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Theme park designers draw steady work in Asia

The continent has lured many of the industry's Southern California-based designers, who have grown accustomed to globe-trotting as the U.S. has become loaded with theme parks and other entertainment venues.

June 19, 2011|By David Pierson, Los Angeles Times
  • Visitors take photographs at the front gates of the Singapore theme park, which had a soft opening last year.
Visitors take photographs at the front gates of the Singapore theme park,… (David Pierson, Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Singapore — To round up talent to build Universal Studios' newest theme park in Singapore, chief designer Kevin Barbee didn't look far from his Wilshire Boulevard office. After all, Southern California is a hive for independent designers and other creative types who perfected their craft at Universal Studios Hollywood, Disneyland, Six Flags Magic Mountain and others.

But with the U.S. economy struggling, veterans like Barbee are packing their bags for Asia, one of the few sources of steady employment for purveyors of pixie dust these days. When the global economy tanked in 2008, he and his hand-picked team were among the few in the industry working full tilt on a major new park.

Photos: Theme parks in Asia

"We got to choose the cream of the crop to build this park," Barbee said. "We were extremely fortunate because there wasn't much work elsewhere at the time. Asia has been really good to theme park designers."

Their handiwork abounds at Universal Studios Singapore, a $1.4-billion project opened last year on a resort island in this Southeast Asian city-state. Stroll Madagascar zone, influenced by the DreamWorks Animation film of the same name, and you'll see a gigantic ship's hull designed by an art director from Northridge. In the Lost World, a themed land based on the Hollywood blockbuster "Jurassic Park," a designer from Los Feliz fashioned the rocky prehistoric landscapes and toothy dinosaurs. The Far Far Away Castle that towers over the park was modeled by a team from L.A.'s Miracle Mile.

For some of the several hundred designers who form the creative core of Southern California's industry, globe-trotting has become part of the job as the U.S. has become loaded with theme parks and other entertainment venues. In the late 1990s, some headed to Japan, which was gearing up for the 2001 openings of Universal Studios Japan and the nautical-themed Tokyo DisneySea. Others were lured to South Korea. Later came Dubai, whose planned entertainment mega-complex known as Dubailand promised a gusher of contracts — that is, until the emirate's property bubble burst about two years ago.

Today, Asia is about the only E ticket going for theme park designers. The continent's middle class is growing by millions of people a year. With more disposable income and free time, these consumers yearn to spend some of it on thrill rides, cotton candy and a chance to get their picture taken with Snow White.

"The U.S. and European markets are both very mature," said Christian Aaen, principal at Entertainment + Culture Advisors in Beverly Hills. "All the new development is really taking place in Asia."

The top 15 Asian theme parks attracted 83.3 million visitors last year, up 7.3% from 2009, according to the Themed Entertainment Assn. and consulting firm AECOM. Japanese parks accounted for more than half those visitors, leaving plenty of room for growth in other parts of the region.

Universal Studios Singapore, which officially launched last month after a soft opening in 2010, is positioned to capture travelers from Malaysia, Indonesia, India and China. The park's operator, Resorts World Sentosa, projects 4 million visitors this year.

In southern Malaysia, a massive new development will include a Legoland that's scheduled to open next year. And in China, three major theme parks are slated to open by 2014 — all of them powered by Southern Californian creativity.

Photos: Legoland Malaysia

The most anticipated is the Shanghai Disney Resort, a $3.7-billion joint venture between Walt Disney Co. and Shanghai Shendi Group. Japan's Sanrio Co. recently announced plans for a Hello Kitty theme park outside Shanghai that will be designed by Hettema Group of Pasadena. And a Chinese developer has tapped Thinkwell Group of Burbank to provide the creative spark for Monkey Kingdom, a Beijing park that will anchor a $1.5-billion entertainment and convention hub.

"We think Disneyland Shanghai will just fuel more growth and Asia will eventually overtake the North American theme park market," said Aaen of Entertainment + Culture Advisors.

Barbee got his first break in the early 1990s designing the Gotham City Backlot at Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia. But a five-year stint working for Universal Studios in Osaka, Japan, morphed into a series of projects in Asia. He has designed retail space in Macau and worked on now-shelved plans for a Paramount Studios theme park near Beijing. He's now thinking of opening an office in Singapore.

"The majority of work for the next portion of my life will be outside of the U.S.," said Barbee, 48, whose website includes a photo of him clad in a formal kimono. "And not just me. I frequently walk through theme parks overseas and see someone I didn't know was there too."

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