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JUST THEIR SIZE : Finally, an Amusement Park That Scales Its Fun in Proportion to Its Adventurers

August 18, 1994|CORINNE FLOCKEN | Corinne Flocken is a free-lance writer who regularly covers Kid Stuff for The Times Orange County Edition

Theme parks.

If you're a parent, the words alone can make you feel lightheaded.

Unless you're richer than Michael Eisner and more centered than Mother Teresa, being a veteran of big theme park outings with the family means you've probably groused about lightened pocketbooks and sore feet. Allan Ansdell Jr. says he has, and he and his family are betting $4 million that locals would welcome a manageable alternative to the "we're-spending-bundle-on-this-so-you- dang-well-better-enjoy-it" marathons parents know so well.

On Saturday, Ansdell will open Adventure City in Stanton, a pocket-size entertainment center billed as "The Little Theme Park Just for Kids." Geared to children ages 2 to 12, the two-acre park will offer 11 rides and attractions, a snack shop, a game and party area and live entertainment, as well as programs and displays designed to educate children about topics ranging from transportation to crime prevention.

Adventure City is next door to Hobby City, six acres of hobby-oriented shops that was started in 1955 by Ansdell's maternal grandparents, Jay and Brea DeArmond.

Hobby City remains a family business. Ansdell's grandfather died in 1982, but his grandmother still operates the center's doll museum. He and his wife, Michelle, along with his parents, siblings and various in-laws, also own and operate shops in the complex, which include everything from an antique gun dealer to a Cabbage Patch Kids shop where employees dress as nurses and give free checkups to visiting children's dolls.

Since its inception in 1990, Adventure City has been a family project as well. Allan Jr. is the park's president; his mom, Yvonne, and Michelle are heavily involved on the creative side, and his dad, Allan Sr., handles most of the finances.

His 82-year-old grandmother ("She's the head honcho," says Allan Jr., laughing) is consulted at their daily family meetings, along with an assortment of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. In June, general manager Kevin Lutz, a former operations manager for a Cleveland-area theme park, was brought in to steer Adventure City's day-to-day operations.

As opening day nears, the family, Lutz and their small administrative staff typically begin work before sunrise and end well past nightfall. Locals and Hobby City regulars stop by daily to check on the park's progress and snap pictures.

Although they will operate independently, Hobby City and Adventure City share a common goal, said Yvonne Ansdell.

Hobby City "was never intended to be a mega-sophisticated center," she explained as she gave a visitor a tour of the two complexes on a recent sweltering afternoon. "We just wanted a homey kind of place where people can come and find a hobby, and hopefully spend some time together as a family."

In fact, she added, that family-friendly environment was what started the Ansdells thinking about the theme park project in the first place.

"We used to have a miniature train that ran around the grounds here, and the kids would ride that little train over and over again," she recalled. "Almost every time Allan (Jr.) would drive it, people would tell him, 'You know, this is so fun, you ought to get some more rides in here.'

"Now look at us," she said, standing at Adventure City's main entrance and gesturing to the crews of workmen scattered across the park. "I guess they were on to something."

Adventure City will probably never replace Knott's Berry Farm, Disneyland or Magic Mountain as a vacation destination, said Allan Jr., but it will fill a need for local residents that he believes hasn't been adequately addressed.

"We're not competing with (the big theme parks)," he said. "But with their multimillion-dollar rides and shows, their admission prices are pretty high, so most people generally don't go to them more than once or twice a year. That expense is a problem especially when you have little kids, because they conk out quicker. If you're paying a big price, you feel like you have to put in a whole day, and everybody ends up dragging.

"Here, it's more affordable (admission, including unlimited rides, will be $9.95; free for under age 2), so you don't have to take out a loan every time your kids want to go to a theme park. And it will be smaller and less crowded, so you can do the whole thing in a few hours at a more relaxed pace."

Even though most of the area's major theme parks have places designed for young children, Allan Jr. maintains that Adventure City will offer something they don't--namely, an environment that can be enjoyed simultaneously by children and adults.

"I used to take my nephews to the kiddie sections at those parks, and I found that I wasn't allowed to go on the rides with them, and they were too young to go on the big roller coaster kinds of rides with me," he recalled. "I started thinking, 'Wouldn't it be nice if there were a place where you wouldn't have to pay the high price and you could both have fun?' "

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