2018 Trends: Sensing A Theme

Wilderness Resort -  Wisconsin Dells, WI

Wilderness Resort - Wisconsin Dells, WI

Franchising intellectual property is a huge trend across all forms of entertainment: movies are creating interconnected, cinematic universes, major video game franchises have had new or re-released games in the last few years, and TV shows are reviving nostalgic favorites.

Specifically, SeaWorld and Sesame Street are partnering to build a new park by 2021, their second after Sesame Place in Langhorne PA. They’ll also be rolling out Sesame Parades at other SeaWorld locations. At the last D23 Expo, Disney announced 23 new attractions to roll out over the next few years, including the much anticipated Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge, as well as Toy Story Land. Carnival Cruise Lines is taking Dr. Seuss to Sea to another level with Carnival Horizon’s Seuss-themed water park. Universal has enjoyed success with it’s Harry Potter World.

How’d We Get Here?

Tourist destination theme parks evolved through several phases. The first phase occurred with trolley parks in the 19th and 20th century. These parks were built by trolley companies to entice people to use the railways on the weekend. Trolley parks had carousels and live entertainment for families.

In the 1950’s, Knotts Berry Farm added a Ghost Town to give guests an activity to do while waiting in line for Mrs. Knott’s Chicken Dinner Restaurant. As the attraction grew, Walter Knott had the idea to open a "summer-long country fair."

From there, Walt Disney created the idea for Disneyland, an entirely themed experience, and started developing and funding his Wonderful World of Disney. This is one of the first instances where we see major park theming. For example, when it wasn’t possible to have a boat ride with visitors encountering real animals, WED Enterprises (Now Walt Disney Imagineering) created robotic animals.  Perhaps one of the most ingenious ideas out of this time period were the sponsorships: Disney believed that by equating a product with someone’s magical park experience, the guest would remember the product more fondly. At the time (and now) it was used to sell Coca Cola, Frito-Lay and Kodak. That same methodology is now used to sell the theme park as a whole.

How Big is A Story?

Let’s look at a case study where we see how a well-themed park with a dynamic, recognizable IP, boosts attendance as well as an impactful experience for guests.

Mall of America opened in Minnesota in 1992, managed by Triple Five Group and owned by the Ghermezian family. After their success with West Edmonton Mall in Canada (which is centered around Galaxyland) they wanted to try a massive, multi-entertainment venue mall in the states. They opened with Knott’s Camp Snoopy (or, colloquially, Camp Snoopy). Peanuts creator Charles Schulz was born in Minneapolis and grew up in St. Paul, so the connection made sense. However, the park was never aggressively themed towards Peanuts, but instead featured an outdoors, Northwoods theme with plenty of indoor foliage and huge skylights.

In 2006, negotiations between MOA and Cedar Fair ended the partnership, and while this distressed many guests and locals, the mall’s executive vice president noted in 2011 that she “thought there would be far more backlash than there was,” and “It’s a little bit of a lethargic brand. Like I Love Lucy or Happy Days. It’s a brand that could not be continuously renewed." (x) She added that many kids only knew about Peanuts because of the Mall and not the other way around.

When Nickelodeon Universe moved into the park at MOA, it revamped attractions like Li’ Shaver (now Back At The Barnyard Hayride) and the Timberland Twister (now Fairly Odd Coaster), as well as adding new attractions. The park grew to 8.5 million rides a year (in 2011), about 600,000 more than Camp Snoopy. Part of that correlates directly to the popularity of Nickelodeon Universe as the top cable kids network and the viable, top of mind brand recognition.

Design Is the Attraction

Strong theming allows for a more memorable connection to the park, a greater desire to explore and stay in the park, as well as greater in-park spending. And many parks are addressing this by effectively repeating messages. Having consistent branding throughout a park can reinforce guests’ memories of their experience, while also, as Walt Disney pointed out in the 50’s, allow guests to associate the brand they’re seeing with the activity they’re enjoying.

For many people, the brand and theme they’re seeing is part of the enjoyment. Walt Disney World is still the most visited theme park in the world and that’s not because every ride is cutting edge. It’s because Walt Disney World has invested deeply in creating stories guests want to interact with and thus designing a magical park experience.

Meanwhile, for other parks like The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Universal Orlando, the draw centers on the brand of the story and very little with the parks few rides. We know this because the Harry Potter park saw a “respectable increase” (x) in ticket sales for 2017.

Up next in this series is our favorite trend: Accessibility and safety in water/theme parks.