A study into the use of theming and design as a marketing medium to enhance the visitor experience at theme parks. RJ Cumberworth BA (Hons) Leisure Management Birmingham College of Food, Tourism & Creative Studies

March 2001

Preface & Acknowledgement

The topic of theming and design at theme parks has been chosen due to a very strong interest in the global theme park industry, with possible career implications in the marketing department of a major theme park. The topic, which is very expansive, combines three core aspects of the theme park industry – the need to visit for leisure stimulation, the marketing practices and operational service characteristics and the acts of theming and design themselves.

Working at the National SeaLife Center has allowed great repose to personally relate theories of operation and marketing to the working environment, especially while simultaneously studying a leisure degree.

Academia aside, I would personally like to thank Barry Emery for his continued support throughout this study and for having faith in me when this unusual and potentially disastrous topic was proposed! Also, particular thanks to Nate Naversen, founder of the Themedattraction.com (USA) and one of the few people in this world with direct experience in the industry, who has given me a lot of ideas to work with in an area, which is very limited in theory.


In relation to the objectives of this study, listed in the methodology section, it is possible to summarize the findings briefly. The concept of theming and design has been related to leisure stimulation, play theories and service marketing and the practice analyzed thoroughly, using relevant and up to date examples.

Therefore, in summary it is possible to state that the themed entertainment industry, and the theme park industry in general terms is developing through organic growth. Much of this is down to technological innovation and advancements and indeed the talent to put such ideas into practice. Ideas are also developing in accordance to marketing practice, with new ways of ensuring customer satisfaction and enhancing the core service product that a theme park offers.

Technology and innovation is allowing the ability to construct higher, faster, longer rides and attractions but when coincided with theming, complete new environments can be produced and with the use of virtual reality, complete false environments are being created. There is a coming move away from the traditional iron ride, although they are by no means in decline, technology and VR is being further developed to create more ambitious ‘dark rides’ where story telling combined with special effects creates visitor immersion, which is also apparent in restaurants, shops and other service orientated aspects.

Thus, in reflection, the future of the industry remains to be seen; yet serious adaptations need to be considered as visitors demand meaningful and often educational entertainment, with particular consideration to the increasing gray market.

Aim & Objectives


To study the use of theming and design as a marketing medium to enhance the visitor experience at theme parks.


Ø To thoroughly analyze the theming and design concept at theme parks in order to develop an understanding of the practice.

Ø To relate the concept of theming and design to marketing theories.

Ø To analyze theme park attractions in accordance to common leisure theories.

Ø To assess the importance of theming and design at theme parks with respect to consumer behavior.

Ø To conclude with justified forecast of the future of the industry. Methodology

Project Overview

This project examines the growing need to improve the leisure ‘product’ at theme parks, both in the UK and overseas. As competition becomes much more extreme, the need to produce bigger, better and more spectacular attractions is becoming much more important. New technology is helping to create the framework for these new physical experiences; however, the business marketers and project designers have the important challenge of creating more than just an iron fairground ride.

Secondary Research

“Secondary research is material that has been gathered by other people before you. It is available through a wide variety of sources such as books, academic and trade journals, company sources, newspapers and magazines.” (Research Methods, semester 1, 2000)

Secondary research is the main source of research used for this project due to the number of industry examples illustrated to define a topic, somewhat limited in business theory. A number of texts have been used, some common such as Kotler (1999) and Dibb (1994) for marketing theory, and some specialist publications such as Swarbrooke (1995) “The Development & Management of Visitor Attractions,” and Torkildsen (1992) “Leisure & Recreation Management” for business and leisure theories, respectively. Other specialist publications include souvenir texts from theme parks such as Port Aventura and Walt Disney World and respective design texts.

Secondary research is of great importance to this project as it enables the ability to set the scene through relevant examples. A number of the texts may however, now be limited through age and may give irrelevant examples, which are not up to date. The use of the Internet, leisure journals and magazines has helped to balance these issues, as they do offer the most up to date industry examples available. Apart from the general possibility of information being out of date, there is always the question of validity and reliability with secondary research, and indeed how this information was found initially. Thorough analysis is thus important to this piece so as to be unbiased in discussion (Research Methods, semester 1, 2000).

“Sometimes researchers seek to understand, rather than to explain or predict behavior. This is the case particularly when an area of enquiry is in its infancy.”  (Marshall, 1997, p.46)

The topic of theming and design is very much described in the statement by Marshall (1997), above. Indeed, research for this project has enabled explanation and a degree of prediction; however the majority of the research has given scope to understand the link between leisure and marketing theories at theme parks and of course theming and design – a growing business area which is arguably still in its infancy. It is fair to say that secondary research and the data triangulation of different visual and published literature, has worked to a great advantage both in theory and industry practice: “The use of multiple methods, or triangulation, reflects an attempt to secure an in-depth understanding of the phenomenon in question.”

(Denzin & Lincoln, 1998)

Primary Research

“Research undertaken in the field using one or several methods to collect data. Some generic sources of collecting primary data are interviews, questionnaires, surveys, focus groups, observation and experiments.” Research Methods, semester 1, 2000)

Primary research has been of great importance to this project because of the limited information available and the general wide spread basis of information, thus making it difficult to specify in which direction to approach for first-hand experience. Questionnaires and surveys seemed unnecessary for the theming and design topic, which can be confused in many ways and indeed, is a generally unknown field of information for the general theme park visitor.

The main basis for primary research therefore was to be an interview with an industry expert. The industry however is limited and those with a good deal of experience are few and far between. As the project explains, the UK is limited in development of its theme parks at present, so America was targeted for an expert, who was found via email over the Internet.

The Themedattraction.com, an interactive website for theme park designers and enthusiasts was the means to find Mr. Nate Naversen.

An unstructured email questionnaire/interview was arranged and the outcome has proven to be extremely beneficial for this dissertation through identification of further researching opportunities and validation to theories. The unstructured approach was chosen in order to allow the interviewee to talk freely about the subject thus giving further scope for discussion. Also the interview utilized broad open-ended questions: “An open-ended question is one which does not limit the answer to a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ or a range of set alternatives. Participants can answer questions any way they like. An advantage of this kind of question is that it does not threaten to bias the findings by imposing a frame of reference; effectively limiting the way the participant may answer. The main disadvantage is that the completed forms will be difficult to analyze.” (Marshall, 1997, p.39)

This interview however was easy to analyze, as there was only one solitary set of answers due to the lack of scope for further participants. Further email correspondence with Nate, also had benefits through the snowballing effect, as new opportunities were opened as new contacts were supplied: “Snowballing is a sample compiled by starting with a small group and asking the members for referrals to others who may also be prepared to participate.”(Marshall, 1997, p.108)

A full record of the ‘interview’ can be found in the appendices of this piece, however the main outcome to this correspondence was that theming all boils down to entertainment and escapism. Primary research has allowed the most up to date and first hand knowledge to be researched, as in addition to the interview, first hand observation through industry knowledge and personal visits has also been of benefit through many of the discussed examples. Marshall (1997) states that observational methods are: “Better quality data than retrospective interview accounts, are adaptable to many research problems and can tap data which may not be available by survey methods where the participants are relatively inarticulate and not very introspective.”

(Marshall, 1997, p.49)

However, Marshall (1997) also talks of observational findings having low reliability and validity. In reflection, observations where clearly justified with business theory.

Constraints & Limitations

The main constraints and limitations to this dissertation would be the general lack of business theory in relation to the speedily developing industry of theming. The topic, which comprises of three core directives -leisure stimulation, service marketing and theming and design issues, made it very difficult to integrate the three in an academic manner. Clearly, the three directives are integrated however it was important to focus this in writing and create a justified conclusion to the research. The other main limitation was the general unhelpfulness of many venues regarding the project and the inability to find first hand help initially.

The mentioned British parks offered little or no information regarding the topic, whereas there were language constraints imposing on correspondence with other European parks. These constraints did not disrupt the flow of progress, and contacts were discovered and sufficient information was researched by various means in order to coincide with the aim and objectives of the project satisfactorily.

“The themed entertainment industry is growing as corporations all over the World seek their skills out.

.Our industry specializes in story telling.”

(Brian Edwards, President of the Themed Entertainment Association, May 2000)

Theming the Thrills

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