Sunday, July 6, 2003

Beirut amusement park would transform image

Local experts hired to make it a reality

By John Eckberg
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Amusement park expert Dennis Spiegel is helping investors realize their dream of an amusement park in Beirut, Lebanon.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
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The magnitude of the mission came to Dennis L. Speigel one sunny morning in early March as he strolled through a rebuilt Martyrs Square in Beirut, Lebanon.

Once a terror-torn corner of a troubled land, on this morning, Beirut was a postcard of its former glory: an urbane array of restaurants and cafes, fresh-food shops and upscale clothiers, a city of avenues and palm trees waving in the breeze off the Mediterranean.

Banks were wide open for business. So were art galleries and breakfast nooks. Street vendors hawked tapestries, leather goods and clothing.

One important thread was missing from the fabric of the local economy, but that would soon change: Speigel, of Anderson Township, was here to ink a deal to bring Greater Beirut a $100 million amusement park.

"Most people don't know it, but Beirut is back," Speigel said three months after the trip.

He was in the Eden Park office of International Theme Park Services, a converted apartment building cluttered with memorabilia and memories of his career in the theme park business.

"Beirut is, again, the Riviera of the Middle East," he said

On that morning five months ago - and only two weeks before the Iraq war began - Speigel realized that he, too, had come a long way from his first job decades before at the ticket booth at the Art Deco entry gate to Cincinnati's Coney Island Amusement Park.

That's where a 13-year-old Speigel got his start in the entertainment business during a summer break, and it's where he learned many of the amusement park lessons that were about to bear fruit once again for his theme park development company:

Give customers a thrilling ride, a paper cone full of cotton candy, clean grounds with courteous staff and winding, relaxing walkways, and it's likely they will return to the park again and again and again.

[IMAGE] This rendering depicts the amusement park that Lebanese investors are excited about.
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Speigel's Cincinnati company would study, design and build a grand amusement park on the outskirts of Beirut, the first major American-style amusement park to be built anywhere in the Middle East.

As his handmade Hong Kong loafers clicked across the ancient plaza stone, Speigel knew that a lot was riding on this project.

Though his company had been involved in planning, building or managing more than 400 attractions in 40 nations since it was founded in 1983, this is the first project with the potential to change the way the world viewed an entire region.

When the proposed park - originally a remote dale of olive trees and dust about a 30-minute drive from downtown - is completed in 2004, it will be a symbol to the West that the people of Lebanon had put a bloody past on a shelf and were ready to have fun.

Crunching numbers

Creating a theme park is not exactly like a video game - although Speigel says a good game's designs and operational concerns are similar to the real world.

Builders must research a region's culture, per capita income, cost of land and labor to build rides, and then comes the feasibility analysis.

Who: Dennis Speigel.

Age: 57.

Residence: Anderson Township.

Married: Donna, owner of The Snooty Fox, a chain of retail consignment stores.

Work history and education: President of International Theme Park Services Inc., a leisure management consulting and design firm with offices in Eden Park.

His first job was as a ticket taker/seasonal employee at Coney Island Amusement Park in 1960, and he soon decided to make amusement park management a career. He worked his way to assistant park manager of Coney Island, then Kings Island Theme Park, where as assistant general manager he supervised general park operations, including personnel, rides, food/beverage, merchandise, games and guest hospitality.

A 1969 graduate of Morehead State University with a bachelor of science degree, Speigel is a former vice president and general manager of Kings Dominion in Richmond, Va.; vice president of operations for Taft Broadcasting Co.; vice president of International Operations and the former past president of the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions.

Hobbies: A collector of amusement park memorabilia, Speigel has an office full of mementoes, including an 1864 prancer merry-go-round horse from Pstundt, Germany, that was on a double-decker ride and is valued at $70,000. He also owns nine Harley-Davidson motorcycles.

Projections are made about the number of visitors, the economics of the region and whether it can support a theme park.

Those projections determine the size of the park, attractions and scope - that is, whether it will be a large or a small theme park, a water-park or entertainment center, for instance. Or, those projections could kill a project.

Fees to take a project from feasibility to working construction documents are typically about 10 percent of project cost with some of that usually directed to contractors and consultants in the region.

After the Lebanon numbers came back positive - it's likely to draw visitors from throughout Europe and the Middle East - the next step was to actually conceive of an appealing park.

The next time he met with investors, who are from Lebanon and elsewhere in the Middle East, it was in Cincinnati and included a tour of Paramount's Kings Island. By then detailed drawings were in place that showed gleaming rides, benches and smiling families. Investors liked what they saw.

The Lebanon Theme Park, the working name for this project of 40-50 acres, will resemble most other theme parks:

• There is a Wild West section - even though Speigel recommended against it.

You don't want to Americanize your theme park, he told the investors, with culture and scenes from an American history that might not appeal to a broad cross-section of Middle East customers.

"No, no, they told me. 'We know the Wild West. We watched Maverick on TV, Bonanza.' They said we want the Old West area," Speigel said.

So that section was pumped up. It will have eateries in a mock cowboy town, a huge oil derrick that will give riders a stomach-churning free-fall drop and plenty of roving cowboy characters in giant floppy cowboy hats.

• The park will have an adventure zone, a flying carpet ride, the Seven Voyages of Sinbad and an Egyptian Tomb zone. There is room to expand to a nearby slab of land - today a hillside covered with olive trees - where an African safari might one day be built.

Experts believe the project probably does mean that Lebanon has undergone a tectonic shift in attitude.

When investors agree to build a multimillion theme park, that usually implies that a society has stabilized and a middle-class is poised to emerge, said Miami University political science professor William D. Jackson, who is also an expert in international relations.

"Theme parks suppose that people have a certain level of disposable income," he said. "You don't build theme parks for a marginal underclass or an impoverished population.

"A greater interest in leisure means a greater disposable income, because it generally is a middle-class recreational opportunity. It also is a globalization of a recreational culture."

The emergence of a Lebanon theme park, as well as theme parks throughout Asia and China, also means an acceptance of Western consumer values. All theme parks bring jobs - about 700 to 800 will be created in Beirut - and jobs bring even more disposable income.

"You don't build theme parks in fragile, unstable countries," Jackson said. "The Lebanon theme park is a testament to the fact that Beirut and Lebanon have come a long way back from being a war-torn society in the 1980s."

International track record

Speigel's International Theme Park Services, which have also developed the Tianjin Amusement Park in China as well as Beijing Amusement Park in Beijing, led the expansion and marketing, operations, maintenance, safety, security and other concerns at Chapultepec Magico in the heart of Mexico City.

His firm was chosen because of its international expertise, said Rene Aziz, president of Chapultepec Magico, the largest theme/amusement park in that nation.

From internal audits to safety issues, from design expansion to retail development, International Theme Park is able to glean regional data and recommend appropriate responses, he said.

National boundaries have little or no impact on the findings either, as the company is able to extrapolate based on economic conditions of the specific country.

"He has done more theme parks outside the U.S. than anybody in the industry," Aziz said in telephone conversation from his Mexico City offices.

"In Latin America, he has been involved in all of the most important theme parks."

Sometimes, Speigel said, he thinks back to all the countries and states where he has done business - China, Iowa, Mexico, Texas, Brazil, Michigan, Taiwan, Colorado, Japan, Ohio - and marvels at the different customers but common themes.

Walt Disney figured it out five decades before, and it's still true today, Speigel says, of the company that once hired his firm to market and do product planning when Disney bought the Queen Mary in the late 1980s.

Also, a banking consortium of 88 international banks hired his firm to review and recommend compensation of Disney from the failing Euro Disney park in France.

Disney knew that every project had unique problems and challenges. But there was always one constant, Speigel said:

"People the world over have this in common - they all want to have fun."


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