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Why leaks are a good thing for the theme park industry

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Published: October 14, 2013 at 8:38 PM

Last weekend, Disney released artwork for a theme park development it won't open for another four years. And, judging from our pageview and social media traffic here at Theme Park Insider, people loved it.

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.

Project Orange Harvest
"Project Orange Harvest": Disney's Star Wars Land plans?

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.

Readers' Opinions

From O T on October 15, 2013 at 3:54 AM
Yes leaks are fun, just like rumours, but I just don't think these lands and rides are set in stone a long time in advance. If they tell us bits and they change (something that could happen even during construction) people complain.
Look at Hyperion Warf that would have replace Pleasure Island. When Disney announced that and plans changed into Disney Springs a lot of fans where disappointed (and judging both concepts, rightly).

I hope some bits and bobs are leaked and sites monitored to see if it is a good idea, who knows.

From 208.125.225.18 on October 15, 2013 at 8:22 AM
sometimes the only comment that needs to be made on an article as a fan. is a simple I AGREE!

great article, as always. Love you guys!!

Chelsy

From Amanda Jenkins on October 15, 2013 at 8:54 AM
The leaks are a love/hate relationship. When one is so passionate about particular parks, then leaked news can either be rejoiced over or dreaded. I do love hearing what is in store. I've been holding off on visiting Universal Orlando and Disneyland because of all the expansions. I'm glad I did wait and am waiting on Universal. Now I'm just waiting on Disney to confirm a Star Wars land.
From Jacob Sundstrom on October 15, 2013 at 10:39 AM
"Look at Hyperion Warf that would have replace Pleasure Island. When Disney announced that and plans changed into Disney Springs a lot of fans where disappointed (and judging both concepts, rightly)."

I totally get this -- but isn't that Disney's fault for announcing something and then delivering what appears to be a worse product? This is less a problem with leaks and early announcements and more about Disney cheaping out and settling for less.

If they had announce Hyperion Wharf and then changed their minds to build a better experience ... well, we probably wouldn't complain so much.

From Annette Forrest on October 15, 2013 at 10:58 AM
It is interesting thinking about how an upcoming attraction affects a family's trip planning.

For instance, my family was going to go to WDW this September, but we pushed the trip back to early June of next year because we want to ride the Mine Train coaster and see New Fantasyland finished. We also didn't want to go when there'd be a big construction site in the park.

I think a lot of people are like this, and will adjust their plans by several months if they are close to when something new will open. I don't know how far into the future people will put off a family trip, just to be there for something amazing opening. Remember that kids are only kids for so long, so delaying a trip too far into the future might mean missing out on memories that can never be brought back.

For instance, let's take the Star Wars example. Let's say that Disney announced today a massive Star Wars project that had the most incredible concept art ever. I told you we're already going to Disney next June. If Disney said that Star Wars would be built and ready in five or six years, that announcement has no impact on my family's trip next year at all. Because my sons are 9 and 12 and I am not waiting another five years to take them to Disney (because at ages 14 and 17 it would not be the same kind of trip for us).

Now, if Disney announced Star Wars would be built and ready in two years, we might think about delaying our trip so we can see it. That would put the boys at 11 and 14...and they might be even more into Star Wars by then, especially with the new movies coming up. My family takes a Disney trip every year most years, but sometimes we alternate between WDW and Disneyland. Having a new big attraction opening impacts our decision making. Though, sometimes we even stay away when something new opens to let the crowds die down (like with Cars Land). I try to plan our trips when it won't be that crowded because I have some anxiety issues and oppressive crowding is not good for me. I am an off-season gal.

I don't think the tourists Disney really WANTS in its parks are ever affected by the "announcements of new things delays trips" thing. Think about it. Disney really wants families that can afford to spend a lot of money in the parks, and can go to WDW whenever they want. Disney really doesn't want the savers or the money-worry folks (like my family). If a family goes to WDW every year (or whenever they want, money is no object) then it doesn't matter if a new attraction opens next year because these people will be making a trip there anyway.

I don't think Disney is ever really hurt by announcing something new. I think Disney is stupid a lot of the time for keeping so many things secret...but I suspect they do this more because Disney cuts things out of budgets during the whole construction process and they don't want to herald something that they think they might not really build.

I also think that the disaster Sea World had this year with Antarctica will be a case-study from now on. People I know who don't really follow theme park news talk about how Sea World did a bait and switch with its amazing concept art that did not really look anything like the lackluster ride they ended up building with those penguins. They promised something gorgeous and amazing and then they did an inferior job executing it. While Antarctica is still pretty good for a Sea World park, what the concept art promised was amazing for any park...and hence the disappointment now.

From Annette Forrest on October 15, 2013 at 11:01 AM
To: Jacob,

What about Hyperion Wharf did you like more than Disney Springs? If I remember correctly, Hyperion Wharf was nothing special and Disney Springs is a lot nicer and prettier. So i think we're getting something better than Hyperion Wharf.

I'm curious why you think Hyperion Wharf would have been better.

From 64.12.116.206 on October 15, 2013 at 12:03 PM
You made some excellent point, Robert. I particularly agree when you say that Disney is making money from the popularity of Wizarding World. That's just one example demonstrating that the theme park industry is in greater symbiosis than competition. People come for the new stuff, and then visit the other parks -- why not, as long as they're in the neighborhood?
From 75.187.131.228 on October 15, 2013 at 5:19 PM
When a leaked plan changes, is never constructed or not done "on time" in the eyes of the public (think Knoebels Flying Turns) people are upset. There is a reason most parks don't want plans announced until they are ready to release the information. Of course this doesn't mean that some parks don't intentionally leak the info themselves.
From 74.235.192.240 on October 15, 2013 at 9:21 PM
Some parks like Disney do not even announce when they are closing water parks or attractions for good. They just shut them down and they never open again. At least let the fans go one more time.

Universal Orlando actually holds special events announced months in advance when they close a ride. When King Kong closed they kept it open late and gave everyone a banana to send the big guy out right.

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