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Effects House Concentrates on Theme Parks

Effects House Concentrates on Theme Parks By CARLOS MARTINEZ Staff Reporter Canoga Park-based special effects house WonderWorks Inc. has signed a $100 million contract to design and build attractions for a Paris theme park. The company will develop a number of attractions at Snow Valley Park featuring movie special effects similar to those at Universal Studios Hollywood along with spaceship mockups and other scale models. “It’s going to be our biggest project ever, using tons of material and thousands of hours of labor,” said Brick Price, WonderWorks president and its co-founder, along with his wife Laura. The company will also build the park’s Space and Science Center over the next four years, featuring a series of model spaceships and aircraft. The contract calls for the construction of full-size replicas of the Space Shuttle and the Apollo space capsule for the 190,000-square-foot center. The project marks the latest in a series of theme park deals for the firm known primarily for its work in films like “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” and its sequels, “Blade Runner,” “Deep Impact” and “Armageddon.” It comes as WonderWorks continues to move away from manufacturing miniatures for film special effects, its core business for almost 25 years. That segment of the business has seen a steady decline as Hollywood turns away from miniatures in favor of computer-generated graphics. At about the same time the Paris deal was signed, the company, in a joint venture with Los Angeles-based Vertex Productions Inc., agreed to design a water park for a hotel being built in Milwaukee by SouthSeas Island Resorts. Just five years ago, most of WonderWorks’ revenue came from film work with its theme park business accounting for around 20 percent of sales. Last year, WonderWorks grossed $6 million with 75 percent of its revenue coming from its theme park activities. Revenues this year should increase to about $20 million, with half of that from the Paris deal. In the mid-1990s, the company began to land contracts with a number of high-profile clients like Universal Studios Hollywood and the Disney MGM Studios theme park in Florida. “In 1995 we signed a contract to design and build five major attractions in a theme park in Shanghai in China … That gets out in the trades pretty quick, and that’s when the ball started rolling,” Palmer said. So far this year, WonderWorks has begun work on attractions in theme parks in Korea and Japan. The company’s push into the theme park business is a natural progression, said Price, who founded the company in 1977 after working for years with other effects firms. “We found we could do the same work we did on films for theme parks with equal success,” he said. The company’s current work isn’t new, having built scale models in the 1970s and ’80s for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. John Palmer, Price’s partner in the firm, said the move into theme park work has helped the company stabilize its revenue by providing a hedge against downturns in the film industry. “If we build a shuttle, it doesn’t matter if it’s for a film, a museum or a rock concert,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons we’ve been able to survive when other companies haven’t.” During its first year, the company grossed $150,000 and nearly went bankrupt. “There were a lot of things we didn’t know about. Workers compensation, health insurance, a bond, all kinds of things,” Price said. But by its third year, the firm had its first big-time contract with “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry. WonderWorks was tapped to build several scale models, including a new version of the Starship Enterprise for the 1979 “Star Trek: The Motion Picture.” Although the business continued to develop more film work through the 1980s, it also landed a deal to design and build an interactive laser game at a theme park in Japan. That was just the beginning. The entry into theme park work proved valuable when business ground to a halt during the 1987 writers’ strike. Dan Curry, special effects supervisor for “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and later “Star Trek” television series and movies, said, “I always considered that a very wise business plan because of the change in technology in the motion pictures area.” “At least 70 percent of what used to be done with miniatures has gone away and it’s all part of an evolution that started about 10 years ago,” Curry said. Curry, who now works on the Star Trek spin-off “Enterprise,” said his show relies primarily on computer-generated graphics for its space vehicles and its outer space sequences. Over the last few years, WonderWorks has worked on projects at the Smithsonian Institution’s Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C.; a Mercury space capsule display at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley; and spaceships and related displays for the Challenger Center in Georgia. It built a full-size mockup of the Confederate submarine, the CSS Hundley, and replicas of rooms occupied by the submarine captain and his crew at the Civil War Naval Museum in Georgia. “I had all kinds of qualms about them at first because they were movie people, but they came well recommended and I’m glad we got them,” said Bruce Smith, executive director of the naval museum. “It wasn’t us just giving them the keys to the place, but they really allowed us to participate and encouraged us to do so with ideas and suggestions.” One attraction features a ship’s cabin fitted with sound effects and hydraulics that rock it as bombs explode during a Civil War naval battle. The realism is enhanced as visitors watch a filmed sequence of a battle projected onto a screen through a ship’s window. Meanwhile, the company has begun work on several new miniature buildings for a theme park in South Korea, which features small-scale versions of famous structures. “It will give people a chance to feel and see what those buildings are really like,” Price said. Among the buildings are 1/24th-scale versions of Egyptian and Aztec pyramids, the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty and the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers.

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