How smaller attractions stay competitive and innovative when big operators raise the bar
by David Paul Green
ABOVE: Teams from Six Flags and Sally Dark Rides install Justice League: Battle for Metropolis attraction at Six Flags Over Georgia. An Oceaneering ride vehicle is ready to be unwrapped and put into service. Photo courtesy of Sally Dark Rides
Over time, a familiar cycle has driven the themed entertainment industry: Big operators raise the bar with epic, destination attractions (digging into deep pockets and taking big risks), then smaller operators work to catch up.
The new Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge lands at Disney parks in California and Florida have set the bar very high. Some say that it will be difficult and take a long time for smaller parks to be able to deliver a competitive guest experience. But nowadays, smaller operators can respond quickly thanks to sophisticated, readily available technology, a trend to smaller/scalable attractions, the entry of major brands and IP into LBE (location-based entertainment) and the assistance of suppliers who customize products for them.
There’s no question that the COVID -19 pandemic adds new uncertainty to the situation. Parks and attractions of all kinds must now consider not just how to compete but simply survive. While we wait to see what the “new abnormal” will be, operators must plan for the unforeseeable: Nobody knows exactly how regulations, guest attitudes, safety practices, and other factors will be affected.
For perspective, we spoke to four industry leaders who serve the industry in a variety of ways. Their work with operators of all sizes gives them insight into the full attractions spectrum.
Greg MacLaurin, Senior Designer, American Scenic Design, a provider of high-end, specialty design services, founded by industry veteran Phil Bloom
David Beaudry, Principal, Beaudry Interactive (aka b/i), an award-winning experiential design studio with a focus on audience engagement
Dave Mauck, VP and GM of Entertainment Systems for Oceaneering International, an engineered products and services provider for the offshore energy, entertainment, materials handling, defense, aerospace, and science and research industries
Lauren Wood Weaver, VP of Marketing and Business Development for Sally Dark Rides, a leading attraction design and fabrication company that also provides animatronics and creative services
Local and unique
Greg MacLaurin of American Scenic Design takes an historical view on smaller operators competing with bigger companies for guests. “They’ve got to focus on their strengths, and their strength is community and locality. They understand their specific smaller community,” he said.
MacLaurin points to Knott’s Berry Farm as an example of a smaller park that has thrived, despite being just a stone’s throw from Disneyland. ”Walt certainly went to Knott’s Berry Farm before he built his park. He talked to Walter Knott, specifically. They actually became friends,” MacLaurin said. “Walter Knott and his wife Cordelia were invited to the Disneyland opening, and they were kind of depressed. They thought, ‘Gosh, look at all these people. Nobody’s going to come to our little Knott’s Berry Stand anymore.’ They drove home, and their park was packed. They were packed because not everyone could make it into Disneyland, and they wanted to do something fun and Knott’s Berry Farm was local and nearby. It turned out to be copacetic.”
Knott’s also resonated for Beaudry lnteractive’s David Beaudry, who said, “Knott’s Berry Farm’s ‘Ghost Town Alive!’ is a perfect example. In the shadows of Universal Studios and Disneyland, they created arguably one of the best experiences in recent memory. It received a Thea Award, so I’m not alone in that thinking!”
“Ghost Town Alive!” is described by Beaudry as “a small-cap project that had a huge payoff because Knott’s focused on what they do best. The added level of engagement and immersion with the live performers, day-long story line, and authentic set and costumes made the guests feel they just experienced something special and just for them.”
Beaudry spoke of a regional LBE client with similar goals and restrictions. “The question becomes, ‘What can you provide that no one else can? And how can you make that experience more engaging for your guests?’ Getting our client to focus on their uniqueness is key. Whether it’s nostalgia, local culture and history, or a thriving art scene, focus on those experiences and come up with the ‘handles’ their guests will need to create their own intimate exchanges and immerse themselves in these experiences.”
Speed to field
At Oceaneering International, Dave Mauck says the company’s breadth makes it possible to spread out much of the inherent risk of development, thus reducing the risk and costs for individual operators. “For many years, Oceaneering was the go-to company for some of the most complex, high-end ride systems and experiences in the world,” Mauck said. “However, our barrier to entry for the regional or mid-tier parks was two-fold: we had to overcome that lack of customer NRE [non-recurring expenses] and their aversion to the risks associated with ‘Serial Number 1.’ As a large company, we could address the NRE and the first article build, but what features would a product have to include?”
Oceaneering’s Revolution trackless ride technology, which received a Thea Award for breakthrough technology, was one result of that line of questioning. Mauck asked, “Looking at the systems-level costs, what, holistically, are the cost drivers for an attraction, which may or may not be coming from the ride system, but are affected by the ride system? That was one of the primary focuses, initially, for our trackless product.”
The company looked at ways to reduce cost and streamline production while reducing building time, and found that there were creative benefits as well. “Our trackless products would be essentially divorced from the infrastructure… we don’t need big tracks, foundations, networks of conduits, etc. Early ‘dust-free’ dates and final integration would be affected and would reduce the overall schedule. That goes to speed to field. Many mid-tier parks don’t have a two-and-a-half to three-year capital plan to deliver a ride. You’re trying to deliver a new ride in roughly 12 months from the date of contracting. Speed to field is a real consideration for them.”
Sally Dark Rides’ Lauren Wood Weaver concurs that designing to smaller budgets is key to bringing destination attraction punch to regional parks. “We’ve – Sally – had a long history of designing to budget, quite often at a regional park level,” said Weaver. “One of our specialties is figuring out certain tricks of the trade that can make budgets stretch. We pinpoint where we need to spend, and where we can afford to pull back, depending on the overall value to the story, and the ride or experience.”
“You can’t deny the inspiration that those major, blockbuster attractions provide,” said Weaver. “And you can’t deny that then they set the bar… and park-goers see that, and that’s their new bar, their new expectation for a great attraction. For the longest time, in the dark ride field, the classic attractions – like Pirates of the Caribbean, Haunted Mansion, ET, Monster Plantation, Dreamflight – had set the bar. We helped bring that kind of ride experience to parks in Europe with projects such as Challenge of Tutankhamon at Six Flags Belgium, now Walibi, and Labyrinth of the Minotaur at Terra Mitica, using ‘classic’ dark ride methods: heavy theming, animatronics, lighting, special effects, theatrical elements and a great soundtrack.
“Then [Universal’s The Amazing Adventures of] Spider-Man set the next bar. And we did have to kind of allow time to get us to a point where some of those elements and effects – such as high-end projection and motion -based ride vehicles – that helped set that bar were available, and at a price point that could be affordable for the regional market at that time. But over time, obviously, technology adapts and prices come down. Suppliers and their products also adapt, and then you can bring that magic to a regional park.”
Experience and creativity
“In the end, you rely on experience,” said Weaver. “You’ve got to have a grasp on what works and what leaves a lasting impression. We’ve person ally put our butts in the seats so many times, all around the world – and sat there and watched other people’s faces, and we’ve taken note of what works. Sure, some new technologies are impressive, and if they’re affordable and fit into budget, let’s consider using them! But certain tricks aren’t the most expensive tricks, and they can be the most effective. At the end of the day, you just have to make sure it’s fun.”
MacLaurin made a similar point. “Museums are really fun to work on, because unlike theme parks, which focus on the immediate experience, and the big movie IP, museums care all about content. They want things to be accurate and true. Truly the thing that’s going to slow down a museum project will be budget. But if you focus on the budget that you have, you can really make anything work well. Smaller operators have to focus on Intimacy, Immediacy, and Interactivity.”
To those three I’s, Mauck adds two more, noting that even a small child making a fort from a cardboard box may be Immersed in his or her Imagination. “This may be controversial to some: I think to some extent,” he said, [that] “having deep pockets is sometimes a barrier. I grew up in a rural farming community and my family was self-employed. It was drilled into our heads that necessity is the mother of invention. If you don’t have a dog, learn to hunt with a cat… there is amazing creativity that emerges when you don’t have the financial wherewithal to throw more ‘stuff’ into an attraction; the Team is forced to become hyper-focused on the guest experience and story. Immersion is not automatically granted to a well-funded project. Immersion is immersion.”
Connecting with the guest
For Beaudry, a great immersive experience requires being smart about where, when, and how interaction is designed into an experience. “We always try to step back and ask why? Why are we trying to make this particular experience interactive? Who are we trying to engage? What are those connections? What are those hooks? Then, and only then, do we figure out the right type of technology to use. You gain tremendous freedom once you become tech-agnostic. It lets us approach interaction design from many angles. ‘Do I really need a $5OK tracking system in order to accomplish this particular thing, or can I do it with a 5O-cent sensor?’ Be ready to do either, but let the experience guide us.”
Beaudry added, “When I started the company, interaction design was still so new. It was hard to explain to others what we were trying to accomplish. We were creating these moments … very intimate moments when people really became part of the story and they feel that their presence there mattered. That connection still drives us today, and you don’t need big budgets to get there.”
Personal connection was a theme throughout these interviews: Weaver said, ” Our goal is to make it memorable and enjoyable for the whole family. It’s about using elements wisely, figuring out where you want your audience to focus, and making sure you get those moments right. It is story first, and then ‘How can we use technology to reach out and touch you with that story?’ But we are always loo king at new technologies, and certainly, when we travel and experience other rides, we take note of, ‘Wow, that really worked!'”
MacLaurin described how smaller operators can succeed where larger operators may struggle. “Because a smaller park is more community-based and deals with more of the local people, they can also tap into volunteerism that a large park can’t,” he said. “They can even have some fairly prestigious people, some famous people, and ask them to just help, as a donation . I worked with LA Zoo in the 1980s and 1990s, on some interactive exhibits for their children’s zoo. Betty White stepped up and said, ‘Hey, I love this zoo. I will donate my time, if you want to videotape me, and I’ll be onscreen.”‘
Adventure City in Anaheim was another example MacLaurin gave. “It’s a couple of miles from Disneyland. They have lots of children’s parties, and how they stay alive is to focus on the community, to focus on the neighborhood, and events, small events that the community will have.”
As examples of other regional events that draw on local community and culture, MacLaurin also mentioned Magic Mountain’s Magic Pagoda attraction from several decades ago and Knott’s Berry Farm’s boysenberry festivals. “A local, little theme park, a local mom-and-pop place: they would be able to have parties, and birthdays, and events, and anniversaries, at their facility, that a big park won’t be able to have.”
Weaver points out how, with dark rides that are story-driven and well-imagined, regional parks can compete with big parks on their own turf. ” Knoebels [park in Central Pennsylvania] Haunted Mansion is one of the best, ‘old-school’ dark rides that you will ever ride. There is no new technology.It is ‘old-school’ with a million exclamation points behind it! And it is one of the most memorable attractions I’ve ever ridden, because every single thing – every gag – is timed perfectly. That is why it is so highly regarded, and has been maintained in this place for years and years and years, and has this value… this nostalgic wonderful dark ride value. You scream and you yell, and you walk off and you’re like, ‘What the heck just happened?”‘
Smaller operators may not have the financial clout or scale of bigger operators, but through story-driven attractions – based on community, intimacy, and cleverly using just the right technology with unlimited imagination – they cannot only compete, but endure and thrive. • • •
David Green is COO of President of lighting firm Visual Terrain, Inc. He has over 35 years of experience in managing and delivering large and small development projects, including user experience design, creative and technical writing, theme parks, film, website producing, television and animation support, software development, information architecture, project management, public relations and photography. David holds nine U.S. patents for user interface design and is a frequent contributor to lnPark. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Interactivity in the Age of Covid-19
Shortly after beginning this assignment, the Covid-19 pandemic struck the world. Themed entertainment was hit hard, with parks shutting down world wide. Now, the industry must consider how operations will have to change after reopening, and possibly, forever. Large parks may be forced to spend like small parks until the economy recovers.
“I’m already seeing the direct impact of all the parks pulling back on their capital spending,” Dave Mauck said. “The impact has been so deep… Whatever budget you thought you had, you don’t have it any more.”
“Interactive devices always provide the most intimate experience, but the technology will (or needs to?) change,” said Greg MacLaurin . “Buttons and touch screens are now problematic. Touchless interface will become the norm, where we use hand gestures and facial recognition to receive responses from the guests.”
David Beaudry notes, “The key is to be ready and focus on those markets most likely to recover the quickest. Regional and local LBEs and FECs – these smaller mid-market experiences – may be best able to pivot and adapt the quickest to our new norms of ‘no touch’ and ‘keep your distance, please.’ A perfect time to re-examine existing experiences in the light of cutting edge, hands-free interactive technology. “
Lauren Wood Weaver adds, “Our design and creative departments have been working on new product development, at both large and smaller scales. Like it or not, we know capital investment plans have most likely been altered. So, what we’d like to emphasize to parks is that we have some really great options, at lower, more cost-effective price points. And that might be an awesome solution right now. Dark rides are great that way. You can create a lot of magic at varying investment levels – as long as you know how to make it fun!”•