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The irony of the theme park industry is that despite being designed and carefully crafted to provide fun, delight and excitement to users from all demographics and age groups, the strategy that the top theme parks employ in order to provide this seamless service and experience is very much the same – year in and year out. With such a constant focus on renovating and upgrading as much as possible in order to keep the park running smoothly, safely and effectively, theme parks set annual and seasonal targets in line with revenue, consumer feedback and visitors numbers; using these insights to drive advertising and marketing campaigns and to work out where the gaps in both their park and the industry as a whole are, in a concerted effort to fill them.
Whether they are regarded as global phenomenon’s or local go-to’s, every theme park rests most of its consumer experience and interaction on the various attractions it offers, all contained within a park setting which is heralded as safe for all ages and which often relies on a specific theme in order to drive target consumers through the gates.
For those consumers seeking experiences which are immersive and adventurous, theme parks offer something for everyone, with many creating annual passes, day passes, family tickets and even fast track passes to provide deals and discounts for larger groups and regular visitors, and to elevate the experience for those willing to pay by giving them a pass through which they can jump the queues on various rides.
To understand the history of theme parks is to understand the prominence of funfairs and how the limited range of rides available to families at a funfair gradually expanded and became something much more akin to the modern day theme park – with one key difference. Back in the early days of theme parks, rides and experiences were standalone attractions which served their own target consumers; often packing up after a period of time in order to move to a new location and bring their attractions and rides to a new community and audience base. In fact, one of the very first fixed amusement parks was built in London and was designed to celebrate the industrial achievements of the world in 1851 through education and entertainment. This is where the theme park was born – a park which was, quite literally, built around the concept of a single theme.
From there, amusement and theme parks became about inspiring and nurturing imagination and creativity, with some of the earliest examples of theme parks and amusement parks popping across already-popular resort towns and destinations like seaside areas and picnic groves along riverbanks. By utilising locations which were already associated with pleasure and enjoyment, so these new theme parks and amusement parks could immediately benefit from a captive audience engaged in the kind of fun and entertainment that these parks were looking to provide.
And so, the theme park was born – drawing on various themes and ideas to deliver rides and immersive experiences which captured popular motifs and introduced fun characters, with both popular global rides like the carousel and giant swings, joining more unique and innovative rides designed for individual parks.
Of course, every historical story has its ups and downs, and for the theme park industry this came when the Great Depression hit in the 1930’s and World War II impacted the global economy in the 1940’s. Families had less money to spend in amusement parks and on entertainment; the urban population moved away and towards more rural settings; even urban decay had an impact on how people chose to spend their free time.
But in the 1950’s something changed, and one of the most globally recognised brands opened its doors to one of the world’s earliest complete theme parks – Disneyland California, which opened in 1955. The Disney franchise and all its subsequent theme parks which have followed in the footsteps of California, is an example of the true immersion which can be - and which is - created through the design of a complete theme park which dedicates various areas (“lands”) to different fantastical and mythical destinations and dreamscapes.
Much of the rise in popularity of theme parks has been sparked by the way in which theme park’s create entertainment and enhanced experiences for all demographics, genders and age groups. From bringing pirates to life to creating castles filled with Princesses and lagoons filled with mermaids, theme parks have become renowned as the place where fantasy become tangible and guests can have pictures taken with and can run into their favourite characters around every bend.
Did you know that the Pirates of the Caribbean movie franchise was all based off of one ride in Disneyland California, which tracked and showcased the plight of the pirates on an interactive boat tour? This just goes to show how much story and inspiration can be drawn from the quality of modern theme park rides.
Amid the rise in family friendly attractions balanced with rise in attractions for thrill seekers and roller coaster fans, the best and most successful theme parks cater to both and create different spaces for different users as opposed to pigeon holing their options and target audiences from the off.
Another factor which makes a theme park franchise popular, particularly as a tourist attraction, is its ability to cater to and appeal to a global audience from all different cultures. Whether that be achieved through translators audio guides or simply just an experience which promotes fun and entertainment without a need to understand lots of text or speak, the theme parks drawing a global tourist audience are the ones which put a spotlight on the universal language of a smile.
Some of the top theme park brands and franchises in the world right now include:
While many of these operate standalone parks, some of the most successful franchises in the list have expanded their offerings to include not just the original theme park but subsequent theme parks in other locations, theme park resorts with food and drink outlets and accommodation options for guests, water parks and tons of other experiential offerings which are designed to increase the value of the park as a whole.
And then we have the commercial side of theme parks, which makes the theming and characterisation of the entire experience more effective as a profit driving enterprise – especially for those brands which expand into other areas. This commercialisation is available through the gift shops and attraction ride photos, the souvenirs, the food and drink provisions, and of course the tickets purchased in order to access all that and more. Despite the heavy discounts provided on many tickets dependent on whether guest have annual passes, day passes, family passes, group discounts or out of season tickets, the fact still remains that ticket sales alone are often enough to cover the running costs of a theme park – making everything else profit. In fact, did you know that in Disney World in Florida, the cost of running the theme park for an entire day, including the firework show, is all covered merely by the parking fees collected every day?
One of the major trends in the theme park industry is the move away from constructed roller coasters and towards 3D and 4D rides - allowing for more thrills and more dramatic drops and twists which take visitors on a highly immersive journey showcasing both stomachs turning moves and incredible visuals and sounds to accompany the ride. While some of the earliest examples of these kinds of rides sat consumers in small cinema-style rooms which jerked around in time with what was happening on screen, some of the newest models such as those found in the Universal Orlando resort are complete rides on fixed tracks which use the power of limited movement combined with very strong surround sound and visual settings. Some great examples of this include the new rides to have been created for the Harry Potter world in Universal Orlando, and the Ratatouille ride in Disneyland Paris – both of which put visitors into the shoes of the movie’s main character and take them on a journey.
Another trend in the theme park world, and one which has developed to include not just the big franchises but also the smaller local theme parks, is the real impact of characterisation and the extent at which full blown theming can change an experience - particularly for children and young consumers. Some great examples include the development of Peppa Pig World in the UK, and the rise of other small theme parks which take popular concepts and turn them into a series of attractions – placing characters not just in the rides but also in other areas of the park as guests move around; creating special items for menus, and even including character meet and greet area which are ideal for creating souvenirs for families to buy, and which lend themselves perfectly to ongoing marketing – with every family that purchases a character photo creating an opportunity for free advertising which will draw other potential consumers in. Characterisation is all about bringing magic to life and really plays on the creative and imaginative side of theme parks.
The expansion of theme parks into other areas is something we touched on earlier but is a trend which highlights how versatile the industry as a whole has to be in order to entice consumers to visit and enjoy the facilities all year round. Local and smaller theme parks are fast expanding into offering resort accommodation and sporting facilities such as golf courses and even conference centres in light of the seasonality of theme parks, while global franchises are able to capitalise on their wide status and channel more resource into offering year-round attractions which ensure that guests are entertained no matter what the weather is doing. For example the rides and attractions in the theme park capital of Orlando Florida deal with hugely adverse weather conditions – and they operate around this safely and securely by closing outdoor rides when it rains and running empty carriages for a set period of time after the rain to assure complete safety on the tracks.
And then we have the trend which deals with staff members, employees, and customer service expectations within the theme park industry. Disney as a franchise is renowned for its high level of customer service, putting every employee through intense training before letting them serve guests to the parks, thus protecting their incredibly family friendly status by only putting the best workers in consumer-facing roles. Disney in fact take this one step further by filling the bars, shops and restaurants of their world showcase with worldwide employees – filling the British pub with British bar staff and putting Chinese staff members in the Chinese restaurant to provide a completely authentic experience. While not every franchise has the resource to be able to provide such training, the expectation in the theme park industry is that staff members and employees become part of the consumer experience and so they are responsible for a large portion of the park’s success.
When it comes to breaking down the theme park industry into its various areas of focus, it becomes clear that modern theme parks are no longer just about the rides provided for guests to have a go on. By buying an entry ticket at the door, rather than paying for each ride individually as one might expect at a funfair or amusement park, the consumer is immediately given a sense and feeling that the entire experience is somewhat connected – that they are not just entering a series of rides under one roof or in one location, but they are instead entering a new world which has been created through the provision of fun and entertainment.
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