The Head Office, Continental Building, 135, Dr. Annie Besant Road,
Worli, Mumbai – 400018, Tel.- 24997474 Fax: 2673 6447
WATER KINGDOM, Gorai Island, P.O. Box 19710, Borivali (W), Mumbai 400 091. Tel: 28452298/2300/2302 Fax: 28452711
ESSELWORLD, Gorai Island, P.O. Box 19710, Borivali (W), Mumbai 400 091. Tel: 28452222/2530/2474/2473 Fax: 28452711
EsselWorld is India’s largest amusement park, attracting 1.5 million visitors per year. Water Kingdom, its sister facility, is Asia’s largest themed waterpark. Both are located on an island of lush tropical vegetation in the northwest quadrant of Bombay, which is now officially called Mumbai. Opened in 1989 as one of India’s first major amusement parks, EsselWorld has been a pioneer, bringing international standards to the marketplace and forging business practices that have been emulated throughout the country. But in helping expand India’s fledgling amusement industry, EsselWorld’s planners faced some significant challenges.
Traveling MerciesLocation was the first major hurdle. Gorai island lies just off the coast from one of Mumbai’s northern districts. Before EsselWorld was developed, fishing was the only industry; there was no tourist development, though the island offers access to the Arabian Sea to the west. The estuary to the east, which separates the island from the mainland, is a sheltered harbor, shallow but with a clearly defined channel down the middle. The Borivali district, a growing suburb in northwest Mumbai, just across the channel from Gorai island, provides easy access to the city’s commuter rail system.Though it may seem remote, the location has been good for the park, as the facilities have room to expand, and new projects can be readily considered. “In Mumbai, spatial constraints are always the big question,” says Nilesh Mistry, senior manager of communications at Pan India Paryatan Ltd., the company that owns the park. Famous for its soaring office rents and critical demand for housing, Mumbai is India’s largest and most expensive city. Its central portions lie on a series of reclaimed and consolidated islands, so Mumbai faces a crunch similar to that of Manhattan. As a result, Mumbai is expanding northward, toward EsselWorld. “EsselWorld is not in the heart of the city but is still very much a part of it,” says Mistry.
With 80 acres developed on an 800-acre site, EsselWorld and Water Kingdom are situated on the eastern side of Gorai island, facing the city. The parks are served by ferries that run from two different points on the mainland.
When park guests disembark at the southern ferry point on the mainland, they must walk down a wooden plank to the sand. Without proper docking facilities, it’s very easy to dunk your shoes in salt water. “Traveling here is part of the excitement,” says Mistry, though he readily concedes that the arrangement is not optimal. The management has petitioned the local government for better facilities on the mainland to accommodate the ferries, but as of yet there is little improvement.
The parks’ managers, though, have quickly turned these challenges into virtues. EsselWorld and Water Kingdom don’t let visitors forget about the natural environment; indeed, education about the stewardship of natural resources is part of the experience and a key component of the parks’ mission. The parks boast a 2.5-acre nursery and more than 800 varieties of shrubs, bushes, and trees, making the lush setting a welcome respite from Mumbai’s often punishing heat. When Water Kingdom was built, no trees were cut down to accommodate the design, and more were subsequently planted, so the flumes and lost rivers wind through thick foliage. School groups tour the recycling center, where plastics are separated and organic materials are composted for use in the nursery. At the waste management center, youngsters learn that all the water in both parks is recycled. Waste water from the toilets and showers is treated according to international standards for use in irrigation. Water Kingdom’s extensive pumping and filtration systems keep the water in the rides pristine, at a recycle rate of one minute and 30 seconds—the time it takes for one unit of water to pass through the entire system, which is well above international norms. The rate is higher in the children’s pools. The backwash from the filters is used in horticulture.
“No one can afford to waste water, not even in a waterpark,” says Anand Lamdhade, Water Kingdom’s senior manager of operations.
Despite their success, the development of the parks hasn’t been easy. As Pan India Paryatan, Ltd.’s director Ashok Goel says, “When we started EsselWorld, we made a heck of a lot of mistakes.” But regardless of the steep learning curve, he chuckles with delight, the company has thrived on innovation. “Amusement is serious business,” he says.
In the late 1980s, India had no amusement park industry to speak of, no local models to emulate, and no designers who could anticipate the needs of the Indian consumer. EsselWorld was designed by a British firm, which followed the standard model of European and American amusement parks. One simple detail proved to be problematic in India—adult and children’s rides were located in separate areas. While the concept of family entertainment is popular throughout the worldwide amusement industry, in India the notion is sacred. Where American parents might be happy to let their teenager go off to ride the roller coaster while they watch his younger sister on the teacups, the Indian family moves as a unit through the park, enjoying the rides as a group. Separating rides by age and height made it difficult for Indian families to stay together and keep the kids entertained. Another factor is that Indian families in the parks are often multigenerational, so having kiddie rides near concession stands where grandparents can rest is important. EsselWorld undertook a modest redesign when it became clear that the original layout was burdensome.
In another nod to the Indian consumer, when Water Kingdom was developed in 1998, “sofa” landings instead of “pool” landings were installed at the ends of the slides. In some parks elsewhere, the slide terminates in a shallow pool, where guests then stand up and climb out. Since Indians tend not to be good swimmers, and landing in a pool at the end of a fast slide can be disorienting, a better method was needed. In a sofa landing, the slide ends in a narrow tank, only an arm’s length wide, where the water becomes slightly deeper to slow the descent. Since one side is lower than the other, the guest simply gets up off the sofa to exit.
These enhancements may seem small, but they are vitally important given the relative youth of India’s amusement park industry and the need to convince consumers of their virtues. Amusement and waterpark operators are keenly aware of the increasing competition for an Indian family’s discretionary income.
Thanks to a series of economic reforms begun by the government in the early ’90s, state controls were reduced on imports and foreign investment. Some elements of the public sector began a process of privatization, and television, a state-controlled industry, was delicensed. The result was substantial growth in India’s gross domestic product. By some estimates, India’s poverty rate has been reduced by 10 percent since 1990. Today, India’s economy maintains the six percent annual growth rate that has held steady since the economic liberalization process began.
The benefits are being strongly felt in the consumer class, which is expanding. Incomes are rising. In the workplace, annual vacations are becoming the norm, as opposed to every two to four years, as had been the custom. The result is a greater demand for leisure activities. Like the amusement industry, the cinema multiplexes are becoming increasingly popular—the movies are one of the key competitors for a family’s rupees.
Though India enjoys increasing prosperity, economists argue that the process of reform could be carried out more swiftly, especially in certain sectors. Leisure and entertainment, for example, is considered a “sunrise industry.” Ashok Goel, who is founder and president of the Indian Association of Amusement Park Industries (IAAPI) in addition to his duties at EsselWorld, says that the industry in India attracts an annual investment of 3,000 rupees (more than $650 million) and is growing by about 20 percent per year. Investment could be higher, he says, but it is hindered by the lack of support for the tourism industry from the federal and state governments.
IAAPI has served as an important voice for the industry in India. With 150 members throughout the country, IAAPI sponsors an annual trade show in New Delhi, India’s capital city, for investors, suppliers, and other industry-related groups to share info, discuss safety standards, and consider ways to increase government support for the industry.
Just three years old, the trade shows have become crucial in introducing new investors to the industry, as travel to America and Europe has become increasingly restricted since 9/11. In addition to touring parks, Indian entrepreneurs need to be able to see new equipment and meet industry representatives to stay on top of the curve. The IAAPI trade show has met a key demand.
From the start, EsselWorld has led the way, achieving 91 percent brand recall in Mumbai. Shirish Deshpande, the park’s marketing manager, notes that Mumbai kids will call any amusement park “EsselWorld,” even the traveling carnivals. The name has been built slowly over time, with word of mouth as the most successful means of promotion. Those famous stickers adorn 72 percent of the city’s taxis.
EsselWorld has achieved its position by offering an enjoyable experience in a safe atmosphere, providing education in addition to entertainment, and continually refining and reinventing the product. The park offers 58 rides and attractions for all ages and tastes. The centerpiece, and one of its most distinctive features, is Prabal, the Killer, a decommissioned missile patrol boat leased from the Indian Navy. It sits on dry land in the center of the park, with a walkway leading guests up to the stern. Part of the engine room has been converted into a theater, showing a video about the history of the Soviet-built ship. Afterward, guests may tour the galley, crew quarters, and weapons systems. They can stand on the deck next to the four large missile tubes. Above, the radar dish spins.
EsselWorld has been keen to introduce not just new rides but new concepts. Water Kingdom itself grew out of a small waterpark component that was subsequently developed into a new product. Requiring a separate admission fee, Water Kingdom is larger and more ambitious than its older sister. Its development in 1998 gave Goel and his team an opportunity to learn from their experiences with EsselWorld a decade earlier and design a facility to compete with any waterpark in the world. Goel observes that some rules in the international amusement industry are as true in India as anywhere else. “We are all driven by novelty,” he says. The newest additions to EsselWorld include an ice-skating rink (India’s first), a bowling alley, and a disco.
Both EsselWorld and Water Kingdom have made social initiatives and good corporate citizenship a priority. The parks’ facilities—from the ticket booths and many of the rides to the showers and bathrooms—are accessible for people with disabilities; Water Kingdom even provides special wheelchairs that can be used in water. The parks make arrangements with charities serving the blind, street children, slum dwellers, and the mentally handicapped, for these kids to have the opportunity to visit. EsselWorld also makes a significant positive economic impact on the area, employing some 300 people and, through contracted services such as security and food, providing job opportunities for another 300 (75 percent are drawn from within five kilometers). Save fishing (whose economics are precarious), there is no other industry on the island. In addition to employment opportunities, the parks supply drinking water to some of the neighboring villages and have installed a floating jetty to enable the continuous operation of ferries, belonging to the parks and to the villagers, especially during low tide. Gorai is thus never cut off from the mainland.
Always ambitious, EsselWorld’s management sees more opportunities for Gorai island, not all focused exclusively on amusement. Eleven acres adjoining EsselWorld were donated to a Burma-based charity for the development of the world’s largest Buddhist pagoda, a prayer hall to accommodate some 7,000 people, with full facilities for religious conferences, education, and spiritual retreat. When completed on a hill above the park, the Grand Vipassana Pagoda will command the landscape with its soaring bell-shaped golden dome. It might seem odd for a religious structure to be placed next to an amusement park, but EsselWorld sees its mission as the promotion of good values.
The parks’ planners also hope to offer more opportunities to explore Indian culture and tradition as key components of the amusement park experience. Indeed, such a dynamic approach has been key to EsselWorld’s success and is a hallmark of the Indian amusement industry. “India cannot be ignored,” says Nilesh Mistry. “It’s a happening place.”