Picking the right theme for kids' attractions: Or, how the newspaper industry's decline will affect theme parks

September 10, 2009, 10:57 AM · Picking the right theme for an attraction is art unto itself. Often, a new attraction concept begins with the "IP," or intellectual property - the theme. You want a "Men in Black" or a "Monsters, Inc." attraction, and go from there. But other times, you begin with a demographic or a ride model, and look for a theme that fits.

For kid-focused attractions, the job's even more difficult. Kids have a much more limited cultural palette than adults, given that they've only been alive for a few years and haven't had time to amass the cultural references that grown-ups can access. For toddler attractions, the options are even more limited.

I remember a children's musical concert that Laurie performed in about 15 years ago, in Lincoln, Nebraska. The conductor asked the kids in the crowd to identify the next song the orchestra would play, which turned out to be the theme to "The Muppet Show." The parents recognized the tune instantly, but not one kid in the crowd had a clue. None of them had ever seen "The Muppet Show," which had long been off the air then and not yet available on video.

Just because a theme appealed to grown-ups when they were kids does not insure that it will resonate with today's kids. Theme park managers and designers must spend time with children, and immerse themselves in their culture, in order to select the themes that will engage those kids for the next generation.

Ideally, given that theme park attractions often stand for 20 years or more, they will select a theme that will resonate beyond a single generation. Time-tested books, such as Dr. Seuss', and established movie franchises, such as Toy Story, provided the safest bets for these themes.

Comic strips used to provide a safe bet, too. Once established in newspapers' funny pages, top comics endured for decades, hooking new generations of fans with fresh material daily.

As many of you probably know, I have a side gig as a media critic, and spent more than a decade working as an editor, reporter and commentator for newspapers. The newspaper industry is dying, as decades operating as monopolies have left papers ill-prepared to handle fresh competition online. One of my former papers, Denver's Rocky Mountain News, has closed already. Others will soon, while the papers that survive lay off staff and trim their pages.

Almost all of what newspapers do will be done, and often better, online. Websites, including those produced by newspaper companies, are providing breaking news, investigations, commentary and analysis and more data than papers could ever have provided in print. The one feature that doesn't seem to be porting well to the online environment is... the funny pages: comic strips.

Sure, most strips have their own websites. But those appeal to established readers of the strips. New readers don't have a convenient place to go to find a variety of fresh strips each day, the way they did when the newspaper came to their doorstep each morning or afternoon. Today's kids are more likely to look to online-friendly formats like video for their daily dose of humor, rather than to static three- or four-panel comic strips. Classmates at my kids' school aren't talking about old Peanuts re-runs; they're watching Fred and Happy Tree Friends.

I predict that comic strips will be the first casualty of the newspaper industry's demise. And that will affect theme parks. Parks simply can't maintain attractions based on comic-strip themes and expect them to connect with kids beyond this generation, in the best-case scenario. Frankly, comic strip themes probably are already lost on today's kids.

That leaves parks using comic-strip themes with a choice: Dump them, or take the responsibility to recast these characters as the parks' own. The second option ain't cheap; it requires flooding the park with many more characters to introduce them to the kids, as well as writing and producing shows that will establish the characters' stories and personalities. Even then, these characters will resonate only with kids once they've visited the area, and the park will lose the potential for audience growth that comes from kids begging their parents to take them to see their favorite characters, the way that young Disney character fans beg for trips to Disneyland and Walt Disney World.

Of course, there is a third choice: Do nothing, and watch you kids' land languish as bored children wonder who those funny-looking characters are, with many of them just getting creeped out and begging to leave.

In this light, Cedar Fair's decision to expand, rather than discard, the Camp Snoopy theme threatens to become disastrously short-sighted. While saving the company on licensing fees in the short term, sticking itself with a comic-strip theme could cost the company significant growth in the long term, unless it assumes the responsibility to establish a narrative for these characters within their parks, then market the heck out of them to kids, especially online.

Universal's not off the hook, either. Disney will soon own the characters in Islands of Adventure's Marvel Super Hero Island. Much of the adjacent Toon Lagoon references comic strip characters. Once the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is open, Universal will need to take a hard look at the theming for the opposite end of IOA, and may need to make some changes to ensure the viability of that corner of the park for the decades to come.

I've spent too much of my professional life watching newspapers commit financial suicide. I have little patience for watching theme parks inflict costly wounds upon themselves, as well.

Previously: Should theme parks build kids' lands?

Replies (15)

September 10, 2009 at 11:09 AM · Well, the Marvel Characters and many other comic book characters have found new life in the movies
September 10, 2009 at 12:27 PM · Not sure I necessarily agree with your assessment of camp Snoopy. I am a child of the 80's and never really got into the "funnies" as my father called them but I knew of the peanuts gang growing up through the holiday specials. My 5 year old daughter loves the 'great pumpkin' and 'A charlie brown xmas' so she is familiar with the characters.

The Barney show at universal however, is a good example of a dated attraction...if it weren't for an old Barney video I picked up at the discount rack at one of the big box stores she would have had no idea who Barney was.

It will be interesting to see if anyone climbs on this 'miss spider' series that seems to be gaining traction at least with my kids.

September 10, 2009 at 12:49 PM · Anthony, there's a huge difference between comic books and comic strips. None of what I wrote applies to comic books, which have their own distribution system and strong alliances with TV and movie development, thanks to Disney's ownership of Marvel and Warner Bros' ownership of DC.

As for Barney, it still runs on our local PBS station, though at 5 am. It's definitely a franchise that theme parks should be watching for weakness.

September 10, 2009 at 2:04 PM · I do agree with you that the best approach to design a kids area is to start with a franchise that they know. I do think though that the most important part of a good kids land is the design itself. As increasingly foreign as Snoopy is to kids, if Cedar Fair surprises us all with the design of the century...complete with set pieces, vivid colors, and themes, then the Peanuts place in pop culture will be a non-issue because the place will look good and the kids will love it.

A good designer, along with a good park to manage it and enough, can build a land using breakfast or the backyard as the theme and be successful. A prime example is Legoland. They created a whole park based on a boy's toy. Not big ticket Marvel Comics or Disney characters, but a simple plastic block that we all know and love. Legos aren't nearly as big as they used to be, but they are ageless because of their simplicity and because they are passed down from parent to child. The same goes with the Peanuts. What keeps them alive each year is it's simplicity the parents who grew up with them passing them down to their kids, as I am to mine. While that's not the ideal situation for theming a kids area, it will do if they can wow the audience with a great design. I'm not talking about a single ride or two, but rather a whole design with continuity and atmosphere, much like Nick Universe, who's sum was greater than it's parts. Only by that formula will Camp Snoopy enjoy the same success as Nick Universe has. Of course with Cedar Fair, it may be a pretty big if we are talking about.

I don't know about the newspaper, but I'm still waiting for the park company that cashes in on one of the fastest growing and most profitable forms of entertainment...the video game. Where is the Nintendo land?...I'll repeat, where is the Nintendo land? The other two platforms, XBox and Playstation, have their franchises that cater mostly to boys 10 and up, which could make for some great attractions. Very few images are as familiar to the 20-40 crowd, and an ever increasing amount of their children, as those classic Nintendo characters, who are still around and selling millions of games every year. Where is it park execs?

September 10, 2009 at 2:10 PM · Whoops, sorry, I didn't read that assesment close enough.

Got the point: Dick Tracy

But then again, Snoopy is known for those animated features (The Great Pumpkin, that whimpy little Christmas Tree, etc), but you are right, how relevent?

If that is the case, how was Disney able to keep their stuff so fresh? Is this the reason for the vault? I am just curious though I know that Mickey Mouse Clubhouse and Mickey's House of Mouse helped alot.

Still, whenever I think of Mall of America, I think of Camp Snoopy. I am old.

September 10, 2009 at 3:16 PM · I find it completely hilarious and ironic, but the Simpsons episode on right now (6-6:30pm) is about a comic strip Bart wrote about Homer called "Angry Dad" that got turned into an online animated series. :):):):):)
September 10, 2009 at 4:08 PM · I like Dereks' idea, where's Mario Bros. Zachary has been playing them for almost seven years now. I think the video game concept is a valid one from Derek, I don't know the exact number of games Zachary has, but it's got to be over 100. That's alot of ideas to choose from.
September 10, 2009 at 6:09 PM · Actually Lego is bigger than ever, the NYT just did a big piece on it:


I don't think Robert is giving the Peanuts gang enough credit; they're an established international brand that is truly loved around the world. The Nick characters are flash in the pan with little staying power beyond their screen shelf life. Like Legos, the Peanuts holiday specials are passed down from parents to children so the comic strip aspect is not material to Snoopy's lasting success with kids. Cedar Fair made the right move dumping Nick for Snoopy as a financial decision to save money on IP and as a lasting connection to its young audience. If only CF would put some money into making Camp Snoopy look really nice with some decent non-carny rides, but that's another story.

September 10, 2009 at 6:24 PM · I do agree with Robert: the Peanuts gang is a dead or dying franchise, may it rest in piece. Even the holiday specials are dated and unappealing.

Derek's idea for a Nintendo Land is perfect. There is little doubt that the vast landscape of today's video game franchises will eventually lead to the theme park characters of the future. Nintendo Land would be a huge success and it shocks me that no one has yet made the attempt.

Derek, lets hit Pres. Obama up for a some of that bailout money and make things happen!

September 10, 2009 at 8:17 PM · Smart theme park companies don't build attractions based on what an IP is. They build based on what the IP will be. Don't look where something is now - look where it will be going in the decade or two to come. (Parks need to make their investment pay by having the attraction last a loooong time.)

Do you think that this IP will endure? Or, can you make it endure for future audiences with attractions that will remain fresh for years?

Let's put it another way: If your IP's continued cultural relevancy depends primarily upon the distribution medium of newspapers, you've got a problem going forward.

September 10, 2009 at 11:05 PM · Wow... I didn't realize how... young... I was until I read this article and comments.
Although the litt'uns may not know who Barney or Snoopy is... I think as long as the kid's area has enough things to touch, see, play on, and ride, they don't care what the theme is.
Example is... ME!!! I don't who 90% of those characters are in the comic section of IOA... but I have mad fun there b/c of the water attractions and all the stupid, little photo ops.
When you think about it more, I think most kids today think of Disney as the land of Jonas Brothers, High School Musical, and Finding Nemo. Do they seriously know that Dumbo was a flying elephant or Peter Pan... or that the dragon is from Sleeping Beauty? Yet, the kids are DYING to go to the Disney parks-- and I think it's because the parks were built so well-- with great shows, rides, and attractions-- that it doesn't matter if the kids are too young to recognize the characters.
September 11, 2009 at 8:47 AM · The kids at your kid's school are watching "Happy Tree Friends"? Have you ever seen "Happy Tree Friends"? It's one of the most intentionally violent, subversive, adult spoofs of cartoons ever made. It makes "Itchy and Scratchy" look tame. I'm trying to imagine Happy Tree Friends Land at King's Island. That might be the way to go during Fright Fest!
September 13, 2009 at 11:44 AM · What gets me about the whole situation is the lack of vision a lot of parks have. Where are the original ideas anymore? Sadly the only park I know of where they do not rely on a well known kid brand is Sea World. They have a great kids area....not a brand to be seen anywhere. If parks would invest whatever they could into their own brands, they might get some surprises...heck, they can make movies out of POTC...not a brand that was originally recognized, but it became recognizable. Why can't another park do the same?
September 14, 2009 at 12:53 PM · I have to agree that Peanuts is a dying property, but I thought that a LONG time ago.
I have to agree that a good attraction will be good regardless of the IP. My kids have no idea who Mr Toad is, but they love that attraction (in DL).
As long as the attraction is good, kids (and adults) will enjoy it. That is the probelm with Camp Snoopy. It's not the theme, it's the off the shelf, poorly themed junk they have there.
September 15, 2009 at 7:12 AM · Long ago I posted my idea for a theme park base on video games. I am still working on this and plan on calling it GameWorld. I believe if you look back in the the Theme Park Insider archives you will see my post. That being said, it is a major undertaking to develop theme parks. I have spoken with Tom Williams, CEO of Universal, regarding the merits of the idea, and he doesn't believe that the United States may see another theme park developed because of what happened to HardRock. Of course I disagreed. Video games make the perfect theme for the next wave of new generation theme park. I'll try and keep you all posted as I work to develop the park.

Terrence Gallman

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