Why leaks are a good thing for the theme park industry
Published: October 14, 2013 at 8:38 PM
It's the same story whenever new information leaks out about theme park's plans. Fans love hearing what's coming at their favorite parks, and Internet traffic spikes as fans log on to learn about and discuss the new plans. And yet… parks haven't exactly opened up a transparent design process. Major projects such as Disney's Star Wars lands remain unannounced (though not unteased), and park public relations employees offer nothing more than a "no comment" when asked about them.
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When employees and contractors leak plans for new attractions before their park's PR crew, park managers often react harshly. We've heard from our friends inside the industry that some at Disney and Universal weren't happy with our Theme Park Insider reports on leaked information about Avatar, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley, and the Orlando version of Transformers, to cite three recent incidents. It's not that our reports were inaccurate. It's that they happened outside the park management's control.
That's understandable, but wrong-headed. Leaks are great for the theme park industry, and parks should be more aggressive about releasing information about their upcoming attractions. Here's why:
Early information allows would-be customers more time to save for a trip
Consumers have more choices for vacation and out-of-home entertainment than they ever could afford to enjoy. Consumers have to make decisions about where to spend their money. If theme parks want more families to spend thousands of dollars on theme park vacations, they need to accept that many of those families are going to need time to save for those vacations.
But if theme parks are going to convince families to give up other trips, nights out, take-out meals, and whatever else they sacrifice to save for a vacation, they have to offer something more compelling that those alternatives. A big new theme park development, such as Harry Potter, can help persuade more families to save for theme park vacations than another run of ads for the same-old-same-old ever will.
Why can't families just save for their trip after the new attraction opens? They could, but let's not overlook the emotion of being a fan. If millions of other people are going to visit some hot new attraction before you get your chance, that might that make you feel like a little bit less of a fan? And if you don't feel that same attraction, is it really worth all that sacrifice to go? If you're managing a brand, why take a chance on lessening fans' emotional bonds with the franchise? Give them the notice they need to budget a trip to your park, and release the news about a new development as soon as it gets the green light.
Early information prevents the "bait and switch"
The year before The Wizarding World of Harry Potter debuted at Universal's Islands of Adventure, attendance at Universal Orlando tanked. An economic recession certainly contributed to the decline, but millions of fans likely delayed their trip to wait for Potter's arrival. And that's spawned fear within the industry of early announcements. Why tell people too early about a major new attraction, if that encourages them to delay their trips?
But that's a good thing, not a problem. The last thing that anyone who spends a lot of money wants to hear is that he or she could have gotten a better deal by waiting to buy. Why burn a customer? Tell what you know, and let those who want to wait, wait. With an extra year to save, they'll likely spend more money with you, and if the attraction's a hit, they'll leave an even more satisfied customer — more likely to return and more likely to rave to friends.
Will you lose some immediate trips with an early announcement? Perhaps. But better to lose trips than customers.
Early release of plans allows a company to gauge fan reaction before it's too late
If a customer doesn't want to learn that it could have gotten a better deal by waiting, a business doesn't want to learn that it wasted money on the wrong product. Leaks and early release of theme park plans can allow a company to discover that it's bought a dog — before it goes "number two" all over the yard.
Of course, a company has to listen to that reaction. Imagine if Disney had taken seriously all the fan criticism of California Adventure when it was under development. Perhaps then Disney would have allowed its Imagineers to spend some of the billion dollars that they ended up spending a decade later to fix the park. And Disney could have enjoyed an extra 10 years of higher revenue, and happier customers, in return.
Showing your hand tips off the competition, and that's good
So what if the competition rushes a new development into production to match yours? That just means your market has two great new attractions that will encourage potential visitors from all around to come to your community. Don't believe for one moment that Disney isn't making money from Universal's Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Anything that encourages more people to travel to Orlando ultimately helps every park in town. If a new project encourages other tourist attractions to get off their rear and into gear, even the original park benefits.
Attraction leaks and announcements build excitement for the industry
When people hear about new developments, that sends a message to fans — and to investors — that firms in the industry have both the financial security and the management foresight to invest in their future. That encourages fans to make financial (and emotional!) investments in selecting theme parks as their vacation destination of choice. It also encourages investors to put their money in companies with theme parks, raising stock prices and making more capital available for future expansions. Which allows this whole wonderful process to repeat itself.
Of course, all this assumes that leaked or released attraction plans are accurate. That's not always the case. Sometimes, ride systems don't work as planned. Contractors fail to deliver as promised. Maybe an attraction designer leaks a concept to earn public support that will sway management to deliver its approval, but management still says 'no.' Smart theme parks don't want to disappoint customers. But let's do the math. Trying to avoid the risk of disappointment from an occasional miss isn't worth the lost income, goodwill, and access to feedback from trying to keep the public from learning about all of a park's new projects as soon as they're approved.
That said, the worst thing a park can do is intentionally mislead the public. Rumors have floated on Twitter that a certain theme park (which we will not name) was considering releasing fake development plans to various employees and contractors, in the hope of smoking out leakers. What's the possible good in that? The ideal should be to avoid the "bait and switch." Let the leakers leak. Or, better, beat them by releasing the information first.
This doesn't mean that parks should spoil every detail of a planned new attraction. But, at least, let people know what's coming and give them enough detail to get excited. Parks should be using every tool they can to encourage people to change their spending and start planning to visit their park. If a leak is accurate, let it go. Information that gets people excited about theme parks is nothing but good news for the industry.