Maharishi and magician envision four cosmic theme parks around the world

April 19, 1992|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Staff Writer

NIAGARA FALLS, Ontario -- The local plan for the vacation of the future -- circa 1994 -- goes something like this: Besotted with the mist and magnificence of Niagara Falls, a family piles into its minivan to head two miles up the road to the new theme park. There they pay $63 apiece to spend the next three days doing such things as flying a chariot into the molecular structure of a rose and riding a telescoping stairway into a building that levitates above a lake.

The family departs with wallets drained but minds enriched, and before long the accumulated enlightenment of visitors has eased all of Canada's national problems.

So goes the vision of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the bearded sage of Transcendental Meditation who would become a sort of cosmic Walt Disney if he succeeds with his plans for four new theme parks. Each will be called Maharishi Veda Land ("Veda" is Sanskrit for knowledge), and the inaugural park here will be followed by duplicates in Orlando, Fla., Switzerland and Japan.

Joining the Maharishi in the venture is Canadian-born magician Doug Henning, a devoted practitioner of meditation and creator of extravagant illusions, such as making an elephant disappear, on Broadway and network television.

For those inclined to snicker, Mr. Henning and the Maharishi have been anything but illusory when it comes to acquiring sites for their parks.

In Orlando, they stunned local officials by purchasing a tract of land next to Walt Disney World for $20 million in cash. At Niagara Falls, they quietly snapped up deeds and options for 1,400 acres of nearby field and forest -- mostly in cash transactions -- before anybody knew what was afoot.

Building the project -- which will include six hotels, a business conference center, a "Heaven on Earth" housing development and a "Tower of World Peace" -- will cost $1.5 billion. A plan for a Maharishi Vedic University, stocked with 7,000 "Yogic fliers," or Vedic scientists, is still under consideration.

Mr. Henning said there's still no firm opening date, although he has predicted it will happen in the fall of 1994. Some local officials think that's overly optimistic, but they're no longer skeptical that the project will come about.

"I've been around a long time, and I've seen probably a half a dozen of these projects come on stream," Niagara Falls Mayor Wayne Thomson said. "Most of them were probably either a scheme to derive fund raising or to increase the value of a property, and from there they all died a slow death."

Not this one, he said.

But none of those other ideas ever generated the kind of ribbing he's gotten lately about the Maharishi's theme park.

"Yes, I've had a lot of joking and kidding, and I've certainly taken a lighthearted approach to the whole proposal because I knew some people would react that way because the Maharishi is involved," the mayor said. "But the community is deadly serious about the jobs."

Mr. Henning says it will take about 5,000 people to build the place, and 2,500 to run it. Tourism would seem like the last thing this place needs. About 12 million people visit Niagara Falls every year. But they only stay in the area about six hours, which does little for the local hotels and restaurants. If Mr. Henning and the Maharishi can keep them hanging around for another three days, all the better.

Mr. Henning's association with the Maharishi, who gained fame by meditating with the Beatles, goes back 17 years to when they met in New York. Mr. Henning, already a devotee of Transcendental Meditation, was busy with the first of his two Broadway shows. "I got a call that he was coming through the airport," Mr. Henning said. "I was in a rehearsal, and I packed my little magic things in a bag and went and did a little show for him in the VIP lounge as he was changing flights."

Ever since, Mr. Henning has paid regular visits to the Maharishi at his homes in India and Europe. But it was the Disney colossus, the reigning king of theme parks, that planted the seed for Veda Land.

"I wanted to do something new," Mr. Henning said. "I was thinking, 'Oh no, do I have to do another TV special? Do I have to do another Broadway show?' And Disney approached me to put some magic in some of their rides and shows. So they hired me as a consultant.

"Luckily, I didn't give them any of my ideas. At that time, I went to see Maharishi again in India [in 1987], and I was sitting with Maharishi and he was telling me all this incredible knowledge of the mysteries of the universe and all the laws of nature and man's consciousness and enlightenment and higher states of consciousness. And I thought, this was fantastic knowledge, and I thought this should be displayed visually and in an entertaining way in a theme park."

Thus began an obsession that halted his touring and his TV extravaganzas. And he has recruited other illusionists. Already, he said, they have developed 33 attractions that will use 15 patentable technologies and at least 50 new ideas.

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