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Divining the future of fun in Lithuania

  • 2002-11-07
  • Matt Kovalick
Bored in Vilnius? Ambitious entertainment projects mean that in a few years you may have all the excitement you can handle. Matt Kovalick reports.

On a visit to Vilnius in spring 2004, you could find yourself howling down hills on the Iron Wolf roller coaster. Or maybe, you'll fearfully scream as your stomach drops to your shoes when Gedimino's Tower of Terror shoots you 43 meters skyward, only to plummet down seconds later. While the rides above may come from this author's imagination, the reality is that the Ogmios Astra Group and the Vilnius municipality have launched plans for a giant entertainment and sports complex to be located minutes from Vilnius' Old Town.

"We intend to create an amusement park that could turn Vilnius into a famous entertainment center not only in Lithuania but in the Baltic region," said Ogmios Astra's general director Julius Dovidonis, who is leading the project. In spring 2003, construction will begin on several segments of the park that has an estimated price tag of 150 million litas (43.4 million euros.) These interlinked projects include a 10,000-seat arena, an indoor/outdoor amusement park, an enclosed water park, and a glass-covered gallery connecting all the segments.

"It will be one of the most modern park complexes in Europe combining indoor and outdoor entertainment," said Dovidonis.

The Vilnius municipality zoned this 68-hectare parcel of land for amusement purposes and conceived of the idea a few years ago, but prospective developers only made bids for the project recently. The city hopes the park will help create a better image of the capital, make the country more attractive for tourists, improve residents' quality of life, and generate job opportunities.

While the theme and rides of this "Lithuania Land" amusement park have yet to be dreamed up by the architects, the design of the sports and concert hall has started to take shape and construction could begin as early as April 2003. Currently, "Lithuania does not have a European-standard arena and that is why we cannot have high-level events," said Dovidonis.

Skanska, the construction firm chosen to build the arena, has completed similar stadiums in Helsinki and St. Petersburg in terms of size and demands. However, those hoping for world-class hockey probably will have to settle for the occasional Ice Capades – this arena will not be made specifically for skating.

"The key to the stadium will be basketball," said Audrius Valatkevicius, communications manager of Skanska. "In addition to sports, it will host concerts, trade shows, and huge conferences."

Municipality officials and others, like basketballer-turned-businessman Sarunas Marciulionis, believe that with the help of a new stadium, Vilnius can bid successfully to host the European Basketball Championships in 2007.

Consuming passions

With the first carousel ride or water slide plunge still two years away, how can someone spend free time now? Of course Lithuania boasts plenty of parks, forests, rivers, and beaches to explore. But who wants to be at the mercy of chilly winter weather, icky insects in summer, and the nagging problem of finding a clean bathroom?

Families, teenage mallrats, and even world leaders seem to agree that the perpetually-packed Akropolis shopping center satisfies many Lithuanians' desires for a climate-controlled fun zone. The boxy entertainment epicenter has crammed in more modern amusement per square meter than anywhere else in the region. Beyond shopping, a family can while the away hours by ice-skating, seeing a movie, swinging around the two-story jungle gym, and cap off the day by visiting the bowling alley. All these events are a red plastic-ball-throw away from the food court where soda pop and pizza are in abundance.

Judging by the two-dozen buses and the sea of cars in the parking lot one recent Saturday, Akropolis has become a "must-see" destination for school field trips rivaling Cathedral Square and the Hill of Three Crosses. While slurping a soda and munching on potato chips, Jurga and Sandra, both 12 years old, said they and a handful of friends visited with their seventh grade class from Kaunas and "would definitely return."

Resting on a bench with a friend, Evelina, 15 and also from Kaunas, said, "I like the fact that all the stores are in one place, and we also came for the cinema." She also remarked there is nothing like Akropolis near her home so that's why she didn't mind the hour-plus trip to visit Lithuania's capitalist Mecca.

Ukrainian President Leonard Kuchma and his wife essentially said the same thing when he and his Lithuanian counterpart Valdas Adamkus visited Akropolis the last week of October. While the first lady went on a shopping spree and bought a 14,000 litas fur coat, Kuchma bowled a few frames for the first time in his life at the newly landed Apollo Bowling Center. Before moving on to discuss less pressing issues than coping with a 7-10 split, the two leaders signed some autographs and talked with children. Now, all visitors to Apollo's alleys can stop by to see the two presidents' balls on display to commemorate the historic event.

With the future site of the amusement and sports megaplex just down the road from the present center of attraction, might the right bank of the Neris River pull tourists away from Old Town and provincial cities? Not without some competition, it seems. In two years, Vilnius may not have the monopoly on modern water parks, according to Mayor Ricardas Malinauskas of Druskininkai in southern Lithuania.

Hit hard after Soviet tourists stopped visiting its sanitariums, Druskininkai is making a comeback. It is promoting a new hotel, a health spa, the Grutas Park full of Soviet statues, and has plans for a new water playground. Malinauskas said he is hoping for a positive stamp of approval from Brussels by the end of the year on the town's application for an EU Phare project grant. This would help fund an indoor complex to open in 2004 that would include an aqua park, a sauna area, and a playground.

"We hope it attracts guests from all of Europe," said Malinauskas.

Only when these Lithuanian leisure centers open their doors to the public will it be seen how many locals and tourists will visit. However, if their popularity mimics the success of Vilnius' existing shopping mall, a certain cartoon mouse should watch out. Someday, Lithuania may invade his magic kingdom.