Reimaging the Theme Park Experience
I thought it would be interesting to give what my very limited thoughts are on redesigning the them park experience – being that my “professional career” in the themed entertainment industry, is, well, short.
Almost 2 and a half years to be exact – not counting the years I worked at Sea World San Diego in high school and college.
And maybe that’s a good thing. I’d rather approach it from a more “sensible” angle – that of both long-time theme park goer, and long-time User Experience Designer (and architect, filmmaker, graphic designer, industrial designer, hospitality and food services employee, AV guy, video producer, and even retail sales person). You get the idea.
So here goes – THEME PARKS NEED TO BE SMALLER. Bigger isn’t always necessarily better. And this is something I’ve been thinking about for the last 30 years actually, way before this whole Covid-19 thing took a hit on the public psyche. You watch so many people at Disneyland that look so miserable (Happiest Place on Earth?) and you gotta wonder, why are they miserable? (I know, but that’s coming in the following paragraphs.)
If you look at most theme parks today – from the Disney’s to the Universals to even the Cedar Fairs (not including Knott’s).. they cost way too much and you get to do so little. Example: It costs about $800 for a family of four to get into Disneyland – and that’s not including a trip over to California Adventure. Then there’s parking and food – whether you eat in park or in Downtown Disney.
And they’re BIG parks.
Disneyland resort is 500 ACRES. So you pay a lot to see so little – with the lines, the sheer size, and the crowds, you roughly get to see 1/3 of the whole thing, if you’re lucky, in an 10 hour day. I’m guessing the Disney logic is, because they know you can’t do it all in one day, that the real cost of admission should be $450 per person vs. the $150 per person, that is, if you can take it ALL in on one day. So you’re getting a bargain.
But what if a theme park were both smaller – say 15 acres, and more affordable, say, $20-25 dollars per guest?
There’d be some contingencies of course. One, you can’t have as many people in your park. Maybe at most, to make it worth the price of admission, 2000 guests a day. Two, you’d have to do what you can to not create a bad impression with the people who couldn’t make it in the 2000 for the day. So you create a reservation system exclusively. Disney was kind of doing that for WDW and now they do it exclusively because of Covid. Had the virus not happened, it would still be “take the family to the park to find out it’s at capacity and then turn around for the long 2 hour drive home”. Or go to Knott’s, or maybe even Adventure City.
Yep – that creates great impressions and customer loyalty.
So you can not only make the park more accessible – because now you don’t have to cover 500 acres, but you can make it more relaxing. Now that mom and dad and maybe even the grandparents as part of the group, they don’t have to rush to make it to this and that attraction with the kids – and they can have a nice lunch or dinner, and still be able to get on ALL the attractions (like 20, and more than once!) and see the whole place.
Then you notice something else – your guests are not only eating more, they’re buying more souvenirs and gifts, and other stuff. Why? Ever notice that when you take a trip to Disneyland, most shops are empty, and even the post-ride shops like Guardians of the Galaxy are mostly empty after the ride.
Star Traders always has a good crowd, and there’s a lot of meandering and hovering by guests after they pour off the simulators in droves. But, check out the check outs… almost always empty. Sure there are tons of guests playing with building a plastic lightsaber, or trying on hats, or making their own little droid – but then they put it back in the bin and head off to get in another line, or get to their fast-pass in time.
Why? The Disney (or other large theme park) guest has already at some point forked out $1000 bucks so far, and trinkets are not in the budget. That, and they can buy most things online at the Disney Store or at the physical stores littered throughout shopping malls.
If a family of 4 pays $100 to get in, and they’ve set aside $400 for the day (which is a cheap way to make lasting memories), that leaves plenty of room for food (high profit) and gifts/souvenirs (more profit).
All advantages of having a smaller park. And you can charge less because overhead is less. However, I think Disney could charge way less – $75 for instance, and still make a tidy profit with increased food and retail sales. Plus they have all sorts of other income generators for the company anyhow. But what do I know?
Of course, you can’t just make a cheap amusement park and call it a theme park and expect people to want to come often if at all. You still have to have story (the theme), characters (your IP), themed attractions/rides, buildings and shops, that tie into your story – sometimes that’s been done with signage and dressing – but in my opinion, the minute the guest crosses the gate line, they need to be immersed in a whole new world that’s different than the one they came from, like Disney does when you enter Main Street USA. Otherwise it’s just a pretty amusement park with redressed off-the-shelf amusement rides that have fun names, cute signs, along with county fair style midway food options, and cheap Chinese made souvenirs.
And you’ve still ripped off the guests. They may not know it. But you have.
My goal with Jackalope Junction is how to reimagine the theme park. The moment the guest crosses over the magical invisible barrier between the world as we know it and steps into the town, they will be transported into the story and depth that is Jackalope Junction (and it isn’t your typical western town as well). The guest can choose to just take it all in, as someone who’s passing through might do, or they can get to know every citizen of the town, and even help catch the bad guys if they want – and along the way, they can learn about the rich history of the town, just as if they were taking a trip to Tombstone or Deadwood – but with a lot more fun involved.
The idea of a theme park needs to be reassessed by those who design and build them in this industry. You need to give the guest as much as possible – and therein lies the rub. How do you possibly give them as much as possible without cramming as much in as you can, but also not spreading it out over hundreds of acres to fit that all in?
I believe the secret to that question lies in what we’re building with Jackalope Junction – as does the dozens of skilled artists, designers and craftspeople who’ve helped turn this dream into a reality so far.