Theme Park Debacle

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Whatever 2000 eventually will be known for, it won't be world-class theme parks. The turn of the millennium will go down as the year that the earth's fun-seeking public soundly rejected their governments' efforts to keep them entertained. Take Britain's Millennium Dome. Please. Conceived as a symbol of Cool Britannia, the government spent $1 billion on it and sold it last month for just $158 million to Japanese financial group Nomura amid a flurry of bad press, worse reviews and lousy attendance reports. The heads of both chief executive Jennie Page and Bob Ayling, chairman of the Dome operators New Millennium Experience Company, had already rolled. The government also announced that about $65 million of sale revenues will go toward keeping the Dome running through the end of the year.

Things haven't been much better for the organizers of Expo 2000, the world's fair taking place in Hanover, Germany. Meant to showcase a united Germany, it is attracting just a third of the expected number of visitors so far, and key sponsorships have yet to sign on. Organizers have fired hundreds of workers and cut ticket prices, but it may still leave the German government with some $1 billion in debt.

But just down the autobahn in Wolfsburg, Germany, Volkswagen has built a theme park that is drawing twice as many visitors as expected along with rave reviews. Autostadt, or Auto City, is the brainchild of VW chairman Ferdinand Pich. Conceived as a place for VW customers to pick up their new cars keeping VW perks in line with BMW and Mercedes it quickly grew into the EuroDisney of the automobile. Pich, unlike other theme park planners, never intended for Autostadt to become profitable. The $400 million development cost has been written off in the name of marketing. Now Pich hopes that Autostadt's revenues will cover its operating expenses next year.

What makes Autostadt a better draw? The landscape for one. Architect Gunter Henn took an industrial wasteland and turned it into a magnificent park with shapely modern buildings, bridges and lots of grass. "Unfortunately for VW bosses. . . the best thing at Autostadt has nothing to do with extending brand awareness," said Richard Yarrow in London's Daily Telegraph, raving about the twin-tower car park.

But the attractions aren't bad either. There's a 360-degree theater showing a safety film by German director Dani Levy, rides which simulate the force of a car crash and pavilions for each VW brand. In the museum is John Lennon's white Beetle, featured on the cover of Abbey Road. But perhaps the smartest thing VW did was to keep prices low and to focus on fun not hype.

With reporting by Ursula Sautter/Bonn and Elinor Shields/London