Desert Disneys

Written by Jimmy Magahern Category: Valley News Issue: June 2015
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But aside from our camera and a couple of confused joggers passing by, there is no audience for PALican today. There is no theme park yet. What there is, is a man with a big dream, a grand plan he’s been trying to realize for more than a decade. Aloisi understands the challenges to opening a big theme park in Arizona very well. He’s run up against a litany of difficulties over the years, ranging from ridicule in local media to lack of a suitable tract of land on which to plant his expansive vision. He’s the type of businessman considered an innovator, if not a bit eccentric, but he’s far from the first person to struggle with Arizona’s pushback on theme parks.

Mike Aloisi in a custom-made PALican plush maskAt some point, every developer who attempts to create a theme park in Arizona turns into P.T. Barnum, promising astonishing attractions that capture the imagination – and sometimes, the necessary capital. Sadly, in the end, these passion projects prove no more real than Feejee Mermaid or Tom Thumb’s baby.

Blame it on the sweltering Arizona summers, or the Valley’s relative proximity to Disneyland, Universal Studios, SeaWorld and other world-class attractions too big to battle. For whatever reason, since the closing of Legend City in the early 1980s, Phoenix has remained the largest metropolitan area in the U.S. without a major theme park – although there’s never been a shortage of would-be impresarios trying to break the Sonoran glass ceiling.

Israeli-born developer Amram Knishinsky is the latest, rolling out a map of his planned 35-acre, $175 million OdySea in the Desert entertainment complex in Scottsdale. According to Knishinsky, the park’s centerpiece OdySea Aquarium attraction will feature animatronic tour guides (“two animatronic penguins will tell you about penguins”), underwater elevators and a surprise cynosure that will literally flip the script on a classic engineering marvel from the 1964 New York World’s Fair.

“People have no idea of what I’m about to do,” Knishinsky says, clutching a folder filled with artist renderings and building specifications for a project that’s consumed much of his adult life. “Nobody has ever thought about doing this before.”

“There are many things I can’t talk about yet,” he continues. “Let’s just say I’m using Disney technology in the presentation of marine life.”

Recent Arizona history is replete with similarly fanciful projects that went nowhere. Before it expired in its own logistical labyrinth, a giant maze-style theme park called WOOZ, which was to be built in Eloy, generated modest buzz in the late 1980s. Later, in 2007, Mesa’s Waveyard water park – featuring whitewater rafting, surfing, kayaking and scuba diving – ran aground. We’ve been promised a miniature Grand Canyon in Gilbert, indoor snow skiing in South Phoenix, an aviation-themed park near Casa Grande and a Western-themed park near Apache Junction to be named Rio Macho. Nada, every time.

The difference with Knishinsky: He’s making his pitch over the din of Caterpillar trucks preparing the soil for construction, and sitting in a mobile office trailer in front of Butterfly Wonderland, the 5-acre butterfly pavilion he and some partners opened in May 2013 to astounding success, drawing close to a half million visitors in its first year, and serving as sly proof-of-concept for his even grander vision.

photo courtesy Kevin Demenna; Decades promo piece“Yes, this is happening,” Knishinsky says, laughing. “By September, the structure for this thing is going to be standing. When you drive by on the 101, it’s going to be its own best billboard.”

His expanded entertainment complex will add an IMAX, a Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum, an internationally-themed restaurant area and even an indoor skydiving tower, most open before the aquarium’s planned grand opening the weekend of July 4, 2016. By building his theme park like a shopping mall – one big-box attraction at a time, with several spaces going to outside companies with their own winning formulas – Knishinsky may have finally found the model that works for the Valley.

Before OdySea, the post-Legend City project that came closest to reality was Decades Music Theme Park. Pegged to open in 2012 on a 240-acre plot of land in Eloy, roughly halfway between Phoenix and Tucson, Decades was to be a rock ‘n’ roll Disneyland, with interconnected environs divided by decades and each attraction given a rock theme: a safari boat ride called “Welcome to the Jungle,” a drop tower cued to Aerosmith’s “Love in an Elevator.”

photo courtesy Odysea Aquarium; rendering of OdySea buildingThe enterprise got further than most, attracting support from Scottsdale-based guitar titan Fender and several influential political lobbyists. Ultimately it fell apart over the high costs of licensing both the music and images of the rockers it sought to salute.

“The Rolling Stones ride was going to take a long time to work out,” says political consultant Kevin DeMenna, who worked with Fred DuVal and others on the project’s lobbying team. “The Kansas ride took about a week!”

Nevertheless, DeMenna is proud of a bill they were able to get passed by the House Commerce Committee establishing a “regional attraction district” in Eloy which included a property tax exemption, and he’s hopeful someone else will be able to utilize that.

“Eventually somebody will break that code,” DeMenna predicts. “The economics will line up, the population will line up, someone will have the right concept and it will take off. And this location will be perfect for that moment.”

photo courtesy Odysea Aquarium; OdySea Aquarium Sea TrekWhat drives these aspiring desert Disneys to keep trying? Immortality, perhaps.

“In the last few decades I’ve built shopping centers and apartment complexes, offices and subdivisions,” Knishinsky says. “Nobody ever thanked me for doing that. But I can’t tell you how many people have come up and shook my hand and thanked me for building Butterfly Wonderland.”

Maybe Mike Aloisi will be next. On an early Friday night, he sits at his favorite booth in Bill Johnson’s Big Apple in central Phoenix with a stuffed animal PALican, artist renderings, maps and a folder full of plans before him. Long stymied by lack of land – which he says he’s currently “negotiating for” – he begins pitching, one more time, the grand pelican-themed park he’s been trying to get off the ground for more than 10 years.

“Disneyland has Mickey and the others, Six Flags has the rights to Bugs Bunny,” he says, putting on his showman’s hat. “Let me tell you what I’m going to do that’ll really knock your socks off.”