Should theme parks build kids' lands?
Published: September 9, 2009 at 12:32 PM
But before we tackle the question of how a kids' area should be themed, let's take on the bigger question of whether theme parks should build kids' areas at all.
Blue's Skidoo at Kings Island's Nickelodeon Universe
Nickelodeon Universe at Kings Island has won awards as the country's best kids area. But what does the rest of the park look like? An increasingly themeless iron park, built for teens and grown-ups. That's the danger inherent when parks commit to building large kids' areas: They divide the park's audience, herding the kids and their parents into a ghetto in one corner, while the rest of the property evolves into a PG-13 thrill park.
It's a pattern we've seen repeated at dozens of Cedar Fair and Six Flags parks across the country. With the kids' area supposedly taking care of the "family" market, park management feels no need to develop truly family-friendly attractions that people of all ages and abilities can enjoy.
So families are left with their ghettos of lightly-themed, low-capacity carnival rides, which stop having appeal to kids somewhere in the middle elementary years.
And what happens then? Yes, some of those kids become roller coaster fans and begin to explore the other attractions in the park. But let's not forget that many kids don't ever develop a love for coasters. Too old for the kiddie land, and uninterested in thrill rides, they find nothing appealing in these parks... and quit wanting to go.
Smarter, more successful theme park companies - Disney, Universal and Busch - build attractions for those consumers, and they win those families' loyalty, and money, as a result.
I've had a tough time finding rides for the whole family at parks like Kings Island and Knott's Berry Farm. At KI, we rode the Scooby-Doo shoot-'em-up together, as well as the elevator ride up the Eiffel Tower. That's it. We split up for every other ride of the day, with 12-year-old Natalie hitting the coasters and nine-year-old Brian Nick Universe. At Knott's, we all enjoyed the Mystery Lodge, the Log Flume and the Mine Ride (three attractions that, not coincidentally, precede Cedar Fair ownership). Natalie and I hit a few coasters and Brian, too old now for Camp Snoopy, was bored out of his mind.
Kiddie rides can enhance theme parks. Built to a smaller scale, they don't overwhelm toddlers they way that even all-ages Omnimover and flume rides can. And schlepping strollers around an entire theme park is a pain. As a parent, I appreciated when parks concentrated their toddler attractions in one section of the park.
Parks need to find a sweet spot that accommodates stroller-friendly toddler attractions without consigning them to a ghetto within what is otherwise an iron park. I liked the way that Busch Gardens Williamsburg pulled this off. BGW offers a Sesame Street-themed kids' area for toddlers, but it also built kiddie versions of some of its larger rides, next to their bigger siblings. That way, the youngest visitors has their own land, but the younger elementary kids weren't confined to their own section of the park. They could roam the rest of the property with their parents and older siblings, enjoying their own versions of several rides, right next door. And BGW didn't skimp on shows and rides that folks who don't like coasters could enjoy, as well.
Disneyland and Universal's Islands of Adventure provide even better models. With Fantasyland and Seuss Landing, both parks have created collections of rides that appeal to toddlers and young children, while accommodating older kids and parents, as well. As kids grow up, they easily can transition into other attractions in those parks, such as Tom Sawyer's Island and Camp Jurassic. And everyone in the family, even non-coaster fans, can enjoy a wide variety of shows and rides in either park.
On the Caro-Seuss-el at Islands of Adventure's Seuss Landing
Perhaps it is not a coincidence that the three parks I've cited for handling kids well - Disneyland, Busch Gardens Williamsburg and Islands of Adventure - were the top three theme parks in this year's Theme Park Insider Awards.
Slapping a kids' land at the side of your theme park doesn't make that park "family friendly." Nor does it put your park in position to maximize its audience. Only a more integrated approach, one that focuses on meeting the needs of a wide range of visitors, from toddlers to thrill fans and everyone in between, puts you in position to offer a truly great theme park, one that will endure any economic downturn with turnstiles spinning throughout.
Check in tomorrow, when we talk about themes for kid-focused attractions: what works... and what won't any longer.