Landlords everywhere seem to be vying for an audience with the Jeepers! gung-ho bunch of troops. You might say that when it comes to site location, Jeepers! has its pick of the jungle.

The reason: In several cases, the presence of a Jeepers! in or near a mall or strip center is proving responsible, at least in part, for increasing family-oriented business traffic - the best kind, according to mall owners.

"We're an indoor amusement park with all the games, rides, birthday parties and great dining you can imagine," says Nabil El-Hage, the company's president and CEO. "As a result, we've become an entertainment superstore for families. Nobody offers what we do. This is real reality."

By all company accounts, the secret of Jeepers!' success lies in its sharply focused concept, which was juiced up in 1996 when the company changed its name from Jungle Jim's Playland. First, Jeepers! is aimed at a well-defined age group, from 2- to 12-year-olds, with no unaccompanied teenagers allowed. Despite that tight target group, Jeepers! is fun for everyone in the family, moms and dads included. And finally, Jeepers! is an indoor amusement park located in markets where inclement weather is the norm.

While the new and improved company is still relatively young (the first Jeepers!-named park opened in 1996 in Rockville, Md.), the Waltham, Mass.-based firm is expected to top $30 million in revenue by year's end. El-Hage predicts that figure to double by the end of 1999.

While poor market conditions kept the company from going public this summer, El-Hage announced at the time he had secured $22.5 million in fresh capital from private sources to pursue aggressive expansion plans through the close of '99.

He meant what he said. By the end of this year, the company will have 25 parks up and running in Washington, D.C., Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago, Kansas City, Baltimore, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, San Antonio, Albany and Buffalo. In some of these markets, like Chicago, Detroit and Baltimore, there are more than one Jeepers! - testament to the company's initial success in those areas.

By the end of 1999, Jeepers! plans to open 24 more stores, for a total of 50 by the start of the year 2000.

Strike while the iron is hot Jeepers!' push to grow stores is akin to the admonition, "Strike while the iron is hot." And the retailer appears to be on fire, drawing kids to the colorful, loud, 25,000 sq. ft. amusement space with rides, skill games, animated characters, organized birthday parties and food.

"Landlords have really come to understand the power of this concept," says El-Hage. "We draw the ideal shopper for a lot of these centers. We offer moms, with kids, in their peak spending years."

El-Hage says Jeepers! has enlivened such centers as the Beltway Plaza in Greenbelt, Md., and the Wonderland Mall in Livonia, Mich. "By all admissions, these were tired malls," he says. "Since we moved in, traffic has improved."

The Glen Burnie Mall in Glen Burnie, Md., had a 20% to 30% vacancy rate before Jeepers! came on board, El-Hage adds. "Now, we're doing a terrific business there," he says. "And from what we've heard, mall traffic is up, the feel of the mall is better, and they've been able to (reduce) vacancies."

Indeed, Simon Property Group, which owns and manages the newly redeveloped Glen Burnie Mall, reports an upswing since Jeepers! came in last April as one of the mall's five big-box users, says Mark M. Palombaro, vice president of leasing at Simon.

"We're really excited about the Jeepers! concept; they've definitely increased traffic flow for us," Palombaro says. "They take unproductive space, from 15,000 to 20,000 sq. ft., and they bring families in for food, fun and entertainment ... and the mothers and fathers and kids can eat, play and still go shopping. (The mall becomes) like a contained community."

Building market identity The company's current goal is to build as much market identity from its initial success as possible, says Dennis McMullen, Jeepers!' senior vice president of development.

"By the end of this year, we will be known in major cities around the country, and that's important because it will feed on itself," he says, adding the company plans to maintain a 50-50 balance between regional malls and strip centers.

In siting a Jeepers!, McMullen looks for areas with a high density of families with young children, disposable incomes and, of course, lousy climates - long winters and hot, humid summers.

Thus far, McMullen has nailed down deals with some of the nation's largest management firms, including Simon Property Group, Glimcher Realty Trust, Schostak Brothers, Taubman Development, The Pyramid Cos. and others. Jeepers! already has three stores in Pyramid-owned properties, two in Schostak Brothers properties and two with Simon.

'Tarzan meets Nickelodeon' The venture began operations in late 1987, opening its first park - then called Jungle Jim's Playland - in San Antonio in early 1988. But because Jungle Jim's was billed as a "playland," company officials began wondering whether that concept skewed too heavily toward younger children.

They wanted to draw the 6- to 10-year-old age group, so they began developing new rides, games and a better menu. Soon after, Jungle Jim's became Jeepers! ("Food, Fun and a Monkey"), and the new concept began to take shape.

"With Jeepers!, we pushed the design several notches higher and brought in the (increased) age appeal by adding some thrill rides," El-Hage recalls. "We wanted to make it much more comfortable for the parents, too, so we broadened the menu in the dining area and brought in more games that parents could enjoy."

While they kept the jungle theme, with attractions like an airplane ride called "The Banana Squadron," a Himalayan ride called "The Yak Attack" and a scrambler dubbed "The Tarantula Tangle," company officials enlisted the help of Cincinnati-based FRCH Design Worldwide to help them develop the rest of it visually.

Each park offers five to six of the imaginative thrill rides, from the kiddie kinds to the Python Pit roller coaster. The 85 to 100 games offered at each park are not the violent video variety; they're all interactive, based on skill, most of them sports-themed, and parents and kids can play together.

A soft play area includes tubes, chutes, slides and obstacle courses, and the "ImaginArea" offers grocery shopping, face painting and dress-up games. Jeepers! can also manage up to 75 birthday parties a day, which culminate in a meal at the 200-seat Tiny Rhino Diner. The diner pleases both big and little palates with items other than fast food like fresh salads, pasta, burgers, sandwiches, appetizers and Pizza Hut pizza. Licensing agreements with other restaurants - as well as more high-end, family-geared menu items - are now being considered.

"We like to say it's Tarzan meets Nickelodeon," says Kevin Smith, vice president of attractions, of the company's evolution from Jungle Jim's to Jeepers! "We still have the jungle theme, but it's more hip. We brought it into the 21st century."

A piece of Americana The concept also relies on the fact that Jeepers! offers something for everyone in the family. "We haven't forgotten the parents," Smith says. "If you've ever had to crawl around a play structure with your kids, it can be painful. Here, you can take a ride with your kids, or play a baseball game or a basketball game, and it's fun.

"You loved these kinds of rides when you were a kid. They have longevity," Smith continues. "There's not a new CD-ROM game out there that will make up for the experience of being in a roller coaster or bumper cars. There isn't a substitute for the physical experience, and that's what makes this a winning concept."

And then there's the flash. "When you walk in, it's wonderfully high-tech," says Carl Winston, Jeepers! senior vice president of operations. "It's bright, shiny and alive. The kids are always overwhelmed with what to do first."

The amusement park experience is part of what it means to be an American, says Winston. A trip to Jeepers!, he reasons, reminds the consumer of old-time amusement parks and fairs. While those days are pretty much extinct, everyone can relate.

"There's a huge opportunity with Jeepers! to lead the redefinition of an industry," he says. "We're taking the mom-and-pop-type entertainment concept and we're professionalizing it, branding it, and bringing it to populations across the country. We think we can bring these hilarious, great-time places to every major city across the country."