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Robert Niles
Editor

Robert's rules for the perfect theme park

Published: December 24, 2012 at 12:46 PM

Today feels like a bit of lost day, sandwiched between a weekend and Christmas. But I thought I'd stir up a fun little discussion for those of us who find ourselves browsing online today or on Christmas:

Let's talk about the perfect theme park!

Tokyo DisneySea
Now that's a weenie! If Tokyo DisneySea isn't perfect, it was your selection as the Theme Park Insider Award winner for world's best theme park in 2012.

What are the qualities, features and characteristics that would make a theme park "perfect"? Conversely, what are the elements that, when missing, cause a theme park to fall short of its potential?

I'm going to offer some suggestions about physical elements, but if you'd like to add your own thoughts about other elements that go into the theme park experience, please, feel welcomed to do so!

So let's get to it. Here is my list of qualities of a perfect theme park. (In most cases, I've listed a few examples of parks that display that quality, though there usually are others, too.)

The perfect theme park should be easily accessible - not just by car, but it should be tied into the local community's mass-transit system as well. Ideally, the park should have its own regional train station in the resort, so people don't have to drive to reach it. (Examples: Disneyland Paris, Tokyo Disneyland)

The perfect theme park should be part of a walkable development, with not just the train station, but also the parking garages, hotels and any other assorted shops and development within walking distance. For things beyond a short walk away, the park should provide boats, monorails and other forms of out-of-the-ordinary transport to reach them (in other words, not just buses). Once you arrive at the park, you should never need your car again. (Examples: Universal Orlando, Universal Studios Singapore)

When you enter the perfect theme park, you should pass through some physical element that marks a defined transition from outside the park to inside. This helps reinforce the idea that you've entered a special place, different from your everyday life. (Examples: Walking under the train station at Disneyland, or under the Disneyland Hotel in Paris)

Once inside, the perfect theme park eases your transition into a fantasy world by starting with a "real" themed environment. This should be a recreation of a place that is or was once real - appealing to your senses of nostalgia, romance or adventure. (Examples: Main Street USA, Buena Vista Street)

This initial themed land leads you into the park, where you see some magnificent edifice in the distance, visually drawing you deeper into the park. (Walt Disney famously called this the "weenie.") Along the way into the park, comfortable diversions distract you: benches, seating areas, cafes, shops, character meet and greets. Despite that weenie in the distance, you want to hang out here, in a nostalgic place where you long to be (again). (Examples: Buena Vista Street, Mediterranean Harbor at Tokyo DisneySea)

Once you approach the weenie in the center of the park, your other options appear. It's here that you finally transition from the real to the fantastic, as some of the themed lands you'll see here represent places that never did - and never could - exist. Only after you enter the various lands, do the individual attractions appear. (Examples: the hubs in the Magic Kingdoms)

The perfect theme park hides the outside world from view. Sure, you might be able to see surrounding forest, ocean. mountains or a river (I do like the view of the James from atop Apollo's Chariot), but you won't find developed reminders of that outside world you've left.

Inside the perfect theme park, all back-of-house functionality also is hidden from your view.

You'll find different menus in each land throughout the perfect theme park, themed to that land. No lands share the same food items. Even the snacks - popcorn, ice cream and churros, feature different flavors in each land. (Examples: Wizarding World of Harry Potter, flavored popcorn in Tokyo Disneyland)

Every themed land in the perfect theme park has its own flora - trees, plants, flowers - that are unique and themed to the land. You'll find different pavement and architecture in each land, too.

The perfect theme park doesn't offer any flat, blank surfaces - anywhere. Every surface in the perfect theme park offers visual (and, usually, physical) texture. The perfect theme park is built with high-quality surface material that can stand up to touch, sunlight and rain, without fading or wearing. (Examples: Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Tokyo DisneySea)

So what elements would you add to the perfect theme park? As you (hopefully!) celebrate a perfect holiday, let's talk about our vision of a perfect place, as well. Merry Christmas and best wishes to all!

Replies (20)

Justin Knight

Published: December 24, 2012 at 1:01 PM

I think the perfect Theme Park has to have enough rides and attractions to satisfy audiences of every age group, have a nice assortment of attractions families can enjoy to together, enough dining options to cater to any appetite, alot of indoor rides for when the weather isn't so friendly, and refurbishing their classics while still adding new rides to cater to long time goers aswell to attract new visitors.
98.177.252.80

Published: December 24, 2012 at 1:05 PM

A perfect park should have a large number of rides that a 7 year old. a teenager and an adult can all enjoy (and want to re-ride) together.
TH Creative
Writer

Published: December 24, 2012 at 1:16 PM

Adding to Robert's exceptional work -- the perfect theme park changes when it transitions from daylight to evening operations -- using lighting, music, smaller atmospehere entertainment and special night time entertainment.
Mike Gallagher

Published: December 24, 2012 at 2:10 PM

The perfect park has the following:

El Toro
Ravine Flyer II
Voyage
The Beast
Boulder Dash
Lightning Racer
Intimidator 305
Superman: Ride Of Steel
Millennium Force
Dominator

An Enterprise, Bayern Kurve, Walk-Through Fun House, ride-through and walk-through haunted houses, a log flume and a raft rapids ride. Bumper cars and a carousel.

Sorry, I don't need anything else.

Dominick D

Published: December 24, 2012 at 3:16 PM

A perfect theme park should have a variety of rides that everyone can enjoy, amazing restuarants, and have amazing themeing. I'm talking about any of the Magic Kingdoms.
James Rao
Writer

Published: December 24, 2012 at 4:04 PM

Take Robert's aesthetics and Mike G.'s coasters (substituting Volcano for Dominator, and NO bumper cars!) and you have a winner! Although, I am more inclined to agree with the assertion that the perfect theme park should have amazing, immersive attractions that everyone can ride together, and not just an uber collection of coasters.

Interestingly enough, my home park, Worlds of Fun, fails to meet even one of Robert's Rules! How pathetic.

David L.

Published: December 24, 2012 at 5:10 PM

Mike, so how are you going to ride the rides without a knowledgeable, efficient, and friendly staff?

A THEME park is only half about the rides to me. Robert's rules are pretty good. TH's rule definitely applies as well. Ride wise, just well themed rides to please everyone. And of course, the staff mentioned above.

David Brown

Published: December 25, 2012 at 3:08 AM

I think the perfect park changes as you get older and for that matter changes from person to person. 20 years ago I'd probably have agreed with Mike G - it was all about what rides and attractions it had. But I've changed. My capacity for riding coasters has reduced considerably, (I still enjoy them but maybe just the once....), but balancing that has come an increased pleasure in the details of a park. For me now a perfect park has atmosphere, great surroundings and landscaping, and 'things' to occupy me. So, much as I know it will attract howls of derision, the 'perfect' park for my wife and I 8 weeks ago was the World Showcase at Epcot. We spent several half days just wandering around the lagoon, eating our way around the Food and Wine Festival, browsing the shops, watching the free entertainment, taking in the occasional show. Little details delighted me - such as the chair-balancing act in France, or the Liberty Singers in the American Pavilion.
We also loved SeaWorld for the same reason - lovely environment, great shows, a couple of terrific rides, but above all just a great place to be.

Perfection means different things to different people at different times of their life. That's why I think Disney does so well because they realise that it's not all about the rides. They create as wide a range of experiences as is possible to appeal the widest range of people possible, and for me it works...

But for you, it might not... That's the thing with humanity, and it's why forums such as this can exist as we all agree to disagree :)

And as we say in the UK - Happy Christmas!

Bryce McGibeny

Published: December 25, 2012 at 7:47 AM

Robert,

What theme parks do you think regard as the "best"? I know one will be Tokyo DisneySea of course, but I'm curious of what other parks you regard as the best.

Daniel Etcheberry
Writer

Published: December 25, 2012 at 10:18 AM

A perfect theme park needs to have good customer service. Part of the reason that I was so happy when I visited the Disneyland Resort at Anaheim was the fact that the cast members were very nice with me. More than one went beyond their routine; the cast member at the entrance of Indy guided me through the queue and into the ride (and it's a long queue!), and then he waited for me in the loading area while I rode the ride. At Toy Story, the cast member who was operating the ride asked me if I wanted to ride it again. When I arrived for a second time to the loading area, she asked me again if I wanted another ride. Without a good customer service, a theme park will never be perfect.

James Rao
Writer

Published: December 25, 2012 at 5:31 PM

Now that the presents are all opened, the Disney Parks Christmas Parade is over, and most folks are settling down for a nap, I have a few hours before my Les Mis showtime to write a few additional thoughts that coincide with those others have already made.

NOTE: As another poster already mentioned, these musings are just my opinion, and the posting of them is not intended to offend anyone who is loyal to an imperfect theme park. In fact, my own home park, Worlds of Fun, is as far from perfect as a park can get (though it is not quite as bad as Michigan's Adventure or Six Flags Saint Louis - yet). Luckily I have another park within close proximity, Silver Dollar City, that is about as perfect as a non-Disney park can be. Sure, it is four hours away, but that's a lot closer than Orlando or SoCal!

Anyway...

In a perfect theme park, aesthetics are a must. From the park entrance, to the foliage, to the queuing of the lines, to the parades, and the nighttime fireworks shows, everything must be aesthetically pleasing.

A perfect theme park will have a central hub that is accessed by all of the various areas in the park, and that central hub should have a focal point, or icon, for the park.

Perfect theme parks should include an entertaining gate-opening ceremony – something to get people fired up about the event that is their entire day experiencing true theme park attractions.

Perfect theme parks should include an entertaining gate-closing show that combines fireworks, music, and song – something to commemorate the visitor’s experience at the theme park.

Cast members at a perfect theme park must be trained to always be part of the show. Gabbing about a party after work, or sitting around reading a magazine is unacceptable. The associates are part of the theme and must always remember to support the illusion that the theme park is an entirely separate and fun world.

Restaurants should focus on quality, variety, freshness, nutrition, originality, and theme. Even the counter service establishments should offer healthy food choices in addition to the traditional burgers, fries, pizza, and, if you must, soda.

If alcohol is served in the park, it must be strictly controlled and provided in areas that are easily avoided by those who don't wish to inhibit their theme park travels with a socially accepted drug. Likewise, smoking should be PROHIBITED in most if not all areas of the park.

As much as is possible, attractions should be indoors. Containing the environment and controlling the atmosphere allows for a more immersive experience. It also allows attractions to continue functioning even during bad weather.

When designing an attraction, flesh out the story first then build an attraction to tell that story, instead of just selecting a stock ride to fill an otherwise empty spot in the park and slapping some basic theme on it. Develop the narrative first, and the immersion will come naturally.

Attractions the entire family can share together (regardless of height) are a must. While every theme park will have its share of A-List thrill rides, the overwhelming majority of attractions should accommodate the entire family – at the same time. Furthermore, a true theme park should always cater to the needs of the family in ticket pricing, food choices, and attractions.

A perfect theme park would not partition areas of the park based on age. Specifically, attractions that cater solely to the very young and are largely the same rides found in carnivals, malls, and grocery store parking lots should be avoided at all costs. Furthermore, getting kids wet should NOT be a priority.

Overall, most every attraction should be designed with a focus on moving large quantities of customers as quickly as possible (the quicker the line, the happier the customer) – without sacrificing any of the story content or entertainment value inherent to the attraction.

Roller coasters at a perfect theme park do NOT have MCBRs!

The following is a list of midway/carnival rides that have been overused at imperfect theme parks for decades: Round up, Ferris Wheel, Bumper Cars, Space Shot, Scrambler, Shoot-the-Chutes, Enterprise, Rotor, Octopus, Sea Dragon, Octopus, Finnish Fling, and almost anything made by Zamperla. Over time, all these rides should be removed from imperfect parks and replaced with modern attractions, or re-imagined to minimize the midway and expand the immersion. A perfect theme park should never feel or look like a carnival.

Along the same lines as the last comment, carnival games should not be proliferated throughout the park. They are an eye sore to most enthusiasts. The occasional indoor arcade area is not a bad idea, but most of the carnie games could disappear forever and no one would miss them. I think Walt Disney was right when he said (and I am paraphrasing), "carnival games belong at a county fair, not at a theme park."

The absolute bane of the perfect theme park is the nefarious up-charge attraction - things like Sky Coasters, Go Karts, the Rockwall, and miniature golf. These pay-extra-to-experience debacles cannot be part of the perfect theme park as they take up valuable space, are notoriously slow-loaders, and cheapen the overall appearance of the park, making it seem more like a carnival than a bona fide theme park.

Lastly, a perfect theme park will never get boring. It will constantly and continually evolve so that each time a visitor vacations to that park there will be something new to experience.

That's it for now....off to see Les Mis. Merry Christmas, everyone!

Rob Pastor

Published: December 25, 2012 at 9:39 PM

James: A lot of good points. I tend to agree with the vast majority of your opinions.
Russell Meyer
Writer

Published: December 26, 2012 at 10:38 AM

My perfect theme park would have a single price admission. That admission covers the cost of parking, rides, and a reasonably priced meal while visiting. So many theme parks claim to be "resorts" but nickle and dime you to death like no other resort on planet Earth. I really get tired of having to calculate the cost of a theme park trip when you have to add up all of the add-ons and non-included costs in the admission. If parks added $3-5 to their daily admission price, that could easily cover the $15+/car cost that seems to be standard nowadays. Add another $10 to the price of admission, and that easily covers the cost of a counter service meal. Even at parks with daily admissions in excess of $80, it still keeps a visit under $100/day, but gives guests the confidence that everything they need for that day is taken care of. It also gets rid of those parking lot booths and overhead parks need to shell out to employees to collect money from vehicles entering the parking lot.

I'm in the process of planning a West Coast theme park trip, this recently after going on a Florida theme park trip, and it just gets absurd going through all of the additional charges to figure out how much we actually spent on our vacation. I wish there was a park out there brave enough to take this step (well, Holiday World already kinda does this). I really think if a park did this, they would see an increase in in-park spending, because guests would arrive at the park with money in hand that could be spent on things that offer significant profit margins like merchandise, drinks, and games. As it stands now, most guests budget money for food, drinks, and perhaps a suvenier or 2, but if the parking and food/drink costs were already part of the "resort" admission, guests would still bring that extra money and likely pay out for additional ammenieties.

The whole add-on mentality of the industry is getting tiring, and I really fear dynamic pricing, which seems to be just around the corner. These companies claim to be running resorts, but in the end, guests are getting al a carte service. If parks focussed half the time and resources they devote to maximizing profit to maximizing the guest exerience, people would have a much more enjoyable time visiting the parks.

Russell Meyer
Writer

Published: December 26, 2012 at 11:01 AM

James, I would take exception to your MCBR comment. There are some great coasters out there with MCBRs, it really has to do with the way park engineers program those MCBRs. Some coasters need those to separate blocks, while others use the MCBRs to give riders a quick breather before continuing the assault on your senses. No one wants to have their speed/energy deliberately scrubbed halfway through the ride, but I don't find them offensive when used to provide a consistant, enjoyable ride. Afterall, when parks really want to, MCBRs can be used to great advantage, like Revenge of the Mummy, or terribly like on so many Arrow loopers.

It's refreshing to run "clean" through a course, but even those designed without MCBRs scrub speed like Intimidator 305, Kingda Ka, and others. The only truly "wide open" steel coaster I can think of that would make my top 25 would probably be Talon at Dorney Park. The Batman clones are nice too, but none of them would crack the top 25.

James Rao
Writer

Published: December 26, 2012 at 12:16 PM

I should have been more specific, I guess. I don't like when a MCBR is added to or strengthened on an existing coaster because it is getting a little rough in its old age. If you can't fix the coaster and make it run like it was originally intended, then scrap it and build something new. Don't slow it down to the point of obsolescence.

Brake runs that were constructed as part of the original attraction, like Mummy or Everest, make sense because the designers are trying to tell a story. I have no issue with those designs.

Sorry, I should have clarified.

Russell Meyer
Writer

Published: December 26, 2012 at 1:15 PM

I don't know---Adding brakes is sometimes necessary because what was calculated on the computer is not what is experienced in the real world. Take I-305 for example...I highly doubt Intamin intended to subject riders to 10 seconds of 4+ g's in that first turn, but that's what the design produced, and because of that, changes needed to be made, so the first turn was reprofiled, and the brakes that were initially installed on the first drop were moved back to the next to last bunny hill (I assume Intamin paid for those changes, not Cedar Fair).

The trims added to the second drop on Loch Ness Monster have been intrumental in leading to the ride's longevity, and trims on other coasters have been shown to reduce stresses not only on riders, but also equipment (Montu and Superman: Ultimate Fight). B&M builds in trim brake mounts into many of its coasters, even if the brakes are never installed (Dominator at KD), and sometimes those trims aren't even active in certain operating modes (Apollo's Chariot's trims are speed sensitive in 1 and 2-train modes but fully operate in 3-train mode).

However, when trims are used as a first line of defense against head-banging (see Mantis, SOB, GASM/Viper) or as a substitute for regular train maintenance, than that's when parks should be called out. If parks are putting in trims and hard-stop MCBRs because they don't want to perform more frequent checks of wheel assemblies, then that's something that needs to be corrected, but if trims are used to adjust speeds entering certain sections of track because of known health hazards due to manufacturer error, there's really not much a park can do until the ride is paid off (see Goliath/Titan). I highly doubt you'll ever see a park tear down a $20 million coaster because it's going 5 MPH too fast into one turn---they're going to trim it somewhere.

Daniel Etcheberry
Writer

Published: December 26, 2012 at 1:16 PM

A perfect theme park is one where there are no people. Only cast members. No more people standing in the middle of the walkway! Now, that's perfect.
James Rao
Writer

Published: December 26, 2012 at 4:34 PM

There are exceptions to most every over qualified generalization, Russell. And in the "real world" of theme parks, I sense we are largely in agreement.

My point in this thread is simply that perfect theme parks don't make engineering mistakes and don't keep battered old coasters around past their expiration date.

For a specific example of what I am trying to address you need look no further than Anaconda at nearby (to you, anyway) Kings Dominion. The MCBR is devastating - the coaster should simply be removed from the park and replaced with something fun. It has outlived its usefulness. Kings Dominion is purposely slowing the ride down to extend its life without having to spend money to fix the real problems. And that kind of penny pinching cheapness does not occur at a perfect theme park.

(IMHO the Loch Ness Monster is the fifth best adult coaster - out of five - at BGW, and is a shell of its former glory, and I can state this opinion with authority having ridden it many times back the early 80's when I lived in Annandale. It survives because of nostalgia, not on the merits of the current ride it offers. Do I want to see this classic dismantled? Not necessarily, but I sure would like to see it restored to its former glory. Wouldn't you?)

Perfect theme parks don't have battered, slow, head banging coasters, they don't have tunnels without special effects, busted Yetis, non-dueling dragons, dead stops midway through rides like Titan, and they don't defend cheap decisions with excuses about rider safety, manufacturer's errors, or the need to maintain a warranty.

I totally agree with your point that in today's theme park world MCBRs are necessary. But today's world is far from perfect. And this thread is about perfection, not the current state of the theme park world.

Russell Meyer
Writer

Published: December 27, 2012 at 7:21 AM

I can definitely agree with that. Perhaps I see "perfection" through a filter, and understand that there never will be true perfection, but instead expect minor flaws in every theme park. Afterall, sometimes those flaws are what make a park special. I approached the perfection question from a more realistic approach understanding that there will always be errors in design and/or construction.

But yes, a truly perfect theme park would not have any of those design flaws and every ride would run as originally designed throughout its lifespan and all of the effect would activate at the precise moment every time for every single cycle---and rides would never break down and trains would never stack and ride ops would always effeciently load and unload passengers every single cycle.

James Rao
Writer

Published: December 27, 2012 at 8:06 AM

^Hear, hear!!! That does sound perfect!!

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