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Do different theme parks reflect differences in regional attitudes?

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Published: September 8, 2013 at 4:01 PM

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.

WILDEAGLE photo IMG_0924_zpscee01b30.jpg

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!]

Readers' Opinions

From 74.176.192.210 on September 8, 2013 at 4:22 PM
I would love to hear your thoughts on how the Orlando parks compare with the different regions that you spoke of throughout the country.
From 69.253.201.205 on September 8, 2013 at 4:35 PM
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.
From Bobbie Butterfield on September 8, 2013 at 6:57 PM
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.

I should clarify something. When I say that a park is unwelcoming, that's not the same thing as saying that I'm not welcome. The point I was trying to make is that metal detectors are not exactly welcoming and what I didn't say is that at my home park, I was subjected to interrogation about articles I had on my person and on one occasion had to go through the metal detector repeatedly until staff figured out that it was the metal studs on my jacket that were setting it off. I've had my fill of metal detectors at airports so having to deal with them at theme parks is an additional burden. I haven't looked at the statistics about crime at theme parks but most of them seem to operate successfully without metal detectors.

From 24.158.113.244 on September 8, 2013 at 7:14 PM
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
From 76.4.156.221 on September 8, 2013 at 7:23 PM
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.
From 97.88.169.57 on September 8, 2013 at 7:29 PM
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.
From 24.113.133.236 on September 8, 2013 at 7:31 PM
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.

Smaller or lesser known/frequented parks will have lighter security most of the time.

The bigger the park or the more traffic there is the higher the levels of security presence. Part of what you're seeing when you're comparing things like Six Flags with Disney and Universal is that the "giants" are outliers when it comes to resources.

In other words the security is definitely there but it's less obvious at the perimeters of the park (e.g. metal detectors, bag searches, etc.) because there is a heavier presence INSIDE the park. The Disney's and Universal's have more security personnel patrolling and use more technology such as CCTV (whether you see it or not) which allows them to respond more quickly in the event something does happen inside the gates.

That manpower isn't always present in the smaller or more regional parks so you see a more intensified effort at the perimeters of the parks to make sure that anything that might pose a threat is prevented from entering the parks in the first place.

In the security field we call this a hard outer shell and soft chewy center.

Joe K.

From 98.227.60.180 on September 8, 2013 at 9:08 PM
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.

California = I notice at Disneyland and DCA that the energy from both the guests and the cast members is very different from Florida. I think that this is because Disneyland is so close to Los Angeles (which I think is the second biggest city around these days, after New York). I've always found everyone in the California parks to be really nice and pleasant, but not intrusive. This is hard to explain, but in the Midwest strangers will talk to you and go on for a while because I think people just like to talk more in the Midwest. In New York, I notice they are very brusque and aren't really that engaging. At the California parks I think it's somewhat in the middle because people will be nice and will answer questions but I don't think they engage you or start up conversations. They kind of mind their own business in a nice way. I also notice that people in the California parks seem to be more California residents and less people from all over the place. I saw a lot of young couples on dates at Disneyland and DCA...but in WDW and other Florida parks it feels like everyone is on vacation from somewhere else.

Florida = I don't think the cast members in the Florida parks are as nice as the ones in California. It also feels like the people working at Disney parks in Florida are doing it just for the job and the pay whereas a lot of people in the California park seemed to be working at Disneyland for the fun and bragging rights of it, or as a temporary thing they are doing for the life experience before doing something else. Kind of like they are doing a "gap year" and making a little money while doing a cool life experience thing. In Florida, some of the Disney cast members have reminded me of people who work in the DMV back home...like they need the job and are only doing the job because they couldn't find anything else. I've just never been to WDW and walked away thinking "these people really love working here". They actually remind me of people working at Wal-Mart or Target or the movie theater in Orlando...like, the same people could be bussed around from one place to another and no one would notice. But the California Disney employees really seemed to be into the Disney spirit and having fun in their jobs.

Midwest parks = I think this is similar to the Florida thing I noticed where people are working there and just seem to be collecting checks. But there's also no big bragging rights to ever say "I worked at Six Flags for a while". That's not a conversation starter or something that will get people's ears perked up like saying you worked at Disneyland. I don't think tourists fly from miles away to go to a Six Flags in the Midwest, so it's a mix of families from around the state and also teenagers on dates who live close by. I feel like the workers and the guests in a Midwest theme park are the same people you would see at the mall one town over. They might go to the park this weekend and then next weekend they would be the people going to a football game or to a rib cookoff of or something. I don't think there's any expectation of spectacular service and that Midwestern parks can get away with being "good enough". They are a lot cheaper than Disney and no one will ever say anything like "I've been saving up to come to Six Flags and this is special to my family!". The food is cafeteria-grade theme park food that is overpriced and no one blinks because it's like food you'd find at a movie theater concession stand. As long as the employees are all about as friendly as those at the movie theater or Wal-Mart or the DMV then no one will ever complain.

I can only speak for myself, but I think my expectations are highest for Disneyland because that's Walt's original park and it has a magic to it. DCA was such a lackluster disaster for so long that I have no real expectations for it...which is why I about had a heart attack when I visited Buena Vista Street and Cars Land. Really took my breath away and DCA now finally feels like a Disney park, and not a Six Flags. When I go to the Disney California parks I have the expectation that they really will be the happiest places on Earth that day...and that everyone I encounter will be smiling and happy and polite.

With the Florida parks, I expect people to be worn out and tired from being on vacation. I expect lots of kids, some of whom are tired and thus bratty. I expect the cast members to be overweight, sweaty, and look like this will be the only job they ever have for the rest of their lives. The Florida WDW employees have always felt like they were a tier or two below the California ones because it just feels like the California ones are destined for more in life and their time working at Disney is just a bullet point on their resumes in the end, instead of being "lifers" like in Florida.

My only expectation going to a Midwestern theme park is that my family will ride some rides, eat sugary and fried foods, have minimal interactions with employees or other guests, and that we will leave uninjured, a little sunburned, and tired from a day out at the park. If no one is actively rude to us and if none of my family is cut or otherwise hurt on rides then it was a great day at Six Flags for us. But I expect so much more from a Disney park.

From James Koehl on September 9, 2013 at 1:11 AM
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.
From Kurt Dahlin on September 9, 2013 at 7:13 AM
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.

Even if this were true, I think it's still a matter of training, and more importantly, whether or not the park cares. Disney puts their employees through extensive training on how to interact with and take care of their guests. You will almost never encounter a rude or indifferent employee. Six Flags employees don't get that same kind of training. They're basically shown how to perform their duties, but not how to make each guest feel like they're on a pedestal. That's not to say you won't encounter some friendly Six Flags employees, because you will. It's just that it's the exception and not the rule. If Six Flags wanted to spend the time and money on training and enforcement, there's absolutely no reason they couldn't have some of the friendliest employees in the industry as well. It's just not a priority for them.

From Thomas Caselli on September 9, 2013 at 2:41 PM
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.
From Mark Kausch on September 9, 2013 at 4:07 PM
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LOL! That's where I get my ears!

From Russell Meyer on September 10, 2013 at 9:49 AM
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.

The biggest thing I see is in the park employee-guest interaction. Six Flags employees are part time employees there to earn a few bucks over the summer. They have very little interest in the park, and most of them will never come back to the park after their summer job. This carries over into their interaction with guests that is either forced (high-5's at ride exits and fake enthusiasm) or distant (I'm just here to do my job and go home). There's no incentive for these employees to perform better or to go above and beyond, so they do what's asked of them and that's it. Unfortunately, it's a function of their niche in the industry. Six Flags rely on that part-time high school and college student employee base, which has very little loyalty and very little incentive to do more than what's asked. The real question is, is there a way to get more out of these people? While there are few hours available in the off-season, can Six Flags find incentives to keep strong employees coming back, particularly ones that may be majoring in marketing, tourism, or hospitality. Six Flags typically incentivizes their employees with free admission along with guest and family admission passes. What about exchanging those incentives for a few bucks in the off-season for high achievers, and letting them be part of the real park operations like planning, marketing, and design so they return in future years or eventually become part of park management? When's the last time you went to a Six Flags park and saw the same person working there that was working somewhere in the park the previous season?

Cedar Fair has it a bit better because they have traditionally used foreign talent along with high school and college kids that are under contract for an entire operating season (or longer). While they have a situation that some may equate to slavery (they house much of their foreign employees on site), these employees tend to work very hard and relate well to guests. In my recent trip to Cedar Point, I saw a ride op that I remember working a ride 4 years ago. That continuity of staff makes a huge difference not only in labor costs, but in the way employees feel about the park.

Disney and Universal almost exclusively rely on full-time year-round talent. While both do dip into the park-time market, most of their employees have a vested interest in the success of the park. I think that is where we see the biggest difference in attitude. You can see this at other regional parks like Busch Gardens, Dollywood, and smaller parks like Hersheypark and Kennywood, where many of the same employees come back year after year, and take ownership of the park. Until Six Flags and other parks that work primarily with part-timers are able to get their employees to take a vested interested in the success of the park, guests will continue to be subjected to these dramatic differences in treatment.

From Bobbie Butterfield on September 10, 2013 at 11:20 AM
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.
From Ryan Spann on September 10, 2013 at 11:24 AM
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.
From 84.56.89.212 on September 12, 2013 at 4:26 AM
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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