SegaWorld London was the largest indoor theme park in the world when it opened in 1996. The venture continually lost money, and was closed in 1999.
Nick Leslau (born 1959) and Nigel Wray (born 1948) acquired the Trocadero, a large building at Piccadilly Circus, London, for £96 million in 1994. Tenants included a Planet Hollywood restaurant, a cinema, retailers such as HMV, and the Guinness World Records experience, but 110,000 square feet across seven floors remained unused.
Leslau and Wray negotiated with Sega to open an indoor theme park. At the time Sega, along with Nintendo, dominated the video gaming market, and the Sonic the Hedgehog mascot was at the peak of its popularity. Sega would operate the park rent-free, with the landlords receiving a half-share of the profits.
The SegaWorld concept had already undergone a soft launch with the opening of the £3 million Bournemouth “Sega Park” video game arcade in July 1993.
The London site was modelled on Sega’s Joypolis theme park in Tokyo, which contained many of the same rides. Although Joypolis was smaller, it had been the largest indoor theme park in the world when it was opened in 1994.
Initial reactions to SegaWorld London
SegaWorld London was the largest indoor theme park in the world. Sega claimed that over $1 billion in research and development had helped produce the park. An initial investment of £45 million included six rides which combined traditional and virtual reality elements. The focus on virtual reality was partly due to the fact that space was constrained in the Trocadero. Each ride cost around £2 million to construct. The rides were complimented by over 400 coin-operated arcade machines.
SegaWorld also contained the longest above-ground escalator in Europe. Customers embarked upon it at the park entrance, and it took them up all seven floors in a single run. It was so large that it had to be lowered through the Trocadero roof in five sections during installation.
SegaWorld London was subject to massive marketing hype. James Bidwell, head of marketing for Sega Europe, called SegaWorld, “the most sensational new tourist attraction in the world”. The park was described in terms such as “futuractive” by its marketing agency.
SegaWorld London opened in September 1996, with a launch party featuring Robbie Williams. Laslau was at the launch event, and later reported that his “heart just sank”. Over 100 people were queuing for a ride that could handle 40 customers per hour. He prepared himself for a predicted media evisceration.
The initial reviews of SegaWorld London were unforgiving. The Daily Telegraph described the park as “little short of a disgrace” and a “joyless tourist trap”. SegaWorld London was “prosaic and tacky”, according to Cosmo Landesman of the Sunday Times. Tom Whitewell of The Guardian claimed, “it’s not all that different from your local shopping centre”, and described the ride technology as “nearly always obvious and unsubtle”. The Economist dismissed the park as a “vast video game arcade”. Several reviewers pointed out that one ride was simply a dressed-up dodgems.
SegaWorld London was overpriced (£12 entry for adults), rides broke down, the queues were lengthy, and it failed to live up to the marketing hype. The coin-op machines cost £1 a time, and were already available elsewhere without an entrance fee. Laslau later described his disappointment:
Sega could not deliver what they said they’d deliver… It looked amazing, but their rides were not capable of delivering the number of people they needed to deliver to support the operation. People were queuing for ages … It was a question of over-anticipation and under-delivery.
Reviews subsequent to the launch event did not improve. John Tribe of The Times described the experience as a “glitzy con-trick” in December 1996. That month, the entrance fee was reduced to £2, but ride fees of between 50p and £3 were introduced in an attempt to reduced the hour-plus queues that developed during busy periods.
SegaWorld London is closed
It was revealed that SegaWorld London had attracted 1.1 million visitors by February 1997, but this, as well as average customer spend, was about half what was anticipated. The situation was not helped by the lack of basic facilities such as a bar, seating areas or cloakrooms.
SegaWorld London reported a profit loss of £1 million in 1997. In December 1997 admission fees were removed and an IMAX cinema was installed. John Conlan, the Trocadero’s new chairman 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.
A £2 million 125 foot free-fall ride sponsored by Pepsi was opened in March 1998. However new investment failed to stem continued losses of £2 million a year, and Sega was evicted by Trocadero management in September 1999.
The disorganisation, mechanical failures and lack of market research at the park reflected poorly on Sega. A Sega World was opened in Sydney, Australia in 1997, but closed down under similar circumstances in 2000.
The interactivity, optimism for the future, over-expectation and consequent media cynicism would also characterise the Millennium Dome, which was a kind of theme park/interactive museum.
Further parallels can be made between Sega World and DisneyQuest, a similar indoor theme park with virtual reality elements which also over-promised and failed to deliver.