Can theme parks create joy?
"What a weird question," I can hear some of you thinking. Theme parks are usually some of the world's most joyful places — filled with happy, laughing guests. But I did not ask if theme parks could elicit joy from their visitors. I asked if theme parks could create that joy for them to feel.
That's a vital distinction — and especially so in 2020, a year that is sucking the joy from so many of our lives. Do you have to bring at least a flicker of joy to a theme park in order to have a good time there? Because that's getting tougher and tougher for a lot of people to do these days.
And even if you're still feeling some joy in this most difficult of years for so many people, do you wish to entrust that to a theme park right now?
The challenge of selling people on a theme park visit in 2020 (and — let's face it — in 2021, too, at this point) goes far beyond convincing people that they the park has taken extra steps to help keep them safe from the pandemic while they visit. As I have written before, if people were concerned only about their safety, they would just stay home.
A safety pitch is just the start. From there, a theme park — or any entertainment destination that's open right now — must be able to make a case that people will feel comfortable visiting, as well. And only then, when people feel safe and comfortable, might visitors be open to the joy that ultimately is the theme park industry's greatest product.
Comfort is a weird issue in theme parks right now. Many fans cannot imagine that having to spend the day wearing a mask could be comfortable. But the idea of spending the day with just a small fraction of the number of people who typically crowd a park appeals. Being able to walk around with six feet between you and other families while inside a park and its attractions was a fantasy for most of us a year ago. Cleaner bathrooms and restaurants, too? Oh, heck yes! In some ways, what parks have done in response to this pandemic have helped make them more comfortable than they were before anyone had heard of Covid-19.
But every Plexiglas barrier and physical distancing marker reminds people that this pandemic continues and that a visit to a theme park provides no escape. Their presence helps promote safety, but they undermine comfort for some — perhaps many — guests. That is enough to keep many theme park fans home right now.
Thousands of fans have returned to theme parks this summer and felt amazing moments of joy when visiting. But others have reported that their trips this year simply did not feel as magical, as wonderful and certainly not as carefree as their visits in the past. They just did not find the same joy.
Right now, theme parks around the world are simply trying to get through this pandemic. They are laying off thousands of employees, canceling new projects, and cutting every expense that they can without jeopardizing the safety that they must provide to have any hope of being able to stay in business. There's no joy in running a theme park right now.
A mentor once told me, saying that he was quoting George Burns, "the most important thing in life is authenticity. And if you can fake that, you've got it made."
This industry never before has needed to fake some authentic joy more than it does right now.
So long as people remain alive, I believe that they carry at least some flicker of joy within them. Perhaps they need to remain at home, or in someone's care, to protect that gleam when it feels endangered. And so they should.
But joy remains, even then. By that, so does hope for the theme park industry.
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