The seven deadly sins of running a theme park

October 6, 2018, 5:07 PM · When should you not visit a theme park?

We're all big theme park fans here at Theme Park Insider. While I have visited more than 40 different theme parks around the world, I know that some Theme Park Insider readers have visited many, many more. From huge, multi-park resorts to roadside family entertainment centers, the sight of thrill rides and castle facades entices us.

But not always. Even dedicated theme park fans sometime say "no" to visiting. So what it is that makes a park a "no-go" for you? When does a theme park turn you off?

It's the flip side of the questions we ask far more often around here, which usually boil down to... what makes you want to visit a theme park? From Disney to the dismal, parks try to lure you with all sorts of enticements: rides, shows, food, games, service, nostalgia. Obviously, the scope and quality of those attractions varies wildly based on the amount of money that parks can spend and the talent and skill of the people running them. Yet at some point these efforts can miss and become counter-productive instead.

So what are those points at which attractions repel? Let's consider the seven deadly sins of running a theme park:

Filth — This tops my list. How about you? The core appeal of theme parks is their ability to create an idealized space in which to spend time. Set aside the rides, shows, and restaurants. If a theme park isn't — at its heart — a pleasant place to be, then I don't want to visit it. I can endure uninspired design and meager landscaping, but not trash, vermin, or decay. If you can't keep your park clean, that makes me wonder what else is wrong there. Which brings me to...

Danger — Yes, great thrill rides are supposed to feel dangerous. The excitement of speed, falling, and G forces help draw millions of fans to theme parks each year. But that only works when people ultimately trust that the danger they feel is an illusion. A park must establish a basic confidence that it won't put its visitors in any real danger. If I even begin to suspect that rides are not properly installed or maintained, I'm out. Ditto if queues are out of control. The only fights I want to see in a theme park are in its stunt shows.

Bad service — Crowd control is just the start here. Indifferent and hostile employees undercut even beautiful and well-maintained parks. Theme parks are experiences, and personal contact creates a far more powerful experience than the most expensive practical or media effects. Just one bad moment with a park employee can ruin an otherwise perfect day.

Lack of accommodation — There's no point in visiting a place that cannot accommodate you. This isn't just about wheelchair ramps and wide aisles. That type of physical accessibility represents only a fraction of the range of accommodations that a popular attraction must offer. Can restaurants support a variety of diets, including the production of food free of allergens? Can people with sensory or cognitive disabilities still navigate the park and enjoy its experiences? Yes, some fans have tried to exploit parks' accommodations in order to skip waits, forcing parks to change the way they meet the needs of "people of determination" (that's the new phrase of choice in the United Arab Emirates, by the way). But those needs must be met, one way or another.

Ubiquity — A visit to a theme park ought to be special. No one cares to watch the same movies they can see at home, play the same VR game they can at the mall, eat the same food available at countless fast food joints, or go on the same off-the-shelf carnival rides they've ridden at a dozen other parks. If a park offers nothing that distinguishes it from other places where I can spend my time and money, why should I bother with it?

Unjustifiable prices — Even if a park offers something — anything — unique, is it worth the price the park is charging for it? This is the fuzziest of the seven deadly sins, as everyone has a different standard for value. A park can be clean, safe, welcoming, accommodating, and unique, but if I don't think the experience of its attractions and atmosphere will be worth the cost of visiting, I'm still not bothering with it. Even the world's best theme parks can fail many fans by this standard.

Obscurity — What? That's my point. If you've never heard of a park, there's zero chance that you ever will visit it. Yes, we are trying to fight this sin here at Theme Park Insider by drawing attention to worthy attractions around the world. But parks can't rely solely on third party media to spread the word. In addition to telling stories inside its attractions, a theme park must tell its own story to potential visitors, through media relations, the travel industry, advertising and promotions, social media, and ongoing customer service.

What are the worst sins that theme parks have committed to keep you away? Please share your cautionary tales in the comments.

Replies (22)

October 6, 2018 at 5:25 PM

This probably falls into danger - but we have a park in Australia which has had it's visitation drop by 40% after a horrible incident on a family ride killed 4 people. There are questions about the exact cause still and no doubt the park is partially responsible. It was also partially a freak accident. But right now the park is the safest it's ever been. So it's not only actual danger but the perception of danger that matter.

October 6, 2018 at 8:02 PM

Dan Glynn, I heard of that attraction, Dreamworld raft ride and agree that would tend to drive folks off.

Pretty much summed up my own feelings, just can't stand a park that doesn't care enough to keep itself clean and too often neglecting what the guests want. For all their faults, Disney and Universal are mostly good there while some Six Flags parks tend to be on the lower side and less likely to check out.

October 6, 2018 at 8:10 PM

For me personally a park that has dolphin/orca shows is a no go, it even goes so far that i'm really torn about visiting Tokyo Disneysea, which i really would like to visit, but because of the fact that its located in a country that thinks its ok to hunt whales for their meat, i feel like that spending money there is in some way contributing to this (taxes that fund the government etc)

October 6, 2018 at 9:05 PM

You know , that if it was not due to the efforts of Sea World , zoos and other animal attractions people would not have been aware or even concerned about the welfare of animals as they are today .

October 6, 2018 at 9:13 PM

Cost of admission and food vs. real value of the park is a huge deal. I used to love Disney but the value isn't there anymore for me. I've been going to a Disney park since the early 1960's and I've become jaded about them. The last time I went to a Disney park was in 2012 and all corporate slickness left me cold. Also, going to a big theme park has become so complicated that I now prefer the smaller less corporate parks where the prices are reasonable and the grounds are kept nice enough to enjoy a simple outing for a day with little complication.

Maintenance and cleanliness are a big deal too. Having nicely groomed and clean grounds is a must as well as confidence that the park is safe. Whether a park has the latest or the greatest, I could care less anymore. Everything is so overproduced. Give me an old-school attraction or a show with real talent any day. Parks like Kennywood and Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk hold more charm and magic for me these days. Big corporate parks, not so much.

So reasonable prices, well maintained grounds and attractions and less corporate feel is what I value in an amusement or theme park.

October 6, 2018 at 10:14 PM

Speaking of corporatism, I recently visited Universal Hollywood to see the new Harry Potter section. I really loved the movies and heard good things, so finally got around to going.

We rode the couple rides they had but I thought there was more. So I asked a worker what other attractions there were that we missed. She told me I should see the wand show, described it as 'magic.' I said great and we headed over.

So have you ever endured a time share seminar?

It wasn't that bad, but it literally was a wand sales seminar. It felt horrible. Then I had the curiosity to ask how much they were. Expecting a 'rip off" price of $25+ dollars, boy, was I in for it.
FORTY-SIX DOLLARS. For a wand without 'interactivity.
For the wand with interactivity; FIFTY-TWO DOLLARS.
Jesus Christ. It felt like I was being kicked in the teeth until I handed over my wallet.

On our way out of the section, we went through the Zonko store, thinking it was the toy shop that sold the Marauders Map, etc from the movie. Nope. It was just a candie shop. And they wanted every dollar you've worked for all week-long too. TEN DOLLARS for a 'Felix Felices' tonic candied drink in a bottle the shape of the one from the movie.

Further on our way out, we observed the places to do 'magic' with the wands and observed some kids attempting to make the magic happen. But more than half the times we witnessed, nothing happened. Some kids actually got frustrated.

So we went on to the other parts of the park. Transformers ride everyone loves? Oh, its just a bunch of screens. Screen to screen to screen. BORING.

World-famous Tram Tour? OK, cool.
Except I don't know ANY of these shows anymore, because we haven't had cable TV for like seven years.

"So when does the Netflix park open?" I wonder to myself.

Overall, the day was fine. Even with Jurassic Park being closed because they feel they have to reboot the ride to engage the younger JP audience.
The Mummy ride was fun. Not amazing really going through a dark roller coaster with neon faces along the track, but OK.

Maybe I'm just too old anymore for these things. I'm sure if I was the age of my daughter it would all be way cooler. She had a good time.
Oh, and The Walking Dead walk-through? Wow, that was lame. Like a cheap copy of Six Flags Fright Fest< who does an amazing job BTW.

And three rides that require you to wear 3D glasses to feel the story? To me that just seems cheap. I'd rather sit on my couch and wear glasses than come to a theme park and have to put them on after paying $115/ticket for a park that was only open til 6pm.

Just an absolute ripoff if you ask me. I don't mind paying for quality entertainment, but this just felt cheap from start to finish. I won;t be going back there for another decade at least, if they actually step their game up.

October 6, 2018 at 10:16 PM

Lack of investment in new attractions.

October 7, 2018 at 12:09 AM

So here are a few probably controversial opinions.

With the exception of KI and KD (which have a little bit of personality from their original design which was not Cedar Fair) i've never been a big fan of the Cedar Parks. Parks like Valleyfair, Worlds of Fun, Dorney, even Knotts (which CF basically paved over) just come across as mundane and boring to me. After a couple hours at each of these parks I am pretty much ready to go and don't need to go back for 10 years or so. Also I really want to like Cedar Point but the past several times i've gone their maintenance has been so bad it seems like all the major rides have delayed openings and are constantly breaking down.

Also i've never been a big fan of Universal either, to me they just are not really the best at anything. They try to do everything and are just kind of mediocre at all of them. SF and CF have great coasters, Disney has great theming/atmosphere/dark rides/shows, Busch has great coasters and the animal exhibits and big fleshed out parks, SDC and Dollywood have their own unique personalities as parks/service/great rides. I feel like the rides at Universal are meh (especially the past 15 years or so), the atmosphere is meh, the food is meh, the employees are meh (except for Japan where they are excellent). The new fountain show on the lagoon at USF is a perfect example of what i'm talking about: not only is it a blatant ripoff of Disney but its clearly not nearly as good. I will admit when I was younger I liked visiting Universal a lot more than I do now but that was back when IOA was still the big thing.

I also want to like Six Flags but the experience is so wildly inconsistent and varies not only from park to park but also day to day. They obviously don't spend nearly as much money as they should maintaining their parks which is frustrating, but the coaster collections they built up during the coaster wars era really took a lot of smaller crappy parks to the next level. I love visiting the smaller SF parks like SFSTL and SFFT because they still have that nice park feel but have great coaster collections (though after Kirean Burke and Gary Story over invested in them, they basically haven't gotten anything worthwhile since). I've actually always kind of liked the smaller SF parks, better than the smaller CF parks.

Funny enough my two least favorite Six Flags branded parks have always been GADV and MM even though they are obviously the biggest with the most rides. The crappy maintenance and operations combined with the ghetto clientele of LA and the NY/NJ/Philly really drags those parks down. LaRonde is by far the worst park but I think most people including myself like to pretend it doesn't exist.

October 7, 2018 at 1:09 AM

For me, I'm usually willing to give any park a chance unless the place is known to have safety issues. However, there are five "deadly sins" that would likely prevent me from ever returning to a park:

1. Lack of upkeep: This goes for ride maintenance, cleanliness, landscaping quality, and overall appearance of the park. I don't expect every park to be perfect, but if obvious maintenance issues are present (such as only having one train available at peak times) or a park looks rundown or dumpy, I'm not very likely to give it a second chance.

2. Lack of value: If a park charges a high admission fee but offers relatively few attractions, it isn't worth paying the ticket price for a visit. A park with a low admission fee can also fall into this category if hours and typical crowds make it impossible to do a reasonable number of attractions in a day.

3. Lack of excitement: Unlike many enthusiasts, I hold nothing against parks that install cloned attractions. However, if a park doesn't have enough attractions that appeal to my interest, I'm not too likely to make more than one visit to the park.

4. Lack of variety: This goes along with the previous point, but a park that offers predominantly a single type of attraction is less appealing to me than one with a good mix of rides. I'd much rather visit a park with five very good coasters and five very good dark rides than one with ten amazing coasters but no dark rides or ten cutting-edge dark rides but no coasters.

5. Lack of atmosphere: I don't need a park to be highly themed to enjoy it, and I even enjoy some parks with limited theming over those that are themed extensively. That said, there are some parks that are just so bland and soulless it is difficult to form any sort of emotional connection with them, and those parks are ones I'll usually credit run or just bypass completely.

October 7, 2018 at 2:56 AM

A trip to a theme park should be a vacation. It shouldn't be so crowded I can't enjoy myself and it shouldn't feel like work.
Once we went to Phantasialand in Germany and we waited 35 minutes for the bathroom and 3 hours for a mediocre flume ride, never again.
After the introduction of the Magic Band and the continuous building of low capacity rides at WDW we stopped going there. It was stressful, disappointing we couldn't ride certain rides and we had no fun at all. It wasn't worth our money nor our time.

October 7, 2018 at 3:58 AM

I agree with most here and the_man raises a really good point - clientele. Now I don't want to sound like a snob but too many times we've had experiences ruined by awful people on rides, you know the ones... They video themselves or their family with the light on all the way round POTC. they put one person in the queue then 12 join them at the last minute. They talk through pre-shows. They're rude to the cast members/employees, who do in a lot of cases have the power to sanction these people for behaving that way but are terrified of the PR consequences of doing so.

October 7, 2018 at 3:50 PM

I agree with AJ,

I don't mind cloned rides, sometimes they can even add a bit extra because of a bit of theming, or location, or the weather, or what colour my pants are

For me the big 3 are:
Upkeep
Value
Atmosphere

A park with limited variety, or a small number of attractions can still be a lot of fun, so long as the price is right, and I expect that going in there are only a few attractions (https://www.hanayashiki.net/en) is a great example... had a lot of fun here... didn't spend long or a lot of $$ either, (value/expectation) had great atmosphere and was well kept (dated but well maintained and clean)

October 7, 2018 at 4:08 PM

Why does Six Flags almost automatically come to my mind when I saw the title of this article?

October 8, 2018 at 1:14 PM

I don't like parks that will only accommodate skinny people.

October 8, 2018 at 4:15 PM

Top tier parks always make sure they are perceived as clean. Over crowding and poor queue management will lessen the possibility I return. Wait times need to be accurate. This helps a a person rationalize for themselves what is a reasonable wait.

1.) Upkeep
2.) Bad Service

October 9, 2018 at 2:35 PM

Upkeep and bad service are at the top of my list as well. When I first visited Six Flags New England the park struck me as dingy and I had no intention of returning. The addition of Wicked Cyclone, however, motivated me to revisit and surprisingly, on the second and subsequent visits Igot a much better impression of the park.

Lackluster or indifferent ride ops likewise diminish my desire to visit a park. Were it not for the fact that Dorney is in my neck of the woods I probably wouldn't bother to go there. (As it is, I've been there only once this season.) The ride ops at Dorney perform their jobs with reasonable efficiency but without personality or enthusiasm. In contrast, the ride ops at Six Flags Great Adventure tend to be vibrant and enthusiastic. It's nice to hear them say "Get twisted!" on Bizarro or "Ole!" on El Toro.

October 9, 2018 at 4:12 PM

I had a couple of days at Universal and IOA where several staff ruined it for me. When IOA first opened Harry Potter i was in a gift shop and was just walking through. I did not know it was as connected to the restaurant and walked into the restaurant not knowing. Well this hag came at me and debased me in front of my kids. The next day i was in universal florida and asked an employee for help finding a restroom for my then 4 year old son. He rolled his eyes at me and pointed in a general direction. His vague response caused an unwelcome accident for my son. So how i am treated in park is very important. Universal made it clear they dont help and have secret rules that will get you treated horribly for if you make a mistake. Disney has made it clear they are trained to care. It limits how much time i spend in each companies parks.

October 9, 2018 at 5:59 PM

Down cuing is one thing that aggravates me to no end. In mid-September when the crowds are relatively (to summer) smaller, there shouldn't be a long wait because only a small portion of a ride is activated. Planned maintenance would go a long way if I'm wrong here.
Over pricing is another annoyance. Yes, we plan for higher than normal prices when we go (experience we accept), but $5.00 for a bottle of water normally costing $1.50 - now "that's" markup at it's best - or worse.
A vending machine that only takes credit cards (no cash accepted) makes me wonder who is using my credit information and passcode. NEVER!
And oh, Disney, besides these, closing so many attractions at once for rebuild/maintenance/whatever yet charging the full admission price is plain wrong - even for military discounts, such as they currently are. This includes closing a 6PM for your special event yet charging everyone the regular price - wrong.
We left a day early. Discontented and found too many things to complain about. So much for a vacation.

October 9, 2018 at 6:35 PM

204.112.13.2: There are no gift shops connected to Three Broomsticks or Leaky Cauldron, which are the only restaurants in The Wizarding World lands. Should I call BS here?

October 9, 2018 at 8:23 PM

Unjustifiable prices? Disney spent so much money on the new Toy Story Land... and I don't believe that it was a great investment. I'm going there in November, so then I will know first hand. But from what I hear, they didn't add any new great rides. Looking at Woody's Lunch Box menu is a bit scary. I don't see any normal kids food. Disney may be spending a lot to develop new land(s), but are they worth the money? Nothing is free to the guests. They are raising prices to accommodate this. And of course, they are raising wages.

I am getting a little irritated by Disney raising its prices.

As for the comment from above that says, "I don't like parks that will only accommodate skinny people." Disney sure tries to accommodate the heavier people. All you have to do is look around at the large number of wheelchairs, and electric scooters. Most of the rides can accommodate larger people as well.

George

October 10, 2018 at 6:15 PM

I always get a kick out of when people say there should be a discount because of construction or the park closing at 6, 7, 8pm. The days of Mickey's Not So Scary are usually the least busy days of the year and you can easily do everything. I went on a party day a few weeks ago and the line for Space Mountain was literally 10 minutes during peak of the day (it got a lot longer during the party). I could make the argument that you actually get way more for your admission on those days then the days the park is open late. Also a park being open 9-6 during the slowest time of the year is normal, its done based off of attendance projections (duh).

And a discount because of a closed or construction is the dumbest thing i've ever heard. There is pretty much always a closed ride and construction going on at parks. Parks need maintenance and refurbishment otherwise they deteriorate. Is the park re-investing in itself a bad thing? If your idea were to happen they would almost always be discounted.

October 11, 2018 at 5:32 PM

We were there on Sept of this year (on the day of a party), and we were walking right on attractions. Pirates had a posted wait of 15 minutes and we had no wait save walking up to the queuing area for the boat. We did the same with Peter Pan, Small World, Ariel's Under Sea Adventure, Space Mountain, Haunted Mansion. The only wait we had was Thunder Mountain which was 20 minutes as listed.

I agree with the_man you get better value on the days of the Halloween Party. We felt like we had the park to ourselves until 4 PM when party goers started to flood in. We easily road everything and some and got to do many attractions a second time. It was far more crowded and difficult to navigate during the party. Well worth a day of my park ticket regardless of the shorter day. Because we had tickets for the party, we got a jump on the festivities. The only hindrance if any, were that the specialty food lines were untenable.

We have had tough crowd days. They only way to improve your experiences is very good planning, prioritizing days to visit the park, determining your tolerance level, and paying attention to queue wait times.

Toy Story Land was very good IMO and they fixed the capacity and queue issues on TSM which we had been unable to ride due to 210 minute wait times. On in 15 minutes.

My preference is they close and referb the attractions more frequently like Disneyland does. They have improved this quite a bit. I would rather experience the attraction with its improvements and fixes. DLR waited too long once with their Splash Mountain referb and became the butt of You Tube Disney ride break videos. The airlines don't give you a break on flying to Paris when the Eiffel Tower is closed. Discounts should be reserved for when the park itself must undergo major renovations such as DHS.

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