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Theme park guest expectations: how do operators keep guests wanting more?

Attractions have to compete with in-home entertainment and a growing number of leisure opportunities for the attention (and time) of their guests.

So how do operators keep up with theme park guest expectations?

By Adam Sandy, President, Business Development, Ride Entertainment

adam sandy ride entertainment drives future growth

There are a lot of competing philosophies on what makes guests want to spend an entire day at your property. There are the traditional basics, such as good food, great experiences and shade that have not gone out of style. But in the past decade, some amenities have quickly become required of amusement park owners.

With ever-changing theme park guest expectations and some new benchmarks in theming, such as the Harry Potter-themed areas at Universal Studios and the much-hyped Star Wars sections at Disney properties, I wanted to understand how different types of operators are exceeding their guest expectations.

Maximising guest stay

I started by speaking with Mark Amos, the Senior Project Director at Jack Rouse Associates. We talked about how JRA examines an area when looking at ways to maximise length of guest stay.

Lionsgate-Movie-World_JRA Jeju Island, Korea a
Lionsgate Movie World, Jeju Island, Korea. JRA concept art.

Amos said, “For JRA, the first thing to be considered is always the audience; what it is that they are looking for. The next would be determining what amenities or challenges face the project site/attraction location. Similarly, it is also determining if the space will be themed or branded. 

“From there, it is the formal assessment of the budget, project team’s expectations, schedule and creating the first sentence to describe the experience. Then it’s back to verifying that they’re all aligning with what we want the guest experience to be for our specific audience.”

Space making goals & challenges

In addition to Jack Rouse Associates, I spoke with four operators on three continents. Each shared their property’s goals and challenges when it comes to space making:

When evaluating his park’s assets, Brian Spielman, Director of Attractions at Mall of America, said he feels that uniqueness is a key for driving guest visitation. After that, “I’m a true believer of convenience and relaxation. If you can remove stress from the experience, people will want to spend more time at your attraction. They will also increase their visits.”

Mall of America, Triple five Group, Bloomington, water park, city,

Striking a balance

Parks are currently working to strike that balance, engage their guests without overwhelming them. Currently in our market, family time can often compete against other children’s activities as well as electronic entertainment.

One of the largest changes in the U.S. and other markets is the aggressive monetisation of sports for children under twelve. This often requires weekend travel. It is in this environment that parks continue to look at ways they can give their visitors an experience that is markedly different than their competitors.

Birger Meierjohann, the Director of Press and Communication at Erlebnispark Tripsdrill, agreed that they benefit by having a property that allows guests to decompress. The park attracts three different generations. This means that Erlebnispark Tripsdrill is a brand that holds its own against regional competitors; like Europa-Park and Legoland Germany.

Meierjohann said the park’s theming is based upon Swabia, their region of Germany, in the year 1880. The concept is not only the wellspring for all of Tripsdrill’s theming. It also offers a great baseline for an enjoyable guest experience.

Providing stress-free experiences

Erlebnispark Tripsdrill Tree House Baumhaus Robinienheim
Nature Resort at Erlebnispark Tripsdrill

He said, “Sometimes you rather have the feeling you are visiting a traditional Swabian town instead of an amusement park; though exciting rides are just around the corner. It is this relaxed atmosphere which our guests appreciate and which makes them enjoy their stay.”

Tripsdrill has gone all-in on the Swabian theming. They have beautiful gardens, great food, and a host of rides from Gerstlauer, Metallbau Emmeln and Zierer. Furthermore, they themed them with names in the Swabian dialect and detailed paint schemes.

Meierjohann felt that the laid-back feeling on property has been something that has grown their business. “Due to the relaxed and leisurely atmosphere, many visitors turn into repeat visitors. This is the reason why the demand for our annual passes is increasing year by year. Further to that, happy visitors recommend Tripsdrill to their family and friends. Or, they will give us positive ratings on social media platforms.”

Energetic vs. noisy environments

Holiday World Water Coasters how the rides are built into the hillside natural noise abatement

Parks often have to walk a fine line between an energetic environment and a noisy one. Some properties can use their location to their advantage.  Paula Werne, Director of Communications at Holiday World, said the park has designed a lot of their attractions into the natural, wooded topography, which reduces the ride sounds reverberating across the park.

At Nick Universe, Spielman uses a similar approach to keep things as quiet as possible. He said, “I give a ton of credit to our landscaping crew. We have thousands of live plants and trees inside Nickelodeon Universe. Not only does this plant life help you feel like you’re outdoors with a consistent 70-degree temperature and sunshine in February, it does help dampen the sound from all of the screams and attractions.”

Different concepts for different experiences

JRA Jack Rouse Associates Mark Amos
Mark Amos, JRA Senior Project Director

Amos said that when it comes to designing a guest environment, operators need to know what kind of experience they are providing. Traditional amusement park space and themed environments require different conceptualisation.

He said “an amusement park is traditionally centered on a series of rides or experiences that could exist relatively anywhere. With the focus on the ride/attraction, and usually only supported by environmental features, there is usually a higher concentration of noisy environments as features of the park are more process driven. These projects require buildings, or zones with less open-air experiences to create pockets of refuge from activity and noise.”

Creating in-world experiences

Furthermore, “Theme parks or themed environments place more emphasis on creating an ‘in-world’ experience. This usually involves making the ride or attraction more discreet to support the theme/brand; meaning the loudest noises are more isolated already. The navigation between these experiences are either circulation/queue which is in-world and story driven, or palette cleansing between themed environments.

All of which can provide opportunities for a more controlled environment. This also encourages people to spend more time observing or participating.”

Recharge and stay longer

EDA World Flyover Taiwan Brogent Technologies Flying Theater
EDA World Flyover Taiwan

The availability of phones and apps continue to be critical to how park-goers visit parks. But, if parks want guests to spend an entire day at a property they have to allow guests to recharge their devices. At EDA World, Chief Operations Officer Hsien-Ming Kao said they let guest flow dictate the location of electrical outlets.

“After researching and studying the area in which visitors would tend to stay longer and which has large traffic, we would then build a phone charging station and provide enough seats there so the visitors can have a brief but comfortable rest.”

EDA, Tripsdrill and other properties also offer free Wi-Fi, which is just as critical as charging in some markets. In the United States, Six Flags recently announced all of their parks were adding Wi-Fi. It is not only a great guest satisfier, adding Wi-Fi helps the parks because if a property’s phone lines are jammed, park-goers cannot upload pictures of their experience to social media while they are in the moment.

Free Pepsi, anyone?

Holiday World Drink Station Pepsi Oasis
Pepsi Oasis at Holiday World

Werne said one of their most significant guest satisfiers has been their free Pepsi program. “We hear from our Guests every day how much they appreciate our free soft drinks. They like that they’re free, of course, but also that we offer such a variety. Not all are carbonated and not all are caffeinated. Diet versions. Gatorade, ice tea, lemonade, coffee, and good old water, too!”

Werne also said they put the Oasis buildings throughout the property. This actually ends up making guests want to purchase a second meal during their stay. “As they stay hydrated, they don’t get as worn out and end up staying longer. They don’t feel like we’ve had our hand in their pockets all day and stay for an extra meal,” she said.

Creating reasons to stay

Paw Patrol Playground at Nick Universe theme park guest expectations

But inviting guests to stay longer isn’t just about the little things. Large attractions and entertainment options create reasons for entire families to make the conscious decision to spend a full day at a park, or an unconsciously one to extend their planned time on property. Spielman said that in Nick Universe, the Paw Patrol Adventure Bay Play Area has been a hugely successful for the property.

The play area, geared towards children under ten, replaced an older flat ride. “The attraction is unique as adults have the option to sit down. They can relax a bit and charge their electronic devices while their kids run wild and burn off some energy. This attraction has become quite the oasis for families who have been standing in line or shopping all day,” said Spielman.

Retailtainment a growing market force

american dream concept
American Dream concept art

Many industry forecasters continue to see the retail entertainment hybrid as a growing market force. This is because traditional stores find ways to differentiate their experiences from online buying. It not only benefits retail, but allows amusement parks to grow beyond the guest base they have targeted with since their ascendency in the 1970’s and resurgence in the late 1990’s.

Triple Five Group, the owner of Mall of America, is betting big on this combination as they ready their newest property. American Dream, which is located in the Meadowlands complex in New Jersey (a stone’s throw from New York City), is a space with almost a 50/50 retail entertainment match. The mall will feature upscale anchor stores. Moreover, the property will also feature an indoor ski slope, a regulation NHL rink, a Nickelodeon-themed amusement park, a DreamWorks-themed water park, and a Sea Life aquarium operated by Merlin Entertainments

Sea Life. Legoland Malaysia Resort. Aquarium
Sea Life

Satisfying needs and exceeding expectations

EDA World Giant Wheel with Outlet Mall underneath
EDA World

EDA also offers a retail/entertainment mix, but they have laid things out differently. Kao said the property focuses on encouraging guests to stay at their property for vacation. “In addition to the theme park, we have two hotels and one outlet [shopping] center. So our goal is to provide a complex that can satisfy the visitors’ all kinds of need. EDA World has a layout in the shape of a long strip.

“The noisy amusement park is on one end while the hotels are on another one with the outlet center as a buffer. So people can still enjoy their stays and leisure as they want.”

While a very different place, Tripsdrill has taken a similar approach. Over the past decade the park has installed what they call a Nature Resort. Instead of putting a hotel on at the site, they added structures that fit their theme.

Guests can stay overnight in a Tree House or Shepard’s Cabin in the middle of nature. Meierjohann said that this has been a significant guest satisfier. And, it has gone a long way to turning one day trips into multiple-day vacations.

From guest to advocate

All of these amenities create a complicated business, but cumulatively they offer a simple path to better guest experiences. But, there is also a potential payoff. Now customers who choose to spend time and money at a property become some of its largest advocates. Creating a relationship with customers means that some will choose to maximise their time at a property. Not to mention, some will also become promoters for a property to their friends in person and to the world on social media.

Adam Sandy's children on the Paw Patrol Playground at Nick Universe theme park guest expectations
Adam’s children at the Paw Patrol Playground at Nickelodeon Universe

Mark Amos said this transition from guest to advocate is an important one. “The longer a guest spends in the park (assuming it’s because they’re having a good time), the more opportunity the park has to create a brand ambassador.

The guests can be brought into the world and discover all of the details that have been poured over by the design process. This also works to the parks’ advantage. Guests are more likely to visit food and beverage or the retail which supports the reason for spending the additional capital on theming and creating immersive worlds.”

Key theme park guest expectations – escapism and family time

There have been a lot of different approaches with brand advocate partnerships. Traditionally amusement parks had a good working relationship with groups like the American Coaster Enthusiasts (ACE). These groups provided riders during media events and positive spokespeople for a new ride. In the past decade, some businesses have grown their perks to enhance the customer relationship with the property.

Six Flags introduced a multi-tiered membership program with benefits. This year, their elite members were invited to a New Year’s Eve opening of the “Pirates of the Deep Sea” dark ride at Six Flags Fiesta Texas. Parks have also worked to court professional “mommy” bloggers that focus on children’s activities; or casual bloggers that write about the park. The Hangtime media day at Knott’s Berry Farm featured as many bloggers with professional looking video equipment as traditional media. 

What I found most interesting in speaking with this wide variety of parks is how escapism and family time are two of the key theme park guest expectations these operators still believe they fill. While they run very different properties, these two goals, which have been a long-standing tradition in the attractions industry, are still considered important to a park’s mission in today’s world.

Images kind courtesy of Adam Sandy.

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Adam Sandy

Adam is the Roller Coaster Sales & Marketing Director at Antonio Zamperla, SpaA. He has a great working knowledge of park and coaster history. In addition, parks utilise Adam as a trends analyst for rides and the guest experience. He lives in Baltimore with his family and his kids still think he is somewhat cool because they get to travel with him to amusement parks around the world.

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