Picking the right theme for kids' attractions: Or, how the newspaper industry's decline will affect theme parks
By Robert NilesPicking the right theme for an attraction is art unto itself. Often, a new attraction concept begins with the "IP," or intellectual property - the theme. You want a "Men in Black" or a "Monsters, Inc." attraction, and go from there. But other times, you begin with a demographic or a ride model, and look for a theme that fits.
Published: September 10, 2009 at 10:57 AM
For kid-focused attractions, the job's even more difficult. Kids have a much more limited cultural palette than adults, given that they've only been alive for a few years and haven't had time to amass the cultural references that grown-ups can access. For toddler attractions, the options are even more limited.
I remember a children's musical concert that Laurie performed in about 15 years ago, in Lincoln, Nebraska. The conductor asked the kids in the crowd to identify the next song the orchestra would play, which turned out to be the theme to "The Muppet Show." The parents recognized the tune instantly, but not one kid in the crowd had a clue. None of them had ever seen "The Muppet Show," which had long been off the air then and not yet available on video.
Just because a theme appealed to grown-ups when they were kids does not insure that it will resonate with today's kids. Theme park managers and designers must spend time with children, and immerse themselves in their culture, in order to select the themes that will engage those kids for the next generation.
Ideally, given that theme park attractions often stand for 20 years or more, they will select a theme that will resonate beyond a single generation. Time-tested books, such as Dr. Seuss', and established movie franchises, such as Toy Story, provided the safest bets for these themes.
Comic strips used to provide a safe bet, too. Once established in newspapers' funny pages, top comics endured for decades, hooking new generations of fans with fresh material daily.
As many of you probably know, I have a side gig as a media critic, and spent more than a decade working as an editor, reporter and commentator for newspapers. The newspaper industry is dying, as decades operating as monopolies have left papers ill-prepared to handle fresh competition online. One of my former papers, Denver's Rocky Mountain News, has closed already. Others will soon, while the papers that survive lay off staff and trim their pages.
Almost all of what newspapers do will be done, and often better, online. Websites, including those produced by newspaper companies, are providing breaking news, investigations, commentary and analysis and more data than papers could ever have provided in print. The one feature that doesn't seem to be porting well to the online environment is... the funny pages: comic strips.
Sure, most strips have their own websites. But those appeal to established readers of the strips. New readers don't have a convenient place to go to find a variety of fresh strips each day, the way they did when the newspaper came to their doorstep each morning or afternoon. Today's kids are more likely to look to online-friendly formats like video for their daily dose of humor, rather than to static three- or four-panel comic strips. Classmates at my kids' school aren't talking about old Peanuts re-runs; they're watching Fred and Happy Tree Friends.
I predict that comic strips will be the first casualty of the newspaper industry's demise. And that will affect theme parks. Parks simply can't maintain attractions based on comic-strip themes and expect them to connect with kids beyond this generation, in the best-case scenario. Frankly, comic strip themes probably are already lost on today's kids.
That leaves parks using comic-strip themes with a choice: Dump them, or take the responsibility to recast these characters as the parks' own. The second option ain't cheap; it requires flooding the park with many more characters to introduce them to the kids, as well as writing and producing shows that will establish the characters' stories and personalities. Even then, these characters will resonate only with kids once they've visited the area, and the park will lose the potential for audience growth that comes from kids begging their parents to take them to see their favorite characters, the way that young Disney character fans beg for trips to Disneyland and Walt Disney World.
Of course, there is a third choice: Do nothing, and watch you kids' land languish as bored children wonder who those funny-looking characters are, with many of them just getting creeped out and begging to leave.
In this light, Cedar Fair's decision to expand, rather than discard, the Camp Snoopy theme threatens to become disastrously short-sighted. While saving the company on licensing fees in the short term, sticking itself with a comic-strip theme could cost the company significant growth in the long term, unless it assumes the responsibility to establish a narrative for these characters within their parks, then market the heck out of them to kids, especially online.
Universal's not off the hook, either. Disney will soon own the characters in Islands of Adventure's Marvel Super Hero Island. Much of the adjacent Toon Lagoon references comic strip characters. Once the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is open, Universal will need to take a hard look at the theming for the opposite end of IOA, and may need to make some changes to ensure the viability of that corner of the park for the decades to come.
I've spent too much of my professional life watching newspapers commit financial suicide. I have little patience for watching theme parks inflict costly wounds upon themselves, as well.
Previously: Should theme parks build kids' lands?
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