Why would somebody spend the money and make the enormous effort to build a theme park or a new attraction?
I thought about that question while reading the latest dissection of the failed Hard Rock Park project in South Carolina. For those who weren't around for that debacle, Hard Rock Park was a reported $400 million theme park in Myrtle Beach, themed to classic rock bands. The park's highlights included a Led Zeppelin-themed B&M roller coaster and a Moody Blues-themed dark ride, but it lasted for just one season in 2008 before being sold to owners who tried to launch a stripped version of the park the next year, only to close it permanently after that.
The Vice story dives into the many reasons that the park failed, but ultimately, all those questions reduce to one, for me — for whom was this park built?
The superficial answer is that Hard Rock Park was built for classic rock fans. But by 2008, white baby boomers were no longer the biggest cohort in the family market that traditionally drives theme park attendance. Their kids were grown. Many had given up big thrill rides. But white baby boomers dominated the population of Wall Street bankers who showered this project with development money.
And that gets to the heart of the problem with Hard Rock Park. While the narrow theme limited the park's potential market, the theme park never was about the fans. It started as an excuse to drive traffic to another tourist attraction, then grew into its final form when developers realized that appealing to investment bankers' fondness for the rock n' roll of their youth gave them access to vast piles of cash.
The fans? Well, when we called out the developers of Hard Rock Park for some of their questionable claims about future park attendance, they brushed us aside.
And that leads me to recalling one of my all-time favorite posts on this site: Attention, theme park managers: Your customers are NOT the enemy.
More than 12 years later, I am as proud of that post as anything I've ever written here or elsewhere. An investor in Hard Rock Park emailed me to call out our commenters for criticizing the park's projected attendance numbers. (The future ruled that we were correct, by the way.) So I defended our readers, and wrote this:
If someone is using this site to help make a decision about a theme park vacation (and thousands of people do every single day of the year), which park do you think looks better on the site?
One that shares information, engages with its visitors and, by doing so, generates interest and excitement in the park?
Or, one that disparages the site and its visitors, thus signaling that, to that park, customers are more annoyances than valued guests?
Back when I was teaching business classes to online journalists, I challenged my students to "find the pain" — to do something that satisfied a public need, one that people felt so acutely that they would be willing to pay money to have it relieved.
What does a new theme park or attraction provide that fans could not get already in some other conveniently located park? If the answer is "nothing," then that new park or attraction does not satisfy any real need. Disney Legend Buzz Price literally wrote the book on how to determine the feasibility of new theme parks and attractions. Price's blueprint demands meticulous research into population trends and awareness of market competition. But ultimately, it rests upon forecasting the needs of the customer.
In other words, you gotta build it for the fans. And you gotta build it where there are enough fans who able to — and will want to — support your park.
You don't build new theme park attractions just because you have a bunch of money sitting around, or someone who's willing to loan or give it to you. You don't build a new attraction just because your competition dropped a blockbuster and now you feel compelled to beat it. You don't build an attraction to appeal to people who are not and never will be interested in your park.
You build an attraction because there's a big market of fans out there who are craving to pay money to visit the place that you will build.
It seems simple. But sometimes people in this business — including people at very big, very successful companies — forget this essential lesson.Tweet