Special Section - North America Region - November 2018


Today’s Times Square is a destination in its own right with 50 million visitors annually, coming to see its famous gigantic video billboards for themselves. (Credit: Times Square Alliance)

Bright Lights in the Big City

How Times Square became an attraction all its own

by James Careless

The glitz, glamour, and glowing lights that embody Times Square in New York City call to an estimated 50 million tourists each year. 

“That’s the most of any U.S. attraction,” boast marketing materials of NYC & Company, the city’s official destination marketing organization. 

Through the dauntless promotional efforts of NYC & Company and its marketing partner the Times Square Alliance, Times Square has become a must-see location for 83 percent of all New York City visitors. In turn, the traffic Times Square generates is an appealing location to operate attractions.

Not Dull for Long

What the world now calls Times Square was originally known as Long Acre (or Longacre) Square. Located in midtown Manhattan at the corner of Broadway and Seventh Avenue, Long Acre Square grew in the second half of the 19th century as the city rapidly transformed farmland into urban space. 

Historians will tell you in the late 1880s, Long Acre Square would have greeted you with large open spaces and drab apartments. Yet, the spark of electricity ushered in a new era with the addition of electric street lights and glowing theater marquees. The addition of lights transformed the public space into a safer, more inviting environment. In addition, the construction of the Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT), New York’s first rapid transit system, gave New Yorkers more mobility. The subway then spurred commercial and high-rise development in Long Acre Square. The official name change to Times Square took place in 1904, ahead of the New York Times moving into a 25-story building at One Times Square in 1905. 

Eight years later, the Times moved out, but the thin building remains. Today, all four sides of One Times Square are covered in gigantic video billboards, stacked atop each other.

These displays are such a tourist attraction, that by law, Times Square’s buildings must have a minimum amount of display lighting. The regulation is set the preserve the area’s reputation for glitz and energy.

It was New York Times Owner Adolph Ochs who began ringing in the new year with a public celebration in Times Square. The first such celebration marked the arrival of 1904 with a fireworks display. Four years later, Ochs changed things up by sliding a lit ball down the building’s flagpole. This is a unique event that continues today with the annual “Times Square New Year’s Eve Ball Drop” on-site and broadcast on television worldwide.


New York Times Owner Adolph Ochs started the long-standing tradition of ringing in the new year with a public celebration in Times Square. (Credit: Times Square Alliance)

Decline and Rebirth

Times Square’s proximity to Broadway’s world-renowned theaters, plus its commercial attractions and reputation for being a “must-visit” location, helped keep the district busy and vibrant for many decades. 

Yet, the Great Depression of the 1930s took a toll on the area. With a decrease in theater revenues, property owners opted to introduce burlesque shows, dance halls, and penny arcades in Times Square. The area’s decline continued for many years; however, a massive urban revitalization effort started turning the tide in the 1990s. Gradually, the City of New York pushed disreputable businesses and criminal activity out and encouraged family-oriented attractions, businesses, and restaurants to move in.


SPE Partners chose Times Square as the site for National Geographic Encounter: Ocean Odyssey because of the location’s millions of annual visitors and international audience. (Credit: National Geographic Encounter: Ocean Odyssey)

Times Square Today

These changes, plus Times Square’s high profile among global audiences thanks to its pop culture prominence have created a global destination with attractions for all. 

“NYC & Company consistently markets the iconic, family-friendly destination Times Square both domestically and internationally,” says Chris Heywood, NYC & Company’s senior vice president of global communications. 

The introduction of a number of unique and newsworthy attractions—SPYSCAPE, National Geographic Encounter: Ocean Odyssey, Gulliver’s Gate, Opry City Stage, Madame Tussauds New York, and Ripley’s Believe it or Not! Times Square—continue to reiterate the neighborhood’s overall vibrancy and evolution.


National Geographic Encounter: Ocean Odyssey takes guests on an immersive walk-through exploring life under the sea. (Credit: National Geographic Encounter: Ocean Odyssey)

Driving Customers to Attractions

Times Square is imbued with romance and pop culture notoriety—from ushering a new year with  the “New Year’s Eve Ball Drop,” to year-round daily live broadcasts of Good Morning America on ABC. Even the square’s famous guitar-strumming “Naked Cowboy,” Robert John Burck (who actually stays clothed, wearing briefs, cowboy boots, and a hat), have become icons that are selfie-worthy for social media accounts, boasting, “I was here!”

National Geographic Encounter: Ocean Odyssey is a dry, immersive walk-through adventure over the course of one night in the Pacific Ocean.

“Guests have the opportunity to splash in the shallow waters of the beach, escape a magnificent 3D feeding frenzy, get up close with a 50-foot humpback whale, play with their own sea lions, and more,” says SPE Partners Co-Founder and Managing Partner Alexander Svezia. 

It was the millions of annual visitors to New York City—and Times Square in particular—that convinced SPE Partners to open National Geographic Encounter here. 

“Times Square was always our first and only choice to launch a first-in-kind National Geographic experience,” says Svezia. “As a globally recognized brand, it made sense to be in a part of the world that attracts such a significant international audience. It took us more than four years to find a suitable space with property ceiling heights and overall volume to accommodate our technology needs, but it was all worth it.”

With the slogan, “Discover your inner spy,” Spyscape, New York’s Spy Museum and Experience lets visitors dodge lasers, crack codes, and lie themselves, while spotting other liars.

Opened in February 2018, planners said never has there been a time “more relevant than today amid concerns about corporate espionage, fake news, hacking, privacy, and surveillance,” for a venue like Spyscape. Designers hope to use the stories about spies to help visitors see the world—and ourselves—more clearly.

A contemporary museum tells the story of code-breakers, pilots, spy catchers, and teenagers who brought down FBI traitors, became CIA hackers, and help to end the Cold War. 

Spycape includes interrogation booths, live video surveillance missions, the opportunity to use agility in special ops laser tunnels, encryption challenges, and RFID tracking technology to personalize the experience, thus allowing visitors to create an alias and track other visitors.

You wouldn’t expect to find the Grand Ole Opry in the middle of Manhattan. Yet, Opry City Stage welcomes city slickers and tourists alike, billing itself as “New York City’s home for country music and culture, with good food and good times rooted in the South.”

Here, country music is served alongside comfort food amid the venue’s four floors, covered in photos from nine decades worth of memorabilia from Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry.

Real-time performances from the stage in Nashville are streamed live around the venue. On the fourth floor, a special area can serve as a live performance venue.

The Great Pyramid of Giza, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Taj Mahal, and many other well-known international sites like New York can be found in miniature at Gulliver’s Gate, a 50,000-square-foot exhibit of 300 miniature scenes.

“We are such a unique place where people can open their minds and travel to new parts of the world that they’ve never experienced or traveled to before,” says Michael Langer, Gulliver’s Gate co-founder.

The miniature landmarks feature interactive elements like moving cars, trains, and helicopters.

“Times Square is the destination for tourists,” says Langer. “We chose Times Square because it’s the center of the universe and the crossroads of the world, where all different cultures from around the globe and different walks of life come to visit New York City.”

The Power of Promotion

Attractions operators credit NYC & Company’s persistent marketing of Times Square as central to bringing tourists in.

“The Times Square Alliance is an integral partner of Encounter and does a terrific job to promote the overall district, cultivating the creativity, energy, and edge that have made the area an icon of entertainment, culture, and urban life for over a century,” says Svezia.

“While Times Square is almost self-promoting, the city does a wonderful job using pop-up shops, yoga events, free concerts, and more to keep Times Square new and fresh,” adds Langer. “There’s always something to discover here.”

More than 50 million people a year do just that, among the bustling walkways, illuminated signs, and attractions that have transformed Long Acre Square.

— Funworld Managing Editor Scott Fais contributed to this story.

James Careless is a Canada-based writer who covers the water park industry for Funworld.


SeaQuest Interactive Aquarium features reptiles, mammals, insects, birds, and fish. (Credit: SeaQuest)

Spotlight on Conservation

SeaQuest Interactive Aquarium brings family entertainment and wildlife conservation message to Folsom, California

by James Careless

The driving philosophy behind the newly opened SeaQuest Interactive Aquarium in Folsom, California, is to connect guests with an array of exotic species, while creating enjoyable and cherished experiences.

Located at the popular Palladio at Broadstone lifestyle center with shopping, dining, theaters, and other attractions, the 22,000-square-foot facility is a wet and dry attraction, featuring reptiles, mammals, insects, birds, and fish from five continents.

“We’ve designed the attraction like a walkable quest, where guests can personally meet, touch, and feed creatures from all over the world in a range of settings,” says Vince Covino, SeaQuest CEO. Throughout the SeaQuest facility, guests can swim with stingrays; hand-feed fish, otters, and sharks; and get close to exotic birds, giant sulcata tortoises, and capybaras, the world’s largest species of rodent.

By interacting with wildlife on a personal basis, Covino says he hopes SeaQuest guests will learn to care deeply about them while at the same time having a good time at the attraction.

“When visitors get close enough to have an actual physical experience with an animal—where they are feeding and touching them—this changes their whole perception of these creatures that we share the planet with,” Covino tells Funworld. “If our guests have a fun, memorable experience, it will open up their minds and hearts to say, ‘Wait a minute. I should care more about taking care of the Earth and the species that live here with us. I should care more about conservation.’”

This new location is SeaQuest Interactive Aquarium’s sixth facility, joining locations in Littleton, Colorado; Fort Lauderdale, Florida; Las Vegas, Nevada; Fort Worth, Texas; and Layton, Utah, its first location, which opened in 2016.

A Broad Selection of Attractions

Variety is at the heart of SeaQuest’s floor plan in Folsom. Coming through the front door and into the exhibit area, visitors find themselves in the Amazon (complete with rainfall), where they encounter iguanas, coatimundis (members of the raccoon family), capybaras, and sloths. 

They then enter SeaQuest’s Mayan exhibit with its walk-in aviary exhibits full of exotic birds. Next, guests stroll through a “Fantasy Cave” with habitats of seahorses, eels, and Burmese pythons.

Walking further, SeaQuest guests come to a pond full of ducks and trout, a giant tortoise habitat, and exhibits of bearded dragons, hedgehogs, leopard geckos, and Colorado River toads.

Then it’s onto the grasslands of Denmark with soft Silkies (finely feathered chickens), Flemish Giant rabbits that are about the size of middle-size dogs, and teacup pigs. Ahead lie the duck, koi, and otter exhibits of China; the Pirate Exhibit’s shark zone, and the walk-in stingray swimming habitat in the Caribbean section.

While these are just a few of the new location’s highlights, collectively, SeaQuest Folsom takes visitors on a world tour of reptiles, mammals, insects, birds, and fish.


The SeaQuest facility is designed as a walkable quest, where guests can meet, touch, and feed animals from all over the world in a range of settings. (Credit: SeaQuest)

A Personal Connection

Covino’s connection to living things started at an early age. His parents had an acre-and-a-half lot, which ninth-grader Covino stocked with chickens and “baby cows” purchased using his own hard-earned cash.

“As a teenager, I put a ‘touch tank’ in our living room, where family and friends could interact with snakes, lizards, and fish,” says Covino. “I built a small pond in the front yard and then a larger pond in the backyard that I stocked with koi.”

Covino worked in the aquarium sector when he got older, but it wasn’t until he became a father with children of his own that the notion of opening an interactive attraction came to mind.

“We could take six kids to a top-end zoo and pay $100 to get in, and the kid would want to leave after 30 minutes,” says Covino. “But, go to a country fair at $4 a head with a petting zoo, and the kids would happily feed the baby goats for three hours and never want to leave.”

Putting two and two together, he realized the power of direct connections with wildlife.

“We do have 85 husbandry people on staff who keep an eye on human-animal interactions,” he says. “Although we have had millions of visitors to date in our locations, there haven’t been any significant injuries.”

A Balancing Act

Keeping the living assets healthy and safe while at the same time running a business and keeping customers satisfied is a balancing act for SeaQuest. This includes managing trends and issues currently surrounding attractions with animals (see box).

Covino says many of SeaQuest’s animals, birds, and fish are rescues. They are human-raised pets like caimans (alligator-like reptiles), which can grow as large as 16 feet in length and weigh 88 pounds or more.

When such pets get too large, their owners turn them over to facilities like SeaQuest. “We also get babies from our other aquariums when they end up with too many from breeding and from other zoos,” Covino says.

A Growth Industry

With six interactive aquariums opened in just two years, SeaQuest has tapped into the public’s desire to get up close and personal with wildlife.

“We’re drawing people within a 150-mile radius to Folsom,” Covino says.

The attraction offers a selection of Annual Passports that provide unlimited access to the aquarium with options for one to two people and families with five or more members.

With this new location, Covino says he hopes the public will get more involved in wildlife conservation.

“Our goal is to be the single biggest voice in the city for the planet and for conservation,” Covino says. “When our guests come to SeaQuest and interact with wildlife directly, they start to get it.”

James Careless is a Canada-based writer who covers the water park industry for Funworld.