Published: June 30, 2015 at 11:40 AM
Take a look at any attraction attendance report and you will find the same names near the top: Disney and Universal. Why do those parks draw so many more visitors than their competition?
Is it because they operate year-round? That helps, but other parks, including Knott's Berry Farm, SeaWorld, and Busch Gardens Tampa, are open to guests all year and they still trail Disney and Universal in annual attendance.
Is it because of the popular characters and franchises that the Big Two offer? That also helps, but don't overlook that Six Flags owns the theme park rights to the wildly popular DC Comics and Looney Tunes characters, including Batman, Superman and Bugs Bunny. And Six Flags' top park could double its annual attendance and still not beat any Disney or Universal park in the United States.
So what is it that Disney and Universal consistently offer that trailing parks lack? The year-round operation and attractive IPs help, but it's a third key quality that puts Disney and Universal on top — immersive themed environments.
There might be no better collection of themed environments within a single park than at Tokyo DisneySea. Photo by David Weiss
We wrote earlier this week about Disney's old Adventurers Club and how it enveloped visitors in an ever-evolving story that made that destination a must-see for many Disney fans, many of whom continue to mourn its closing, seven years later. Disney's been creating alluring themed environments in its parks ever since the opening of Disneyland in July 1955. It's the "magic" of walking through a princess' castle into a fairytale kingdom that helps distinguish Disney's spinners, carousels and flat rides from those found in so many other parks around the world.
In our earlier post, we wrote about a "ladder of engagement" that allows theme park visitors to step up from simply feeling present in a fully-realized themed environment to participating in that environment through a progression of optional roles. In crafting these environments, park designers must take care to avoid including elements that break the theme and take people out of the atmosphere of the environment by reminding them that they are in the "real world" of a theme park.
Some distractions cannot be avoided, including the illuminated "EXIT" signs that fire codes demand inside buildings and warning signs at the entrance to attractions where people are restricted from riding due to certain health or physical conditions. But the best theme park lands find ways to conceal or theme other common distractions. The employee passageways inside the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride aren't marked with "Employees Only," or "Team Members Only." They say "No Muggles." Disney World's Pirates of the Caribbean eschews the common back-and-forth, chained serpentine waiting area in favor of well-themed fortress passageways for its interior queue. You'll find dozens of other such examples in the Disney and Universal parks.
But sometimes, the best efforts of park designers are undermined by the others "up the chain" in corporate management. We're not just talking restricted budgets — creativity always is restricted by what artists can spend to achieve their vision, no matter the medium. We are talking instead about when a company's efforts contradict one another, and a company introduces products or offerings that weaken its previous efforts. You see that when a park replaces a store's collection of unique, area-themed merchandise with new inventory of generic souvenirs. Or when a company decides to earn extra cash by slapping billboards inside the park, marring the decor of a land.
But today, we are going to focus on one specific case where a theme park company's product has undercut the viability of its parks' themed environments. In case you haven't guessed already — we're talking about Disney's MagicBands.
Using a MagicBand. Photo courtesy Disney
A MagicBand isn't part of any character universe. In a themed environment, it's a foreign object, as are the ubiquitous "Mickey head" stanchions now found outside every Walt Disney World attraction. Tapping a MagicBand actively takes you out of any thematic role within a themed environment and returns you to the role of theme park guest.
Your MagicBand reminds you that you're at Walt Disney World, and not a pirate in a Caribbean fortress or a royal subject in fairytale kingdom. In doing this, the MagicBand effectively substitutes individual themes within the Disney World theme parks for the meta theme of Walt Disney World itself.
The MagicBand, part of Disney's billion-dollar-plus "NextGen" initiative, is the culmination of Disney's promotional efforts to make itself the focus of your vacation experience, rather than any of various characters or franchises found within the Disney parks. You visit Universal to spend time with Harry Potter, the Minions, Spider-Man, Transformers or inside Jurassic Park. You visit Disney World to visit Disney. Your MagicBand is an ever-present reminder of that. It's the difference between "Live the Adventure" and "Show Your Disney Side."
The question facing Disney now is... does that matter? Will theme park fans in the years to come accept the role of being a Disney World visitor over other potential roles that they could play (to whatever level) in a park where the theme takes precedence over the brand, and not the other way around? Or are fans okay with playing two roles at once — as a Disney visitor as well as whatever role they might accept in a specific environment within Disney World?
The pushback that many fans have shown Disney, in person and online, suggests that some fans aren't happy with more than just the logistical snafus surrounding the roll-out of MagicBands and Disney's MyMagic+ reservation system. For some of these fans, the intrusion of MagicBands with Disney's theme environments weakens the magic and takes them out of the roles that they've paid to play. But are those fans the exception... or the rule?
What do you think?
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