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When you’re broke, throw a party: how to draw crowds without new rides

Cost-effective ways to restore the guest experience in the COVID-19 recovery period

Couple at Disneyland in masks

By Eddie Sotto

Eddie Sotto

Designers in today’s theme and leisure industry face an enormous headwind. The red ink flooding the industry from lockdowns and compliance looms large on the books of even the biggest players. And it will be not rubbed out anytime soon, as evidenced by Disney announcing less going into their parks in the coming years. So where does the next big thing come from?

It is truly a conundrum. Pent up demand will likely fuel a resurgence of people coming out, even to a reduced value or constricted COVID-mandated experience, but what then? Are there ways to draw crowds and restore the guest experience without drawing blueprints?

Experiential thinking

To find those hidden gems in your park, see it as guests experience it, holistically. A day in your park is comprised of shopping, dining, and experiencing the shows. To a guest, ALL of it matters.

Look for opportunities to delight in those mementoes of the day. Any one division that is “mailing it in” needs to be re-evaluated as to how much better their contribution to the guest’s day can be. Food and retail are usually bottom line-driven and stripped down to mugs and t-shirts, so is there an opportunity there? Is there a signature food to be a must?

Star Wars Trading Post at Downtown Disney District
Gifts on sale at Star Wars Trading Post, Downtown Disney District (Christian Thompson/Disneyland Resort)

Experiential design is about the senses, designing emotion and that everything matters. COVID-19 has stripped parks of much of their experiential thunder, so how do we compensate for that and restore the guest experience? We look in the less likely places where the experience is out of balance.

Experience is music, scent, texture, and immersion. Enhancing that is a powerful and usually cheap tool.

Hardware vs. software

See your attraction in terms of hardware and software. The hard assets, like the rides, are expensive to add or remove. But the “software”, like food, media, entertainment and retail, are things that you can inexpensively enhance or adapt.

Mickey-pretzel-Disneyland Restoring guest experiences
Mickey pretzel (David Nguyen/Disneyland Resort)

Entertainment, having the biggest effect, also involves high labour costs, so that can get prickly. Perhaps looking at an enhanced combination of all three is a way to raise all guest experience boats.

Technology overlays

Augmented Reality experiences and digital in-park games can overlay the built experience and, when done well, can be a great and relatively inexpensive way for guests to enjoy the same assets anew. We have developed several solutions that can be played by an entire park’s attendance at once. Big fun, low cost.

snapchat lens universal six flags disney
Snapchat AR lens in use at Six Flags, Disney & Universal

Projection mapping is another overlay that can visually transform tired places into must-see immersive environments with relatively low investment, to restore the guest experience. A great addition to an event or show, projection-mapped worlds are great big for the buck. We’ve proposed several.

Event attractions

One proven way that occurred to me is overdressing existing favourite attractions into limited-time event rides, as has been successful in many parks and works in with retail’s successful “pop-up” mentality.

area15 the beast pop up
AREA15 – The Beast pop up

Near term, we may not be able to build from scratch, but tweaking a favourite for a season or just doing an irreverent version might be a crowd-pleaser. Once established, they become part of a park’s seasonal inventory of pop up shows so the enhancement does not go to waste. Therefore, they are adding intrinsic value and ROI.

Adapting vs. diluting

Drive-in movies had a recent renaissance as they adapted to the constraints of distancing in a way that was fun and made the restrictions less obvious.

Stranger Things Drive Through halloween covid 19 Restoring guest experiences
Stranger Things drive through experience

In the near term, thinking in ways that make COVID mandates seem less intrusive is another key to bringing guests back out. Never underestimate the pull dining and retail can have on an audience if it is elevated and done well. Enhancing your experience IS an attraction in itself.

Work toward a new and improved normal

Long term survival means restoring the guest experience back to those pre-COVID-19 shared moments that make the visit worth it. While we use crutches to get back on collective feet as outlined here, I must make a plea to consider a new normal that includes a higher level of guest safety, learning from the past.

Universal Orlando floor marker COVID Restoring guest experiences
Social distancing – Universal Orlando Resort

A future-proof digital screening solution goes beyond vaccines or chemical tests to digitally scan for variants and protects its guests from being a part of a future outbreak.

We can’t afford this once, let alone twice. The biggest unknown in all of this is how much reassurance guests need to return once they’ve had their fix. The smart money is on a total seamless solution that lets operators stay open at full capacity. Till something else comes along, Digital terahertz sensing looks best to me long term.

Restoring the guest experience – it can be done

Southern California’s Knott’s Berry Farm revved up their food offerings into “a
taste of Knott’s” – a tasing event rivalling their Boysenberry Festival. It was a local crowd-pleaser and a model for other parks to follow.

Pre COVID, Knott’s also had similar success by energizing their existing “Ghost Town” with live interactive characters, called “Ghost Town Alive.”

As Disney Imagineering chief Marty Sklar used to say

“Every ounce of treatment deserves a ton of treat.”

Top image courtesy of Disney

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Eddie Sotto

Eddie Sotto

Eddie Sotto, former SVP of Concept Design at Disney Imagineering now runs SottoStudios, a turn-key entertainment design and experiential R&D firm. He also recently formed the group to address the need for COVID-19 variant screening.

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