Leolandia, the vibrant Italian theme park characterised by an eco-conscious and forward-looking ethos caters for a very specific sector of the market – the ten and under age-group.
Blooloop talked to Freddi, who is is the guiding force behind the park’s young market focus. He explains his lifelong love of theme parks and why Leolandia is a dream come true. In addition he talks expansion – and why Leolandia will be taking it slow and steady.
A lifelong love of theme parks
When Freddi was a child, his biggest dream was to work as a managing director for a theme park. “I wasn’t into sport, I wasn’t into football,” he says. “In Italy, everyone is into football, except me. I was into theme parks.”
When he was about eight years old, he went to Gardaland, Italy’s premier park, located on Lake Garda. He recalls their jingle, ‘A child’s dream is to go to Gardaland’. “It really was my dream,” he says. “I think everything started from that point.”
As a teenager, Freddi started working to make his dream a reality. “There was a water park close to my home, and I sent in feedback about everything,” he says. “Gradually they started to involve me, first in minor things, then in the bigger decisions, even though I was 14 or 15.”
In 1998, Freddi co-founded Parksmania, Italy’s number one portal for theme parks. This led, in 2000, to Freddi coordinating 20 Italian theme parks for a joint booth at the biggest touring tradeshow in Italy. “I was kind of a kid that time,” he recalls. “But when you’re a kid, you think you are much more adult than you are. I took risks that perhaps an adult wouldn’t have taken, and it paid off.”
In 2004, he was chosen by Disneyland Paris to work for their press department in Italy. “Within a short time, I became PR and press manager for Disneyland in Italy, and then marketing manager as well.”
From Minitalia to Leolandia
In 2008, an article caught Freddi’s eye. It concerned an old park, Minitalia, which was about to be refurbished. Minitalia originally opened in 1971. It was a miniature park at that point, a trend that was popular in Italy at the time. “The owners were in the textile industry,” Freddi explains. “Understanding that textiles would partially move to China and Eastern countries of the world, they decided to reinvest their money in building a park that would represent the beauty of Italy. This involved 160 monuments in miniature. They called it Minitalia.”
In 1997, Minitalia was sold to a family from a circus background. They added animals – a farm, aquarium, parrots – to the offering.
The park was bought in 2007 by a group of investors called Thorus, led by Mr Giuseppe Ira. The finance came 70 percent from local investors and 30 percent from Zamperla, the Italian ride design and manufacturing company. Zamperla has been creating family rides, thrill rides and roller coasters globally since 1966.
The Youngest Italian Theme Park Managing Director
Realising that a relaunch would require enthusiastic staff, Freddi got in touch with them through the Italian Amusement Park Association. “I thought they would need, eventually, a managing director. An Italian one.” Their response was to summon him for an interview. Freddi remembers clearly what they said to him after the interview. “They said: ‘You are that person we were not looking for… but you are, in fact, exactly what we need.’”
He started to work for the park, renamed Leolandia, in 2008. “When Zamperla sold its shares in 2009, I became, at 28, the youngest Italian theme park managing director.”
At that time, Leolandia had fewer than 300,000 guests per year. “Now we have around 800,000,” says Freddi.
Targeting a Fresh Demographic for Italy
Initially, the idea was that Leolandia would showcase just Zamperla rides. However, when Freddi joined the company, it struck him that Italy already had numerous amusement parks. So he decided to concentrate on a hitherto largely overlooked demographic.
“My feeling was that there was no need for yet another amusement park,” he says. “Why not focus instead on creating the best, the most beautiful, the most loved theme park for kids under ten? That was something that didn’t exist at all in Italy.”
Having made the decision, the next priority was to identify a set of values which would carry the park into the future. “The first value was storytelling,” says Freddi. “Eight years ago we began to explore storytelling. That was unusual at that time in Italy.” Storytelling remains at the heart of everything Leolandia does.
The second value lay in being eco-conscious and green. “We are the only park that has been buying energy from renewable sources. We have been doing so since 2009 and are still the only park today.” The park runs a variety of projects that reduce its environmental impact. “Everything we use in our food department, from the forks and the spoons and the napkins, is sustainable,” says Freddi. “our staff can throw it all away and compost it with the vegetables. We are really advanced in that.”
Accessibility and inclusivity are key
The third core value was accessibility. “Quite some years ago, we came to the realisation that there was a big legislation gap about children with disabilities.” The park started to work with the Italian Ministry of health and a large group of safety managers from other parks all over Europe, from Disneyland Paris to Merlin.
“We decided to be the first park to test what happens to the bodies of children when they are on a ride, and whether anything differed in children with disabilities,” says Freddi. “For example, if they had Downs syndrome, what was their reaction, and how could it be measured?” He pauses. “What we discovered with these tests at Leolandia was that there is no difference. All children are the same, and react the same way to rides. And their bodies react the same way.”
The first park to abandon an app
Inclusivity was the fourth pillar of the Leolandia ethos. “We want to think about the future, and not the present. So we started with the idea that our projects wouldn’t necessarily deliver a payout in the short term, but would be valuable in the long term.”
In practice that means trying out strategies and being willing to jettison them if they don’t deliver. “We were the first Italian park to launch an app for iPhone, quite some years ago. And then we were the first park to abandon an app because we realised we don’t want children at Leolandia to stand gazing at their screens. We want them to play together. So, goodbye, app.”
Leolandia was the first park to introduce dynamic pricing.“ We are still the only Italian park pushing so strongly on dynamic pricing that we have moved the market,” says Freddi. “We used to have only five percent of guests buying tickets in advance online. Now it is 60 percent of our guests. This means we know when they will come and how many of them there will be. It allows us to prepare and to design the day in order to give the least stressful experience.”
The park’s standing on standing on TripAdvisor is a good measure of their success. “We’re number 14 in Europe.”
A shift in role and a broader overview
In the last two years, Massimiliano Freddi has resigned as managing director and joined the park’s board of directors. “I saw many more opportunities for myself and for the park in having someone that is 100 percent focused on operation and day-to-day development.”
Freddi travels the globe now, focusing on strategic development. He has also become a coach in workshops run by Seth Godin, the American author, entrepreneur, marketer, and public speaker.
“Also, as part of IAAPA’s education committee, I try to do my best to share my knowledge,” says Freddi. “And I always, always continue to learn.”
A 10-15 Year Expansion Plan
The park presently stands on 20 hectares, or 200,000 m². This is still the original footprint that it occupied in 1971. However expansion is in the air. “We have acquired 300,000 extra square metres, (30 ha), so we have a chance to more than double the size of the park,” says Freddi. “We are currently working on a big 10 to 15 year expansion plan.” This involves a water park, both outdoor and indoor; a family entertainment centre (FEC); and up to four hotels.
On the one hand it’s ‘Wow’, on the other hand it’s ‘Oh my God’
Freddi’s plan is that the park will keep steadily increasing in size. However he’s wary of growing too fast. “We feel we can reach 2 million guests each year very quickly. Right now we’re putting a cap on growth. If we don’t have the authorisation quickly we will not be able to accommodate many more guests than the 800,000 we have currently. We are trying to do our best to ensure we don’t grow too fast. Last year, for example, we grew by almost 30 percent. On the one hand it’s ‘Wow’, on the other hand it’s ‘Oh my God.’ We have to make sure we find a balance.”
A European Destination, not just a Local Attraction
Leolandia is sited close to Milan, in perhaps the wealthiest and best-connected area of Italy. Three airports are within easy reach, and 12 million people live within a 90 minute radius of the park.
Investment in the key season – from March to November – will continue. However the park will also begin investing in indoor spaces and all-weather experiences. “We think we will be able to be open 365 days a year with the addition of indoor spaces, great products, and great Leolandia experiences for the winter season,” says Freddi. “We are also becoming a destination for families from all over Italy. Our plan therefore, is to become a European destination for children under 10. Fingers crossed.”
Freddi looks back with pride at his work at Leolandia. “If I look back to how Leolandia was only five years ago, I can see how far we have come in invisioning the future so that we can build something to evolve and grow over four, five, ten years.”
He pauses and adds, “I have a kind of dream job.”
All images kind courtesy Leolandia, except Massimiliano Freddi courtesy Parksmania and Hydro Lift water ride from Zamperla.