A Hedgehog and a Mouse: Sega, Disney and a Surprising Attempt to become an Amusement Giant

On social media, old pictures from London’s Sega World are an easy way to harvest some quick engagement. Post the image, chuck in your ‘remember that time when Sega ran a theme park?’ caption then sit back and wait for the likes numbers to rise. However, take a few moments to dig into the history surrounding the place and the situation seems even more absurd than it does on the surface. What was Sega trying to achieve by building its own theme park chain? When discussing the company’s ambitions in 1993, president Hayao Nakayama laid their plans out quite plainly: “Our target” he said “is Disney.”

Today, the idea of Sega challenging Disneyland seems bizarre. Sega were an arcade/console manufacturer riding a potentially temporary wave of popularity. Sonic the Hedgehog might have been one of the most readily identifiable mascots in the world, but you need more than a mascot to open a globally successful chain of amusement parks. Naturally, our first reaction might be to tut and right the whole episode off as another example of why the company failed, leaping double-footed into a situation they were ill equipped for. Surprisingly, however, the whole venture made much more sense then you’d probably think.

Sega as An Amusement Center Operator

Up until the Megadrive/Genesis, Sega was mostly known as a manufacturer of amusement machines. However, in Japan their history of operating arcades is almost as long. Beginning in 1970, Sega teamed up with Japanese cinema goliath (or dare I say, giant radioactive dinosaur) Toho to open a couple of ‘Family Fun Centres’ that offered hundreds of Sega amusement machines placed inside buildings operated by the film company.

After five years of expansion in Japan, Sega was soon ready to expand their operation to the US. They bought a 50% stake in a California-based arcade operator called Kingdom of Oz, before absorbing it entirely and rebranding six of its existing outlets as ‘Sega Centers.’

Things started well for their US operation. Sega reshaped more of the outlets they bought in their own image and soon began scouting locations outside of California.) In fact, they were soon looking beyond Sega Center entirely. In 1977, Nolan Bushnell’s ambitious Chuck E. Cheese concept combining pizza, arcade games and robotic nightmare fuel proved itself to be winning formula, and Sega soon found themselves among the throng of copycats desperately trying to grab a slice of the (pizza) pie.

The result, Sega’s PJ Pizzazz, opened in June 1980 and included all of the key elements you’d expect from a Chuck E. Cheese clone: a nightmarish animatronic mascot, a pizza restaurant and an attached arcade. To be fair to Sega, however, their concept elevated itself far above the status of simple copycat.

Just as Walt Disney’s plan for Disneyland was to take the concept of the theme park – a type of venue viewed as seedy and distasteful – and create a safe and respectable version that entire families could enjoy together, Sega’s American arm wanted Pj Pizzazz to offer more to adults than simply providing a venue for their kids’ birthday party. The arcade machines were divided into different areas targeted at different ages and gamer types, while – crucially – ‘PJ’s Corner’ offered an area where the parents could make themselves comfortable, enjoying a beer or a glass of wine while keeping their on their little ones via large security monitors.

Though things started well for Pj Pizzazz, Sadly for Sega the entire US arcade industry was caught up in the same sharp 1983 decline that effected the US console industry. A sharp decline in revenue effectively forced Sega out of the market, with Pj Pizzazz forced to shut up shop for good while Sega’s game centers were sold to competitor Tico Bonomo.

Sega were down but not out. The effects of the crash lasted for a couple of years, and the US arcade industry continued to be a bit of a topsy-turvy place. Sega managed to take full advantage of the situation. In December 1986, it was Bonomo’s turn to need a bail out and Sega purchased all 74 of his Time Out venues, instantly transforming themselves into one of the largest arcade operators in the US. Though the Time Out chain was profitable for Sega’s US arm, the company saw in the new decade by selling the entire chain to competitor Edison Bros inc in 1990.

Consequently, by the early 90’s Sega was in an interesting place. Starting off In Japan, they had quietly continued to amass game centers throughout 1970s and 1980s (by the late ’90s its estimated they were operating around 1000 venues,) before turning a pretty penny in the US, if by a slightly unorthodox route. They might have rode their luck, but you can easily see how Sega could have seen themselves as ready for something a little more…grandiose

Changes in the Theme Park Industry

At the same time as Sega was amassing an empire of Japanese arcades and trading US arcade chains like an over-caffeinated stock broker, interesting developments were taking place in the wider amusement industry. In particular, 1977 saw Doron Precision systems created their SR2 simulator. Highly simplistic by today’s standards, the Sr2 comprised a van-sized capsule mounted on three hydraulic arms that were able to move and tilt the capsule in sync with a video displayed on a tv screen or projector. The concept was crude and effective: the same capsule could be a jet fighter one day, a roller coaster the next and a star cruiser the day after. By the 1990’s, the the SR2 and its imitators were an institution in the UK, Popping up at funfairs and museums across the country.

By the mid eighties, theme park giants were beginning to take notice of the emerging technology. In 1984, UK-based company Rediffusion designed a vehicle for what was to become the first simulator-based ride, Tour of the Universe. Built into Canada’s CN tower, Tour of The Universe had audiences trekking (ahem) through a faux space port in the bowels of the building before jetting off on a simulated trip to Jupiter. The vehicle was similar to the earlier SR2 but had greatly expanded capabilities, featuring 6 degrees of movement and the ability to move 35 degrees in the x-y-z plane.

Having abandoned an ambitious 50 million dollar proposal for an ride based on box office flop The Black Hole, in 1985 The Disney Company’s imagineering team effectively lifted the concept of Tour of the Universe (right down to sourcing the ride vehicles from Rediffusion) but expanded on it in pretty much every way. Having successfully collaborated with George Lucas on the Captain Eo attraction at Disneyland, the company successfully lobbied for their version of Tour of the Universe to be Star Wars themed. Who wants to blast off on a simple trip to Jupiter when you could interact with genuine Star Wars animatronics before blasting off to a space battle in a galaxy far, far away?

Star Tours was a hit when it opened (to celebrate, Disneyland stayed open for a special 72 hour marathon) and went on to be such a consistently popular attraction. The ride was installed in Disney parks across the world, and when the original ride was finally closed in 2010, it was only so it could be replaced with a newer, improved version of the ride that remains open to this day.

In fact, it was such a hit that Disney’s competitors moved swiftly to imitate it. When opening their Florida park in 1990, Universal made sure to include a simulator ride for opening – The Futuristic World of Hanna-Barbera – but quickly followed it up with a second ride themed around the successful Back to the Future trilogy. Disney themselves soon opened up a second simulator ride – Body Wars, installed at their Epcot park – while a Batman-themed simulator was installed, at Warner themed parks in Australia, Germany and Spain.

Now that’s not to say that rollercoasters, log and drop rides were to become redundant over night, but by the early 1990s it was clear that virtualized rides were an important new frontier when it came to immersive experiences. The combination of physical movement synced to a digital environment led to experiences that were so much more powerful than sitting in a rollercoaster car shaped like a Star Wars vehicle or Roger Rabbit’s car. This was a fascinating development, as though Sega couldn’t match the likes of Disney or Universal when it came to raw budget, they had spent the latter half of the 1980s developing expertise that gave them a distinct edge over the theme park titans.

Hang-on a second…

In 1984, before both Star Tours and Tour of the Universe, young Sega designer Yu Suzuki was tasked with building an arcade game cantered around a motorbike torsion throttle. With the throttle proving unsatisfactory from a gameplay perspective, Suzuki altered the design of the game to something far more dramatic: A racing game which, in its purest form, had players straddle a large plastic motorbike which had to be tilted by the rider to control the rider on screen.

Though local critics wondered whether shy Japanese gamers (particularly shy Japanese gamers in short skirts) would want to climb aboard a plastic motor bike in public, such criticisms were soon waived aside. By August 1985 Japanese magazine the Games Machine was reporting that Hang-On was the highest-grossing game of the month (and it would remain the highest grossing sit-down game from 1985 all the way through to 1987.) When it launched in the UK, Computer Gamer magazine estimated that Hang-On machines were each pulling in £200 a day. In the US, the sheer volume of coins going into Hang-On machines meant the coin mechanism needed a post-release modification.

Hang-On was something of a monster hit then. It may not have been the first machine to have a deluxe sit-down cabinet (people of a certain age will get a bit misty-eyed over the cockpit Atari created for Star Wars, while Sega had themselves created an awesome captain’s chair for their 1982 game based on Star Trek,) but it was the first to offer what Sega would dub taiken – a gameplay experience that involved the player’s entire body.

By the end of the decade, Suzuki’s team (and Sega R&D4 – the group of unsung heroes who designed and built all of Sega’s arcade cabinets) had developed half a dozen more of these taiken arcade experiences, with each offering more sophisticated mechanisms than the last. The apex of these was the R360 system. Debuting alongside Suzuki’s second flight simulator, G-LOC, the R360 was a gyroscopic capsule that offered 360 degrees of movement across two axis. The R360 was an impressive piece of machinery that was classed more as a ride rather than as a game.

Though expensive for an arcade machine, the R360 was still relatively cheap for a theme park ride: At $90,000 you could buy five R360s for the price of one Star Tours vehicle and still have change left over. Sega’s other taiken titles were also much cheaper than this. The deluxe Hang-On could be bought by arcades for about $7000, while the ‘Super Deluxe’ version of Galaxy Force (which used hydraulics to rotate through 330 degrees and tilt 15) cost a more affordable $30,000. At a time when the big theme park operators had only one or two big digital experience rides, Sega had a large number available at a variety of different price points.

If all of that wasn’t impressive enough, we should also remember that Sega’s rides were doing a thing that the theme park giants were not. The theming of the exterior and the queues of Back to the Future and Star Tours might have doe a great job of inserting visitors into their respective film universes, but once seated inside the ride the experience itself was as passive as the original Dorian SR2 simulator. By the close of the 1980s you could find simulated experiences up and down the US, but Sega was the only one letting physically you control the action. Almost by accident, Sega of Japan has taken a big first step towards opening their own indoor theme park.

Attract Mode

Sega’s taiken games left them well-placed to pioneer the amusement rides of the future, but theme parks (as well as larger arcades) needed more than advanced arcade games to keep the punters happy. This fact wasn’t lost on Sega, who had quietly amassed their impressive empire of Japanese amusement centres and desperately needed attractions of different sizes to fill them.

When they weren’t devising the mechanics for Sega’s increasingly complicated taiken games, R&D4 (later renamed to AM4) managed to help in this area as well. Not only had they created Sega-themed versions of some classic arcade attractions (namely, the iconic UFO Catcher crane game, an air hockey game called New Speed Hockey and a coin-pusher called Golden Wave) but they’d even created their own large attraction as well.

Sega Super Circuit was essentially a large track for radio controlled cars. The cars weren’t your average RC units, mind you: They’d been fitted with cameras and modified to accept inputs from cockpit R&D4 had designed for classic Yu Suzuki’s driving game Outrun. This allowed contestants the opportunity to experience some exhilarating first person racing, while providing a fun spectacle for those waiting for their turn. Sega Super Circuit was consequently an exciting preview of what Sega could do when they brought their own high-tech sense of interactive fun to a large indoor amusement space.

Sega Super Circuit was a good start, but it was obvious that if Sega were to fill large, multi-floor amusement centres they would need a greater number of higher prestige attractions. As things stood at the end of the 1980s, they were actually buying some larger rides – like miniature trains and carousels – from other manufacturers.

Consequently, In 1989 Sega spun a new department out of R&D4 specifically to deal with this problem. The new R&D5 (who would be renamed AM5 the following year) were tasked with building the kinds of medium to large attractions Sega would need for their large amusement centers. The new department turned out to be relatively speedy in their work. By the time February 1991’s AOU show arrived they had already begun work on a number of kids rides (Sega’s Waku Waku range) and – much more importantly – had prepared a prototype for Sega’s entry into the simulator space: the AS-1.

Whether it was intended to or not, the AS-1 (Advanced System) became Sega’s flagship attraction, soon being deployed in venues across the world. Though it looks similar in design to the simpler SR2-like capsule simulators we saw above, this look is deceptive. As we can see from this fantastic French language report, the AS-1 added interactive elements to the traditional simulator setup, making it part simulator and part (very simple) arcade game.

A French Language section on the AS-1 at Festival Disney (courtesy of Sega Anthology)

Part of the benefit of a simulator is that the same device could be used toshow multiple films, and the films Sega produced for the AS-1 shows just how serious they were. For the first film, Muggo!, they employed some Hollywood VFX royalty – enlisting the late Douglas Trumball who had just finish work on the effects for Universal Studio’s Back to The Future Ride. For the next two – Scramble Training and Megalopolis: Tokyo City Battle – They took advantage of their existing relationship with the king of pop by persuading him to take acting roles in both (a starring role in Michael Jackson’s Scramble Training and a cameo in Megalopolis.) Considering Jackson had already appeared as Captain Eo (The world’s first ‘4d’ video attraction over at Disney’s Epcot park) and Trumball’s earlier work at Universal, the development of the AS-1 was a bold statement of Sega’s growing intent.

Overseas Action

So if we look from the early ’70s to the early 1990s, it’s clear the concept of Sega running an indoor theme park wasn’t anywhere near as bonkers as it seems today. Sega was a major operator of arcades in their home territory and had an against-the-odds success in the US. Meanwhile, increasing digitisation over in the theme park industry meant the line between the sort of amusements you would encounter at an arcade and the kind you’d see at a theme park was becoming blurrier – with Sega arguably having an advantage over the theme park-based competition when it came to crafting interactive experiences in the digital sphere. Finally, Sega had developed the skills they would need to run an indoor theme park organically as part of the natural growth of their amusement machine and Japanese amusement center business.

Still, despite all of this Sega’s first steps towards the theme park space were relatively tentative. As they had in America in the 1970s, Sega of the 1990s sought to expand their presence to Europe by buying existing operators. In the UK, Sega teamed up with Namco to buy the successful Leith Leisure, while in France they absorbed entertainment company WDK as a whole owned subsidiary. With a European presence established alongside Japan and the US, Sega could claim to truly be a global operator.

With new markets established, Sega began to test relatively small own ventures. In February 1992, Sega of Japan announced that they had joined with a couple of local partners to create a new company – Sega Amusement Taiwan Ltd – to insert small Sega-branded arcades at Taiwanese shopping malls. Meanwhile, Sega also arranged for a Sega-branded arcade to operate at the Barcelona Olympics in the Summer before Sega went on to announce they were opening another arcade at iconic London toy shop Hamleys.

Though most of Sega’s early efforts outside of Japan and the US were small, they fell into something much larger in France: Through their new ownership of WDK, Sega gained access to amusement space at the Disney Festival, part of the newly-opened Euro Disney resort (now Disneyland Paris.) The Disney Festival space was large enough for 220 machines (including AS-1 and R360 installations) and would be the longest-running Sega arcade on the continent. Crucially, it sowed the seeds of what would become a surprising temporary partnership.

Disneyland in a Box

If Sega’s preceding international efforts had been tests, we can assume they were successful: Between July 1993 and the end of October, Sega officially opened three venues that would represent the beginning of its fight for the future: Sega World Bournemouth in the UK, the (predictably much flashier) Sega Virtualand at Las Vegas’ (then brand new) Luxor complex and Hakkeijima Carnival House at Yokohoma’s aquarium theme park.

Though these venues all contained traditional Sega arcade games, their larger sizes made them a good test bed for the larger attractions Sega had been manufacturing. All three venues were not only equipped with their own R-360 and AS-1 simulators, but they were also equipped with Virtua Formula, an impressive 8-player deluxe variant of Yu Suzuki’s (already incredibly impressive) Virtua Racing arcade game.

It was from this period that most of the bombastic quotes about targeting Disney originate. Not only was Nakayama directly discussing challenging Disney in the theme park space, but Sega of America’s Tom Kalinske and Doug also discussed how virtual theme parks could help them towards a vision of interconnected digital entertainment that sounds surprisingly close to what the likes of Microsoft and Disney have achieved today. To be fair to Sega, it wasn’t just a case of them stroking their own collective ego either. As we can see from this Wired quote, they were seen as a credible, exciting entrant into the marker :

Think of a traditional theme park. Acres of concrete walkways winding through some nutty genius’s carefully manicured personal fantasy. But Walt Disney is dead. Long live Douglas Trumball. The creation of Luxor, a multimedia theme park cum casino, replete with state-of-the-art Sega arcade (see Wired 1.5, page 66), further solidifies the basic assumption behind Sega’s business: Entertainment and leisure are going interactive. With the right setup (floor-to-ceiling screens, a motion-based platform, and a few Crimson Reality Engines cranking out hi-res images), you can take Disneyland and cram it into a pod about the size of a Dodge Caravan.

Wired, June 1993

As crazy as it might seem today, in the middle of 1993 it look like Sega had both a solid concept of what a digital theme park could be and – crucially -had the tools to pull it off. Once again, as surprising as a Sega theme park seems today, in 1993 it seemed less of a surprise and more of an inevitability.

Joypolis Zone

Predictably, it would be in its Japanese home that Sega finally stepped beyond the likes of Sega World Bournemouth and Virtualand to deliver on the promise of a full indoor theme park. In typical Sega style, they didn’t launch one park but three: two slightly smaller Galbo (an amalgamation of ‘Gala’ and ‘Box’) ventures in Osaka and Ichikawa ( in April and November respectively) and a much larger summer-launched flagship park in Yokohoma, dubbed Joypolis.

Though Joypolis had an additional 17,000 square feet worth of space over the Galbo parks, the attractions inside were broadly similar. Having looked at Virtualand, Bournmouth and carnival house, a lot of it might already seem familiar. All three parks contained the AS-1 and Virtual Formula units we’ve seen before, and all of them also contained the hundreds of arcade games you’d expect from a Sega venue. What made them different from Sega’s existing prestige arcades? The ace up Sega’s sleeve was AM5, and the large attractions they’d been producing in the interim. At launch, all three amusement theme parks contained these rides:

Ghosthunters. This was a traditional ghost train ride with an interactive twist. Combining practical and digital effects, players had to shoot at digital ghosts while being surrounded by practical effects like air blasts and moving walls. The boss had a final boss who, if defeated, led to the player who delivered the final blow being presented with a fake newspaper with their picture in it.

Astronomicon. This was a theatre based game/show that allowed 50 people to play a fortune telling game together. Well, Game is a bit of a stretch, by the sound of it, visitors programmed a ‘personal Pyramid Cube’ with their birthdate before receiving a print out their fortune.

However, that’s not all. Ichikawa Galbo and Joyopolis both contained a ride called VR-1. Another motion simulator ride, VR-1 was a first-person space-based rail shooter which saw all of the participants wearing Sega’s Mega Visor virtual reality headset. As head sets go, the Mega Visor was pretty advanced for its time and wasn’t really bested till the arrival of the current generation of VR headsets in the 2010s. Like Ghost Hunters above, the best gunner on each ride was presented with a best gunner badge as a souvenir.

Because is was so much larger than the other two, Joypolis had space to house – and AM5 had time to build – a couple of exclusives:

Railchase: The Ride was an indoor mine cart-based rollercoaster ride which, like Ghost Hunters, involved an interactive twist. Interspersing moments of high speed action with shooting sections which involved the riders shooting at characters on screen. Sega claimed the turntable system used to simulate perspective shifts was the first of its kind on a rollercoaster.

Mad Bazooka, meanwhile, was a modified bumper car ride. Rather than just allow drivers to crash into each other, Mad Bazooka cars were equipped with ball launchers and targets, allowing drivers to shoot at each other too. Not quite as exciting as cutting edge as the attractions above, but a lot of fun nonetheless.

Even that’s not all, however – the Osaka Galbo even had room for its own individual attraction. Virtual Shooting was a traditional shooting range given a digital Sega make over.

Overall then, Sega had come a long way since the foundation of AM5 in 1989. The company had gone from filling its arcades with larger attractions from other operators to constructing enough of their own rides to fill an in-door theme park. Though the smaller Galbo venues were a relative failure – they probably didn’t do enough to differentiate themselves from larger Sega arcades – Joyopolis was mostly definitely a success.

Indeed, when you look at the details, it’s easy to see why Sega might have been onto something. In terms of the sheer number of attractions, Joypolis may have only been able to match a single area of Disney’s Magic Kingdom (leaving aside the hundreds of arcade games, the seven larger attractions Yokohama opened with is comparable to the number available in Tomorrowland), but Joypolis was a fraction of the size (1.5 acres versus around 100.) Where the large Disney, Universal, and Warner Bros parks around the world needed to fill your entire day, Sega’s Amusement Theme parks could be built in the middle of city centres, surrounded by other attractions. Crucially, Sega were sensible enough to set a price to match their diminutive – at 500 yen ($5), a family of seven could enjoy Joypolis and still have a good 1500 yen worth of change from the price of a single Tokyo Disneyland ticket. Joypolis was enough of a hit for Sega to set themselves a target of expanding the brand to 50 Japanese venues by the turn of the millennium, but could they make the concept work over seas?

Sega World Goes International

While Sega set about expanding the Joypolis line at home, 1995 saw Sega take their first steps towards expanding their amusement themepark line overseas. In the UK they made a deal with Burford Group PLC to create their first over seas amusement theme park. Burford Group had recently leased London’s huge (and underfilled) Troccadero building and were looking for a single star tenant to move in and create a prestige attraction for them. Sega planned to be that star tenant.

Sega World London (as it was to be known) was built as an impressive spectacle. Spread across seven of the Trocaderro’s floors, the total space utilised by the park weighed in at 100,000 square feet, making it larger than any of Sega’s current Joypolis’ and apparently the largest indoor theme park in the world. Rather than work their way from the ground up, a huge ‘rocket’ escalator (it had to be lowered through the Trocaderro’s roof in sections) whisked guests right to the top from where they slowly wound their way down to the park’s exit.

Following the blueprints Sega had laid out with Joypolis, Sega World London received a lot of the attractions we’ve seen before (most notable the AS1, Ghost Hunters, the R360 and Mad Bazooka,) but it also received two newer attractions at the same time they made their debut in Japan. Beast in Darkness was a dark ride which combined holograms with live actors, while Aqua Nova which was a interactive submarine-themed simulator ride that had first opened in Tokyo Joypolis.

At the same time as Sega was negotiating for its space in the Trocadero, the head of their Australian distributor, Kevin Bermeister of Sega Ozisoft, was hatching his own plan for an indoor Sega theme park. In 1994 he founded a company, Jacfun, and began negotiating with the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority for space in the fancy Darlington Harbour complex. With the location secured, Bermeister managed to convince Sega to join him and in 1997 Sydney became home to Sega’s second large international amusement theme park.

At over 10,000 square meters (100,000 square feet,) Sega World Sydney was another mammoth park, and contained much of the attractions you’d expect to by now, having its own installation of Ghost Hunters, Mad Bazooka, the AS-1, Aqua Nova and VR-1. As it was less of a vertical park than London, the one surprise was that the park also contained a second installation of Sega’s rollercoaster, Rail Chase: the Ride. Projecting 800,000 visitors a year, Sega World Sydney was another feather in Sega’s cap,

In the Works

So by 1997 Sega had an impressive chain of amusement theme parks at home along with two titanic international venues. But what of the US? After all, it was in the press work for VirtuaLand that Sega had originally spelled out their intentions to become an international theme park operator to the West. Indeed, in their 1994 review of Yokahama Joypolis, Wired had even hinted that the amusement franchise was imminently California-bound.

Originally Sega’s US arm had intended to open 50 VirtuaLand venues inside the US. Doing so, however, would require time and money. To obtain the latter, Sega entered into talks with both Disney and Universal to see if they could convince one of the industry’s larger fish to bank roll them. Surprisingly, though both talks failed to generate the partnership needed to create those 50 VirtuaLands, both talks were fruitful nonetheless.

As we’ve seen, by 1994 Sega and Disney had already collaborated together over at Festival Disney. Given their presence at Euro Disney and the high-tech nature of the company (not to mention Sega’s high-quality licensed games featuring Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck,) Sega was actually a natural choice of partner for Disney’s forthcoming Innoventions Museum at Epcot, an exhibition showcasing advances in technology and their applications to daily life.

Though built by Disney, The Sega-sponsored area within Innoventions seems reminiscent of Sega of Japan’s miniature Galbo parks. Equipped with a large number of demo pods intended to exhibit the best of Sega’s home offering (at first Megadrive and Game Gear titles, Moving onto Saturn and eventually Dreamcast,) the area was also equipped with the obligatory AS-1 and Virtua Formula units.

However, there was skulduggery afoot. At the same time Sega had been working with Disney in Paris, they had also partnered with Universal to produce the Sega Star Kids Challenge, a charitable promotion event for both Sega and Universal. In the weeks following the launch of their space at Disney’s Innoventions, Sega publicly attached themselves to leaked plans for $20 million dollar Sega-themed area at Universal’s City Walk area, effectively killing any hopes they had of partnering with Disney to bring Sega World or Joypolis to the USA.

It took a bit of time for Sega’s talks with Universal to come to any type of fruition. Not only did Universal fail to partner with Sega when it came to Joypolis/Sega World, but Sega’s plan to open a venue at Universal’s City Walk collapsed too. The key to to the relationship turned out to be director Steven Spielberg, whose friendship with Universal’s Skip Paul led to a three-way partnership between Sega, Universal and DreamWorks on a new arcade project: GameWorks.

Unfortunately, the intervening years between Virtualand and GameWorks had not been kind to either Sega or the arcade market. In 1993, the Genesis had a healthy lead over the Super Nintendo and analysts
were predicting that Sega would take over the world. By 1996 Sega’s Saturn was struggling for marketshare against Sony’s PlayStation and analysts were pondering whether Sega would quite the consumer electronics business for good. Though the first GameWorks – announced in March 1996 and opened in Seattle (near Nintendo’s H.Q.) in 1997 – arrived just a year later than Sega World’s London branch and around the same time as the Sydney operation, it was a very different beast to the others.

At a star-studded premier event that included musical performances from Coolio and Beck, it was obvious that the theme park concept had gone out of the window, making making way for a more adult-orientated, game-based concept. The huge collection of game machines might have stayed, but GameWorks replaced the simulators and rides with a bar and an internet cafe. GameWortks might have been an interesting echo of Sega’s P.J. Pizzazz template, but one thing it definitely wasn’t was an amusement theme park. Sega’s sponsorship at Innoventions would last until the early noughties. When the Sega area closed for good, the dream of a Sega-owned amusement theme park in the US died with it.

The launch of GameWorks (turns out the revolution would be televised. On MTV of all places)

Last life left

As impressive as Sega’s international amusement theme park chain was, things did not go well in either Sega World venue. Sega World London might have opened with a glitzy a-list event, but even at opening Nick Leslau (CEO of the company that owned the Trocadero) knew there would be problems.

I was looking at the rides and my heart just sank. Over 100 people were queueing for one of them, but the most they could handle was 40 people per hour. I went home utterly depressed knowing the headlines the next morning were going to be shocking — and they were.

https://www.ft.com/content/a90b8178-61e0-11e5-a28b-50226830d644

With quotes like “An Absolute disgrace“, “Joyless Tourist trap” (The Daily Telegraph) and “a glitzy con trick” (The Times,) Leslau’s assessment wasn’t to be found wanting. In fact, even the more sympathetic among Sega World’s discovered some issues. The Wall Street Journal’s Mark Yost might have had no issue with the park in theory, but felt he’d been miss-sold by the use of VR in the promotional literature. For him, VR implied an experience with a helmet and hand-held controllers and the only ride that matched this description – VR-1 – Was down experiencing technical problems during both his own visit and later visit by one of his colleagues.

In its relatively short life, Sega World London was plagued by a number of issues. Alongside dealing with mechanical breakdowns and winning over the sceptical press, Sega World London needed to attract almost two million visitors a year to fulfil its financial obligations. It also had an issue with pricing: the park might have needed to charge a £12 adult entry fee, but unlike the cheap Joypolis ticket this was practically equal to the £13.25 charged by full neighbouring theme park Thorpe Park.

To reach that golden 1.7 million number, Sega World shifted their pricing. By the end of 1996 the entry fee was slashed to £2 and a pay-as-you-go ticketing was created for the rides. In 1997, new Trocadero chairman John Conlan admitted “We have realised that this is not an indoor theme park. It is an amusement arcade and you would not normally pay to go to an amusement arcade.” In a bid to turn around a £1 million loss, Sega World removed its entry fee altogether while introducing an IMAX cinema and a Pepsi-sponsored drop ride. Unfortunately the removal of the entry fee added a new problem of vandalism, without adding a great deal to the park’s bottom line.

In Australia, meanwhile, the opposite story was playing out – albeit with similar results. Where Sega World London had been savaged by the press from the get go, Sydney was received much more positively. Though I couldn’t corroborate a widely-cited claim that the media referred to it as ‘Australia’s interactive Disney Land’, we can see that the impression from the Sydney Morning Herald was generally positive (they gave the final word to an excited 11 year old fan,) while Australian Jewish News helpfully parroted Kevin Burmeister’s claim the park was a ‘mini Disneyland.’ Over in New Zealand the Dominion Post praised the parks combination of virtual reality wizardry and upgraded versions of traditional attractions.

Sydney also had a number of other important differences to Sega’s London. Where the layout of the Troccadero awkwardly spread Sega World London over several floors, Sydney boasted that it was the world’s largest single-level indoor park. While the London-based management chopped and changed the park’s pricing structure, Australia’s seemed well thought-through from the beginning: an all-inclusive $30 a ticket for anyone who wanted to ride all the rides (reduced to $20 after 5pm) with a base entry fee of $5 for anyone (well, parents) who simply wanted to enter the park without enjoying the rides. It even had a much more manageable target than London, seeking just 850,000 visitors instead of the 1.75 million.

You would think, then, that this paragraph would be about how Sydney went from strength to strength while London floundered. The result, however, was about the same: just as London failed to hit its target so to did Sydney, causing Sega to sell their stake in the park in 1999. Aussie operators Jacfun opted to soldier on however. With the Sydney Olympics less than a year away, how could they possibly lose?

Game Over?

Consequently, with the new millennium hovering ominously over the horizon, both Sega Worlds were in big trouble. In 1993 Sega had the finances to support a troubled park that promised to be a strategic investment, but by 1998 a lengthy and losing price war in the home market had left them heavily in the red. No wonder they opted to sell their share in their Sydney-based venture.

Back in London, Sega World was in big trouble. As we’ve seen, the removal of the entry fee hadn’t paid off. Visitor numbers might have been up, but there was no change to the company’s bottom line. This change in pricing policy turned out to be Sega World’s final, desperate roll of the dice. A clause in the original contract allowed Sega to be evicted if they hadn’t turned 3 million in profit by the three year mark and on the seventh of September 1999 Sega World London closed its doors for good. Though the space lived on as an arcade for a few more in the years in the form of Funland, the Sega name would no longer be attached.

Sydney, meanwhile, still had their trump card: the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Unfortunately for Jacfun, however, the games simply came and went. While it was true that there was a boost to Australian Tourism more generally, for Sega World Sydney promises of a bumper Olympic summer proved hollow and the park failed, again, to meet its visitor targets. In November 2000 the park closed down for what was supposed to be renovation work, but its doors never reopened. A hasty auction followed in early 2001, with many of Sega World Sydney’s attractions for going then less than the guide price (the upshot of this is that, if you do fancy riding Rail Chase: The Ride or Ghost Hunters, they remain active at Haailand in India.)
For simplicity’s sake it would be nice if we could say that the closure of Sydney marked the end of the Amusement theme park concept, but that isn’t true by any means. Between 1994 to 1998, revenue from Sega’s Japanese amusement centres actually increased by 147% and (along with an increase in amusement machine sales) played an important role in keep the company in the black until 1998.

While London and Sydney were Floundering, back in Japan Sega actually opened six new parks between 1995 and 1999 in a variety of different formats (like the tiny Kyoto Joyopolis, built into a department store.) Along with opening new parks, AM5 was also working hard behind the scenes creating exciting new concepts to fill them: Not only did they manage to update existing rides (Ghost Hunters had a software update to turn it into Ghost Hunters II and Ghost Hunters DX,) but they created new rides as well.

Some of these tied into Sega’s amusement machine releases – Sega Rally Special Stage and Touring Car Special were taiken versions of popular Sega arcade games – but many were not. Bikeathlon for example was a four playing racing game built around actual exercise bikes while Time Fall was an ambitious indoor free fall ride and Aquarena was a computer-generated Aquarium.

It wasn’t all good news, mind you. Sega’s original plan was to have opened a 50 Amusement Theme Parks by the year 2000, but even if we include Virtua Land and the two international Sega Worlds they didn’t even get close to building a fraction this figure. With Sega in dire straights, the parks started closing as well. By 2001 Sega were running three Joypolis parks in the vicinity of Tokyo: Tokyo Joypolis itself, Shinjuku and Yokohama. Though Yokohama was the original, Tokyo Joypolis eclipsed the other two in both scale and convenience, so it probably made sense to shutter Shinjuku in 2000 (the First Joypolis to close) and Yokohama the following year. Management issues, meanwhile, led to the closure of the Niigata branch in 2001, while Kyoto proved to be an unprofitable experiment, shutting up shop in 2002.

Mind you it wasn’t all bad news either. Umeda Joypolis opened in 1998 and remained in situ for thirty years, closing only when its lease expired. Okayama lasted as an amusement theme park from 1998 to 2008, before converting to a regular arcade. The venue only eventually closed because the building that contained it was demolished. Sega even managed to open some international parks as a minority partner in the 2010s, opening in Shanghai in 2015 and Qingdao in 2016. Last and of course not least, Tokyo Joypolis is still operating to this day. It’s seen two major refurbishments over the years and seen all manner of attractions have come and gone, but it is still very much in the fight. The international efforts failed quickly, but in Japan Joypolis has outlasted Sega’s regular amusement center business, which it was forced to sell during the pandemic.

Trailblazers once again

Given that Sega’s amusement theme parks managed to soldier on in Japan despite the collapse in the company’s finances, why did they fail so spectacularly quickly in London and Sydney?

For London, the causes seem to be reasonably obvious. Savaged by the press from the beginning, the park got off on the wrong foot. As is made clear from the park’s map, the layout was totally wrong. The vertical nature of the Troccadero made Sega World much more linear in layout than an ordinary theme park. With visitors shooting up to the top floor and working their way down, it was natural for visitors to tackle each of the attractions as they encountered them – exacerbating the problem the park had with the reliability of its attractions and with the queue times to enter them.

The problem with focusing on these issues, however, is that none of them were a problem in Sydney. The park was large and flat with enough space for a genuine rollercoaster. The press gave it a free ride, and there don’t seem to have been and usual number of breakdowns. The price was also right from the beginning, with visitors able to enter for the Aussie equivalent of a couple of quid. Regardless of these advantages, Sydney met with the same fate as London – even though it required fewer visitors to keep it profitable.

Reading between the lines, I believe Sega faced two real problems: Broader recognition of their Amusement Theme Park concept, and the demographics of the visitors. In his reminiscences of visiting Sega World as a young American tourist, Rob Far perfectly sums up these problems in a single sentence:


“I don’t think my mom did anything but follow me while I gawked at the most insane arcade I had ever been in up to that point, and I’m sure she would have rather been elsewhere.”

Gumspike

If Sega World was to be a premium attraction – up there with the British Museum or Madam Tussuauds – it desperately need to be seen as more than just a big video arcade. Unfortunately, in the eyes of many of its biggest supporters, that was exactly what it was. Indeed, thinking back I’d personally have preferred it to be that rather than a ‘Futureactive theme park.’

How was it viewed by its older visitors? Predictably this is harder to tell. Though there are reminiscences from people who visited the Sega Worlds as kids, there aren’t any from people who are 50 – 70 years old today and had been dragged to the parks by their kids.

Fortunately, we do at least have those scathing critic reviews from the time, which we can probably consider as an adult’s eye view. Did they see Sega World as a premium family attraction or an arcade? In the UK at least, the consensus seems to be the latter: The Economist described Sega World as a ‘vast video game arcade,’ Tom Whitewell in the Guardian complained that ‘its not all that different from a local shopping centre.’ Worryingly, even though we’ve seen that the Wall Street Journal’s Mark Yost was more open to Sega World in theory, his experience suggests that though willing to see Sega World as more than an arcade were going to be disappointed:

With video games running $1.50 a play in London, this
feature alone makes the $18 admission price a bargain. But I didn’t come here, nor I
suspect do most other people, to play video games. I came here for virtual-reality games.
And that, in a nutshell, is where SegaWorld falls flat and really left me feeling cheated.

https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB845578365335376000

As with so many of the advancements Sega pioneered, I suspect the amusement theme park concept would probably work much better as a formula today. As a parent with a life long game addiction, I for one would love for my daughter to ask me to take her to an arcade. Back in the late nineties, however, I suspect a good chunk of the population simply weren’t ready for it. A 30 year old parent in 1996 might have played some Pac-Man or Space Invaders in their teens, but would have been most likely too interested in the things that 16 year olds are interested in to play a part in the computer game and subsequent console game revolution. In the UK, parents older than thirty in 1996 most likely wouldn’t even have played Pac-Man/Space Invaders either.

Consequently, I’d argue that the core issue was probably that both Sega Worlds failed the Disneyland test. Though they had the attractions needed to pull in the younger punters, they needed to convince the parents it was worth the time and expense to take them. John Conlan’s quote above suggests that, in the end, not only did it fail, but it was ready to admit a perceived truth that was fatal to its existence. People may not pay money to enter an amusement park, but they also tend not travel from Birmingham or Manchester to London just to visit one. By losing the argument over the park’s status, they realistically lost the wider reason for their existence.

Lasting Innoventions?

Though Sega’s wider international amusement theme park initiatives crashed and burned relatively quickly, did they have any lasting effects in the theme park sphere?

Domestically it’s difficult to judge. Though Taito Seemed to trail Sega in their developments, seemingly developing their less interactive ride the IDYA (Interactive DYnamic Acceleration) in response to the AS-1’s unveiling. Namco, meanwhile, had actually surpassed Sega by 1992, when they constructed their own full-blown outdoor ‘Wonder Eggs’ theme park.

Instead, if we want to trace the most immediate influence of Sega’s Amusement Theme Parks, we need to look to none other than our old chums Disney. As we’ve seen, in 1994 Sega seemed to disasterously spurn the Mouse factory, sponsoring an area in Innoventions but immediately turning to their attention to competitors Universal. Fans of game history love to ask whether Nintendo made a mistake in spurning a partnership with Sony, a decision which seemed to cause the stand-alone Sony PlayStation to come into existence and swallow Nintendo’s market share. Was the 1994 partnership a similar calamity for Sega? Could a partnership with Disney for a Western Joypolis chain have captured the American indoor entertainment industry, single-handedly preventing Sega’s disastrous financial situation in the late ’90s?

As with the Nintendo-Sony case, the answer may not be as tantalising as it appears. The evidence seems to suggests that the reason Sega went forward with Universal is that, despite their previous successful working relationship, the partnership with Disney was a dead end. In the book The Out-of_Home Immerive Entertainment Frontier (Kevin Williams, Michael Mascioni), Joe DiNunzio, previously senior vice president of new product development at Walt Disney Imagineering, is quoted as suggesting that Disney effectively liked the concept but didn’t need Sega to pull it off: “Most directly, both companies saw a significant market opportunity that they wanted to exploit on their own.”

Disney didn’t waste any time either. By 1996 a subsidiary had been created to manage their localised amusement operations (Disney Regional Entertainment) and by 1998 they’d built their first park in the Downtown Disney area within Disney World. The park’s name? Disney Quest.

Picking Aladdin’s genie as the park’s unofficial Mascot, Disney quest was a large indoor park made up of multiple themed zones that mixed Disney-themed simulator rides and digital attractions with traditional arcade games and pinball machines. Just in case there was any doubt about where their inspiration had come from, one of the attractions was even a Buzz Light Year-themed dodgems that featured ball (sorry, ‘asteroid’)-launching cars.

Much like Sega, Disney planned to expand the chain at break-neck speed. In 1999, a northern Disney Quest was opened in Chicago, while construction was started on a Philadelphia-based branch with plans also being laid for other venues in California and Toronto.

So then, why have you most likely not heard of Disney Quest? Well, it’s probably because Disney had about as much success with the concept as Sega found in London and Sydney. With the two existing branches acting as pilots, Disney’s experience in Chicago mirrored those of Sega in London and Sydney. Well partially. Though it probably didn’t lose as much money as either of the Sega Worlds, the Chicago Quest simply didn’t bring in the kind of revenue that would make the project viable to Disney.

Though the Orlando park soldiered on alone until 2017 (when it was turned into the NBA Experience. Now also closed,) plans for country – possibly world – wide expansion were shelved. Plans for the California and Toronto parks were quietly archived, and the construction work that had started in Philadelphia left a very large hole in the ground (it eventually became a car park.) Just a few short months after the contents of Sega World Sydney were auctioned off, Disney Quest Chicago closed its doors for good.

Consequently, though it’s easy for us to mock Sega’s ambitions today, Disney Quest stands as a testament to the level of credibility the entertainment behemoth lent to Sega’s model. The fact that Disney’s version was just a big a failure as Sega World suggests that, although the model sounded good on paper, the inability of the amusement theme park to survive in a changing amusement landscape had root causes that ran deeper than simply mismanagement by Sega and its partners.

Did the closure of Disney Quest remove the last traces of Sega’s impact on the industry? Arguably not. Around the same time as Disney Quest opened to the world, a tired aviation-themed dark ride within the Tomorrowland area of the Magic Kingdom was getting a refresh. Sticking with the same track design, aviation was swapped for a Buzz Lightyear with an interesting new hook: each of the cars was now equipped with laser guns, much like the Ghost hunters ride found at Joypolis/ Sega World. On opening, Buzz Lightyear Space Ranger Spin was an instant and enduring success. It was voted the best Magic Kingdom ride for younger guests in 2004 and remains open to this day, lasting longer then the aviation themes that preceded it.

Today, Disney have carried the torch of interactivity well. Following the success of Space Ranger Spin (which was copied in Disney Parks throughout the world), Disney went on to build the monstrously popular Toy Story Midway Mania attraction and, more recently, Smugglers Run. A ride that harks back to the old Atari/Sega Star Wars arcade games and gifts six middle-aged men the opportunity to finally pilot the Millennium Falcon.

As we’ve seen, the process of digitisation within the amusement industry began way before the involvement of Sega so it can be difficult to trace entire developmental threads from their early development to their modern forms. Still, with that said, It’s obvious that Sega were active during some important moments in the development of the modern theme park. While it’s easy to gloss over the company’s contributions today, I believe the centrality of interactivity to all of Sega’s attractions combined with their widespread international activities means that we should acknowledge the important role that Sega played in helping to bring interactive theme park rides to the masses.