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When the going gets tough for the big players in amusement parks, they head for the movies.

Major destination parks owned by Walt Disney Co. and MCA Inc. and regional parks tied to Paramount Pictures and Warner Bros. have been rattled in recent years by recession and soft tourism. With consumer confidence in the economy on the mend and family travel picking up, these entertainment companies are giving U.S. and foreign visitors a reason to return by leveraging their film properties into new rides, attractions and events.

Disney may account for 24.7% (in '94) of all U.S. amusement park attendance, but last year only 11.2 million visited the Magic Kingdom in Florida, down 6.5% from '93, and 10.3 million visited California's Disneyland, down 10%.

But Disney is regaining its luster this year with the Magic Kingdom launch of "The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror" and Disneyland's "The Indiana Jones Adventure," which turns scenes from all three "Indiana Jones" movies into a state-of-the-art thrill ride costing $100 million.

"Indy" draws support from spot TV advertising and from the ride's sponsor, AT&T Corp., in national promotions. Disney also created a veritable infomercial for the ride as the Super Bowl halftime show produced January '95 for the National Football League.

Disneyland is anticipating its best year in the '90s, says a park spokesman. Although he wouldn't specify, such numbers would elevate Disneyland attendance beyond 13 million.

Other parks have used similar formulas with success. Six Flags is "Disney-ifying" its parks with Warner Bros. properties like Batman and Bugs Bunny. Despite being spun off at midyear by Time Warner, Six Flags continues its marketing relationship with Warner Bros., another TW unit.

Six Flags played a critical role in this summer's "Batman Forever" phenomenon. Many of the nine parks have a monster roller coaster called "Batman: The Ride." Five have Batman-themed fireworks and laser or stunt shows. A McDonald's Corp. in-store tie-in with the film also plugs the theme parks.

Paramount Parks are playing off promotions for the sister studio's summer movie hit "Congo." Rides based on movies "Top Gun" and "Days of Thunder" have helped sustain park attendance growth the last few years.

Universal Studios Hollywood, its attendance off 7% last year to 4.6 million, is poised for growth next year when it introduces "Jurassic Park River Adventure," a $100 million ride production.

Most of these pricy, high-profile rides will never make money. That's not the point.

"They're loss leaders for the big parks," says Tom O'Brien, editor at Amusement Business. "They provide instant identification and a hook for national marketing. They also create new revenue streams from sales of licensed merchandise."

As the major destination parks struggled the last few years, local and regional attractions generally thrived, no doubt pulling in visitors diverted from destination parks by economic worries or by tourist murders in Florida to earthquakes in California.

The local parks enticed visitors with aggressive promotion. Six Flags has teamed often with Coca-Cola Co.; it has put discount ticket offers on as many as 50 million soft drink cans. Last year's national ad campaign by Six Flags featured the tagline "Bigger than Disneyland, and a whole lot closer."

They also have linked with local car dealers and fast-food chains for discount offers and organized special promotions like concerts and arts & crafts festivals.

Southern California's Knott's Berry Farm is seeing attendance rise after slipping from 5 million in '90 to 3.7 million in '93. Cause of growth is the theming of the park to holidays-promoted for Halloween as Knott'Scary Park.

Among the majors, Disneyland slowed its bleeding in '93 by revamping and sweetening its annual "passport" program and promoting a local-resident discount. Universal Studios Hollywood survived the early '90s by promoting sponsors like L.A. Gear.

This year, it has countered Disneyland/"Indy" by relaunching and repositioning its "Back to the Future" ride as a high-tech roller coaster. Regional Taco Bells tied into the effort, giving away coupons for discount admission.

Universal Studios parks offer a behind-the-scenes look at Hollywood, an angle milked over and over to lure a star-struck public. Universal Studios Hollywood recently put together a national and local promotion for visitors to meet the star of "Hercules," the TV show also syndicated by MCA/Universal. Commercials ran in the show touting the promo.

Have these promotions been successful given the tough market conditions?

"The only way to really know is to not do them, and no one here is willing to do that," says LeeAnne Stables, VP-advertising/promotion at Universal Studios. "But we're waiting it out until next year when we're going to have `Jurassic [Park']. If you thought the movie was a thrill ride, wait 'til you see the real thing."

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