ABOVE PHOTO: Guests ride Grover’s Alpine Express at Busch Gardens® Williamsburg, a family-friendly roller coaster at Sesame Street® Forest of Fun™. ™/©2016 Sesame Workshop. All Rights Reserved. ©2016 SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, Inc
We are in an industry that is ever changing: evolving, setting, racing, or chasing the latest trends of technology and society. Some trends are short-lived while others, like intellectual property (IP)-based attractions, have staying power. These hallmarks of family photo albums everywhere are so quickly being integrated into the thought and design process of attraction development that you don’t ask whether there is an IP component, but what is the IP?
This isn’t a bad thing. IPs may bring great power to an attraction and park. There is great marketing potential in utilizing something the public already knows and loves. The characters, their personalities, their stories, the places, and the brand are well-known and alleviate the need of the park and designers to develop these from scratch.
Licensing an IP doesn’t, however, mean that the design work is done, the attraction markets itself, and all a park needs to do is build a ride and use the IP to name it. The IP provides recognition by its fans, who will demand an attraction that lives up to, or exceeds, their expectations.
IP alone doesn’t equal a great attraction; a successful result emerges when IP is part of a well-executed process. For designers, an IP-based attraction means there are now two clients to please – the owner of the park and the owner of the IP. In this article, we offer guidelines for success and look at several outstanding examples of IP-based attractions. One of the examples is a PGAV Destinations project; the others are not. The guidelines aren’t projectspecific; they are universal points to ponder when adding an IP-based attraction.
Start with the basics – if possible, before the IP is even selected. What are the goals of the project? Look at the park demographics and determine if the need is to strengthen the existing base, or reach out to an untapped segment. How does the attraction mix need to grow? Is there an attraction type that will elevate lower attendance times? What capitol and land are available? What is the park’s brand?
There may not be finite answers to all of these, but a direction can be established. This empowers the team to choose an IP that supports the goals of the park and fits within the park’s brand – or transforms it in a desired way. The possibility of success greatly increases with good communication (not a big surprise). If the park owner has a clear vision of their goals and needs, chooses an IP that is in alignment with them, and communicates them clearly with the IP holder and designer, then everyone shares the same vision and can work to develop a project that meets everyone’s needs.
It’s important to do prep work along the lines indicated above. To use a cooking metaphor, suppose the IP-based attraction is a dish to be served to a particular group of diners. If the team in the kitchen selects the ingredients before knowing the final dish, that’s comparable to selecting the IP and setting the terms of its use and even the program before a direction is known. It can result in serving a sandwich or a souffle when what was needed was a salad – in other words, a less-than-perfect fit, that could have been much better. This can frustrate all parties involved. The attraction may fit the IP but not the needs of the park – or vice versa.
It isn’t enough to know the IP is popular with park guests. You need to understand why. What does this IP have that resonates: is it the storyline, the characters, the technology of a game and how you play, the graphics, and/or the cinematography?
The best resource is the IP holder. Get to know them – not just their business manager – but the creators of the IP and the people who continue its evolution. Free flowing conversations outside of a list of questions, meeting agendas, and a design guide often provide the most insight into the IP. Ask about the history – where the IP started and how it evolved to become what it is today. If the creator of an IP was bullied as a kid and developed a heroic character that looks after the downtrodden, it can become an undercurrent that flows through every iteration of the IP’s development.
When taking an IP from one medium and placing it in another that is very different from those origins, it’s important to understand this history, the subtle message the creator weaves throughout the IP’s development; so that even on its new platform, it maintains that message. The guests/fans will recognize the thread, and the IP owner will be comfortable.
Keep in mind that for many IP creators, their stories and characters are a huge part of who they are. The IP is their child, and they are letting you care for it. The park owner and designer must make the effort to learn about and understand that child’s upbringing, family history, culture, and future. Doing so will make the IP holder more comfortable with the project, which goes a long way toward ultimate success.
The emphasis placed on knowing the IP’s roots is essential to its thriving on new platforms (such as a theme park attraction) in the future. The attraction will be opening in the future and needs to relate to the IP on opening day. Knowing the IP and understanding what is important to its creator – and what attracts its fans – supports an authentic result that delivers on the most important aspect of the IP: its soul.
The IP may have previously only existed in movies, books, games, etc. Realizing it as a physical guest experience is the primary draw and goal. Guests can live the dream of walking through its neighborhoods, conversing with its characters, and going on thrilling adventures with its heroes and villains.
But what if the same IP has been developed for other attractions, in other parks, somewhere in our industry’s global markets? What can be done to set this attraction apart from the others?
Referring back to two earlier points will help gain some insight: “Fit the IP experience into the park’s brand and its expansion goals,” and “Deeply understand the IP and its appeal.”
On the first point, the park brand can be an overlay on the IP to distinguish it from other attractions. IP characters can be put in a setting that is unique to your park. As an example: Busch Gardens Williamsburg and Busch Gardens Tampa Bay (both PGAV clients) have incorporated the Sesame Street IP into their children’s areas. In each park, the same Sesame characters appear, but are costumed to tie into each park’s brand. In Williamsburg, their outfits reflect the various European countries used as themes within the park. In Tampa, their dress conforms with the park’s safari theme.
On the second point, deep understanding of the IP: With the roots of the IP firmly in place, other scenarios beyond what has already been done can begin to grow. Imagine a hypothetical IP featuring that hero character who protects the downtrodden. Imagine there are existing attractions at other parks using this IP, where the hero engages in individual battle with a single foe or small band of enemies. A possibility for your new attraction is to expand the message of the IP over a larger territory – to encompass neighborhoods, cities, cultures, or galaxies. Our hero could now be at the forefront of a larger conflict – perhaps leading the people of Earth to rise up against an oppressive force from another planet. The story (and the attraction capacity) can be grandly scaled up while maintaining the character and soul of the IP, and with something unique to the park.
IPs have demographic appeal that may not align with every visitor in the park. I know all attractions don’t align with every guest demographic either, but we strive to include as broad an audience as possible. One way to do this with IP is to make sure the attraction is great even if the guest isn’t familiar with the IP; the attraction truly needs to be engaging and entertaining without any prior knowledge on the guest’s part. If someone unfamiliar with Harry Potter visited a Universal Studios park and walked through Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley, they could still appreciate the detailed, immersive environment created there: the attention to detail, the little interactive surprises, and the attractions themselves. They could be completely entertained walking around thinking, “Harry Who?”
Likewise, you need never see the movie “Avatar” to be blown away by the new Pandora land at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Yes, these are big budget examples – but no matter what the budget, or the IP, the goal should be to create enjoyable attractions regardless of guests’ familiarity with the IP.
As fandom swells and strengthens around fantastic films, TV series, video games, and other media, so accelerates the pace at which developers work to bring these worlds to life within theme parks. Collaborating intimately with IP creators – and thoroughly studying the IP’s fans – can lead to remarkably successful attractions that celebrate the heart of the story, blend seamlessly with the park setting, provide unique experiences, and are enjoyable by every guest who walks through the front gate. •
Jeff Havlik is Vice President at PGAV Destinations, the St. Louis-based attractions design and consulting firm. Having been with PGAV for more than three decades, Havlik has left his mark on countless iconic destinations around the world, including SeaWorld parks, Discovery Cove, Guinness record-setting Chimelong Ocean Kingdom; PortAventura and Isla Magica in Spain, Six Flags Great Adventure, and the Busch Gardens parks in Williamsburg and Tampa. www.pgavdestinations.com
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