With One Eye On Euro Disneyland...A Theme Park May Lift All Catalonia

Ever since Euro Disneyland on the outskirts of Paris laid an uf with castle-jaded Europeans, theme parks in Europe have been labeled with a large question mark--printed in red ink. But hope springs eternal in the entrepreneurial breast, and another big theme park called Port Aventura opens May 2 on Spain's Mediterranean coast, just an hour's drive southwest of Barcelona at Salou.

To avoid Euro Disneyland's headaches, the park's backers are betting on sun-drenched beaches, lower fixed costs, incremental expansion, and a park tailored for Europe.

Backers include Anheuser-Busch Cos. and Britain's Tussauds Group Ltd. of London wax museum fame. Busch, of course, is the U.S. brewing giant whose entertainment division (Sea World, Busch Gardens) is second only to Disney in U.S. theme parks. Tussaud's, a Pearson PLC unit specializing in visitor attractions, will manage Port Aventura.

Spain's largest savings group, La Caixa, and Spanish electrical utility FECSA round out the partners, which together have invested $380 million--about 25% of Disney's initial outlay near Paris, though at 120 hectares the two parks are about the same size.

Market research among Europeans prompted the design of five thematic areas: Mexico, the American Old West, Polynesia, a Mediterranean village, and China.

Port Aventura expects 2.5 million visitors in 1995 (advance sales exceed 360,000), 1 million of them from elsewhere in Europe, and a minimum turnover of $95 million. Before 2000, the park is expected to be in the black and drawing 5 million visitors a year.

The partners will wait to develop an adjacent shopping and office center and a resort. "We learned from Disney to consolidate the theme park first and then offer other services," says General Manager Luis Rulln.

In 1989, Anheuser-Busch bought about 800 hectares, hoping to open in time for Barcelona's Olympic year in 1992. That didn't happen. First the city of Salou and Vila-Seca split in two, each hoping to tax the park, so a special administrative zone was established to protect it. Then Anheuser-Busch's partner, Javier de la Rosa, had financial problems and withdrew in 1994, paving the way for the consortium of Tussaud's (40%), La Caixa (33%), Anheuser-Busch (20%), and FECSA (7%).

But waiting has its advantages. The peseta devaluations since 1992 and the Spanish recession cut construction costs. In 1994, Spain approved flexible labor rules nationwide, making it easier for the park to hire 2,000 temporary employees without riling unions. Port Aventura will be open from spring through autumn, unlike the year-round Disneyland Paris.

Getting through on the telephone in Barcelona isn't as tough as it used to be, nor is driving around town. The reason: the $10 billion investment in telecommunications, ring roads, and other improvements for the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, which has made doing business a lot easier.

"All the effort in infrastructure is having its effect on business in Barcelona," said Carmen Alcaide, director of macroeconomic studies at Banco Bilbao Vizcaya in Madrid.

Now, with Spain and the eastern region of Catalonia chalking up identical 2% growth rates in 1994 to emerge from the recession that struck Europe just after the Olympics, the Catalonian capitol of Barcelona is eyeing Port Aventura as another element in its economic recovery. The city's hotel occupancy is still below the 60% level of 1992, but local tour operators are already pitching Port Aventura as "Barcelona's theme park."

Average occupancy rates along the Costa Dorada, nearest the park, rose from 49% in 1992 to 60% in 1994. Vacation package tours have long depressed prices in beach towns like Salou, but Barcelona economist Angreu Gispert said Port Aventura should help boost value-added tourism on the highly competitive Catalonian coast.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.