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The Players

Entertainment giants are backing state-of-the-art technology with marketing muscle to lure customers into palatial and pricey game centers.

March 23, 1997|GREG JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It may have been the opening of a video arcade in Seattle, but it had Hollywood's fingerprints all over it.

Televised nationally on MTV last weekend, it showcased media stars "Fresh Prince" Will Smith, Coolio and Beck astride the latest in video games, including one that ended with a gut-wrenching 24-foot free fall.

It was the kind of star firepower that only GameWorks, the $10-million brainchild of movie producer Steven Spielberg, could assemble. His DreamWorks SKG has teamed up with Sega Enterprises and Universal Studios, and plans to build 100 of the $10-million entertainment emporiums nationwide.

With its savvy blend of proprietary video games, designer pizzas and stylish architecture, GameWorks offers high-voltage proof that some of the biggest names in entertainment are now heading toward suburban malls and urban centers near your home.

Names like Disney, Spielberg, Sony--heavyweights with the business savvy and marketing might to dominate the theme park industry, produce Hollywood's blockbusters and shape popular music--are looking for more.

Now they're using their considerable clout to change the way that we play:

* Walt Disney Co., keeper of the Magic Kingdom that stretches from Anaheim to Tokyo, has spent millions on Club Disney, an upscale playsite in Thousand Oaks that's the prototype for a proposed 100-unit chain.

* Earlier this month, Dave & Buster's, a Dallas-based arcade chain geared toward adults, opened its premier California location at the massive Ontario Mills shopping center.

* Sony Corp. is readying a massive, four-story entertainment center in downtown San Francisco envisioned as the flagship for a string of major clubs to open in urban centers around the world.

* Ogden Corp., which operates venues such as the Great Western Forum, is breaking ground on a chain of mall-based storefronts that blend live animals and motion simulation machines to give suburbanites a wilderness experience. The billion-dollar company also is developing a dinner theater in Anaheim.

* Brunswick Corp., which makes everything from bowling balls to outboard motors, recently opened Red's Rec Room at a massive mall in Alberta. The prototype that fills an old Ikea store is the possible precursor to a string of centers that incorporate a campy collection of bowling lanes, restaurants, bars and arcade games.

"We're looking at things that a family can do for two or three hours after school and on weekends," said Jay Rasulo, senior vice president of the new Disney Regional Entertainment division. "And, like Club Disney, the new concepts will be very different from Disneyland."

Like the Disney Store chain, the playsites are designed to satisfy fanatics from places like Omaha, where a family trip to Disneyland means a $2,000 vacation.

But a day at the entertainment outposts also will be pricey. Disney charges an $8 admission--but that doesn't include food and gifts. And that catered birthday for your child? Figure $250 for a dozen party-goers.

Even though GameWorks doesn't charge an entry fee, competitors suspect that a family of five could easily spend more than $100 on games and meals.

The new playgrounds are wrapped up in typical Hollywood hyperbole. Disney promises to "set a new standard for local family entertainment," while GameWorks pledges a "one-of-a-kind entertainment experience."

Critics might scoff at the unbridled self-confidence, but there's no denying that these companies are an elephantine force.

They know that Americans place a high level of trust in respected brand names. That's why Mickey Mouse's footprints are all over Club Disney and GameWorks is heralding its high-intensity game parlor as "Steven Spielberg's three-ring circus."

They also are crafting alliances with powerful brand names such as Starbucks and the Cheesecake Factory as they assemble one-stop centers where patrons can eat, drink, play and shop.

*

Despite the hoopla, these companies have reason to move carefully. Developers caution that entertainment could suffer the same fate as retailing, where consumers have been numbed by a string of look-alike shops in malls across America.

And, some big names have already stubbed their toes while trying to build nationwide chains that blend entertainment and dining.

Disney's vaunted pixie dust proved ineffective during the early 1990s, when the company threw in the towel on Mickey's Kitchen, a restaurant chain offering Meatless Mickey Burgers, Pinocchio Pizza and French fries shaped like Disney characters.

Six Flags has put Funtricity, the prototype for a string of entertainment centers, on hold, and Paramount Parks sold its interest in Block Party, another prototype angled toward adults.

Despite the potential barriers, developers sense that now is the time to strike. They're playing to the fears of many consumers who think the world is spinning out of control.

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