Lessons from the 'Best Ride' tournament

April 9, 2008, 3:27 PM · After taking a day off to recover, here are the lessons I've learned from our first Best Ride in America tournament.

1) Parks really need to invest in interactive technology.

I am convinced that the deciding factor in the final match-up between Tower or Terror and Spider-Man was not a Disney vs. Universal conflict, larger attendance at Disney's Hollywood Studios or fatigue with Spider-Man winning so many honors from this site over the years. It was the fact that Spider-Man offers the same ride every time one goes on it, and Tower of Terror does not. Tower or Terror's random drop sequences make each ride unique, a strong appeal for the video game generation.

Tomorrow's theme park rides must be unpredictable. As on Buzz Lightyear, Men in Black and the upcoming Toy Story Mania rides, readers should be rewarded for riding again and again, with a different experience each time. Tower of Terror achieves its unpredictability in a different way than those shoot-'em-ups, but the ultimate effect is the same. Ride again, and you'll have a different experience than last time. That's part of the appeal of playing a video game in lieu of re-watching a movie. It's also part of the appeal of any live performance (no two SeaWorld shows are exactly alike).

Want to attract kids raised on the unpredictability of video games? Want those kids to keep hauling their families to your theme park? You'd better offer them rides that stay fresh after multiple visits.

2) Leave the children's rides out of the tournament

As I explained in an earlier comment, a "best ride" tournament that includes all types of rides, from roller coasters to flume to dark rides, is going to have some mismatches. Especially in the early rounds. But I could avoided a couple turkeys had I left rides that appeal solely to young children out of the draw.

I'd already decided to exclude shows from the tournament (making it a 'best ride' contest instead of a 'best attraction' one). Some children's ride, such as Dumbo, got into the draw based on their relatively strong reader ratings and large number of reviews. Those ratings were based on parents' assessment of how those rides entertained their young children, as they should have been. But the simplicity and elegance that makes top children's rides so much fun for toddlers and early elementary kids makes them boring and often inappropriate for older kids and grown-ups who are not just riding along with a younger pal.

When we do this tournament again, I will make an additional effort to leave those rides out. Which, will clear the way for...

3) Use discretion to admit more "wild card" candidates

Curse of DarKastle should have been in this tournament. So should have Universal Hollywood's Backlot Tour. A handful of really engaging rides, that had not gotten a minimum number of votes or who got beaten out by higher-rated kiddie rides, did not make the cut for the final 64. Next year, I plan to take a closer look at the rides in the bottom quarter of the draw, and to use my editorial judgment to exclude some of them should I feel another ride is more deserving of inclusion in the tournament.

I'll also reserve the right to reorder to bottom half of the draw to create better first-round match-ups. Remember, top seeded rides deserve to face lower seeded ones, and in the first round, that's going to mean some mismatches. And I'd rather have the mismatches early, rather than create a roller coaster bracket, a flume ride bracket and a dark ride bracket, which simply would postpone the mismatches to the later rounds.

But I could have shifted a few match-ups around to make for more engaging battles in round one. Adding a few overlooked rides into the mix will help me to do that.

4) We need more ratings for parks outside the U.S.

Disneyland Paris' Space Mountain: Mission 2 should have been in this tournament. Its reader rating on the site would have placed in the top half of the draw. But I thought the ride would have been at a huge disadvantage as the only ride outside the U.S. in the tournament. Many readers were not comfortable voting on match-ups where they had not ridden both rides. So to help make the match-ups reasonable for those readers, I decided to limit the initial tournament to U.S. rides.

Ideally, though, I would love for this to be a 'Best Ride in the World' tournament. For that, though, we need to have more ratings and reviews submitted for rides at parks outside the U.S. As a website written in English, we've limited ourselves to non-U.S. parks that attract a substantial English-speaking audience. And that's not likely to change. But we could get more input from folks in Europe, and maybe even Japan, on the Disney, Tussauds and Universal parks there. The more international visitors we get on TPI, the more inclusive our tournaments can be.

And yes, I used the plural there. I am mulling ideas for additional tournaments, as well as additional efforts I can make to get more readers involved in contributing content to the site. Remember, we have a trip report contest this month for anyone visiting the new Hard Rock Park. I'd also like to elicit more thoughtful essays from readers about their park experiences.

The idea for this tournament came from a reader. So I'd like to ask you to suggest whatever you'd like to us do on the site to make this a more fun, engaging and informative place to visit. Thanks again.

Replies (19)

April 9, 2008 at 4:04 PM · With regards to the "theme park generation", I am shocked to see that no video game producing companies (Nintendo, Microsoft, PlayStation...) have invested in theme park entertainment. Imagine being able to ride the games. The possibilities are endless, even if only for Nintendo.

Back in the day, I proposed a MarioKart attraction in which guests ride in go-karts with 3-D glasses that reenact the world of Mario. They would also be equipped with weapons that they could use, and when they did their 3-D weapon (banana, turtle shell, etc.) could be seen ejecting from their car. If another player drove over the weapon, their car would spin out of control or slow down.

Another one I've contemplated is a StarFox ride in which you sit in a capsule similar to that on Mission: Space, except that you're in control of the on-screen action and your vehicle would bob, dip, turn, flip, and rotate based on your controls. You'd go through the level with your teammates and take out baddies. As in the game, you could talk to each other with webcam-style equipment.

With regards to the shoot-em-ups, Resident Evil would be perfect for a creepy interactive attraction. Zombies with body sensors (cleverly disguised so as not to ruin the illusion) would attack your car, jumping out at perfect locations so that the ride is both fun and terrifying. Other villains include zombie dogs, crows, crimson heads, leeches, and other baddies from the popular franchise. Oh, and the best part - just like in the game, your performance determines what happens next. So, for example, if you were to, say, save an animatronic scientist from getting eaten, your cart would be programmed to go into a laboratory. If the scientist got killed due to your lack of skill, your cart would venture into the graveyard. This would really enhance the re-ride-ability, as the adventures, scores, ending, and scares would change on each run-through.

April 9, 2008 at 4:49 PM · To hell with Harry Potter. Joshua's idea should have been the new Island at IOA.
April 9, 2008 at 4:53 PM · I agree that making the ride experience different each time is something that makes people get on a ride again and again. As much as I do like ToT, I think that a ride that has even MORE variables would be the ultimate ride.
Even a roller coaster (along the lines of Revenge of the Mummy and Expedition Everest) could use this idea. There are sections during the ride where the cars move on a turntable to a different track. What if that same turntable had 3 different tracks the cars could move to? The rider could get a different experience each time.
Mummy follows a story during the ride. With turntables that send the riders off in different directions, the story could end differently depending on which way the riders go.

Also, I agree that this tournament didn't come down to Disney vs. Universal at all because I like Universal better and voted for ToT. And I'm sure there are people who did the opposite. (someone even mentioned that in another comment)

April 9, 2008 at 5:29 PM · I do agree with rides having different experiences for each ride, which probably is the reason why I've been on the Tower Of Terror in WDW 30 X in one day, Although, other rides like the Hulk in islands of adventure and Rockin' Roller coaster at WDW have always been exiting because of the thrill loops and twists. To me, if a ride isn't a ride that has loops and twists and launches, like a dark ride or a slow ride, is SHOULD have a unique ride each many times.
April 9, 2008 at 5:59 PM · For me, especially with dark rides like Pitates of the Carribbean, I'd only bother riding it if the wait isnt too long of they add something new,Like when they added Jonny Depp. Besides that, its just the same old dark ride.
Not saying its a bad ride, though.

Ps. they need real fire on that ride!

April 9, 2008 at 7:54 PM · Apologies to Robert, but I have to admit that one thing I learned from this tournament was...

Far fewer people read this website than I would have guessed. Most rounds of voting had only 400 votes. The final had only 1200. Such a tiny number, when you consider that Disneyland alone has 40,000 visitors on an average day.

It is kind of interesting that so many people visit theme parks, yet so few people are actually "into" theme parks.

So I'm afraid it's hard to really draw good conclusions from this tournament. It tells us what rides theme park aficionados like the best, but that doesn't necessarily tell us what average theme park customers want!

April 9, 2008 at 9:49 PM · Between 7,000-8,000 people a day are reading the site now. Traffic will go up as we move into summer, then dip in August, recover a bit for the Halloween season, then slide to its low point around Christmas. After New Year's traffic starts climbing up again.

Most folks are reading in the park listings, though; the home page gets between 1,000-2,000 readers a day. Why more people do not vote, I have no idea. Some people just prefer to lurk.

Altogether, the site gets around 2.6 million readers a year, which means more people read the site in 2007 than visited Magic Mountain, if TEA/ERA attendance data is to be believed.

As for comparisons with other theme park-related websites, the only third party I've found that tracks and publishers actual readership data for participating websites is Quantcast, which lists Theme Park Insider as getting more monthly readers than Screamscape, Mouseplanet or Yesterland, which are the only other theme park sites for which Quantcast is collecting actual readership data. (Its traffic data for other sites is based on survey data and can be wildly inaccurate, as is Alexa's.)

It's been a while since I've done a random-sample survey of the site's readers, but our demo is pretty good. It's not all coaster fans, not is it all Disney loyalists. If we skew in any direction, it is toward parents with families and the income to support an out-of-town vacation. So our site's readership better reflects the general population that's willing to travel out-of-market to visit theme parks than most other sites.

April 10, 2008 at 12:04 AM · Interesting ideas about interactivity and unpredicatable rides. But...I hope not every new ride ever produced from now on will be 3D/interactive/have variable endings and/or be a ride version of a video game. Variety is also an important key to a great theme park, which means different kinds of attractions, and not just slavish use of the latest technology. For example, while 3D rides may be the wave of the future, I, for one, would find it a bit wearying if every new ride from now on is in 3D. I would miss animatronics, the immersive environments in traditional dark rides, coasters, etc.

As for the idea of a Resident Evil type of ride/game, let's not forget that a lot of video games aren't exactly for young kids. Also...in a game, if a zombie jumps on your car and you fail to blast them, they eat you. Is that what's going to happen in a ride?

April 10, 2008 at 12:52 AM · The "Best Ride tournament" is a great idea, even if web voting has its limit (fans can "charge" a ride to make it win, but after all, it is part of the game as it shows that a given ride does have a strong fan base).
A suggestion to Robert Niles (sorry if you have done that before) : why not a tournament of the best closed rides?
I bet the mythical EPCOT's Horizons should have a chance...
For me it was the most awe-inspiring, great future ahead, experience of all times. But others will surely have an another loved closed ride. So the interest of a tournament...
April 10, 2008 at 1:41 AM · Thanks, Steve.
Sylvain - Yeah, I thought about that too. But I thought, hey - they have height restrictions on rides, why couldn't they put an age restriction on them? If a kid is seen entering without a parent, they won't be admitted. Also, haven't figured out that second problem ... I imagine if they get close enough, points just get taken off your score. Something simple along those lines.
April 10, 2008 at 2:25 AM · Personally, I like the idea of interactive rides, and I think they definitely have some future.

But parks with a high proportion of interactivity may not be fully understood, at least their business model.

I'm thinking specifically about DisneyQuest. Didn't Disney create some of these, and then abandon them?

I also see failures (locally where I live) of similar concepts like LAN gaming lounges, both stand-alone and co-located with a movie complex.

IMHO, some (most?) people won't pay theme park admission for the same experience they can get at home with a console and an HDTV.

That tells me you really need rides like ToT, MiB, Buzz Lightyear. I think some interesting ideas are planned for the new USF coaster (rip ride rockit?), and these ideas could easily be migrated. Motion simulators could become more interactive, or at least richer like ToT using random content, perhaps story based. I like the ideas above from another post for The Mummy.

So, IMHO DisneyQuest as a stand-alone probably failed due to insufficient critical mass of valuable attractions. Some DQ still do fine, but as an increment over existing critical mass (e.g. DQ at WDW).

I'd like to see more nifty attractions, but they must be profitable if they'll ever be built.

April 10, 2008 at 4:28 AM · know it'd be pretty much impossible unless a lot of people contribute, but what if we had basically a season leading up to the tournament with head to head matchups so the top 64 are the fairest they could be. Divisions would be regions and 2pts would be awarded for each win. We narrow the league down to like 100 rides, just an idea.
And btw I really like the Mario Kart idea, Joshua.
April 10, 2008 at 5:13 AM · To get the really big attendance numbers, parks need immersive theming, quality attractions for the whole family to experience together, signature thrill rides, above average or better food, and friendly, helpful "cast members." It is a package deal, and you better have it all if you want to be among the elite.

I think at a basic level, people just want to go somewhere that allows them to fully escape their everyday lives, and do something that seems extraordinary. Virtual theme parks like DisneyQuest can be PART of the package, but you better have something more up your sleeve or your destination will become a niche product.

As for readership, I was actually surprised at how many people did vote. I was pretty sure my love of theme parks was just another quirky thing that was part of my messed up gene pool, but instead it was nice to find there are quite a few others out there who are just as "crazy" as me. And some even crazier....Cedar Point must be cringing that 2.6 million readers think good old Jake is the main demographic they are aiming to please!

(No offense intended, Jake, I am just pointing out that your anti-geriatric, middle finger waving rants might actually be hurting attendance at your favorite amusement park...something to consider for your next kinder, gentler, comment!)

By the way, all the ride ideas posted so far are brilliant. I just hope the right people are reading them!

April 10, 2008 at 10:33 AM · Olivier, that is best idea for another tournament that I've read so far.
April 10, 2008 at 11:51 AM · ride the games...I love it...WHY DO video game makers not partner with parks or create their own parks based on titles in their catalogs. There surely are enough of them out there. Could you imagine "PlayStation Park" and "Worlds of Nintendo" being destinations? Final Fantasy and Mario could have their own parks by themselves, not to mention any other titles...HOLY COW!!!

(thats right, I said holy cow...I thought it was appropriate)

April 10, 2008 at 1:59 PM · I've had that very same thought for years. The video game industry could be one of the biggest boosts for the theme/amusement park industry. Surely somebody in the corporate office has thought that this would be a good idea. Nintendo would be the perfect vehicle for an amusement park chain to take in. There must be some issue with money or licensing or something, because it would be a huge draw. Any investors out there want to give it a shot with me?

I would just suggest that folks give some smaller parks a visit. The park industry doesn't revolve around Disney, Universal, Busch, and Cedar Point/Kings Island. All are great places with different offerings, but there are so many other great rides and parks to visit that just aren't talked about that much. Here's to some of the little guys once again.

Kennywood- Pittsburgh, PA
Holiday World- Santa Claus, IN
Knoebels- Elysburg, PA

And some medium guys that deserve a visit...
Six Flags Fiesta Texas- San Antonio, TX
Hersheypark- Hershey, PA
Kings Dominion- Richmond, VA
Silver Dollar City- Branson, MO

April 11, 2008 at 2:26 AM · Robert, thank you! I am sure, whatever the result is (you know my preference...), that it is going to be very interesting to analyse.
April 13, 2008 at 5:30 PM · I've been to five:

Great Adventure
Morey's Piers (Wildwood, NJ)
Dorney Park
Playland (Vancouver)

This year I'm hoping to hit up Busch Gardens Europe, Sea World San Antonio, and Six Flags Fiesta Texas as well this year, along with Schlitterbahn and Water Country USA waterparks.

By the way, the one thing this site really lacks is good waterpark coverage.

April 13, 2008 at 5:31 PM · Oh wow, I commented on the wrong post. That was quite a spastic moment. Sorry about that!

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