CEO and founder Mario Mamon on one of Asia’s largest theme parks, Enchanted Kingdom.
Mario Mamon has created one of Asia’s leading theme park, and the first of it’s kind in the Philippines, The Enchanted Kingdom, where attendance has grown to 1.8 million.
Mamon is a phenomenon. In the 1990s, he was a sugar cane farmer in Canlubang in the Philippines. Planning to diversify, he spotted a gap in the market and in 1995, with no prior knowledge of the attractions industry, transformed 12 hectares of barren land in Laguna and created the first world-class theme park in the Philippines.
Today, the world-renowned Enchanted Kingdom, which has been growing steadily in terms of revenue and visitor numbers, is in the process of transitioning into an integrated attractions destination, and Mamon , the first Asian to be elected as chairman of IAAPA, is also the founding president of PhilAAPA (the Philippine Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions.).
He spoke to Blooloop about his journey and the evolution of the Enchanted Kingdom.
“I was not born into the amusement and attractions industry. I was a farmer, planting crops like sugar cane in our land. But there came a time where the lands became ripe for other uses or real estate development and so we sort of diversified.”
“People were asking, why would we go into the amusement and attractions industry? Why Enchanted Kingdom?”
In the early 1990s, Mamon and his wife Cynthia were starting their family. They had visited Disneyland and Ocean Park in Hong Kong. As a result, they felt there might be a window of opportunity for a fixed amusement theme park in the Philippines. At the time there was nothing of the sort. Parks were limited to small amusement centers and seasonal carnivals in empty locations. These were along the lines of County Fairs. However, the country’s economy was improving and the middle class increasing.
Knowing nothing about the amusement industry, someone introduced them to an amusement conference being held in Hong Kong, which they attended, and were introduced to IAAPA. Realising that IAAPA might be their ticket to the industry, they joined the Association in 1992, the year that they attended their first trade show and conference in the US in Dallas, Texas.
Ever since Mamon has attended the conferences where possible and has subsequently met the attractions consultants and suppliers.
The original Enchanted Kingdom was designed by seasoned designer and master planner Gary Goddard, at that point still with Landmark Entertainment.
“Denis Spiegel and International Theme Park Services (ITPS) from Cincinnati, Ohio consulted for us on operation and safety etc for the first three years. With our designers and consultants in tow, we finally broke ground in August of 1994, and opened to the public in October 1995.”
“We rushed the construction of the park – initially a 10-hectare property – because there was some interest from other groups to set up a similar park here in the Philippines. We really wanted to beat the others.”
Fortunately for them, they were able to complete the park itself and the Enchanted Kingdom had been operating for two years, before the first financial crisis in 1997.
“Although we were affected by that, it may be also prevented competitors from continuing on with their plans of setting up something similar to the Enchanted Kingdom.”
Interestingly, there was nothing local or Filipino about the design, or any of the zones: a deliberate choice on Mamon’s part. The consultants brought in were so enamored of the Filipino architecture that their first renderings were Filipino. However, Mamon disagreed saying “We felt that if they went into the park and saw what they saw outside in their normal lives, it sort of breaks the magic.”
When conceptualizing and planning, he wanted to bring the predominantly local guests into a world of fantasy and make-believe, the result of which was seven themed zones.
The front gate in the Victoria Park area is themed like the Victorian era. Then there is Boulderville, reminiscent of The Flintstones’ Bedrock, a small ride area for children. Midway Boardwalk is like Coney Island in the 1930s; Jungle Outpost is themed around the Amazon Jungle, Spaceport is space-age, Brooklyn Place evokes 1940s New York, and Portabello is like a South American port. Each zone has a variety of rides and attractions, as well as food and merchandise.
In 2015, Enchanted Kingdom celebrated its 20th anniversary.
“We were new to our market – we were really marketing by hit and miss – plus we were affected by external factors like the crashes of 1997, 2007, and 2008. And then we had our own problems with our economy, the business environment and with our government, so it was not an easy ride.”
However, from 2009 onwards, they were able to put their finances in order. From that point on they have experienced consistent growth in terms of visitor attendance and visitor demographics. There has been a steady increase up to 2015 and, so far, 2016.
Mamon says: “I’m happy to say that last year – so far – we recorded our highest attendance of almost 1.8 million and our highest revenues in our 20-year existence.”
“And so far, tracking January 2016, we’re even beating the 2015 numbers” he adds.
In terms of revenues and also per capita it’s the same story of success. Demographically, more than 90% of visitors are still local or domestic tourists.
There are currently more than 100 million people in The Philippines. Half of these travel around the country every year. Getting even a small percentage of the locals is enough to give the Enchanted Kingdom a good return.
Tourist numbers are improving. “Over the past three or four years also, our government has been able to make an improved program for inbound tourists. We are also beginning to see a number of tourist arrivals into the park.”
Enchanted Kingdom is located in one of the fastest-growing areas of the Philippines, Metro Manila. It currently comprises around 25 hectares. It is surrounded by five or six light industrial parks, with multinational companies such as Toyota, Nissan, and Panasonic.
“These companies are also very good clients for the park. We have exclusive corporate or family days. Sometimes they use the function area for their program, then go and enjoy the park. Aside from corporate groups, another big chunk of our attendance is school groups. These are from different levels, primary, secondary and even college because of our edutainment programs. We have school groups that go to the light industrial parks or go to some historical spots near the park. Then the last three hours of the day they spend in the park with us.”
Looking forward, Mamon’s plan is expansion. There is room to expand to an extent within the existing parameters. However, Mamon is continuously in the process of acquiring available properties. The original park grew from 10 hectares and is now at 25. Mamon predicts the park will reach a total of 35-40 hectares.
In order to capitalize on the prevailing trend of increasing the customer’s visit time, maximizing their enjoyment, and increasing profit per capita, Mamon plans what he calls an Integrated Attractions Destination.
“This differs from Integrated Resorts (IR). These normally comprise a gaming component. This is not attractive to our thinking. My wife and I – prefer to follow the Disney model of wholesome family entertainment.
In a nutshell, our plan for the future is this. We’d like to transition the park from single-day, 4-6 hour visit to longer weekend visit”.
This will involve expanding the theme park itself, adding further zones – including one dedicated to the park’s central character, Eldar the Wizard, the wise old man in charge of Enchanted Kingdom.
“We also have one we call a Cultural Zone which will focus on the culture of the Philippines, contrary to earlier thinking whilst planning the original park.
Mamon explains: “This time we’d like to give back, to contribute to nation-building, to preserving our history. So in being able to harness technology and other forms of media, we hope to educate future generations in how the Philippines came to be, with its heroes, with its beautiful tourist areas, and so on.”
To signal this expansion, the park is building a flying theatre attraction to be opened in the second half of 2016. It is reminiscent of Disney’s Soarin’ simulator. it has a mechanical lift system and a film presentation on a large concave projection screen. The ride will take guests on a simulated journey over the whole Philippines – in seven minutes. The aerial photography and film is in ultra-high definition. And it is on a screen bigger than an IMAX – and, incidentally, bigger than Disney’s.
As well as being a travelogue, the experience will have a story about sustainability and how to preserve the environment.
The theatre will be called Agila – the Filipino for Eagle, after the Philippine monkey-eating eagle. This is a largest eagle of its kind in the world and it is critically endangered.
Mamon says: “It is our wake-up call. We’re saying, you’re flying on the wings of an eagle, seeing the beauty of the Philippines. But we have to preserve that environment so we can preserve the eagle, which has its own effect on humans.”
The attraction will increase Enchanted Kingdom’s visibility as an international tourist destination. It will educate not only the younger generation of locals, but the growing number of inbound overseas tourists too. Especially those with limited time as it will enable them to learn more to about the country.
“It makes us a stop-over for tourists, who can visit this attraction (in isolation) without going into the park. “
It is anticipated the attraction will help Enchanted Kingdom to surpass the 2 million visitor mark.
There will also be an extreme zone with bigger, faster rides, and a minimum of two hotels, as well as a regional convention center, and a retail, dining, and entertainment component.
“We have also allocated about 4-6 hectares for a water park with its own themed hotel.”
“My wife Cynthia is really into sharing knowledge and education. We are devoting an institutional area wherein we can have training centres about businesses related to our industry. These might cover, for example, animation, film-making and sound stages.”
Given the rate at which the industry is growing in Asia and the Middle East, Mamon acknowledges the fact that, particularly in the Middle East, foreign labour is depended on, and the Philippines is one of the main sources of this labour.
“We train them at Enchanted Kingdom. Then when the big parks open in the Middle East the employees want to earn better money abroad. So one objective is to have our own knowledge centre or training center. This means we can continue to produce trained people in the industry.”
A number of ride manufacturers are represented throughout the Enchanted Kingdom: among others, Mamon mentions the Vekoma coasters, Intamin’s swinging ship, the OD Hopkins Whitewater flume ride, Zamperla’s disco and air-race, Larson’s drop-tower, and Morgan’s carousel, balloon ride, and airplane ride, and Simex-Iwerks for the theatres. There is also a Triotech 7-D interactive theatre, and skill redemption game where people can win giant plush toys.
“For our expansion, we’re looking at European and American manufacturers for our bigger rides. I haven’t chosen which ones, yet.”
Mamon adds: “We have just got an integrated ticketing system from Galasys.”
Galasys is providing GSET Ticketing and GPOS point-of-sales front-end to the Enchanted Kingdom.
Mamon states Galasys are “very receptive and are helping us a lot”.
In conclusion, Mamon returns to the impact IAAPA has had throughout the course of Enchanted Kingdom’s evolution.
“IAAPA was a big influence on everything that we did when we first went into the industry. I had the opportunity to become a member of the Board in 1999 to 2002. I served on various committees during the years following my directorship. Somehow I was in the right place at the right time. Then in 2010, I was elected to be the third Vice-Chair. I became Chair in 2014. I was the first Asian and first Filipino to become president of IAAPA.”
His was a close association with IAAPA, being an officer and ultimately Chairman. This brought him to a realization of the sheer magnitude of the amusement industry. it also made him realize how enduring it can be, lasting for generations.
“I have met a lot of friends and colleagues who have been in the industry for centuries.
There are the Rowland and the Mack families; there are people in the States like the Moreys. It’s nice to look at that and see that I went into an industry that, if you handle things correctly, will go on for generations, because you’re taking care of the young and the young-at-heart, and if you do it correctly you’ll never run out of guests.”
Being involved with IAAPA has allowed him to share not only his own experiences but those of big and small operators too. It has afforded him a unique and rounded insight into the best way forward. This has helped guide him as he develops his ambitious plan of converting the Enchanted Kingdom from a stand-alone to an integrated attractions destination.
“The industry is growing fastest in our part of the world. Based on a number of reports, it will only be a few years before Asia will overtake, the Continent or the US. That’s because of the sheer population, and the development that is happening, especially in mainland China.
This is the place to be. The opportunities are here, and as far as we are concerned we are here to help the industry develop in the right way. That is the IAAPA way. This is the safe way. We are also here to support IAAPA, and to support the Asia Pacific region, and guide it as it grows.”
Images are kind courtesy of Carmelo Lopez and Enchanted Kingdom.