Theming the Thrills

Chapter Two

Theme Parks & Leisure Stimulation

“Theme parks are commonly perceived as attractions where visitors can participate in a number of, often high-thrill white knuckle, rides. However, theme parks are broader than just places for thrill-ride seekers. Theme parks are specific, purpose built attractions, which generally focus on a specific theme and base a range of amusements or experiences (such as rides, shows, restaurants and bars) around this theme.”

(Tourism Trendspotter, July 1998, p.2)

This chapter discusses the characteristic of ‘play’ in concern with aspects of leisure attractions. It is possible to identify these aspects with the continued development of the theme park industry. Over the years, many contemporary theorists have discussed the meaning of play in relation to stimulation, an often-complex subject, but one, which may have links with the origins of theme parks. Theme parks are usually visited to experience a day of fun and escapism from a mundane routine. This can be defined in coordination with Podilchak (1991), who claims fun to be: “Exciting, exhilarating, unique and not everyday. Doing things on the surface, being silly, laughing. A shared experience with others who are also open, relaxed and carefree.”

(Podilchak, 1991, “The Tourist Experience”, p.157)

The general nature of theme parks tend to bring out the child in all of us, they are basically playgrounds for everyone where even adults can play with the younger generations. Theme parks need to create this fun environment to ensure that consumers are satisfied in accordance with the general statement above, however, everyone has different opinions of what satisfaction actually is, so this may be difficult, and of course, not everyone visits a theme park for the same reason. Technology is used alongside theming, branding and storytelling to differentiate these attractions so as to supply something for everybody to participate in.

As children grow up, they learn the characteristics, norms and values of life through fun, education, role models and play. Thus it could be argued that play is a necessity of humankind and an integral part of the process of growing up. This is not to say that theme parks are important to self-development but the idea of playfulness, fun and stimulation, both physical and mental, is more than equitable by every human being. Ellis (1973) argues that play is not only educational but that it represents a basic human need for stimulation. He suggests that,

“psychological well-being is dependent on human beings being able to experience periodically heightened levels of arousal, and that stimulus seeking behavior occurs largely in the sphere of play.”

(Haywood et al, 1995, p.14)

A theme park ride is an excellent example of this. A typical roller coaster ride lasts for only a matter of minutes, in which during this time, the individual experiences a heightened level of physical and mental arousal as adrenaline is released into the blood. Indeed, ride designers; park managers and marketers have started to relate the heart rate levels of an individual on a ride, to the product life cycle of that particular attraction (Leisure development lecture notes, 2000). The length of time in which the rider is stimulated may reflect the overall popularity of the attraction over time, the more exhilarating the ride, the longer its appeal.

This is problematic for theme park and ride designers who have to create experiences, which are different, and often more exhilarating or ‘daring’ than the last. If an attraction is too tame for an individual they will be bored, unsatisfied and will seek greater excitement, which may often be at competing parks. Alternatively, if the attraction is too extreme and intemperate for the individual, they will suffer anxiety and discomfort, which will again cause dissatisfaction, as they are ‘over-challenged’.

If the correct balance between these two extremes is achieved, then the concept of ‘flow’ may be created (Csikzentmihalyi, 1975). This is the ideal of a perfect balance where total immersion is created and the individual will be totally satisfied by the experience because it will meet their ‘skill’ level, which they will remember and may want to experience again. Achieving ‘flow’ is different for every individual and is but an ideal solution – in reality, no one can predict the balance. As all individuals are different, this is very difficult to achieve. This is why in the general environment, theme parks seem to create bigger and more exciting attractions year after year to entice visitors and offer them a greater challenge in which to participate, often one which they may never have tried before.

In studies of human needs, Maslow’s Hierarchy (1954) outlines the basic human needs of an individual (appendix 1). In 1974, Tillman built on this theme and determined several leisure orientated needs of society. The factors of new adventures, relaxation, escapism, fantasy, response and social interaction with people and places and physical and mental activity were outlined as being important leisure needs of society as a whole. However, it is difficult to define leisure needs with individuals because everyone is different in what they perceive as a need or a want and the degree of necessity of these factors. Yet with these enhanced factors, it is possible to experience this leisure at many theme parks, although the way in which they participate will be varied.

Johan Huizinga (1955), another leisure theorist believed that to play was to do so like a child and that there is no explanation as to why we play.

George Torkildsen (1992), perhaps one of the most foremost theorists in leisure and recreation management deduced a number of characteristics from Huizinga’s explanation. Amongst these characteristics is that play is not real but merely a step outside of reality into a temporary sphere where the player realizes that they are simply pretending. He also believes that play is creative and once played a newfound creation is formed which can then be repeated or alternated. Finally, he states that play is uncertain with an undetermined end-result which once discovered, causes the loss of all involved tension and excitement.

This criterion can be related to the themed attraction industry in a number of ways. Many attractions such as ‘dark rides’, as they are commonly known, where guests are transported around a make-believe environment and pyrotechnics and animatronics are used to create a story, shows how play is a step out of reality into a temporary sphere. Visitors understand that they are merely pretending but the experience gives them a sense of fun and escapism for a temporary period of time.

Creativity is a very important issue in the themed attraction industry. If an attraction is created and appears to be appealing, then the industry may follow and reproduce alternative attractions of a similar nature. This is apparent from many ride manufacturers who recreate similar attractions all over the world – such as log flumes, river rapids and haunted house rides. If an individual enjoys the experience, which they partook in on an attraction, they will be more inclined to repeat the experience and try another ride at the same site. Hence, the more creative and innovative the attraction, the more general appeal there should be. Finally, in correspondence, play is said to be undetermined, like many attractions, especially if a story is unfolded as the attraction progresses, visitors anticipate the ending of the experience.

In relation to the product life cycle example, when the end has been discovered or the ride fully experienced, it will eventually lose its appeal and something else is needed to keep the attention of the visitor. This is similar to that of a film, once the ending has been seen, the film may lose its appeal, but on the other hand, if the individual believes it to be very good, they may wish to see it again and again. Often theme parks re-theme and change attractions so as to extend the product life cycle. Alton Towers has done this several times by re-theming areas year by year. Through observation over the past years, ‘Aqua Land’ has become ‘Katanga Canyon’; ‘Festival Park’ has become ‘UG-Land’ and also particular rides have been modified such as the ‘Black Hole’ and ‘Corkscrew’ rides. This would have been done in an attempt to differentiate the park and its rides from others, make the site more visually appealing and change the experiences on the rides slightly, hence lengthening their product life cycle. Play is often associated with gaming, in its different forms; games can be divided into two main areas, as done by Caillois (1961). ‘Paidia’, or childlike play is associated with spontaneity, frivolity, exuberance, frolic and romping whereas ‘ludus’, or adult play, which is concerned with meaningful thinking and the joy of solving problems. Generally, theme parks are associated with the first area of gaming, in terms of rides, attractions, games of skill and coin operated machinery. However, Caillois categorized four types of gaming and play: ‘Agon’ or competition, ‘Alea’ or chance, ‘Mimicry’ or simulation and ‘Ilinx’, the confusion which vertigo creates (Torkildsen, 1992, p.55) – all of which are identifiable in many types of theme park attractions.

These conditions, especially the latter two, are likely to be more appealing to the youth market, which may help to outline the importance as to why a change in theme park development is needed to accommodate the ageing population and secure a future for the industry (Leisure Development lecture notes, 2000).

At this point it is important to clarify that this project regards the theming and design of theme parks and individual attractions, from a marketing point of view. This chapter is necessary to understand the feelings and emotions, which an individual may or may not experience when participating in theme park leisure experiences. This then helps to identify the important role which marketing and design has in the industry, and how marketing techniques and effective designing can be used to enhance the visitor experience.

At a theme park, the rides, shows, shops, restaurants and also the simple landscaping and infrastructures are the bare essentials to make a theme park a sound product for a visitor to experience, yet it is simply the core framework with a minimum amount of appeal. When aesthetics are added, names are given, branding takes place, music is played, stories are told, characters come to life, souvenirs are sold and a general atmosphere is created, the theme park comes to life and an entire product is produced, from the basic design to the finished, packaged product. It is by implementing such imaginative design ideas as these that a theme park is made. These ideas can be altered or changed over time to create new experiences, as indeed, all aspects are part of the final product.

The visitor or consumer visits a theme park to experience enjoyment, fun and excitement. Very often, they may wish to experience escapism in its many forms of fantasy or simple relaxation. The design of a theme park is thus of great importance to create a complete environment where the consumer can indeed enjoy a mixture of activities from high speed thrill rides to a simple stroll around a landscaped garden.

The greater the level of satisfaction in which the consumer participates, the more likely the consumer to spend on merchandising and refreshments, and to take away fond memories is also to increase the likelihood of a return visit. The marketing and design of the facilities and attractions are of vital importance as the more appealing and the higher the quality, the longer the life and the greater the satisfaction, which ultimately should all correlate.

“A service is intangible; it is the result of the application of human and mechanical efforts to people or objects. Ideas are concepts, philosophies, images or issues. They provide the psychological stimulus to solve problems or adjust to the environment.”

(Dibb, 1994, p.194)

Theming the Thrills; Chapter Two: Theme Parks & Leisure Stimulation

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