Producers invest Puzzle Place in planned chain of supercenters for kids

Originally published in Current, Sept. 16, 1996

By Judith Davies

KCET-TV, Los Angeles, and Lancit Media Productions have joined together with an investment group to plan the first of several Puzzle Place supercenters for kids and their families. The first will be a 35,000-square-foot facility in suburban Chicago, slated to open in April [1997]. They aim to open two more in the second year and three more the third year.

Instead of licensing the entrepreneurs to use the name and characters of the children's program that they co-produce, KCET and Lancit will be equity owners in the chain, along with other investors.

In contrast, the producers of two earlier children's series sold licenses to the developers of amusement-park spinoffs--"Sesame Place," north of Philadelphia, and "A Day in the Park with Barney" in Orlando.

As equity owners in the Puzzle Place establishments, Lancit and KCET will share in the investment risk. They won't get money upfront, but if the venture succeeds, they will, too. And in the meantime, the producers will meet regularly with the developers to maintain quality. "This is why we didn't do the traditional licensing, because we wanted to have ongoing control," said Gary Stein, executive v.p. for financial and corporate development at Lancit. "This way is a recognition that, on this type of a venture, our very active involvement is essential to its success."

What KCET and Lancit are investing, instead of cash, is the program's reputation and appeal. An investor group, MCEC Enterprises, is putting in money, and another group, Fort Dearborn Partners, is raising additional investment capital, according to KCET spokeswoman Barbara Goen. From research to completion of the first site, the project is expected to cost $3.5 million.

The project won't be sharing proceeds with PBS, as some kidvid spinoffs do, but if the venture succeeds, its income will help pay for production of more Puzzle Place shows.

Alice Cahn, director of children's programming at PBS, expresses solid support for the supercenter development and financing. "I applaud their giving children things to do when the TV is off," she said.

The co-producers, KCET and Lancit, had been looking for a way to transfer the themes of Puzzle Place into the community and believe that the multimedia, multi-activity supercenters are the way to do it, Goen said.

While the planners have yet to decide many details--including the brand name of the centers--they have settled on a concept. They expect the supercenters to provide a different experience from Disney parks as well as Discovery Zone centers. Stein envisions an "edutainment center" that incorporates the "best elements of a good children's museum and child's play." The centers will have both indoor and outdoor activities. The outdoor area will be topped with a tent-like cover that will let light in.

The experience--and the meals served in the food court--will be designed to appeal to adults as well as children. The planners are targeting toddlers through preschoolers, and hope to draw grade-school kids as well.

"Younger kids have all different facets to their personalities," Stein said. "They are active and physical, but also quiet and curious." He expects the centers to have climbing facilities and rides as well as places for hands-on exploration and make-believe play, such as an imaginary village. There will be organized group events as well as individual play.

Quieter areas will be set aside for parents. "We want it to be a situation where if the parents do come for the day, they can monitor the kids," said Stein. "Also a place that parents can comfortably drop them off and feel safe."

The themes of fair play and appreciation of diversity, promoted by Puzzle Place on the air, will be central to the supercenters, Stein said. He acknowledges that there will be an outreach benefit if the centers are done right. "Economics are one thing, but this property means more than just dollars," he said. "If Puzzle Place is going to be used in a business manner then we have to be very careful how it is used."

Kidvid made physical

Similar off-screen ventures are "A Day in the Park with Barney," which opened last year at Universal Studios in Orlando, Fla., and the venerable Sesame Place educational/play theme park, which opened in 1980 in Langhorne, Bucks County, Pa. Even though both places were developed under licenses, producers have a measure of quality control.

Like some other Barney spinoffs, the Florida development doesn't directly benefit public TV. Rights to the big purple galoot were sold directly by the owner, the Lyons Group, to Universal Studios. "A Day in the Park with Barney" is a theater in the round for toddlers. The 20-minute show is "environmentally interactive"--when the cast sings a song about rain, a mist falls on the audience; if the song is about autumn, silk leaves float to the floor. After the show, there is an indoor interactive play area where kids can stay for as long as they wish, leaping on stepping stones that play music or magically creating music when they put their hand in a waterfall. Outside is an area where families can picnic or just relax.

As the first toddler attraction for Universal Studios, it has increased toddler attendance there by 40 percent, according to Ann Piper of the Lyons Group. The venue was a natural progression for Barney, who has a fan club of almost 1 million. "Universal Studios wanted an attraction for toddlers, and Lyons Group wanted a place where people could see Barney 365 days of the year," Piper said.

The grand-daddy of PBS kidvid entertainment sites, Sesame Place, is owned and operated by Anheuser-Busch Theme Parks under a licensing agreement with Children's Television Workshop. As a theme park it combines water rides and interactive performances with computer games and educational play targeted to kids from 3 to 13 and, of course, their parents.

"Everything is educational, the guests just don't know it," said Public Relations Director Sharla Feldcher. The operators call the fun "holistic play," because it exercises their minds, bodies and emotions.

Every year Sesame Place adds new attractions. There are more than 50 interactive play areas and more than a dozen water rides. Twice daily, in the summer, there is an Amazing Alphabet Parade of the Sesame Street characters. Educational attractions include Sesame Neighborhood, with a fruit stand where kids can "shop" for produce and pretend to total their "purchases" on the cash register, and a fire engine house, with firefighters' coats and boots for dressing up. Sesame Studio Science Exhibits lets kids explore concepts about light, sound and motion.

Sesame Place also offers a live bird show with trained macaws and cockatoos flying through hoops, riding bicycles, shooting baskets and singing popular songs. CTW is still involved with the park and this year helped Busch create a new musical review show based on the Sesame Games theme of "I can do it."

Sesame Place has expanded considerably over 16 years of operation, growing from 2.5 acres to more than 10 acres. Daily admission originally cost $3.95; today, it's $22.95 per person--children under 2 get in free. And Anheuser-Busch, operator of Busch Gardens and other establishments has another advantage; Sesame Place serves as an easy introduction to a theme parks.


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Current Briefing: Kidvid that's good for kids?

From the beginning, when Puzzle Place was to be called Puzzle Factory, Lancit was planning a marketable cast of puppet characters.


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