The 20 things every great theme park should have

May 20, 2016, 1:03 PM · What makes a theme park great? Powerful franchises with memorable characters and thrilling rides have helped push the Disney and Universal theme parks to the top of the annual attendance charts. But a park doesn't need expensive IP and record-setting thrill rides to become great. Here are 20 elements that any theme park can add to help elevate it to world-class status.

We're not counting the legal requirements here - such as safe facilities and access for people with disabilities. These 20 elements are the sometimes-little, sometimes-big other things that the world's top theme parks offer which distinguish them from the competition.

A photogenic, iconic landmark that draws people into the park

A great theme park wants thousands of fans posting selfies that tell the world, unmistakably, where they are - and that makes their friends wish they were there, too.

Beautiful landscaping

No one dreams of a vacation to a carnival in a parking lot. Think how many theme parks around the world have had "Gardens" in their names. Great theme parks create beautiful environments you long to visit.

Multiple attractions with no height restrictions, that appeal to all ages

Walt was right. Families want to do things together. Height restrictions divide families, but no one wants to spend time on boring attractions, either.

Enough available attraction capacity to keep peak waits for non-new attractions under 90 minutes

Sure, wait times can be crazy for this year's new ride - whatever and wherever it is. But the older stuff shouldn't keep us waiting. Long lines for old attractions is the sign of an underfunded, poorly-planned park. On peak days, 90 minutes is the reasonable limit, but on less-crowded days, nothing should cause us to wait more than an hour.

A high-capacity, slow-moving indoor ride

They don't get the headlines like a record-breaking coaster and they're hard to pull off - as fans have time to pay attention to detail on slow-moving rides. But a great dark ride sucks in guests, reducing wait times elsewhere in the park while allowing visitors to enjoy a great experience together.

A large-scale, sit-down, indoor show

On a hot summer vacation day, sometimes you just want to sit in a dark, air-conditioned theater for a while. Great theme parks know this and make plenty of these shows available.

A playground

And at other times, the kids are sick of standing and sitting and just need to run around for a while. Great theme parks create unique, engaging environments for kids to do it.

All long queues (10 min+) are shaded or indoors

The top health problems at theme parks? Sunburns and other heat-related maladies. Let us wait in the shade, for goodness' sake.

Shortcuts across the park

Whether it's via a well-landscaped path or a scenic train, boat, or skyway ride, great parks let us get from Point A to Point D without having to walk around the perimeter of the park.

Table-service restaurants

Again, sitting and chilling is the key to keeping visitors from getting tired, overheated, and cranky during their (let's face it) expensive day in the parks. Not everyone wants a sit-down lunch or dinner, but great parks give us those options.

Easy-to-order allergen-free food options

We love the way that Disney and other top parks bring out chefs to consult with people about food allergies when they order their meals. But great parks also make a wide variety allergen-free food available on a grab-and-go basis, too.

Non-fried, low-carb, vegetable-containing food options

Yes, a day in the park is a special indulgence. But not everyone equates having a good time with fatty, sugar-laden food. Great parks allow us a wide variety of taste options - beyond fried, fatty and sweet.

A unique, signature food item

From Disney's Mickey ice cream bars to Universal's Butterbeer, great theme parks offer your palate something it can't find anywhere else.

Family bathrooms, plus changing tables in ALL bathrooms

When it's that time, parents don't want the hassle of navigating a restroom that makes it difficult for their children to, well, do their business.

Kiddie toilets

And for kids who are toilet training, automatic "grown-up" toilets are a horror. But kid-sized toilets are a dream.

Free, accurate wait-time app or webpage

Everyone understands that popular attractions are going to have a wait. But great parks communicate well with their visitors, allowing fans to know what's happening throughout the park, so we can plan accordingly.

Free, usable Wifi in the park

A wait time app or website is of no use if we can't access it. We've paid enough to get into the park - we shouldn't have to pay for data on a swamped mobile network to get that information, either. Great parks have great wifi.

Free, accessible electrical sockets

And great parks give us places to recharge our mobile phones - for free - so that we can get our money's worth and spend the whole day in the parks, without having to go outside to recharge.

Park-branded and attraction-branded merchandise

Fans can be a park's best marketing force. So why not give us a slew of park- and attraction-branded shirts and souvenirs for us to take home and promote the park to others? (And, yes, we're talking to you here, Islands of Adventure!)

Well-trained, experienced, and empowered employees

If there's a common theme here, it's that great theme parks provide great service that accommodates the needs of their visitors. Doing that ultimately requires a great team. But companies need to pay, train, and support their employees to the point where they can stick around and develop the experience necessary to provide world-class service. Minimum wage jobs with high-turnover, and bosses who treat employees as a commodity, don't make a theme park great. Invest in your people if you want theme park fans to invest in your park.

What would you add to our list?

Replies (27)

May 20, 2016 at 1:14 PM · 1) Great themeing, be it landscape, lakes, to the background. 2) Worldclass attractions for the whole family.
May 20, 2016 at 1:36 PM · I believe a great theme park should start and end its day in a way that is special. Have an opening ceremony, close the night with fireworks, or just line up the employees to greet or wave goodbye to people.

A great theme park is something we visit on a special day. A special day at a great theme park should celebrate it's beginning and end.

May 20, 2016 at 1:44 PM · I guess this falls inline with wait time app or webpage, but to have the park send you updates and improvements, via email, to the park or what new thing is around the corner, keep visitors in the loop to whats going on in the parks. Universal sends me emails and discounts that always keeps us excited about our upcoming trips. Good read Robert
May 20, 2016 at 2:49 PM · At first I was getting a bit offended by your list until I noticed it was about great THEME parks. Cedar Point, as people are fond of pointing out, is not a theme park. It doesn't have a traditional "icon", nor a dark ride (yet), nor several other "must haves " on the list, but nobody who has been there can say honestly that it's not a great AMUSEMENT park.
May 20, 2016 at 3:07 PM · Great job Robert!

All these things are fantastic things that bring you back to a theme park.

As part of empowering employees, I would add great customer service .... I know how they feel when things go wrong and people get nasty, but when they make you feel special even though it wasn't their issue that is great.

Last year we had a bit of a time getting on the Transformer ride with extremely long lines. On our last day, we decided to wait however long so we could get at least one ride. After an hour of waiting, it was shut down. We came back later and it was still closed. When we got back the third time the lineups were again stupid long. I asked the attendent how long the wait would be and he said at least 1 1/2 hours. I guess he saw my disappointment as I explained what had happened throughout the day. He apologized for what had happened and let us in through the express line (and yes, I was polite about the whole thing, it wasn't his fault).

This type of customer service where we didn't demand or expect anything made our day and is a reason that we will continue to come back.

May 20, 2016 at 4:47 PM · 90 minutes is a reasonable limit for a wait? I completely disagree. That's excessive. The maximum limit should be one-hour.
May 20, 2016 at 6:08 PM · I would add:
1) A night time show (Fireworks preferably)
2) A trash can every 10 meters
3) A well paved and big enough parking lot
May 20, 2016 at 6:43 PM · It's funny, a lot of the things on your list are what Walt wanted when he opened Disneyland, and were ground-breaking ideas at the time. A slow moving, high capacity indoor ride is something that Universal needs, it has the thrilling rides, but it needs a long slow moving ride like Pirates or even Small World to balance things out for the whole family.
May 20, 2016 at 7:16 PM · Good list, but it's pretty much describing Disney theme parks. There's no wifi in any theme parks that I've been in. Universal Studios Hollywood have no wait list app even by 3rd party developers.
May 20, 2016 at 7:21 PM · The only thing I might disagree with on this list is giving guests access to electrical outlets. There is just too much potential for abuse here, such as guests bringing a laptop and hanging out for hours. Instead, having charging stations for guests to plug phones in is a better idea, or just don't provide anything as a phone shouldn't be necessary to enjoy a theme park.

As for things missing from this list, I would add the following (in no particular order):
1. An efficient way to access the park. Finding the parking area shouldn't be a hassle at all, and it should be possible to be at the gate within 15 minutes of entering the parking area.
2. A one-of-a-kind attraction that can't be found anywhere else. There needs to be a reason to pick the park over its competition, so having just a collection of cloned or reskinned attractions isn't cutting it.
3. A package holding service. You shouldn't be required to carry souvenirs around with you all day and should always be able to just retrieve them at a convenient location before departure.
4. A skip the line system. Whether it is free or paid, the option should be available to all guests in order to maximize the amount they can do in a day.
5. A child swap option. Not everyone can or wants to ride every attraction, so there should always be a way to easily accommodate parties with a range of ages among children.

May 20, 2016 at 7:41 PM · Add in an affordable price and you have just described Knotts Berry Farm.
May 20, 2016 at 8:38 PM · But a park doesn't need expensive IP and record-setting thrill rides to become great. Which theme parks are great that don't have these?
May 20, 2016 at 11:22 PM · I agree that easy access in and out of the park or parking lot is important. The single biggest headache for me at any theme park is trying to leave Sea World Orlando. I am never sure how exactly to get out of there.
May 21, 2016 at 7:26 AM · @James Kohl: I think Cedar Point actually does very well against this list (although it's been too many years since I've been so I can't say for certain). What it could use: an icon, more no-height restriction rides, and a great indoor ride. But it has great landscaping, mostly friendly employees, ways around the park and more.
May 21, 2016 at 10:43 AM · Great churros were left off the list. Therefore the list is invalid.
May 21, 2016 at 12:59 PM · Anon Mouse: USH actually has really solid wait times on their mobile site. I don't have the URL offhand but I usually just search USH wait times and it's the first result. They update every 5 min or so as well!
May 21, 2016 at 1:00 PM · Thinking about a 'skip the line' option - at an extra cost; ten bucks more per person IF they have a handicapped individual in their party, without the cost is double regular admission per person in party. That sounds fair...
May 21, 2016 at 1:13 PM · "But a park doesn't need expensive IP and record-setting thrill rides to become great. Which theme parks are great that don't have these?"

Once upon a time... Epcot.

May 21, 2016 at 3:09 PM · "Wait, there's actually more to theme parks than just IPs and thrill rides?! Such a bizarre concept!!! Is that even possible?! That completely boggles my mind!!! MY ENTIRE WORLDVIEW IS CHANGING!!!"

-Universal fanboys

May 21, 2016 at 3:25 PM · I would add to the list, "A simple spinner ride/carousel/flat ride." It's a great family addition, low-height requirements, and something that occupies a small space in a park. It also adds a lot of kinetic energy to a park, and will provide a relaxing experience without a deep storyline or thematic conflict.

Be it a Wave Swinger, Dumbo clone, Tea Cup ride. Etc. Most Disney parks have them (Epcot does not, DHS is getting one), but all the Universal parks have one. All parks need one, somewhere.

May 21, 2016 at 4:29 PM · One recent item to note - disney closed a better food option location (Paradise Garden Grill) that offered skewers with rice pilaf and salad. One of the reasons given (allegdly) was that there were not enough burger and fries places in the parks according to surveys of guests. For all of the discussion of having healthier options (which I prefer) I guess the basics will always win out.
May 22, 2016 at 7:29 AM · I'll agree with others who say a fireworks or other nighttime spectacular show.

Also an onsite hotel so guests can easily go back to their room to freshen up or take a nap.

May 23, 2016 at 4:49 AM · You forgot about a nighttime show!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I love a park that offers a great good bye show at the end of a long day of themeparking. Pyrotechnics are a great end to any day!
May 23, 2016 at 5:48 AM · A wait time of over 90 minutes for a non-new attraction is totally unacceptable. It indicates that the park is admitting more people than it can reasonably service or it shows that the park either has a poor mixture of rides or a lack of quality rides.
May 23, 2016 at 8:35 AM · "Once upon a time... Epcot."....... A M E N ROBERT!!!
May 23, 2016 at 11:18 AM · As to what Tim Hillman said about a wait time of over 90 minutes for a non-new attraction being unacceptable, I agree. However, I disagree that it indicates that the park is admitting more people than it can reasonably service or shows that the park has a poor mixture of rides or lack of quality rides. A prime example is SFGAD's Kingda Ka, an old attraction with extremely long wait times. The park certainly has an interesting mixture of rides and some very high quality rides - i.e., El Toro and Nitro - but people flock to Kingda Ka b/c travelling 128 mph is a thrill that cannot be gotten on most coasters. I don't think that the park can be faulted for the long wait times. One thing that would help would be for the guests in the loading station to be more proactive. The loading station tends to be a mass of confusion b/c people just mill around or stand there. Why not pick a row, get in that line and speed up the process?

One thing all parks could use is a receptacle for personal items in the ride loading stations. Many parks have these; some do not, for which reason I never carry any loose items, stashing everything in pockets. I was quite favorably impressed when a team member at Kings Dominion actually wheeled a bin through the loading area of Volcano to collect personal items.

May 24, 2016 at 12:54 AM · Fun posts on social media. It gets you excited if you have a trip planned and keeps you up to date about what's new.

Also a good webcare team who responds winthin the hour is a big plus.

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