SegaWorld London opened as the largest indoor theme park in the world. It was closed after just three years. What went wrong?
Nigel Wray (born 1948) and Nick Leslau (born 1959) acquired the Trocadero, a large building on Piccadilly Circus, London, for £96 million in 1994. A profile in the Evening Standard described Wray as “the nearest British equivalent to American investment genius Warren Buffett”, whilst Leslau was “a chunkily-built North London Jew with all the elegance of a natural street trader”.
Although sited on one of the busiest thoroughfares in Europe, the Trocadero had historically failed to prove profitable. Tenants included a Planet Hollywood restaurant, a cinema, and retailers such as HMV, but 110,000 square feet across seven floors remained unused.
Nick Leslau negotiated with Sega to open an indoor theme park in the unused space. Sega, along with Nintendo, dominated the video gaming market, and the Sonic the Hedgehog mascot was at the peak of its popularity. Sega would have full managerial control and operate the park rent-free, with the landlords receiving a half-share of profits.
The family-friendly SegaWorld concept had already undergone a soft launch with “Sega Park”in Bournemouth in July 1993. The largest video game arcade in Europe had been opened at a cost of £3 million.
The London site was to be modelled on Sega’s Joypolis theme park in Yokohama, Japan, and would include many of the same rides. Joypolis had been the largest indoor theme park in the world when it was opened in 1994.
Sega claimed to have invested £650 million in research & development for its theme parks. James Bidwell, head of marketing for Sega Europe, was confident that “the return on investment will be very high”.
SegaWorld London was the largest indoor theme park in the world. 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 constrained space at the site. Each ride cost around £2 million to construct. The rides were complimented by over 400 coin-operated arcade machines.
“We’ve designed it to have at most a 30 minute queue time for special attractions”, commented Peter Searle, operations and development director for Sega Amusements Europe.
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 launch and press reactions
James Bidwell described SegaWorld as, “the most sensational new tourist attraction in the world”.
SegaWorld London opened in September 1996, with a launch party featuring pop star Robbie Williams. Nick Leslau witnessed over 100 people queuing for a ride that could handle just 40 customers per hour. He would later describe how his “heart just sank” as he realised that his partnership with Sega was “a mistake”. He prepared himself for a media evisceration.
The initial reviews of SegaWorld were as unforgiving as Leslau had feared. Charles Spencer of the Daily Telegraph described the park as “little short of a disgrace” and “the most joyless tourist trap in London”. The park 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 criticised the ride technology as “nearly always obvious and unsubtle”. The Economist dismissed SegaWorld 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. Leslau 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.
Later media reviews continued to criticise SegaWorld. For Paul Gogarty of the Daily Telegraph the park was “a hot, exhausting, dark experience”. John Tribe of The Times described the attraction as a “glitzy con-trick”.
SegaWorld London was subject to a relaunch in December 1996. 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. Leslau explained that “cultural mistakes” by Sega had underestimated the tolerance of British and European guests for lengthy queue times.
SegaWorld London is closed
It was reported that SegaWorld London had attracted 1.1 million visitors by February 1997, but this, as well as average customer spend, was about half what had been anticipated. Leslau accused Sega of trying to run the park “by remote control from Tokyo”, and criticised the lack of basic facilities such as a bar, cloakrooms or seating areas.
In July 1997 Gervase Webb of the Evening Standard wrote that the park was “echoingly, cavernously empty … a vast white elephant”. Sega claimed an average attendance rate of 3,500 people a day.
Wray and Leslau stepped down as chairman and managing director of the Trocadero in the summer of 1997. Wray commented, “we had not realised that SegaWorld would do so badly and it is a great disappointment”. John Conlan was appointed as chairman. He accused Sega of lacking “any coherent plan that could improve profits to levels that would begin to mitigate the rental obligations for the space it occupies”.
SegaWorld London received a £650,000 facelift in December 1997, and admission fees were removed. 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.
Unfortunately the removal of admission fees resulted in a reduced customer average spend of just £1.70.
Closure of SegaWorld London
Sega was evicted from the Trocadero in September 1999. The disorganisation, mechanical failures and lack of market research at the park reflected poorly on Sega’s management. Conlan described the SegaWorld concept as “fundamentally flawed”.
Sega quietly reversed plans to open 100 Sega Worlds across Europe and the United States. A Sega World was opened in Sydney, Australia in 1997, but failed to attract sufficient guests, and closed down in 2000. The Yokohama Joypolis was closed in 2001.
The SegaWorld site was taken over by Family Leisure Group, who had operated the Funland video game arcade on the ground floor of the Trocadero. Michael Green, the managing director of the group, commented on SegaWorld, “once I saw it, I knew it couldn’t last long. It didn’t have the right mix for this market and I don’t think they had a clear vision for the property”. The old SegaWorld attractions, with the exception of the Aqua Planet 3D simulator, were closed down.
Funland was gradually reduced in size, before it was closed in 2014. A large part of the Trocadero was reopened as a budget hotel in 2020.
The promises of interactivity, optimism for the future, over-expectation and consequent media cynicism that defined SegaWorld also characterised the launch of the Millennium Dome in London. Further parallels can be made between SegaWorld and DisneyQuest, a similar indoor theme park with virtual reality elements which also over-promised and failed to deliver.