Operator sought for Plinius Project
Located in Tongeren, the oldest city in Belgium, Ooit Tongeren was created as a sister park to Het Land Van Ooit in Holland. “Ooit” is the Dutch word for “ever” (or “once”) but ironically both parks closed down last year when the operating Taminiau family encountered financial difficulties. In the case of the new facility at Tongeren, that was less than three months after opening. Park World talks to the man trying to find a new operator.
Ooit Tongeren was formed as a public-private partnership between the Flemish Government (Toerisme Vlaanderen), the city of Tongeren, construction specialist Strabag, and Dea Dia, the company spearheaded by Het Land Van Ooit founders Marc and Marjan Taminiau.
Tongeren was an important Roman and Medieval base and still boasts several important monuments and archaeological sites, as well as a Gallo-Roman museum. The same theme was chosen for the new park, construction on which started July 2006, ahead of a June 2007 opening. In total €20.7 million was invested in buildings, infrastructure, landscaping, theming and attractions.
The lo-tech park is well-landscaped and divided into four zones arranged around a central, covered square. Around 16 hectares of a 22 hectare site have so far been developed, with “wellness” facilities and guest accommodation cited as options for a phase II expansion.
Guests enter the park via an impressive Roman Villa building. This multifunctional entrance hall also houses a Coliseum and 3,350-seater arena, a seperate 600 seat theatre, restaurant, admin building and technical facilities.
In the first zone oguests encounter two children’s track rides, a land train and playground, as well as two open air theatres. The park’s second zone takes water as its theme and comprises a raft slide, suspension bridges, fountains and a drying room, plus a hall filled with fairground attractions and inflatables. Rich greenery adds atmosphere to the third sector, where the attractions include a maze, inflatable walk-though, open-air theatre and a giant rowing boat ride. The Gallo-Roman theming comes to the fore in the remaining sector, where a train ride, tug-of-war, mini maze and playground feature among the line-up.
The park survived just 70 days operation before the Taminiau family, facing bankruptcy, pulled the plug on August 17 last year. Around 50,000 guests visited in that time, the modest attendance figure explained only in part by the wet summer that affected much of Central Europe.
According to Frank De Roo of Strabag, which now owns the park, the facility was never marketed fully by Marc Taminiau, who mistakenly thought he could rely on the reputation of Het Land Van Ooit – 150km away – to ignite interest in the new park: “Belgium is a country of French and Flemish speakers,” he explains, “but they did not do any significant marketing in the French region, or in Germany, which is just 25km away.”
As at Het Land Van Ooit, theatrical performers were employed to roam the park and interact with guests, but according to De Roo the large number of performers created a huge wage bill. Nevertheless, he feels Ooit Tongeren – which is being marketed as the “Plinius Project” – still has potential: “A unique family park has been built which is the perfect complement to the existing cultural tourism on offer in the Meuse/Rhine region,” he says. “The city of Tongeren attracts more than one million tourists a year.”
Within a 150km radius there is competition already from a large number of parks, Plopsa Coo, Bobbejaanland and Efteling to name just three, but De Roo feels Plinius Project is positioned to attract a broad market if a new operator is willing to tweak the concept: “As Ooit Tongeren the park was aimed at three to 12-year olds. Our first attempt to restart the operation revealed that the Roman Villa did not appeal to potential operators, therefore we are proposing to divide the park up. Negotiations with interested investors and operators of the theme park entities have begun and development of phase 2 (the hotel and wellness facilities) will also start soon.”
Two staff are being kept on full time to maintain the park and Strabag is now inviting offers from potential operators, co-investors or buyers. “There is an excellent opportunity to fully embed the concept of the park within the rich historical storylines of Tongeren and surrounding region,” concludes de Roo, “If all goes well, it could be partially reopened by 2009.”
Should no one be found willing to take it on as a going concern, Ooit Tongeren could go the way of Het Land Van Ooit, which closed last November after 17 years of operation. Dragged down by the negative circumstances surrounding Ooit Tongeren, the land on which the park was built is likely to be redeveloped, and much of the park’s equipment was put up for sale in an online auction at the beginning of March.