By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
High above downtown Phoenix, Ulysses Sanchez sits in a borrowed office in an executive tower with a window that looks out on another executive tower. He's nestled in a chair that's not really his behind a desk with someone else's name on it, surrounded by the believers. Like Sanchez, these faithful followers look at a patch of dirt near Gilbert and see a theme park comparable to Disneyland or Fiesta Texas.
Some would say they've all got the same prescription for rose-colored glasses.
Sanchez spews the most recent market research on his dream and defends it from the arguments that keep coming from all sides. He's good at it. He's had a lot of practice.
Sanchez has been beaten senseless by the nonbelievers, folks who think he's more of a snake-oil salesman than a mastermind and don't much care to host his vision in the Valley.
"I don't begin to understand how this guy can do this," says one developer. "If another company in the business came along to compete, they'd blow them out of the water."
The naysayers may have a point. Sanchez needs $200 million to build his dream, but has only $9 million from investors he doesn't feel at liberty to name--and that the naysayers don't believe exist. Nor does he have deals with hotel chains or any other businesses at this point.
But Sanchez has little patience with the naysayers. He'd much rather talk about the dream.
"I love roller coasters," he says, leaning forward like a sleeping bear coming to life. "I like getting scared."
He must. This whole project is a roller coaster.
"I've got one shot at this thing. If it doesn't go, you won't be seeing me around town because they'll run me out."
Sanchez's bid to build a theme park in the East Valley is reminiscent of David Letterman's regular "Can a Guy in a Bear Suit . . ." pranks in New York. A guy dressed in a bear suit tries to get a hug from a stranger or use a pay phone.
Can a guy with a big idea and no money build a $200 million project in Arizona? The idea's not particularly new. Developer Luther Bruce spent two years working on a plan for an Arizona-themed park, until a partner passed away. That was five years ago. There have been other plans in both Pinal and Maricopa counties. And Legend City was the biggest thing in town in the 1960s. The amusement park, located at 56th Street and Washington, finally went belly up in the early 1980s after a fatal accident on a midway ride and several changes in ownership.
"I don't want to build another Legend City," says Sanchez, who is developing the project under the corporate name ASH Entertainment Group Inc.
His theme park will be an entertainment center with live shows and stores and minimuseums along with the rides. It's not, as Sanchez is quick to point out, an amusement or "metal" park, typically built entirely around rides. The park itself will occupy about 65 of 511 acres at the corner of Higley and Pecos roads near the Williams Gateway campus, formerly Williams Air Force Base. The surrounding acreage is for parking, a future water park and the sort of commercial businesses that bring in the big cash--hotels, restaurants and stores. It's fashioned a bit after Fiesta Texas in San Antonio, USAA Insurance's historical theme park. At the center of the park will be a Victorian Village, similar in look to Heritage Square downtown. Other themed areas include a cowboy Western town, Mexican Village and Native American areas, as well as a mining town. As at other parks, these themed areas will be connected through the central village by bridges across a lake. Either because of Sanchez or despite him, the project just might make it. Entertainment is a booming field, and Phoenix is the only city this size that doesn't have a theme park. Sanchez has managed to attract some heavy hitters to his team--people with r‚sum‚s that include the largest and most successful parks in the world. And the Town of Gilbert, the park's would-be home, welcomes the idea.
Sanchez, the 33-year-old son of Mexican immigrants, is an average-looking man with stylishly trimmed dark locks that are generally moussed into place, and he has a build that says he spends more time in the office than in the gym.
He drifted through Mesa Community College and Arizona State University on the "ten-year plan" without a whole lot of enthusiasm or any particular focus.
One day, Sanchez and two friends went to the Chuck Box for lunch and a couple of beers to celebrate the end of a particularly grueling class project. They were all nearing graduation.
Of course, the inevitable question came up: "What are you going to do then?"
One man planned to work in a family business. Another had a job lined up in California. Sanchez announced that he wanted to build a theme park. It was the first time he'd said it aloud. "About a week before, I was walking through Fiesta Mall on a summer day. It was a Saturday. And I'm looking around and there are kids hanging on the rafters, there were so many of them," Sanchez remembers. "And I'm thinking to myself, these poor kids don't have anything to do but hang out at the mall. The other thing is that you see these kids and they're all walking around with shopping bags. And I'm thinking, hey, these kids have got more than enough disposable income to spend on a $100 pair of tennis shoes."