What started the theme park industry?
Even though amusement parks had been around for decades prior, many people likely would credit the opening of Disneyland in 1955 with sparking the development of the theme park business. In the years following Disneyland's opening, many developers and communities wanted to get into this business, and we saw the resulting openings of Busch Gardens, Six Flags, SeaWorld, the Great America parks, Kings Island and Dominion, the expansion of Knott's Berry Farm and Cedar Point, the development of Universal Studios in Hollywood, and the eventually the opening of Walt Disney World.
While Disneyland certainly provided not just inspiration but also a template for all those other parks, I don't think many of them would have been successful without the market created by the nation's Baby Boom. So I'd like to argue that the Baby Boom is the real initiator of the theme park industry.
The surge of children being born between 1946 and 1964 created a huge market for family entertainment, which theme parks helped to satisfy. It's telling that the development of new parks slowed in the mid 1970s, continuing through the 1980s, as the Baby Boom gave way to the baby bust of Generation X (roughly 1965-1978). But an "echo boom" as the Boomers began having children of their own helped spark a second wave of attraction development in the 1990s, led by the opening of Universal Orlando and the expansions of Walt Disney World and Disneyland.
Remember when Vegas was trying to become "family friendly" and open theme parks, too. That was the echo boom, or Gen Y. (Or Millennials. The vocabulary gets fuzzy after a while.)
So what's happening now in the business? After Gen Y petered out around the mid-1990s, we have entered what's basically been a 20-year-and-counting second baby bust in America, as the smaller Gen X cohort entered parenthood, followed by the oldest Gen Y'ers turning away from parenthood due to a wide variety of economic factors, including the pressure of repaying ever-growing student loans, the difficulty of finding secure, long-term, benefitted full-time work, and a couple of housing bubbles.
Take a look at the "population pyramid" for the United States. Assuming a constant birth rate, you would see a pyramid (as the name implies) as mortality claims an increasing number of people as cohorts age. But we see a couple of bulges in the US data, the first being the Baby Boomers (aged 53 to 71 in this chart) and the second being their kids in Gen Y (ages 21 to 38).
As we saw in the theme park industry in the early 80s, baby busts can be a very bad thing in the theme park industry or any other business than caters to families with young children. I wrote about the challenges of demographic changes to the theme park industry in my Orange County Register column this week, Disneyland aims beyond families with its Pixar Fest.
Ever wondered why so many parks now seem to be embracing food and wine festivals? Or expensive up-sell experiences including booze-inclusive dessert parties and line-skipping passes? It's because parks need to make more money from older consumers as they have fewer families with kids coming through the front gate.
And this change in demographics is one of the reasons why Disneyland is promoting Pixar Fest with the tag line "Celebrating Friendship & Beyond." If Gen Y and Gen Z fans aren't having kids that they eventually will bring to the park, perhaps Disney can lure those fans to keep visiting with their friends, instead.
Disney has been working for years to broaden the appeal of a Disney vacation into something for people of all ages and family situations. Pixar Fest just provides latest example of Disney making explicit that broader focus — in this case, to visiting with friends.
Yes, the theme park industry is growing. But much of that growth is happening in the emerging markets of China and the Middle East, not here in the United States. This is literally a mature market, and parks that want to continue to grow will need to do so by broadening their focus beyond family entertainment to something that adults without children (or whose children have grown and left home) and continue to enjoy.
So which parks and chains are making this transition well, and which ones are not? Let's discuss in the comments.Tweet
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