HONG KONG – A rush of theme park construction across Asia that will result in new homes for Mickey Mouse, the Monkey King and Hello Kitty is also providing a financial lifeline for the world's elite group of entertainment designers.
New theme parks, resorts and casinos are scheduled to open from Singapore to Seoul over the next several years as property developers and entertainment companies aim to draw Asia's rapidly growing middle classes. They're betting there will be a big market for family amusement rides, live shows and the chance to pose for a picture with Snow White.
The projects represent the next big growth area for skilled and experienced designers and creators as the North American market has become saturated and opportunities to design big new resorts have dried up.
"America has slowed down and Asia has kicked into higher gear. Especially China and Macau are really busy," said Gary Goddard, a veteran architectural designer who drew up the masterplan for the Galaxy Macau, a $1.9 billion casino resort that opened in the southern Chinese city in May.
Goddard and many of his competitors are based in Southern California but they've been doing a lot more traveling to Asia lately to work on projects and meet potential clients. Many aren't strangers to the region, having worked in Japan on an earlier generation of parks and developments. Now the focus is shifting to China.
Theme parks in the U.S. struggled last year with modest attendance gains as the economy eked out a muted recovery from recession. Six Flags Entertainment Corp., which runs 19 parks in North America, filed for bankruptcy protection in 2009 because of heavy debt.
The situation is similar in Europe, where operators are mostly renovating or buying smaller rivals. One of the few new parks planned in coming years is being built on Spain's Mediterranean coast, where officials are teaming with U.S. film company Paramount.
The recession has also scuppered grand plans for amusement parks in the Middle East, where the vast Dubailand complex has been put on hold.
Not so in Asia.
Disney's long-awaited $3.7 billion park is scheduled to open in Shanghai in 2016. The Pasadena-based Hettema Group is designing a Hello Kitty park set to open southwest of Shanghai in 2014. Burbank-based Thinkwell Group is working on a Monkey Kingdom park near Beijing based on the classical Chinese epic novel also scheduled for 2014.
Outside China, Southeast Asia's first Universal Studios theme park opened last year in Singapore, part of a $4.4 billion resort that also includes the city-state's first casino. Another Universal Studios is slated to open in 2014 in Seoul, South Korea that will be bigger than the company's four existing parks. Asia's first Legoland is scheduled to open in southern Malaysia in 2013.
"The growth of the middle class in Asia is phenomenal and will drive huge investments in theme parks in the coming decade," said consultancy Aecom in its annual report on theme park development.
Phil Hettema, president of The Hettema Group, said he's in talks "probably every week about additional projects upcoming in China."
"There's a growing market there. There's a huge class of people looking for family entertainment," he said.
Asian theme park attendance is forecast to grow to 290 million in 2012 from 249 million in 2007, while spending in that period will rise from $6.4 billion to $8.4 billion, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers.
It's not just theme parks that need skilled designers.
In Macau, the only place in China where casinos are legal, the Galaxy is the first of what is expected to be several new hybrid casino-resorts aimed at turning the city into a tourist and cultural destination and reducing its reliance on gambling revenues.
Goddard said he was tapped by a rival casino company for its expansion project three days after Galaxy opened. His design featured multiple rooftop finials reminiscent of Thai palaces as part of a theme evoking a mystical Asian kingdom.
In Galaxy's lobby, a fountain turns into a giant roulette wheel before a giant diamond rises out of the top. It's a metaphor for wishing casino goers eternal luck and prosperity, said designer Jeremy Railton.
Railton's company, Entertainment Design Corp., also created the Dancing Cranes show at Singapore's Sentosa Resort, which features two giant animatronic birds with video screens on their chests in a mating dance.
Legions of newly affluent Chinese making more trips around the country is one big factor driving China's resort building boom, said Christian Aaen, a principal at consultancy Entertainment+Cultural Advisors.
There's also a large pool of young people who are "looking for new things to do and are starved for entertainment," he said.
Meanwhile, China's government is also trying to promote tourism as part of a push to boost domestic consumption. Regional governments have been partnering with private companies to build property developments anchored by theme parks that also include hotels, shops, restaurants or other services, said Aaen.
But there are no guarantees of an easy ride. Hong Kong's Disneyland has never turned a profit since it opened in 2005 despite being popular with mainland Chinese visitors. The park is the smallest Disney property, which many blame for its poor performance. Asia also has its share of abandoned amusement parks, many of which suffered because of lack of investment.
"Ninety percent of theme parks in China that are designed by Chinese companies fail," Goddard said. He tells this to potential clients before asking them if they really want to proceed.
Part of the problem is that some developers want to do it on the cheap. Sometimes that means they want to clone famous existing parks even though they don't have enough money, said Goddard. He has been working on and off in China for about 15 years and has had to talk potential clients out of trying to copy Disneyland or Universal Studios.
"You're never going to be as good as the real thing. You want to do something original and different," he says.
When projects do get under way, designers need to adapt attractions to Asian tastes. Many Asian park visitors consist of families that may include a young child and one or even two sets of grandparents.
That means extreme rides are out, said Kevin Barbee, of KB Creative Advisors.
For these families, "if you have a roller coaster, the youngest is probably too short to go on and oldest ones don't want to be spun and twisted," said Barbee, who recently moved his office from Los Angeles to Singapore. He's working on several new Universal Studios attractions there and is close to signing a deal on a theme park renovation in China.
Designers say another big difference is the food. In China, theme park visitors just aren't as gastronomically adventurous as their counterparts at parks in North America.
"You can't really have themed food. They don't want French food or Italian food," said Goddard, but added that they will make an exception for hamburgers and hot-dogs.