Tuesday, July 10, 2012

DreamWorks Plans for Meadowlands Theme Park

The Hollywood studio DreamWorks Animation has struck a deal to bring Shrek, Kung Fu Panda and other animated movie characters to a planned amusement park as part of a revived entertainment and retail mall in the New Jersey Meadowlands.  It would be the first theme park based on the studio’s animated movies.

DreamWorks has sought to capitalize on the huge popularity of its films, much as Disney and Universal Studios have in the United States, Europe and Asia. The indoor theme park would include rides, attractions and a glass-enclosed wave pool incorporating characters from the studio’s movies.

The partnership between the developer, Triple Five, and DreamWorks is a rare bit of good news for a site that has sat vacant and unfinished since May 2009, when the previous developers ran out of money after spending $1.9 billion on a five-story complex just west of Manhattan, near MetLife Stadium, called Xanadu.

In a statement Monday evening, Jeffrey Katzenberg, chief executive of DreamWorks Animation, confirmed the deal, saying the theme park would involve the studio’s “characters, storytelling and technology in a unique and innovative family entertainment experience.”

Triple Five, the developer of the Mall of America, has renamed the project American Dream and drawn up plans to make it even bigger, with nearly 1.7 million square feet of retail space, an indoor ski hill, indoor sky diving, bowling, an aquarium, a live theater and the 14.7-acre amusement park.

But the project continues to be dogged by delays. In announcing a tentative agreement between the current owners and Triple Five in May 2011, Gov. Chris Christie said he expected the developer to strike a deal with the owners and get financing for the project by the end of 2011 so that American Dream could be open for the 2014 Super Bowl at MetLife Stadium.

But executives working with Triple Five now say that $1.75 billion in financing will not be completed until October and that the complex will not open until September 2014, seven months after the Super Bowl.

Triple Five, which is owned by the Ghermezian family, has built two of the world’s largest and most successful entertainment malls. But the company faces special challenges in the Meadowlands, the least of which are the local blue laws that prohibit retail activity on Sundays.

Many retailers say they are reluctant to get involved with the project because of its troubled history. “There were enough false starts that retailers want to see some substance,” said Ron DeLuca, a partner at R. J. Brunelli & Company, which represents a roster of retailers who had signed leases at Xanadu. “Until American Dream becomes a reality,” he said, “it is difficult to get retailers to make hard commitments.”

The Jets and Giants, which both use MetLife Stadium, filed a lawsuit last month seeking to block construction of the project, saying it threatens to “clog the complex’s already congested transportation networks” on game days, when 80,000 fans converge on the stadium.

The State Transportation Department approved the project, however, and Triple Five moved on Tuesday to dismiss the suit.

The deal with DreamWorks provides the project with some Hollywood cachet and underscores Triple Five’s emphasis on entertainment.

Entertainment conglomerates like DreamWorks say they view theme parks as a way to expand revenues for an industry buffeted by piracy, flagging DVD sales and a drop in network television viewers.

The theme park industry is slow growing in North America, said John Robinett, senior vice president of economics for the Themed Entertainment Association, although the recent creation of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter attraction at Universal Studios in Florida and a $1 billion makeover tied to “Cars” characters at Disney’s California Adventure park in Los Angeles have raised attendance substantially.

Triple Five is hoping DreamWorks can do the same in the Meadowlands, where it says it hopes to attract 55 million visitors annually. But that may be easier in Minnesota or West Edmonton, Canada, where Triple Five already operates.

“Not only does northern New Jersey not lack for shopping malls; there are a lot of destination attractions,” said David L. Malmouth, a developer in San Diego and a former Disney executive. “Manhattan is a pretty compelling theme park in its own right.”