Ten steps to boost attendance at a struggling theme park

April 6, 2018, 3:54 PM · Is attendance down at your favorite theme park? What can a park's management do to reverse an attendance slide? Obviously, throwing hundreds of millions of dollars at fresh attractions based on an established IP provides a great start. But even that provides no guarantee to help a park that's suffering from bad operations.

Here are 10 steps that any theme park can take to encourage more people to visit. Ultimately, a park has to start by creating a better experience for the guests who are already there, so that they will want not just to return, but to recommend the park to family, to friends, and to strangers online.

The number one thing any park can do to drive its attendance is Improve operational capacity.

Keep those line moving. Obviously, this starts with designing or ordering attractions with high hourly capacities. But even if a park is stuck with what it has, managers should train and encourage their operations team to load and dispatch to get as close as possible to the attraction's theoretical hourly capacity, without compromising safety. A park's rule should be to never drop capacity or slow the loading until the back of the line is in the station or the preshow. And if safety checks are keeping an attraction far below its theoretical count, the attraction needs better-designed safety procedures.

Next? Nothing broken on stage. Ever.

Every park should have an on-call maintenance team charged during park hours to do nothing to but cover — then remove and replace or repair — broken capital in guest areas. Coverage should provide support for the theme and immersion in the area and not look like some tacky construction zone.

Be OCD about cleanliness.

It's all hands on deck for this. A good manager is one who conducts as much non-HR business in the park as possible, always walking around with a "nabby-grabber" in hand to pick up debris. Custodial should keep toilet facilities gleaming, and food prep and service areas must score at 100 percent cleanliness at all times when the park is open.

But maintaining capital is just the start. A popular theme park should Conduct the crowd, too.

That means providing clear, well-managed queuing and guest flow through the park. Those park managers should be looking for bottlenecks and confused visitors when walking the park, as well as picking up debris. Find where the problem spots are for guest flow, then assign employees to direct visitors through that area until the park can get an area redesign through that will alleviate the problems.

Once people are flowing freely through the park, find ways to Distract the crowd.

Customers paid for a full day of entertainment, not just the opportunity to commute by foot from one big destination in the park to another. Take the pressure off top rides and shows by filling the park with characters, animals, skits, musicians, and desirable photo ops whenever there's the space for a crowd to gather. Give customers more reasons to stop and enjoy more during their day.

Train and support Aggressively helpful employees, too.

Friendliness ought to be a given in theme park employees. If they're not smiling, you're not hiring. But parks should encourage their employees to be aggressive in offering to help the park's visitors. It's not just service to those customers. Offering directions and suggestions is how a park proactively manages a crowd to get people where they want to be with minimal fuss, conflict, and distress all around.

Hangry people are the worst. Improve the food.

Pick at least one: New. Unique. Popular. Items that go oh-for-three need to be off your menu, ASAP. And anything that offers only one of these qualities needs to be on the hit list for potential removal next season. Always be introducing new items that not just taste good, but that leave guests nourished and energized throughout the day. That means more than just the latest sugary sweet. Be prepared to support a wide variety of diets with tasty food, especially for people with nutritional restrictions.

Yeah, that's going to cost some money, but a park can make that back with increased sales. Now it's time to really start getting serious about capital expenses, though. Start by Culling tired or boring attractions.

Addition by subtraction works. Don't let a park become synonymous with mediocre or bad experiences. Get rid of anything that's slow-loading, boring, hard to maintain, or the object of widespread derision. If a park has taken all the above steps successfully, people will see the loss of these attractions as an improvement, not a decline.

Then improve the look and feel of the park by Creating more immersive environments.

You don't have to make the next Wizarding World of Harry Potter. (Unless you are Universal and have the budget!) Any park can improve its landscaping and upgrade signage and building facades to support coherent, immersive environments throughout. One good landscape architect plus a graphic designer, supported with even a modest budget, can do wonders. There's no excuse not to try.

And, oh by the way, ads can destroy immersive environments, so be very careful about where and how you display advertisements within the park.

Finally, if a theme park really wants to enjoy ongoing success, there's no way around Building better attractions.

The previous nine steps can buy you time, but eventually a successful park needs to be buying something that more potential visitors want to experience. If attendance is not rising, it's time to stop doing what you have done for the past few seasons and try something different. Aim for reliable attractions with high capacity that offer excitement. And don't shy from hitting visitors right in the feels. The theme park business ultimately is the emotion business, and if people don't feel something amazing in a park, no one should be surprised when its attendance starts to suffer.

Replies (11)

April 6, 2018 at 4:07 PM ·

Six Flags should look at these. Mount Olympus definitely

April 6, 2018 at 6:16 PM ·

And bring back free beer, Seaworld.

/ oh, and get rid of whoever thought Antarctica was a good idea. The ride is not good and freezing cold temperatures and guests in shorts/tshirts don't mix.

April 7, 2018 at 12:45 AM ·

Took 40 minutes to get into Sea World - once in the park was pretty empty. Rude staff a majority.

However, they did put on a fantastic Christmas fair of sorts - and a great street market type vibe - though it had nothng to do with marine life. Still was lovely to relax there - and i imagine it was cheap to set up.

April 7, 2018 at 1:36 AM ·

Free beer?! There was a themepark with free beer? That's awesome! Although I can imagine it leads to some really annoying crowds. And drunk people and rollercoasters... Oh boy, the mess it must have made.
I do not really agree with distracting the crowd. It might be a cultural thing, but I think a lot of guests are fine with just a stroll through some greenery to relax before going to the next busy hotspot.

April 7, 2018 at 7:53 AM ·

Stop with the outrageous ticket price increases 1 or 2 times a year.

April 7, 2018 at 8:25 AM ·

"And, oh by the way, ads can destroy immersive environments, so be very careful about where and how you display advertisements within the park."

This is huge! The queue for Six Flags America's Apocalypse is one of the few themed areas of the park (crashed vehicles, a skull-shaped mountain, wreckage, etc.), but when I went for the first time last summer, there were a bunch of TVs in the queue playing promo episodes of a prank comedy show. It was so frustrating that one of the few places where the park tried something high-concept was undercut by a promotional deal.

April 7, 2018 at 4:14 PM ·

Come on, SeaWorld! Looking at you!

April 7, 2018 at 4:46 PM ·

While you touched on it there are two things that the big parks do well that is customer service. If employees are not providing good customer service then it may be a poor training program, a problem with management of the park or the lack of the jobs being fun. It is most likely a combination of all three. You may need to change peoples rolls and even fire the managers that are dragging things down if they can not adapt to a friendly way of doing things.
The other is pay attention to the details and make them as much of a priority as the overall operation of the rides. A poor designed western ghost town with props that look like they were a bad decoration job from a toddler makes the place look like it is unkempt and people will not get a good impression of the overall park.
I have been to some big name regional parks and after walking through and seeing the problems that are listed in the article and the two that I list as being wrong I have never gone back. When I left I felt like all the park wanted was a lot of money but not have to provide an enjoyable experience for the price.
Great article as there are many parks out there that can learn from it as well as the bigger parks that are turning an experience to the park un-enjoyable for their guests. Especially the detailed spot and the lack of characters roaming around. Not mentioning any names Disney and Busche Gardens. But, then again Disney has an overcrowding issue and they want to lower their attendance. Thus the subpar attractions for what one expects from Disney.

April 8, 2018 at 8:21 PM ·

“If employees are not providing good customer service then it may be a poor training program, a problem with management of the park or the lack of the jobs being fun.“

A big piece of the equation I notice is missing in this observation is Pay.

You have the pay these employees what they’re worth.

If you’re only willing to pay minimum wage to your staff than you can’t expect more than minimal effort.

I could imagine capital and finances being an issue with a struggling park; though expectations of “100 % cleanliness and smiling happy workers” is only going to work if your employees are treated with respect and the pay they deserve.

Otherwise I can assure you the majority of your work force that will responsible for maintaining that “100% cleanliness” is not going to care enough to put in the effort.

April 9, 2018 at 8:16 AM ·

This is an interesting list, but a lot of these items are what Sea World/Busch Gardens is already doing, or has done in the past yet still is experiencing declining attendance. Their parks have some of the nicest and professional ride ops in the business, and they rarely run attractions below maximum capacity when warranted. Their parks are among the cleanest in the industry, and very few places appear to be in disrepair (SWO's JTA being a rare exception). They have been taking down attractions that are expensive and difficult to maintain while continuing to invest in new attractions across the chain along with highly themed environments. They have tons of entertainment including part time street performers and various shows throughout all of their parks. Their food is some of the best theme park food in the world, and they further showcase it with their special festivals.

This list is great, but the problem is Sea World is doing just about everything on this list already. So, the question becomes, what else is needed to keep attendance from declining? Sea World California reported a 14% drop from 2016 to 2017 (on top of the 5.5% that was lost over the previous year). If Sea World is doing all the right things, then why is it still hemorrhaging?

April 13, 2018 at 4:28 AM ·

Interesting list, and it seems Alton Towers are failing on nearly everything at the moment - from operations, to lines, to customer service and beyond. Lots of angry trip advisor reviews. It's clear Merlin have cut the budget to the bare bones but it's not going to do them any favours long-term.

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