I was glancing through a themed entertainment trade magazine the other day, and I happened upon an ad for a company that specializes in the manufacturing of “kiddie” rides. Immediately I had to stop myself from turning my nose up at the company and their product. As a designer, I am supposed to keep an open mind about every option, right? Why was I so turned off by this particular type of attraction? After some exploration, I discovered that there are three particular reasons that people have a general dislike for kiddie rides: First, there are some bad perceptions about the safety of these rides; second, these rides are so commonplace that people are less excited to ride them than other attractions; and third, there is a limited age range able to participate in riding these rides.
Before I get started, let me define what a “kiddie” ride is: In general they are stock rides, built for a child of less than about 4′-6″ tall. These rides are small in size and can be moved and maintained rather easily. Otherwise known as turn-keyrides, many times amusement parks and county fairs have them. They are often found at family entertainment centers, video game parlors, and outside grocery stores too. I’m sure you’ve seen them, and I think you probably know what I’m talking about. Let us discuss the three reasons the public has a distaste for kiddie rides.
1. Safety: Although kiddie rides are built to strict safety standards, they are not always perceived as safe by the public. Kiddie rides are often bought by companies that place these rides at a remote location and then virtually forget about them. When a machine breaks, injuries may result. The perception of a lack of safety is a problem even if a company performs regular safety inspections because these inspections are carried out at night while out of the public eye.
Furthermore, many attraction venues notorious for dirty environments are also perceived as unsafe. Those places, like county fairs, expositions, and other traveling carnivals have a large number of kiddie rides in their inventories. It is natural that people perceive these kiddie rides as unsafe because the venues they are placed in are likewise perceived as unsafe. Whenever an environment is dirty, the public assumes that a machine is less well taken care of than at cleaner environments. After all, if a park is unwilling to pick up the trash, why would they be willing to oil their machines?
Conclusion: Because of the underlying safety concern, and given with the age and frailty of the passengers (small children), it is not difficult to see why some would have a distaste for kiddie rides when it comes to safety.
2. Uniqueness & Creativity: Kiddie rides are manufactured like machines on an assembly line. If you were to find a kiddie ride in a park in California, you could later ride an identical kiddie ride at a park in New England. I believe uniqueness is important to making an attraction more appealing. Although the fun “created” by a kiddie ride can be considered universal, people perceive one-of-a-kind rides as more interesting.
It is for this reason that parks like Six Flags are now marketing rides like “BATMAN, THE RIDE” and “SUPERMAN – THE ESCAPE.” By attaching a brand name to the coaster, they give it a unique identity even though other parks may have an identical roller-coaster. Without going any further into the concept of branding, suffice it to say that a generic kiddie ride has an even greater hurdle to overcome than a rollercoaster and other one-of-a kind attractions in terms of creating a mystique that attracts guests. After all, kiddie rides are rarely branded, and they are very generic.
3. Participation: As a child I remember loving to ride kiddie rides. I would ride them any time I could talk my parents into standing around to watch me. But now that I am an adult my attitude has changed somewhat.
When I was a volunteer Big Brother during my years at University of Colorado, my Little Brother and I would often go to Elitch Gardens in Denver, which has a kiddie ride section. While I think that Elitch Gardens is a wonderfully designed park, the problem with theirs (or any park’s) kiddie ride section is that adult participation in the experience is very limited. I could only watch Little Brother go round and round on the ride. Of course, Little Brother couldn’t ride the roller coasters with me, so we were both limited in the rides we could do together. This may be largest problem with kiddie rides; that hardly anyone can participate (only ages 2-7, optimistically.) Kiddie rides are fun, but they are not family fun. As an adult I want to be able to participate in activities with the kids.
The Solution? The Dark Ride & The Disney Formula
Please indulge me while I go back to my theme park roots, Disneyland, to provide a good solution to the kiddie ride crisis. Disneyland is the theme park I have the most extensive knowledge of, having worked there in several departments. I am not making example of Disneyland to put it above the rest. I only wish to illustrate a situation where I believe things are working right.
At Disneyland, most of the rides for young people are located in Fantasyland. Those rides are equivalent to kiddie rides in many ways, but there is a difference; and I am convinced that it is this difference that helped make Disneyland so successful.
1. Safety is stressed to employees at Disney theme parks. Not only are the Fantasyland rides well maintained, but they are set up with permanent fencing and queue-ing that makes them seem safer than other parks whose rides only have makeshift safety barriers. And because Fantasyland is an extremely clean environment, the perceived safety of these rides is only further enhanced.
Remember: Cleanliness = Perceived Safety
2. Uniqueness & Creativity: There are many one-of-a-kind rides in Fantasyland. These so called “dark” rides are not only unique because they are one-of-a-kind; but because many of them tell a Disney unique story. You can’t find a Disney dark ride with a Disney story anywhere else except at a Disney park. This uniqueness tends to make these rides more interesting and more attractive to ride than turn-key kiddie rides.
Maybe you are familiar with the Fantasyland dark rides I speak of, but they include the following:
a. Peter Pan’s Flight
b. Small World
c. Snow White’s Adventures
d. Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride
e. Alice in Wonderland
f. Storyboat Land
The best thing about these rides is that they are just as fun for adults as they are for children.
Disney also uses many more familiar kiddie rides that one can find at other parks:
g. The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party (teacups)
h. Autopia (go-cart sized automobile ride)
i. King Arthur’s Carousel (merry-go-round)
j. Dumbo/Astro Orbiter (rotating pods with controllable altitude)
k. Casey Jr. (train ride)
Although items (g-k) are found in other theme parks, there are still uniqueness with these rides, and the differences don’t just exist in that the Disney names are different than other parks’ names. Not only is the quality of construction typically better than the construction of rides at other parks, but Disney tends to dress these rides up with enough scenic elements so that one doesn’t immediately recall riding any one of these rides another park. They are also well branded to a familiar Disney theme.
3. Participation. The best reason that these rides are superior to generic kiddie rides is that all eleven rides on this list (a-k) can be ridden by parents and children alike. When I worked at the Magic Kingdom at the Jungle Cruise and the Swiss Family Tree House, people would quite often ask if the attractions were okay for children. There was nothing better than being able to say, “Yes, this ride was made for your whole family to enjoy, come on in!” The smiles on their faces leads me to believe that Walt Disney did it right: Not only did he make it fun for the kids, but he included the parents in the fun. With generic kiddie rides, the parents are left out. With dark rides, the families are put back into the family fun.
So those are three reasons that many have a distaste for so called kiddie rides, and why I am convinced that dark rides are the way to go in order to enhance entertainment value in a park. Of course, dark rides are more expensive than kiddie rides and it’s not always possible to include them in a park. Further, kiddie rides still have their place, and are still very fun to a small segment of the population. However, daring to dream a little and always striving toward the ideal, let us always make the decision to program dark rides over turnkey kiddie rides when planning a park.