Lion Country--which one year ago nudged the word Safari out of its name and the animals out of its park--is trekking into the amusement industry jungle once again.
After closing its gates 15 months ago, and nearly a year behind plans to sublease a spot for a $5-million water park on its 100-acre grounds, Lion Country--the Irvine amusement facility--finally appears to be making some headway towards vastly revamping its image from that of a wild animal preserve to a multi-use facility.
Within weeks, a building permit for "Wild Rivers," the on-site water park that had been delayed primarily by squabbles with Irvine city officials, is expected to be awarded by the city's Community Development Department, city officials said Thursday. A grading permit was issued in mid-December. As a result of these city actions, park owners say, the long-delayed water park is now expected to open in mid-May.
Wild Rivers, to be operated by American Sportsworld Inc. of Colton, will be just the beginning of big changes at Lion Country.
With its image newly focused as a multi-use family entertainment facility, there is even thought to a complete name change for the 15-year-old park, said Harry Shuster, president of Lion Country Safari Inc.
"The name Lion Country is something our marketing people may have to address," said Shuster. "We don't want people coming here thinking that they'll see wild animals, when, in fact, they won't see any at all."
Besides the new water park--which will be similar to the unrelated Raging Waters park in San Dimas--Shuster said that Lion Country is within a whisker of inking a pact with a local softball league to pay to play ball on six softball diamonds to be built on the park's acreage.
There are also tentative plans to rent recreational boats on the park's seven-acre lake and other plans to place a golf driving range on the former preserve area, Shuster said.
These drastic moves away from wild animals, ironically, come at a time when Orange County's two other major amusement attractions are bringing live animals into their facilities. Knott's Berry Farm recently announced plans to build a $2-million dolphin stadium, and Disneyland is about to liven its Main Street parade with a circus-like procession of live animals down the Magic Kingdom's most famous street.
'Not for Sale'
Insisting that "we are turning (the park) around," Shuster denied industry rumors that troubled Lion Country is for sale. "There are no negotiations--nor have there ever been any--to sell," he said. "But we're a public company, and if someone makes us a reasonable offer, I must consider it." With the park closed all year--and the staff cut from 100 employees to a bare-bones six administrative workers--operating losses will be cut in half in fiscal 1985 compared to 1984, Shuster said. Lion Country, which has posted red ink for five consecutive years, lost $820,000 in fiscal 1984, Shuster said.
But Shuster projected that Lion Country "will start earning money in 1986."
Amusement industry executives generally say Lion Country is wise--albeit tardy--in moving away from the safari format. And with the family entertainment market reaching competitive heights, there appears to be less interest in passive parks such as wild animal preserves and increased interest in participatory entertainment such as water parks, industry consultants say.
Lion Country's competitors also have seen sizable declines in attendance. San Diego Wild Animal Park has recorded a steady decline in attendance since 1982. Attendance at the nonprofit park fell to 1.20 million in 1985, compared to a peak of 1.55 million in 1982.
The park, which has made money in only one of the 13 years it has been open, expects to report a loss of $980,000 in 1985. But those losses are swallowed by Zoological Society of San Diego, which operates the preserve primarily as an animal breeding ground for the highly profitable San Diego Zoo, said park spokesman Tom Hanscom.
Lion Country, however, has no such benefactor--and that is why changes are under way. Bill Draney, secretary-treasurer of American Sportsworld, said visitors this summer will find 40 water-oriented attractions at Wild Rivers in place of the former amusement area at Lion County.
Water attractions will include everything from a man-made mountain with 16 water slides to so-called "activity" pools designed for different age groups. Park admission will be $10.75 for adults and $8.25 for children.