Vulcania: Will This French Idea Crater?


The bottom level of the cone that marks the entrance to Vulcania, a new underground volcanic theme park located in Central France, is bathed in golden light, despite the sleet falling more than 80 feet overhead. The pair of overlapping, semicircular rings that evoke a volcanic mountain are coated with yellow titanium and designed to refract sunlight, a soothing spectacle that appeals to the park's creator, ex-President Valery Giscard D'Estaing.

Public sentiment about the project is far from mellow, however. Citizens of the Auvergne, one of France's poorest areas, are steaming that Vulcania has sucked up large sums of local money. The region was so thrilled to have a celebrity at the helm of its Regional Council that the 76-year-old politician was given free rein with his pet project. But is Giscard out of touch with the public?

The ex-President would like the park to be his legacy, much as François Mitterrand is remembered for the Louvre's glass pyramid. Except that the structure wasn't as risky a project as Vulcania. The latter has been in the works for 12 years, a period in which the budget ballooned from $39 million to $96 million.

FIZZLING OUT? Now comes the big test. The park, which opened to the public on Feb. 21, needs to bring in 500,000 visitors annually for the first four years, rising to 800,000 per year after that, to be profitable.

Trouble is, Volcania lacks the fun to be an amusement park for kids -- and it isn't sufficiently educational to be a museum. Attendance at competitor Futuroscope, which showcases innovation and technology, is evaporating as the public judges the theme outdated. Can Vulcania beat the odds and make the lava flow?

Giscard's critics think he has had his head in the crater too long to think clearly. Operating on the same "if you build it, they will come" theory that inspired Kevin Costner's character to create a baseball diamond in a cornfield in Field of Dreams, Giscard came up with the idea after taking a summer vacation in the area. He and his family were always impressed with the local terrain of the Puy-de-Dôme, the French volcanic range that has been dormant for 7,000 years.

"We asked ourselves: 'What can we do to make Auvergne known in the world?" says Giscard, who concluded: "We have to bring the story of the volcanoes up to date."

FAILURE TO COMMUNICATE. He persuaded governments with tight budgets to buy into the idea. Auvergne's regional council chipped in more than $28 million, while France and the European Union have forked over $13 million more.

However, the mix of contributors has prevented any one identity from prevailing. The guides call the park European, because they're targeting visitors from all across the Continent. Yet the highlight of the visit -- two spectacular films, one on an IMAX-size screen and the other in 3D -- are in French and lack subtitles. So any European visitor who doesn't speak the language will miss out on the best bits.

Auvergne is the heartland of France. Clermont-Ferrand, the biggest city in the region, with 136,000 residents, is best known as the home of tire maker Michelin. Tourism is lopsided: The summer months draw the biggest crowds, who come for outdoor activities. Giscard wants to change all that. "We'll increase the amount of tourism revenues by extending the season [year-round]," he promises.

STARK REMINDER. But what if there's not enough fun to keep kids amused? The sensation of a volcanic explosion is present only in the Rumbling Hall, a lava corridor where the visit begins. The ground shakes with the heavy bass of the soundtrack, and molten rock splatters on video screens around the cave. Other rooms display geological models and volcanic rock -- nothing that couldn't be found at a good natural history museum.

Nearby, Futuroscope looms as a reminder that boosting tourism in Central France is no easy job. The park opened in 1987 near Poitiers, another less-than-well-traveled area of France, with similar ambition. But owner Groupe Amaury, which also manages the Tour de France bicycle race, has hesitated to build new attractions since it took control of the park in 2000. The result: Attendance has plummeted because most visitors don't come back a second time.

Vulcania wants to avoid that fate. The park won't have its official ribbon-cutting until June 22 because construction has yet to be completed, but Vulcania is already scrambling for visitors by going after school groups and tour operators from France and its neighbors.

Still, it faces a tough challenge from Mickey Mouse, whose Disneyland Paris leads the French pack with 12 million fans a year, a number that seems sure to rise when the adjoining Walt Disney Studios opens in March, 2002. Space Mountain may prove a stronger lure than Vulcania's titanium cone. By Christina White


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