ESPN's fun zone Entertainment: The first ESPN Zone, a venture with Disney, promises to be on the cutting edge of interactive sports entertainment.

March 08, 1998|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

Just as Baltimore's Harborplace was a leader in the wave of festival marketplaces that swept the country in the '80s, the Inner Harbor again will serve as proving ground for a new dimension in family entertainment.

Opening in the Power Plant this summer will be the ESPN Zone, Walt Disney Co.'s latest entertainment concept, a production that's part high-tech dining room, part sports arena.

If the idea of using Disney wizardry succeeds during its high-profile trial run here, the company will expand the restaurant-playground idea nationwide. It's already planned for Chicago by next summer. Then the pace will accelerate to a new Zone every three months, until there are 15 or 20 across the country within five years. Eventually, it may go international.

Recently, in a press conference that seemed more like a pep rally, Disney and ESPN executives gave Baltimore's business community a glimpse of the coming sports attraction, using a model with the signature sports kebab -- a collection of sports balls on a skewer.

To Disney executives, Baltimore is the perfect place to launch their venture: an enthusiastic sports town, a site that's already a downtown landmark, a location near two stadiums and a thriving waterfront.

"We argued quite a bit back and forth about where we would go first," said Art Levitt, president of Disney Regional Entertainment Inc. "We looked all over the country."

Baltimore offered another advantage -- it's easier to open here, and work out the kinks before moving on to larger markets. It is sort of like trying out a play on the road before attempting Broadway.

"Sometimes you don't want to roll something out in New York because it's so high profile and it's so unforgiving," said David Malmuth, senior vice president at Trizec Hahn Centers, a real estate developer in San Diego who spent eight years doing similar work for Disney. "They want to be able to tweak it."

ESPN Zone will be a 35,000 square-foot sports entertainment complex with two levels, designed to feel like a stadium and to hold 550 people. Occasionally, the ESPN cable sports network will broadcast live from the Zone.

Customers will be able to dine in the restaurant and bar, watch their favorite sports in a special screening room or play actual and virtual games in a 10,000-square-foot arena. More than 200 video screens will cover the walls and hang from the ceilings.

Disney is keeping specifics about the games a secret until the opening is much closer, fearing the competition may get the jump on them. But they promise the games will be unique.

Although Disney Regional Entertainment is behind the project, the Zone won't be filled with the usual Disney characters -- the mouse and his friends will be nowhere near. "The only thing you'll see that says Disney is, hopefully, the quality of the execution," Levitt said.

Disney executives are doing what many are doing -- capitalizing on the public's appetite for ways to blur fantasy with what's real, in a form of hyper-reality. The idea is to connect with customers in a way that creates an experience and keeps them returning.

There are plenty of examples: Dave & Busters, a chain of adult fun centers with virtual golf, race-car and motorcycle simulators; Sega Gameworks, a project of Universal Studios Inc., and SKG Dreamworks and Sega Enterprises, packed with virtual reality and more in a 1940s game factory theme; Niketown, a New York retail project with museum-quality exhibits in a high-tech format that inspires applause from visitors.

But the ESPN Zone is being launched as consumer interest in themed entertainment is declining, said Dan Sheinin, professor of marketing at the University of Maryland. Recently, for example, Planet Hollywood and Rain Forest Cafe Inc. had to retrench after disappointing financial reports.

"Once one of these places opens, it doesn't change," Sheinin said. "So the main problem has been getting people to come back. Food is not reason to come back, as most people know."

Themed restaurants are a big investment, costing about $12 million to build, experts say. While Disney won't provide financial details about the Zone, an analyst who follows Disney projects the cost at between $10 million and $15 million.

Although consultant Pat Esgate described Disney as "the king of brand extension," she cautioned that "theming, money and brands are not necessarily a given for success."

"You have to create a connection with the guest that goes farther than the brand," said Esgate, president of Esgate and Associates Inc. in Nyack, N.Y. "That takes a lot of work."

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