The Coming Revolution in Themed Entertainment
A transcript of a speech by Bob Rogers at a forum on the future of themed entertainment From the IAAPA Tradeshow, Orlando, Florida 1997
Introduction Harrison “Buzz” Price
Bob Rogers is a Renaissance man, a technology buff, and a great storyteller. After leaving CalArts, he was an in-and-out man at Walt Disney Imagineering, working on Florida Disney attractions and Pavilions at EPCOT. In 1981, looking for steadier employment, he founded BRC Imagination Arts; and his productions there have won him many prizes: Kennedy and Houston Space Centers, Spirit Lodge, Rainbow War, and Vancouver Expo where he stole the show. You all know his talent. He will tell us about the coming revolution in themed entertainment.
The Coming Revolution In Themed Entertainment Bob Rogers
Buzz says that I was an in-and-out-man at Disney. What he means by that is that I have been fired by the Disney organization three times now, and each time told I will never ever work there again. This morning I will demonstrate why. . .
In the early 1950’s Walt Disney ignored the conventional wisdom of his day and re-invented our business. Walt died in 1966 but his revolution continued on without him, and it was codified by less original thinkers. Today that revolution has become the establishment. It’s well-developed rules select against new ideas while replicating old ones. Derivative thinking regulates our industry’s economic models and it’s creative options.
Today it is time to once again re-invent our industry. To understand the coming revolution, look to the original revolution. Its implications and insights are still ringing throughout our industry. Now the public relations story says that it all started at a merry-go-round in Los Angeles, California where a father, Walt, had taken his two daughters in a failing attempt to find some family fun. Well, that’s pretty and that’s cute, but I’m here to tell you that the real revolution began late one stormy November night in a hotel room in Chicago, and I’d like to take you there: You have entered a classic smoke filled room. There are Cuban cigars, caviar, an entire case of Chivas Regal and seven men. It is 44 years ago tonight, during the annual meeting of the National Association of Parks Pools and beaches; the organization which later became the AAPA, which only recently became the IAAPA. Walt Disney is not here; the three men representing Walt know relatively little about theme parks. They are Buzz Price, Dick Irvine and Nat Weinkoff. The other four men in the room are here to confidently tell the first three why Walt’s ideas will fail. They are the giants of our industry in 1953, the most experienced, successful and respected owners and operators of amusement parks. They are William Schmitt, owner of Riverview Park in Chicago, Harry Batt of Pontchartrain Beach Park in New Orleans, Ed Schott of Coney Island, and George Whitney of Playland at the Beach in San Francisco.
The three from Disney unroll this bird’s eye master plan drawn by Herb Ryman and they stick it to the wall with masking tape, and they stand back and invite comments.
It’s a massacre! Now I’m going to tell you what they told these guys that night, and as I do that, I’d like to think that this sounds like a meeting that you’ve been in while your work has been reviewed recently. 1. All the proven money makers are conspicuously missing: No roller coaster, no ferris wheel, no shoot the chute, no tunnel of love, no hot dog carts, no beer. Worst of all, no carney games like the baseball throw. Without barkers along the midway to sell the sideshows, the marks won’t pay to go in. Customers are likely to slip out of your park with money still left in their pockets. 2. Custom rides will never work. They cost too much to buy, they will be constantly breaking down resulting in reduced total ride capacity and angry customers. Only stock, off the shelf rides are cheap enough and reliable enough to do the job, and besides, the public doesn’t know the difference or care. 3. Most of Disney’s proposed park produces no revenue but it’s going to be very expensive to build and maintain. Things like the castle and the pirate ship are cute but they aren’t rides, so there isn’t any economic reason to build them is there? 4. Town square is loaded with things that don’t produce revenue, like town hall for the fire department, and of course town square itself. 5: The horse cars, the horseless carriages, and the western wagon rides have such small capacity and cost so much to run that they will lose money even if they run full all the time. 6: You can’t operate an amusement park year round, 120 days per year is the best you can do. 7. Walt’s design only has one entrance. This is going to create a terrible bottleneck! Traditional wisdom dictates entrances on all sides for closer parking and easier access. 8. You’ll lose money providing all those design details and nice finishes. The people are going to destroy the grounds and vandalize the ride vehicles no matter what you do, so you might as well go cheap. 9. Walt’s screwy ideas about cleanliness and great landscape maintenance are economic suicide. He’ll lose his shirt by overspending on these things which the customers never really notice. 10. Modern mid-twentieth century amusement park management theory dictates: Build it cheap and then control your costs. Employment theory is similar. Pay your employees the least you can and then ride them hard and get ready to fire them, because they will steal from you.
The bottom-line: The customers only spend about 1 dollar per capita when they go to an amusement park and they will never spend any more. Mr. Disney’s park idea is just too expensive to build and too expensive to operate. Tell your boss to save his money they said, tell him to stick to cartoons. Tell him to stick to what he knows and leave the amusement business to the professionals .
The establishment of 1953 had spoken!
And then there was this revolution. About six weeks ago, I had the rare privilege of to discuss this revolution with one of the men actually there that night. He’s here with us today. Mr. Harrison Price.
He said, “Before Walt came along, the entire industry was getting one dollar per capita. The main thing that Walt did was to figure out how to get the per caps up to $4.50 in the very first year. And by the second year they were up to 6 dollars. The rest of the industry was astonished.”
How did Disney do this? Well it was very simple. It comes down to stay time. Before Disney, the stay time at an average amusement park was less than two hours. But Disney created an environment with an ambiance that was so refreshing and pleasant that the stay time went up to an unheard of seven hours. And because the stay time went up, the per capita’s on food, retail, and ride tickets went up. And the place was an attraction in itself so he could charge people to get in, which wasn’t done elsewhere. The result of all this theming, landscaping, and entertainment balance was a revolutionary new and different income profile not seen here, very clearly. There were two other things about the planning that also seems especially important, and each involves putting the guests’ experience first:
1. Walt planned the circulation patterns first. That’s the place where the people walk. They planned that as a first priority. Up to that point, designers usually focused on the positive space. That’s the thing being built; rather than the negative space, the place where people will be. And he planned every attraction from the perspective of the guest rather than the operator or the manager. Walt focused on the people.
2. Second and very dear to my heart, and perhaps more important. . . Disneyland was the first major attraction planned by storytellers rather than engineers, architects, operators or curators. After Walt’s death, Walt’s audience friendly revolution hardened into the new establishment. Many of the current rules are just as dogmatic as the rules that Walt defied in 1953. And surprise! Many of them are the same rules. All of these hard, fast rules are just begging for a new revolution. So now it is time for you to re-invent the business.
The motto of your new revolution should be the same one that Walt used in the original one: Follow the guests. Walt’s revolution changed the design priorities. Ride operators had focused on their own problems of operating rides: mainly keeping capital labor and maintenance costs down. Walt’s original revolution focused instead on the guests’ experience. . . putting the guests’ priorities first: Cleanliness, service, adventure, music, magic, fun, happy feet.
Today attractions are once again being designed to solve the operators’ and owners’ problems instead of the guests’ problems. All you have to do is talk to the guests. They’ll tell you what they don’t like! Based on that, here are seven of many possible directions for the next revolutions in themed attractions.
1. Anyone? Hazard a guess? What do people not like about theme parks? Lines! NO LINES! Too much of a theme park visit is spent waiting in line. Today, the establishment’s idea of correct park design deliberately causes lines. Master planners intentionally set ride capacity targets below the projected demand in order to minimize the owner’s capital cost. The prevailing wisdom is “Ahhh, they’ll wait, they really don’t have a choice anyway.” So a line is a master planner’s method of rationing rides. Now that’s a dirty trick! We promise our guests a day of fun and rides at our park, and then after they’ve paid us to get in we use these lines to ration the rides. Could lines and waiting time be eliminated or at least greatly reduced? Of course they could! In the coming revolution, the long line is dead. 2. A return to gates within gates. At the original Disneyland in 1955, the main entrance ticket booth sold you a pass to get into the park and it came attached to a book of ride tickets, A through E. If you used all those tickets you could buy more. Later Disneyland, and soon all the parks went to a one price admission. Today, guests expect to go on everything within the park at no additional park at no additional cost. But wait a minute! This system is being challenged. After paying almost forty dollars to get into EPCOT, you would have to pay an additional four dollars to drive the Daytona. This summer Knott’s Berry Farm successfully charged extra for rock climbing and laser tag and other specially ticketed attractions within the gates of their park. Surprise! The public seems to be going along with this! Will the 1955 Disneyland style of ticketing come back? 3. Faster obsolescence. Today, new becomes old faster than ever before. Yet state of the art attractions, like Jurassic Park the Ride, Superman the Ride, and Indiana Jones the Ride are becoming more expensive and less adaptive. Now if the traveling version of Cirque du Soliel can completely remake itself every couple of years, why can’t a themed attraction remake itself every couple of years? Home grown haunted houses . . . the kind done on residential streets by amateurs are often new and completely different each year. So if the amateurs can do it, why can’t our industry? We are the ones with all the tricks. Reinventing a park every two years would reverse the current trend toward ever more expensive attractions amortized over twenty years. Your likely revolutionary strategies to achieve this will include new forms, new formats, and new ideas built to recover their costs in a single season showing large profits in two seasons. More reliance on theatrical techniques that engage the audiences imagination instead of using money as an imagination substitute.
Flexible attractions with adaptability designed in. For example: Take a more theatrical approach. Require the audience to willingly enter the story. Put more emphasis on light, sound, illusion, artistry, and the power of suggestion. . . And above all, more emphasis on great storytelling to fire the guests interests and imagination.
4. More refreshing. Back in the early 1950’s, Walt noticed that the atmosphere at most parks was not relaxing. The colors and graphics were garish, the barkers were irritating, and the employees looked dangerous, and the place was noisy and dirty.
Stay times were around two hours partly because in that environment, people got tired faster. Walt got those seven hour stay times by using lush landscaping, a relaxing ambiance, and a balanced blend of big thrills and little discoveries to keep the guests constantly relaxed and refreshed.
But today, the once refreshing visit to a Disney, Universal or other theme park has become a frantic experience that many guests do not find relaxing. Because of the high cost of admission many guests feel pressured to get their money’s worth. But there is too much to see, and not enough day to do it in. They are fighting crowds and the logistics of getting around; and instead of refreshment, the result is an amount of stress that no amount of happy elevator music can hide.
What is happening here? What are we doing to ourselves? Are we actually overproducing our parks? By adding only E tickets, and not enough A’s and B’s (and actually, after a park opens, you never add an A or a B). Are we making our parks too stimulating? Could we actually do better for our owners and our guests generating higher profits and greater satisfaction by spending less and charging less? The coming revolution will certainly continue to create pockets of high excitement, but between those pockets it will bring back the refreshing soft touch. 5. Better food. With very few exceptions theme park food is awful. McDonald’s serves better! When will we fix our food? 6. Offering first class seats. Why do we insist on selling only coach class experiences in our theme parks? A coach class ticket from Los Angeles to Paris can be bought for about $800. A first class ticket on the exactly same plane costs just under $10,000, but both seats go to the same place. Now the difference in experience is worth the difference in price to a few. Why don’t we apply that kind of thinking to our business? Already in our shop in some of our designs, there will be coach class and first class experiences. **
7. Meaningful and intelligent fun. We possess. . . you possess the most powerful communications storytelling tools of all time. Why don’t we apply those tools to subjects that really matter to our guests? Things that our guests think about or worry about all the time? Things like family, community, sex, life, death, faith, the future, and of course, who Kathy Lee is dating now.
Creating deeply meaningful, intelligent fun that is also highly entertaining and highly repeatable. . . that would be a real revolution. This is just a short list of strategies it’s only a beginning. It’s easy to add ideas to it. Just follow the guest. Improve the guest experience and you will be rewarded. If that means that you have to re-invent some of the rules, then let’s do that. Today’s conventional wisdom is still filled with wisdom. But in some areas, especially around the edges, it often reminds me of a middle ages map of the world with its frontiers full of devouring dragons and giant waterfalls where you can fall right off the flat edge of the earth. The message of those symbols is avoid danger, stick to the known. Well today we are at the dawn of a new millennium, and a new age in themed entertainment. But our technology and our audience is changing far faster than we change the rules we use to organize them. There is treasure all around us. In 1953, as now, the future belongs to those who dare to create it.