Do different theme parks reflect differences in regional attitudes?
One of the things I observed during my visits to highly rated theme parks over the past two years is the extent to which they are defined by regional lifestyles and attitudes. I find that parks located near large metropolises in the Northeast are among the least welcoming whereas parks in rural areas are among the most welcoming. Even parks located near smaller cities in the South Atlantic or Southeastern regions tend to be more user-friendly than those along the Northeast Corridor. I also find that the closer you get to the Midwest, the closer you get to the level of hospitality desired at a theme park.
A prime example is my home park, Six Flags Great Adventure, a great park by any standard but not one of the most welcoming. Located between New York and Philadelphia, it attracts numerous visitors from those two cities. Urban living tends to promote a certain wariness and watch your back mindset, and this is reflected at the park. Security at SFGA is very tight. In order to enter the park it's necessary to empty your pockets of cell phones, cameras, keys, etc. and go through a metal detector. I should point out that metal detectors are standard at Six Flags parks, regardless of where they‘re located, but the screening process at this park was more obtrusive and intrusive than that at a sister park in another area of the country. At Six Flags Fiesta Texas the staff was friendlier and the atmosphere more relaxed than at the two Six Flags parks I've visited in the East. I also got exceptional follow-up from the marketing director of Six Flags Fiesta after my visit – not just one of those surveys that the park is prone to send but an actual one-on-one communication.
Jackson, New Jersey is by no means a large city but because of its location, SFGA has had to incorporate a big city mentality. Certainly this park attracts a different demographic from parks in more rural areas and it tends to be a faster crowd. At Hersheypark, only two hours away from Philadelphia but in a relatively rural area, I have never been subjected to the same level of scrutiny or seen such extremes of dress as at SFGA. The last time I went to SFGA there was a concert and the park was heavily populated by skinny young women bare from the midriff to the pelvis with navel rings and other body piercings. This is something I've never seen at Hershey, Knoebels or other parks located in rural areas. These parks tend to be more moderate and family-oriented. They also tend to be more hospitable. On my last visit to Hershey, I rode Skyrush with three little boys who were intrigued by my Theme Park Insider T-shirt, bombarding me with questions about where I'd been and which coasters I'd ridden, and shared a lunch table with a nice young couple. Only rarely has anyone at SFGA evinced any interest in talking with me. (Speaking of Knoebels, not only the park staff but the locals who gave me driving directions when I got lost were so approachable, helpful and friendly that I as a city person was amazed.)
The only theme park near a major city in the Northeast at which I felt like a truly valued patron is Lake Compounce, where the staff was absolutely wonderful, according me special consideration and privileges. The same cannot be said for Six Flags New England, located in the same region.
The Midwest is among the best places to visit a theme park. When I went to Holiday World, I was impressed by the relaxed setting, welcoming atmosphere and extreme friendliness of the staff. No metal detectors, no distrust, no hassle! This park stands out as one of the best I've visited in terms of pleasantness and customer service. In my experience, people in this region are simply more open, trusting and congenial than those back east, and this translates to area theme parks. A young lady stationed at the entrance to Pilgrims Plunge (don't know whether that ride is currently operating, as it's not showing up on Holiday World's website) was super friendly and gracious even after I made the serious gaffe of saying on camera that although The Voyage is a great ride, it's not as good as El Toro. (What could I have been thinking?) Also in the Midwest, Cedar Point gets high marks for being user-friendly (except for the long ride queues), as does Silver Dollar City.
Virginia is a nice place to visit a theme park but even there, the level of hospitality is not as high as in the Midwest. Still, on my recent visit to Kings Dominion I was favourably impressed by the fact that at Volcano The Blast Coaster, a staff member actually wheeled a cart through the loading area to collect loose articles that could not go along for the ride. This was largely a matter of necessity, as the trains load and unload in different areas, and from the loading area it's not possible to hop across the track and stash articles on the other side. Be that as it may, I suspect that some parks would let riders fend for themselves and either forfeit their property or pay to put it in a locker.
One of the nicest surprises I encountered during my travels was Dollywood. People in Pigeon Forge tend to be rather laid back by my standards and I had a very good feeling about this park. One of the ride ops was especially engaging, chatting with me about Wild Eagle and giving me advice about what to do on Mystery Mine to avoid a head-banging experience.
I cannot comment on the smaller and lesser known parks, as I haven't visited them, so that this may be somewhat slanted, but these are my observations after visits to a number of high profile theme parks.
It's been an interesting journey thus far and an illuminating one, to see how theme parks differ from one another as much as a result of their geographical location as anything else.
[Editor's note: What do you think? In composing your comment, let's keep this to personal experiences, and avoid stereotyping regions or parks where you haven't visited. Thanks!]
I would love to hear your thoughts on how the Orlando parks compare with the different regions that you spoke of throughout the country.
I haven't necessarily noticed this but I wonder what sort of security techniques the big guns (Disney, Universal) are employing that allow them to bypass these more aggressive measures (metal detectors, etc). Obviously security is really tight at Disney, for example, but I've never felt unwelcome.
I've actually never visited any of the theme parks in Orlando. The only time I ever set foot in Florida was over the Christmas holidays last year, when I made a spur of the moment decision to go to Busch Gardens Tampa, as theme parks in my area were closed for the season and I was dying to ride a roller coaster. This park was fine although I thought that it was vastly overpriced.
Just thought I would let you know that Pilgrim's Plunge has changed its name to Giraffica, and incorporated into the water park section of Holiday World. It is currently closed for the season
I noticed that some of the writer's visits seemed to be as either as a journalist and/or representative of TPI or some other organization. As a working journalist who's visited parks that way as well as visiting as a typical, paying parkgoer, the treatment (and subsequent overall experience) can vary greatly depending on whether I approached the park as a member of the media or simply went up to the gate and paid for entry.
Silver Dollar City by far is the nicest and friendliest theme park I have ever been. It is a totally relaxing environment and the grounds are so well kept.
Theme park security can actually be a complicated endeavor. It has to take into account regional location, times of day/seasons, demographics to a lesser extent but most of all available resources, size of the parks and crowd sizes.
First off, I was so excited to see a new Bobbi Butterfield column...I just LOVE how you write, Bobbi. Wish you posted something weekly!!! I agree with a lot of what you have said and can offer my personal experiences. I primarily go to Disney parks but every other year or so end up at a Six Flags because my husband's company does a summer employee picnic at one (in the Midwest). So, I have experience with Florida, California, and Midwestern parks.
I wonder how many of the pre-entrance searches actually turn up anything dangerous. At the parks I've been to where they do searches I find them to be more annoying than anything, making it take longer to get into the park and not really accomplishing much. I'm glad that Cedar Point hasn't resorted to them- yet. Perhaps it is its location in the relatively small town of Sandusky, Ohio, an hour from any major metropolitan area. On that note, this summer, when I visited Lakeside Amusement Park in Denver, there was no pre-admission security search, and that park is located in a high-crime area of Denver. Locals call it the "ghetto" park because of lots of gang activity in the surrounding area, and the low admission price ($2.50) invites the local gangs to hang out there for something to do. Even then, I didn't see any gangs nor felt threatened or in danger at any time.
I must agree that from my experience, I find this observation to be quite accurate. I travel a lot for work and it often times feels like it's easier for me to get on a plane than it is to get into my local park, Six Flags Magic Mountain.
To the one who made the negative comments about the WDW cast members: I have been to WDW 21 times and have never felt that way about the cast members. They always seem very welcoming and very interested in helping the guests no matter the situation. I always wish that more people in other parks and other places were more like them.
I really enjoyed this article, and was actually thinking about this on a recent trip to Six Flags Great Adventure. I do find it interesting the different attitudes parks have towards their visitors. Six Flags universally treats guests like a blank check. They do whatever they can to separate them from as much money as possible before they leave the park, and have no expectation for that visitor to return. Cedar Fair is a bit of a hybrid. They certainly expect guests to fork over the cash, but they at least make visible attempts to give guests value for their money and make strides to attempt to encourage guests to return. Disney and Universal are all about the return experience. While both chains will gladly take as much money as you're willing to fork over, they want you to come back again to spend more money. Sea World is somewhere in the middle, but lean more towards the Disney/Universal model.
Russell Meyer's point about park employee-guest interaction is a very good one, especially as it applies to Six Flags parks. It's true that there isn't much incentive for the employees to perform beyond a certain level as things stand and Russell's ideas about how to give them more incentive are intriguing. I think that one thing the park could do is hire more retired people, who might feel more motivated and who could approach the job with a greater level of maturity. Of all the interactions I've had with park employees in my three years of being a season pass holder, those that stand out as memorable because they were so overwhelmingly positive involve a retired person named Steve who was stationed at the entrance to El Toro. A super friendly guy, he used to joke around with me and tell me bits about his life, such as that he'd recently gotten divorced and his wife had taken the Harley. I asked him whether he'd ridden El Toro and he said "My fat ass wouldn't fit on it." When I didn't see him for about a month I began to wonder what had happened; he eventually reappeared, telling me about his medical emergency that resulted in hospitalization and would have killed him had he not been hospitalized when he was. I never saw him again. I asked other park employees about him but there are so many that no-one knew whom I was talking about. To this day I wonder what happened to Steve and hope that it wasn't anything catastrophic.
I was in Dollywood last month, and my visit was great from the start. Everyone in the region in general was friendly and helpful. The same with my trip to Silver Dollar City two years back. A much more pleasant experience than other parks I've visited. Although I still love Universal, Disney, and my home parks here in Virginia, the experience of was just very unique at the Herschend parks.
Cultures are different, even within big countries that speak the same language. And no, the other guys culture is not inheritly infirior, or less nice, just different. Sometimes the funniest stuff happens between the more similar cultures because no ones expecting problems.
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