The highs and lows of customer emotions in theme parks
by Dr. Edwin N. Torres
Theme parks constantly strive to improve the customer experience. In order to measure their effectiveness at meeting customer needs, they often employ customer satisfaction surveys. These tools help managers determine customers’ attitudes in general – and more specifically, their levels of satisfaction and dissatisfaction. In recent years, it has been suggested that examining the extreme emotions of delight and outrage might be a better approach to understanding the customer experience. Prior studies defined customer delight as an emotion composed of joy, exhilaration, and thrill . Beyond understanding the meaning of customer delight, it’s imperative to understand what delights (and, alternatively, enrages) customers in the theme park setting. We are assuming that theme park operators would naturally prefer transporting their guests to a state of “joyful and thrilled.”
Accordingly, earlier in 2017 a research team – consisting of myself, Dr. Ady Milman and Ms. Soona Park – engaged in a systematic effort to ascertain the main causes of customer delight and outrage within the theme park setting. We focused our energies on the Top 20 Theme Parks in North America, as set forth in the annual TEA/ AECOM Theme Index, which ranks parks by attendance.
Turning to TripAdvisor, we examined customer feedback for each of those top 20 parks, with an emphasis on extreme comments (5-star and 1-star postings). Using a qualitative software package, we analyzed more than 6,500 TripAdvisor posts for information. Keywords and patterns were identified signifying “delight” and “outrage” – and today we’re happy (delighted, actually) to report some of the main themes we uncovered.
Delighted guests used many words to describe their theme park experiences. For example, keywords such as “ride,” “roller,” “coaster,” and “show” rose to the top of the word count. These words all fit within the theme of a theme park’s core product, thereby highlighting the critical nature of these attractions in order to delight visitors. Words such as “great” and “fun” stressed the positive guest experiences. Another theme we discovered throughout our research relates to the emotional component of the guest experience – with the prominence of such words as “love” and “amaze.”
In many cases, customers were delighted with lower-than-expected wait times, or by the combination of their planning efforts and technology making it possible to reduce their personal wait times. This trend was evidenced by multiple posts containing the term “fast pass” and using the word “line” in the context indicated.
The traveling party was also relevant to a guest’s delightful experience with words such as “family,” “kids,” and “little” among the most frequently written. Furthermore, for many adult guests, the theme park served as a magical escape from adulthood and an entry into a fantasy world reminiscent of their childhood dreams.
Seeking to uncover the reasons behind these themes, we engaged in root cause analysis. This analytical procedure entails asking “why” (typically five times) until the root cause of an occurrence is revealed. Delighted guests expressed positive emotions, a favorable sensory experience, limited wait times, and positive value perceptions. Some of the root causes behind delight included: a quality core product (i.e. rides, shows, and attractions), favorable customer-to-customer interactions, quality food and beverage, a well-designed and maintained servicescape (i.e. physical setting of service), pricing decisions, and customer demand and park admissions policies. These four factors are critical to any theme park operator wishing to delight their customers.
The findings for outraged guests were also enlightening. Just as the core product of the theme park serves to delight many guests, failures with the main attractions of the theme park seem to enrage customers. Words such as “ride” and “show” were often accompanied by the word “down” (or some variation indicating a dysfunctional, decaying, or closed attraction). Additionally, several words associated with waiting, such as “wait,” “time,” “hour,” or “long” were discovered in many postings. Wait times have been an endemic problem for the theme park industry. Not only are waits a problem, but simply the perception of overcrowding can be problematic for the guest experience.
Negative customer-to-customer interactions were also noted among enraged guests via their online feedback. Multiple guests stated negative value perceptions with words such as “money,” “ticket,” “pay,” and “price” rising to prominence. Equally problematic were negative interactions with the park’s employees – with words such as “staff” and “service” among the most frequently mentioned by outraged guests.
After applying root cause analysis, we uncovered some of the main reasons for outrage among visitors. A low quality, dysfunctional, closed core product (i.e. rides, shows, and attractions) was one of the main causes of customer outrage. Similarly, low-quality food and beverage, and poor maintenance and upkeep, were also to blame. Overly aggressive pricing decisions caused negative value perceptions among visitors. Poor service could be attributed to various employment decisions including training and working conditions. Extremely high levels of customer demand as well as park admissions policies were also found to be causes for overcrowding and long lines which ultimately enraged customers.
Response and emotional appeal
Having obtained word counts for the most frequent catalysts of customer delight and outrage, there are some important courses of action that can be undertaken by the industry. Perhaps one of the most relevant implications relates to measurement of guest experiences. By revealing key themes associated with customer delight, managers can develop specific questions (via survey method) to assess whether their customers are delighted or outraged.
Another important finding relates to having good, well-developed, well-maintained and functional attractions – which generate delight. In contrast, underwhelming and outdated attractions can generate the opposite effect. Therefore, managers should pay close attention to the design of new and creative attractions, and the renovation or replacement of those that are no longer delighting customers.
Throughout our analysis, we discovered that many guests relate the theme park experience to magic, fantasy, and the nostalgia of childhood. In light of this, it becomes critical to appeal to guest’s emotions via the park’s marketing campaigns, its theming, attractions, and staff interactions. Furthermore, creating opportunities for guests to interact with one another can further stimulate delight.
In addition to generating delight, theme park operators should avoid enraging their customers. In this regard, the findings of our study shed light into some of the guests’ hot buttons in the theme park setting.
The park’s pricing and value proposition are among the hottest of the hot buttons. However, theme park operators need to generate enough revenues to sustain their operations and earn profits. Perhaps a strategy to deal with poor value perceptions is to create more packaged experiences with greater inclusions despite more elevated prices. Future studies further assess the role of customer demographics and segmentation in value perceptions.
In our fast-paced society, people seldom desire to wait. Although this might not come as a surprise, outraged customers noted waiting, queues, delays, and overcrowding as some of the top problems. Theme parks have engaged in efforts to reduce wait times via virtual queues, and enhanced queue design among others. These investments in queue technology and design can ultimately be beneficial in minimizing guest outrage.
Rude staff and poor service also are likely to generate outrage among customers. Thus, theme park operators should seek to detect the signs of outrage among customers, and correct the causes among staff (through training and other means).
Of particular concern to our research team was that many of these negative postings on TripAdvisor had received no response post from a park representative. Authentic and personalized (as opposed to generic) responses to customer problems can turn outraged customers into delighted ones. An additional suggestion for theme park operators, therefore, would be to involve their consumer analytics divisions in performance analyses similar to the one employed in this study and compare the results to their competitors in order to ascertain strengths, weaknesses, and best practices.
More detailed findings from this study have been submitted and are awaiting review in the Journal of Hospitality and Tourism Insights. •
- Kumar, A., Olshavsky, R. W., & King, M. F. (2001). “Exploring alternative antecedents of customer delight.” Journal of Consumer Satisfaction, Dissatisfaction and Complaining Behavior, 14, 14-26
Dr. Edwin N. Torres (Edwin. [email protected]) is an Assistant Professor at the University of Central Florida, Rosen College of Hospitality Management. Prior to his current role, Dr. Torres received a Ph.D. from Purdue University. His research, which focuses on consumer psychology, has been published in multiple scholarly journals and presented in multiple conferences.