range for kids, a space observatory, movie theaters, ferris wheels and merry-go-rounds, cable cars, rides in actual Army tanks and armored personnel carriers, and China's first bungee-jumping tower.

An amusement park memorial to a great but tragic moment of Chinese Communism would once have horrified officials. But planners say young Chinese are so apathetic that novelty and entertainment are the only ways to grab their attention.

Theme parks, a Western phenomenon, are catching on in China, planners say. Already, developments depicting major world and Chinese tourist attractions in miniature have opened in Beijing and Guangdong Province.

- Sheila Tefft in Beijing

Thais mix thrills, tradition

'THAILAND'S ancient Buddhist temple fairs were the original amusement parks in Thailand,'' says Natayada na Songkla, a Bangkok critic and writer. ''They featured likae [Thai dancing], nang [shadow puppets], spicy food, elephant rides, and local beauty contests.''

Today, Thailand's amusement park industry has become Western-oriented, powered by the nation's nearly double-digit economic growth over the past 10 years. Thailand's three principal amusement parks, Magicland, Dreamworld, and Siam Park City, are privately owned and remain in the control of their founding families.

Meanwhile, new outlandishly large shopping malls have incorporated mini-amusement parks that aim especially to attract young people.

Magicland, founded in 1975, is the oldest amusement park in Thailand. Its sister, Dreamworld, which opened only last year, promotes itself abroad to attract tourists. Siam Park City, the largest of the three, is a combination water world, amusement park, and family-entertainment center featuring live Thai music concerts and imported specialty attractions. It expects to draw near 3 million visitors this year, 99 percent of them Thai.

''I don't think Western-style amusement parks are a threat to Thai culture,'' concludes writer Natayada, ''A lot of fascination with Western things is beginning to recede. Whatever Thais borrow from the West will always become a Thai adaptation.''

- Tony Gillotte in Bangkok

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