Call him “Super Mario.”
This is the moniker Cesar Mario Mamon was given by his peers in the international amusement parks and attractions industry soon after he transformed 12 hectares of barren land in Laguna to the Philippines’ biggest theme park in 1995. Yes, “Super Mario” is the man behind the wonderland that is Enchanted Kingdom, and believe it or not, he came from humble beginnings in a family of farmers in Canlubang.
Mamon is truly deserving of his nickname, for not only does he continue to achieve his goal of bringing happiness to children of all ages day in and day out in his kingdom of magic and happiness, but he has also brought the country pride in being the first Filipino to be elected as chairman of the 95-year-old International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, and the first Asian at that.
He is also the founding president of the Philippine Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (PhilAAPA), and today, his kingdom of enchantment is considered to be the first and only first-class theme park in the country.
His father’s son
Cesar Mario Mamon traces his humble beginnings as a sugar cane farmer who was greatly inspired by his father, the late Cesar Tionko Mamon. The senior Mamon served the family of former speaker and secretary of justice Jose Yulo Sr. also as a sugar cane farmer since 1936 and through the end of World War II.
“Definitely, it was my father who was the sole breadwinner of our family, and he did so by choice,” recalled the 60-year-old businessman. “He was an authoritarian and he worked hard in serving the Yulo family to be able to feed all of us.”
A truly wise man, the senior Mamom was even able to save some of the money he earned from farming the Yulos’ Canlubang sugar estate [where the Nuvali development is now located], which enabled him to eventually purchase parcels of land surrounding the hacienda.
Then a teenager, the young Mario was in such awe of his father’s hard work and determination that he had no second thoughts in pursuing a degree in Agribusiness Management at UP Los Baños’ College of Agriculture, inspired to help his father tend to the land they could now call their own.
Truly his father’s son, Mamon was successful in helping his father grow their sugar fields and farming business, eventually taking over from his “ultimate inspiration” when the time came.
A new kingdom
As their lands and sugar farming became more and more expensive to maintain, the Mamon family decided to sell some of their property to Ayala Land, retaining a 12-hectare parcel in Santa Rosa, Laguna.
“Raising capital funds from the joint ventures with developers gave us an opportunity to look for another way of life,” Mamon recalled. “We asked ourselves, Ano nang gagawin natin ngayon? Meron tayong capital?’ (What do we do now with this capital?).
“Nag-usap-usap kami (we talked) within the family, and looked for opportunities for investments, but agreed we wanted it be different,” he continued.
“At that time, we had growing families, and we enjoyed to such places like the old Fiesta Carnival and Star City, which still exists to this day. We also went to seasonal attractions like Big Bang in Alabang, Boom na Boom, among others.
“Out of the blue, suntok sa buwan, we thought again about our kids who were growing up and how theme parks were limited in the country. Glicos Entertainment Center in Makati was just starting out at that time, and we realized there was an opportunity for a fixed amusement facility that is more in the mold of Disneyland or Knott’s Berry Farm. A destination, which would not just be a consolidation of rides, but a park with a story, characters and zones, which people will enjoy as an escape from reality. A place where parents and their kids can be transported into a whole new dimension.”
Then and there, the concept of Enchanted Kingdom was born, and the rest is—a magical—history.
Wizard of wisdom
Mamon said Enchanted Kingdom was fuelled by the desire to build a destination where every member of the family “would have a slice of the entertainment pie.”
“We wanted something that can enjoyed by the whole family, which is why we made sure we had everything from fear-defying rides to gentler carousels, to wait-till-you-get wet water rides,” he enumerated. “And thankfully, the amusement park now holds the record of being the most visited tourist destination in the country in a single day.”
Mamon went on to explain the concept of the enchanting wizard Eldar, famously dressed in purple robes, as served as the “base of Enchanted Kingdom.”
“Eldar is a symbol of wisdom, family, and positive Filipino values,” he added, further noting that Eldar has been successful in achieving a very strong branding form the park, which today, sets it apart from a few other attractions in the Philippines, which are still classified as giant versions of the traditional perya or carnival in the olden days.
Bringing his own wisdom to the fore, Mamon compared the completion of Enchanted Kingdom as “rocky roller coaster” that came with huge challenges and hardships at every fall. Incurring debts in the early years of development and operations, The Sunday Times Magazine asked the farmer-turned-businessman if he has any regrets in taking on such a novel investment.
He quickly replied, “I wouldn’t have it any other way. All of the industries present challenges. You take some pluses, and then you take the negatives, too but you learn from them.”
According to Mamon, Enchanted Kingdom is the legacy he wants to leave, taking inspiration anew from three international figures he admires the most: Walt Disney for being the pioneering spirit in the theme park business; Pope Francis who gives the Catholic-devout businessman the strength and courage to carry on despite hardships; and the late Steve Jobs who is an excellent example in building something from scratch, as he went through innovation after innovation to improve what he has to offer.
“This business that we have built, we would like to call it a ‘legacy business.’ It is not something that you invest in for five years then you are free to leave. You invest your whole life into this business, and if you maintain it right and take care of it properly, the rewards will trickle down from generation to generation,” he explained.
The returns after all, as Mamon noted, do not come overnight, and just like his father, sheer dedication and love for family is what drives him to run and rule his legacy.
Today, Enchanted Kingdom welcomes 1.7 million visitors yearly and has plans to expand its area to 35 hectares from its present 25 hectares, only 12 it 12 hectares of which is currently completed.
Within 10 years and a budget allocation minimum of P5 billion, Mamon plans to convert Enchanted Kingdom from a four- to six-hour attraction or theme park to a ‘weekend destination,’ which simply means that one day would no longer be enough to experience all of its attractions.
The 10-year plan is comprised of: A single big-scale attraction, which is a first of its kind; three hotels; a commercial retail mall; the expansion and addition of world-class rides and attractions for children and teenagers; a 10,000-square meter exhibit area for corporate and educational purposes and concerts; and a separate division for a four-hectare water park. With these, the park hopes to lure more tourists outside Metro Manila to come and enjoy their beloved family destination.
Further describing the future developments as something that will be “a whale of an attraction not just in the country but in Asia,” Mamon promised, “The Philippines will be proud of this. Everything is a work in progress, but now we have this one goal: to put the Philippines on the map. The timing is right in terms of economic development with the Philippines at the forefront next to China.”
Rounding up the interview, the king of Enchanted Kingdom excitedly said, “There are many things to do but I hope we make it—whoever the president next president will be.”
The super man that he is, there is no doubt that Cesar Mario Mamon will make more enchantment happen.