Sony Corp. has picked a strange time to enter the theme park business.

Attendance fall-offs at would-be rivals Disney and Universal Studios in both California and Florida, a deepening recession and the threat of war in the Persian Gulf would not seem to invite additional investment into what is showing the earmarks of an overcrowded, increasingly competitive business.

But just last week Sony gave its Columbia Pictures Entertainment unit the thumbs-up on developing “Sonyland” amusement parks. CPE envisions the parks as an amalgam of characters, rides and exhibits employing Sony technology and hardware. Creative inspiration will be drawn from the software of Columbia Pictures, Tri-Star Pictures, Columbia Pictures Television and Sony Music, formerly CBS Records.

While CPE says details on cost, construction timetable and locations for the parks will not be available until year’s end, the company says it is planning to go head to head with heavyweights Disney and Universal Studios.

Such a strategy would require entrance into the Southern California marketplace, one that is increasingly feeling the pinch of recession.

Knott’s Berry Farm, the No. 3 attraction in Southern California, recently reduced prices 40% and shortened its operating hours; the park is now closed two days a week until mid-February. Marketplace leader Disneyland last week followed suit, lowering ticket prices for Southern California residents to $20 until March 3, from the regular prices of $22.50 for children (ages 3 to 11) and $27.50 for adults.

“These moves are a clear confirmation that this is a highly competitive and difficult market at this time,” says Christopher Dixon, Kidder, Peabody & Co.

Both theme parks were hesitant to label the moves a direct response to recessionary pressures or a sign of significant admission downturns; Disney notes that it has run similar promotions in the past.

But, according to Amusement Business Magazine, both Disneyland and Universal Studios experienced attendance declines in 1990. The publication estimated a 3% drop for Disneyland and a 9% drop for Universal Studios; Knott’s attendance figures remained stable.

Despite the leaner times, the competitive environment, especially in Southern California, is growing increasingly fierce. Disney currently is evaluating plans for an ocean-oriented park in Long Beach and/or a second major attraction in Anaheim.

Sony executives have been considering a 2,000-acre lemon farm in the Oxnard, Calif., area as a site for “Sonyland,” which some industry sources have called a pet project of Columbia co-chairman Jon Peters.

But industry watchers say it is not a given that CPE has the technical proficiency necessary to build a theme park. While the company plans to use the pirate ship and tree house “Hook” – the upcoming Steven Spielberg release from Tri-Star – as permanent attractions in the park, high-profile attractions are no guarantee of success.

“There aren’t that many people who know how to do theme parks well, ” Dixon says, citing numerous difficulties that seasoned theme park operators at MCA experienced in opening the Universal Studios Tour in Florida. Correspondingly, he says Sony and CPE may experience countless setbacks before any project comes to fruition. “There is no question that Sony may have some unique thoughts in hand and that may give them an opportunity to identify particular sites, but it would appear to be a somewhat premature announcement at best.”

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