A rush of theme park construction across Asia that will result in new homes for Mickey Mouse, the Monkey King and Hello Kitty is also providing a financial lifeline for the world’s elite group of entertainment designers.
New theme parks, resorts and casinos are scheduled to open from Singapore to Seoul over the next several years as property developers and entertainment companies aim to draw Asia’s rapidly growing middle classes. They’re betting there will be a big market for family amusement rides, live shows and the chance to pose for a picture with Snow White.
The projects represent the next big growth area for skilled and experienced designers and creators as the North American market has become saturated and opportunities to design big new resorts have dried up.
“America has slowed down and Asia has kicked into higher gear. Especially China and Macau are really busy,” said Gary Goddard, a veteran architectural designer who drew up the masterplan for the Galaxy Macau, a US$1.9 billion casino resort that opened in the southern Chinese city in May.
Goddard and many of his competitors are based in Southern California, but they have been doing a lot more traveling to Asia lately to work on projects and meet potential clients. Many aren’t strangers to the region, having worked in Japan on an earlier generation of parks and developments. Now the focus is shifting to China.
Theme parks in the US struggled last year, with modest attendance gains as the economy eked out a muted recovery from recession. Six Flags Entertainment Corp, which runs 19 parks in North America, filed for bankruptcy protection in 2009 because of heavy debt.
The situation is similar in Europe, where operators are mostly renovating or buying smaller rivals. One of the few new parks planned in coming years is being built on Spain’s Mediterranean coast, where officials are teaming with US film company Paramount.
The recession has also scuppered grand plans for amusement parks in the Middle East, where the vast Dubailand complex has been put on hold.
Not so in Asia.
Disney’s long-awaited US$3.7 billion park is scheduled to open in Shanghai in 2016. The Pasadena-based Hettema Group is designing a Hello Kitty park set to open southwest of Shanghai in 2014. Burbank-based Thinkwell Group is working on a Monkey Kingdom park near Beijing based on the classical Chinese epic novel, also scheduled for 2014.
Outside China, Southeast Asia’s first Universal Studios theme park opened last year in Singapore, part of a US$4.4 billion resort that also includes the city-state’s first casino. Another Universal Studios is slated to open in 2014 in Seoul, South Korea. Asia’s first Legoland is scheduled to open in southern Malaysia in 2013.
A US$2 billion, five-star hotel and amusement park slated to open in southern Vietnam in 2014 has lured Joe Jackson, father of the late king of pop Michael Jackson, as one of its investors.
“The growth of the middle class in Asia is phenomenal and will drive huge investments in theme parks in the coming decade,” consultancy Aecom said in its annual report on theme park development.
Phil Hettema, president of The Hettema Group, said he is in talks “probably every week about additional projects upcoming in China.”
Asian theme park attendance is forecast to grow to 290 million next year from 249 million in 2007, while spending in that period will rise from US$6.4 billion to US$8.4 billion, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers.