In the Nick of Time

Plans for the first-ever Nickelodeon theme park were unveiled on Wednesday, when the announcement came that Viacom's (NYSE: VIA  ) kid-centric network will take over the 7-acre attraction that sits in the center of the nation's largest shopping mall.

The park inside Minnesota's Mall of America was originally managed by Cedar Fair (NYSE: FUN  ) . Camp Snoopy featured several flat rides, a flume ride, and a relatively tame roller coaster. Most of the attractions were themed to Charles Schulz's Peanuts characters. Cedar Fair was ultimately relieved of its contract, and the Snoopy-thematic touches were removed 14 months ago, when the park couldn't come to licensing terms with United Media.

Deja vu all over again
The still-unnamed theme park will open early next year. Despite its billing as the first Nickelodeon park, most park enthusiasts are probably chuckling at that claim. I know I am. I have hopped on a virtual spaceship with Jimmy Neutron and rocketed through the sets of popular Nick shows such as The Rugrats and SpongeBob SquarePants at General Electric's (NYSE: GE  ) Universal Orlando in Florida. I have watched as my kids take to the streets at the Rugrats Toonpike in Virginia's Kings Dominion. We had some rickety fun in the rain at Ohio's Kings Island aboard the wooden Fairly Odd Coaster this past summer.

So don't expect me to be wowed by the newness of this indoor park. If anything, it reminds me of how Viacom has let so many golden opportunities get away.

The Nickelodeon characters found their way to Universal Studios Florida by default. The network filmed several of its shows at the park's working soundstages. My nephew still talks about the time that he got slimed on live, national television there.

As the Nickelodeon brand blossomed and began to sprout a string of hit animated shows, the characters found their way into Viacom's own chain of theme parks. The five Paramount parks in North America refashioned their kiddie areas to embrace the rich and growing portfolio of marketable Nick characters.

Then Viacom did something stupid. It announced that it was looking to sell its parks. Cedar Fair scooped them up last year in a $1.24 billion deal.

Running a park isn't easy. Six Flags (NYSE: SIX  ) is on the right track for a turnaround, but it hasn't posted an actual profit on this side of the millennium. However, having a media giant give up a chain of theme parks is incomprehensible to me. Paramount parks welcomed 12.2 million guests at their turnstiles in 2005. How can a company like Viacom, with so many networks and shows to market, let that opportunity slip away?

Will it be easier to just sit back and collect licensing royalties? Of course. But it's the slacker that will settle for a nickel instead of working for a hard-earned quarter. Folks are captive audiences inside amusement parks for several hours a day. Don't you want to control -- and command -- that experience?

Mauled at the mall
Nickelodeon isn't playing it loose here, though. It will make sure that the food concessions within the park will be healthy. It will even open a 4,000-square-foot Nick store. A new looping coaster will be added to the park's collection of updated rides. The new scream machine will be called Avatar Airbender, but coming up with new names gets tricky with so many other Nick-themed rides all over the country. Back in June in Ohio, I rode Avatar: The Last Airbender. The perfect name for a new freefall ride being installed would be Plankton's Plunge, but that is also the name of a kiddie drop ride at the Ohio park. Even naming the park itself will be difficult.

Nickelodeon Universe? Nickelodeon Central? Those are the names of the themed kid areas at the former Paramount parks. Yet it would be a mistake to name the park after a single hit character. Sure, Camp SpongeBob or Dora's World sound swell now, but will those names still fly in a few years? Nickelodeon has a nasty habit of running hit shows into the ground with overexposure. Wild Thornberrys Kingdom or CatDog Land may have sounded great in the 1990s, but they wouldn't have a lot of sizzle today.

I'd cast my vote in favor of simply calling the park Nick. It's short. It's sweet. It's malleable. Kids would have no problem with the monosyllabic moniker, and "Nick at Night" promotions would tie in nicely with an existing brand, as a way to draw in an older crowd later in the day. It would also help set the attraction apart from all of the other Nickelodeon-themed and Nickelodeon-named licensed attractions all over the country.

Viacom blew it by letting so many lucrative opportunities slip through its clumsy fingers in the past. Now is the time to right its wrongs -- in the Nick of time.

A look at how Viacom has lost its way in themed attractions:

Disney is an active recommendation for Motley Fool Stock Advisor newsletter service subscribers. Cedar Fair is an Income Investor selection. Check out either service free for 30 days.

Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz enjoys taking his family to amusement parks of all sizes, all over the country. If they build it, he'll find a way to get there. He owns shares in Disney and units in Cedar Fair. He is also part of the Rule Breakers newsletter research team, seeking out tomorrow's ultimate growth stocks a day early. The Fool has a disclosure policy.


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