Just Published: Theme Park Insider: 2016 Year in Review
The key comment was “...Six Flags' previous strategy was based on its roller-coaster hardware, but now it would focus on building anticipation to its rides through stories and characters, while upgrading the attractions."
Although I think Shapiro is way off in his comparison of Six Flags to Disney, at least his heart is in the right place. Furthermore, the idea of copying the best is certainly not a new one. However, Shapiro should not set his (or our) expectations too high. Sadly, there is not some magic formula for turning standard midway rides into themed attractions like the Pirates of the Caribbean; otherwise, everyone would be doing it. Shapiro should simply focus on the basics: make Six Flags cleaner, more polite, and a little less worried about attracting teenagers and building coasters. Once the basics are down, he can move on to “building anticipation to its rides through stories and characters….”
I wish Mr. Shapiro the best in his lofty attempt to redefine the Six Flags brand, but the reality is that he is still dealing with a collection of dirty, broken down, iron ride parks, often operated by teenagers with no concept of customer service. Moreover, some of his recent decisions lead me to question his methods...for example, can anyone tell me how the newly christened Six Flags Thrilleaders (what a horrible idea) fit into Shapiro's "Copy Disney" strategy...?
Again, he is saying all the right things...we will just have to wait and see what happens next.
Here is the article, just in case:
LAS VEGAS (AP) - Theme park operator Six Flags Inc. is aiming to become an entertainment company with its own characters to entice thrill-seekers to its parks much like The Walt Disney Co., its chief executive said Tuesday.
Mark Shapiro, a former ESPN executive who took the helm of money-losing Six Flags in December 2005, made the comments in a keynote speech at the gathering of the National Association of Broadcasters.
He said Six Flags' previous strategy was based on its roller-coaster hardware, but now it would focus on building anticipation to its rides through stories and characters, while upgrading the attractions.
"Approaching Six Flags is like building Disney, backward," he said. "The focus and the root of all and everything we do is the storytelling itself."
The strategy was to "build the characters, build the story around it, build the emotion, the drama ... as opposed to just putting rides up on cement."
Since becoming chief executive, Shapiro said the New York-based company has invested $100 million in revamping its business model, including purchasing half of Dick Clark Productions Inc., producer of such events as the Golden Globes, last year.
The production company's archived footage will be used to promote the park and entertain guests while they wait in lines for rides and food, while providing a vehicle for advertisers.
Ad revenues and licensing deals abroad are expected to add $50 million in new revenue this season, he said.
"We have 25 million-plus (visitors) spending up to 10 hours a day in our parks every summer," Shapiro said. "That's a captive audience like no other."
Six Flags said its revenue in the fourth quarter of last year rose to $112 million from $104 million in the previous year, while its net loss shrank to $132 million from $195 million.
Shapiro is correct. All of the well themed parks, weather Disney, Universal or the Busch parks, prove the drawing power of a good story.
I had more fun at Disneyland than I have ever had at Cedar Point. Taller, faster coasters will only draw so many customers.
When the story does not come first, the results are usually bad. Even in other mediums like the movies it doesn't usually work: think of how many times producers assembled a top notch cast THEN started writing the script. It never works.
So, yes, Shaprio is saying all the right things...but I guess I am just doubtful that he is ever going to be successful. His best bet, as I stated previously would be to focus on improving what he has: make his parks cleaner, safer, and more customer (and family-friendly) then go from there.
And, please, explain to me how the Six Flags Thrilleaders are going to help???!!!
2 Mr. Freeze
4 Tony Hawk's Big Spin
3 Superman: Ultimate Flight
3 Deja Vu [two of which are not operating]
2 Dark Knight
2 V2: Vertical Velocity
And don't even get me started on Batman: The Ride
THEMING would definately help these attractions, but without that, every park just has another clone ride.
And another thing, companies like Disney, Universal, and Busch consistently provide clean, well landscaped parks, good customer service, and an immersive, narrative experience for their customers. Six Flags should focus on cleanliness, landscaping, and good service before moving on to building the next Pirates of the Caribbean. If they would enhance their existing parks in those three categories, the customers (and money) will follow.
The reason I skip Six Flags St Louis most of the time is because it is a complete pit, overgrown with weeds, bad smells, and trash. I like several of the rides there, but who wants to be in a park that smells like a sewer and looks like a landfill?
Focus on the basics, Mr. Shapiro, then reverse engineer Disney...
Properly putting a theme to a ride, especially of the Disney variety, costs a lot of money. Rock N Roller Coaster the off the shelf Vekoma ride (which is what it is) cost maybe 10 million bucks. Disney probably tripled the cost by adding the Aerosmith/music theme and all of the bells and whistles. I'm sure the Everest theme accounted for 70-80 percent of the cost of Expedition Everest. Am I saying that all of Six Flags rides should have that kind of theme? No, but I am saying that if they want to add visuals to a ride and have it look good, it will run up the cost of the rides. Last time I checked, Six Flags was still way in the red.
My problem with Six Flags was not that they put in too many coasters or didn't theme, it was that they never sought to be diverse or unique. In other words, they were building the company like you would McDonalds. There were few of the parks that were unique from the others. Ride clones were everywhere. I had no reason to visit more than one or two parks. If they would make an effort to make each park a unique destination unto itself, perhaps they would have more unique visitors instead of a season pass crowd all year. Season pass holders probably spend way less than a day tripper, especially teenagers with limited disposable income. The limited appeal to kids also kept many families away too. This never happened at other park chains. The Cedar Fair and Paramount (when it existed) chains never skimped on and sometimes heavily invested in their kid areas, so they had no shortage of the family crowds.
Six Flags seemed to treat the food business as a necessary evil instead of a potential profit. Very rarely did I find a decent restaurant to sit down and eat at Six Flags. The food that they did have was nothing more than overpriced fast food, and many times it wasn't even that good. You know it's bad when numerous people leave the park to go to McDonalds. That should never happen. They seem to be addressing this issue with things like the addition of Johnny Rockets. Hopefully they won't stop there.
They skimped on everything but rides. Spending too much on new purchases and improvements killed their operating costs, causing them to cut back on things such as landscaping, ride maintenance, games, gift shops, and other general costs of doing business. In other words, the quality of the park diminished, while the cost of attending went up.
My opinion on the whole thing is this. Six Flags doesn't need to be Disney themed to be successful, it just needs to become a destination resort with more to do than ride roller coasters. I'm talking about investing and improving in rides unique to one park (no clones), shows, waterparks (indoor and out), top notch kids areas, beautifying the park with visuals such as landscaping and water. mini golf courses, gift shops, great restaurants, more quality staff, and when you have the crowds back, hotels. Make the park a two or three day vacation instead of a single day. That's how Disney, Universal, and Cedar Point really do it, by keeping customers there for days at a time at one of their hotels. It can be turned around with some time.
One thing I'll add is that Disney (since that's what Shaprio wants Six Flags to be) does not make a lot of rides that are specifically for kids. Instead, Disney focuses on whole-family attractions. You know, things that everyone can do TOGETHER rather than segregating out the parks into a kids area, a teen area, and a grown-up area.
Six Flags is real bad about having several coasters (48" or higher), several midway rides (42" or higher), and a kiddie area (less than 38"). So as a family man, what am I to do? I have a 10 year old who wants to ride Batman, an 8 year old who wants to ride the River King Mine Train, and a 5 year old who wants to visit the kiddie area. So the family either splits up, or (most likely) tries to balance the tour by hitting a mixture of rides along the way. It can make for a very frustrating and tiring day.
I'll give you another specific example: Worlds of Fun is my local amusement park. It is a small iron ride park with a few nice rides (coasters) and is basically clean, well tended, and moderately fun. However, with my family, I generally find a sitter for my daughter who is just turning 5, because other than a Camp Snoopy area with rides on the level of a touring carnival, there is almost nothing for her to do. Nothing. So, I leave her behind, take the two boys, ride the half dozen good rides a few times, then leave. I generally don't even eat in the park (except for funnel cake - I love funnel cake). So how much does WOF make off my family? Not much. I would warrant I spend more in one visit to Walt Disney World than I spend in a season of visits to Worlds of Fun.
I guess my point is that if Shapiro really wants Six Flags to be more like Disney he has to change his purpose from "I need to add more theming" to "I need to attract more families." And the way to attract families (at least in the Disney model Shapiro wants to mimic) is to provide a means for them to do most of their touring as a group.
At Disney, for the most part, there are plenty of things that the whole family can do (and enjoy) together. And they are not midway rides, but A-list attractions like Soarin', Dinosaur, Kilimanjaro Safaris, Splash Mt, Thunder Mt, Test Track, Kali River Rapids, Pirates, etc, etc - all attractions with 40" or less height requirements. Disney's family oriented focus is exactly the reason why they pull in all those visitors every year....and more importantly, why they pull in all those families who have lots of money (or at least lots of credit cards), and make beau coup bucks!
I really do wish Shapiro the best of luck as he tries to reshape his chain of parks, but if the Six Flags Thrilleaders are his first step toward attracting more families, then he is doomed from the start.
Cedar Point- Coasters abound and limited theming, but they also have 2 kiddie areas, mini-golf, indoor and outdoor waterpark, several hotels, any kind of gift you could want, lots of good sit down restaurants, and a great old school kind of atmosphere. They also make a ton of money on their hotels. A lesson in theming is also to be learned, you can't theme a ride on the cheap....just look at Disaster Transport.
Kings Island- Primarily for their investment in the kids area, Nickelodeon Central. Rides for all sizes and ages and an impeccable brand name for the kids. It's also a lesson in theming. Kings Island swung and missed a little on a couple of themed rides because they didn't put enough money into them.
Silver Dollar City- One of the most beautiful parks out there, and some of the absolute nicest employees in the world. They pull off their own unique theme without breaking the bank by taking advantage of the local culture.
Any family owned operation- Family owned amusement parks have a little extra care put into them. They can't afford to put up 20 million dollar rides every year, so they have to make up for that by providing top notch service and things like free soft drinks and parking. There is very little evidence of corporate America at these places. Examples...Holiday World, Knoebels, Kennywood
So, Mr. Shapiro, don't worry about theming (for now), don't worry about being Disney, worry about taking what you have and improving it. Make your parks unique destinations that are clean, accommodating, customer focused, family-friendly, and in good working order. Once you have all that covered (heh, heh)...well, then...the sky is the limit!
BTW, I love Silver Dollar City...I view it as a mini Disney...very good natured employees, family focused, extremely clean, with fairly strong narratives on several of their attractions. Dollywood is a similar park (owned by the same folks, I think), and Celebration City is a much smaller version of SDC worth an evening of your time in Branson. I consider SDC to be the Disney of the Midwest....quiet and unassuming though it may be....and trust me, I am not saying that cause SDC is just 3 hrs from my house!
I won't give a whole trip report from '06, but here are the "highlights" as I remember them:
The gate opening ceremony was laughable at best, but thankfully the speakers were so bad I couldn't understand a thing any of the "cast members" were singing. They didn't want to be there performing any more than I wanted to be there watching.
We were herded like cattle to the Batman side of the park as it was the only part of the park that actually opened right away. So we went with the crowd.
The sewer smell started almost immediately as we headed toward Batman...maybe it was just a bad day or maybe it was just my picky nature. Anyway, I ignored the scent and moved on....but it was present throughout most of the day, like a shroud of stink when you drive by a sewage treatment plant. Not quite as strong, but present and disturbing nonetheless.
After Batman we started moving in a somewhat counter-clockwise progression around the park...noting that the Six Flags idea of cleanliness is to have a trash can situated every twenty feet. There were more trash cans than employees when the day first started. However, having lots of trash cans does not help if they are never emptied. But I digress....
More than anything else I noticed two things about SFSTL on my last trip: there were weeds everywhere, and the paint was peeling from every ride, statue, and sign. If I remember correctly, there was a planter right next to the Ninja statue at the Ninja coaster. The planter had weeds growing unmolested, and the Ninja statue looked like it had been around since the hey day of feudal Japan. At Mr. Freeze, all the props and buildings were very dirty and desperately in need of a fresh coat of paint. The Screamin' Eagle's tracks were a series of filthy, rust colored wooden planks, which horrified my wife to no end. And The Boss was so unkempt that I think my back and neck still hurt from the painful ride. The Scooby Do shoot em ride was so poorly maintained that the props looked like something pulled from the attic of some long past city theater production. And don't even get me started on the restrooms and food areas. OMG...it was awful. But more importantly, I felt like the park was just not safe or sanitary and could not wait to get my family out of there.
One more point, when I go to ride EK this year, it is only because I think Great Coasters International makes the best wooden coasters around. I will probably just pop in, ride EK a few times, then bolt. Thankfully, EK is situated very near the entrance on the left hand side of the park. Easy to get to and easy to leave!
Having said all that, when I do go to SFSTL, I will issue an update if things have improved. However, there is no way that park could have become the lush, well maintained paradise you described since I went in August of '06. It is certainly possible things could have improved, and based on your comments I will be cautiously optimistic about our August trip this year.
Freakin' Busch Family...
That's it, I am canceling my BGE trip in protest!!! =)
I personally see Six Flags as an open canvas to work with. Midway rides, Iron rides, no matter what ride, just get the people into the parks and keep them there for extended lengths of time. Have them enjoy waiting in line instead of feeling like livestock being moved along until they reach there final destination to find out the wait was not worth the trouble. Make the people feel like thy aren't getting carnival style food, drinks, etc....
Look at company reports on earnings in detail and see where profits are made and lost. Sure, million dollar rides bring in income, but if Shapiro has any business knowledge, big ticket items are the icing on the cake so to speak. Let's just see how well he can bake a cake with the ingrediants he has to work with.
Walt Disney World
Tokyo Disney Resort