Home » The Contrarian: The 2 Biggest Problems for the Theme Park Industry, and How to Solve Them

The Contrarian: The 2 Biggest Problems for the Theme Park Industry, and How to Solve Them

Radiator Springs Racers

Editor’s note:  this is the latest of a series of features in which one of our writers takes a deliberately controversial stance on a theme park-related topic to try and stir up some debate.

Marc’s views do not necessarily represent those of Theme Park Tourist!

The problem

Disney, according to the latest scuttlebutt, is dumping an additional $600 million into both its Avatar and Star Wars Lands, which aren’t expected to open until 2017 (at the earliest).  Universal reportedly spent some $400 million on designing and building the Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley (which isn’t to mention the $260 million that Hogsmeade cost four years earlier).  And in 2012, Disney dropped a whopping $1.1 billion on its California Adventure theme park, mainly revolving around the addition of Cars Land.

That is, needless to say, a lot of money, and it is, perhaps just as obviously, a major problem for the themed industry, for the companies that comprise it, and the future that all of them share.

Here are the two reasons why.

1. High bar of entry

In order to compete with the likes of Gringotts Bank, which is topped with a 60-foot, fire-breathing dragon, or Radiator Springs Racers, which cost more than $200 million to make, future potential competitors must have a lot of money in the bank – a lot.  There is just no other way to burnish the same level of immersive detail or to provide just as revolutionary a ride experience as Disney and Universal have been doing, particularly since the start of this decade.  And this is just to tread water with the Big Two – forget about actually attempting to one-up them and deliver the next-generation of theme park experiences.

Radiator Springs Racers

And while this is certainly a problem that will be felt worldwide, it will hit doubly hard in Orlando, the so-called theming capital of the world.  SeaWorld’s recent promise to invest hundreds of millions to upgrading its orca habitats and to installing brand-new attractions is, in addition to being an attempt to deal with the continuing Blackfish fallout, a reaction to the rising cost of doing business in Central Florida.  At this rate, the still-fledgling Legoland Florida and the upcoming I-Drive 360 entertainment complex (both overseen by Merlin Entertainments, the second-biggest themed operator in the world, after the Disney Company) may very well be the last attempts at a brand-new, from-the-ground-up competition.

And that, of course, would be a terrible loss for the park-going and -loving guest.

2. Risk aversion

But what’s even more worrisome is the effect it’ll have on the remaining theme park operators.

There is already a trend firmly in place of both Disney and Universal attempting to minimize their ever-more-expensive risks by not taking any type of chance whatsoever; it’s no accident that, in all the examples cited in the opening paragraph, each one is a licensed property.  It’s terrifying to think back to the last original IP Disney has instituted in any of its parks worldwide – and depressing to realize that Universal never really has (and while one may want to at least partially excuse this sorry fact by allowing for Universal’s existence as a film studio first and foremost, it’s sobering to realize that Disney also shares the same exact beginnings).

 Minion Mayhem

And to add insult to injury, the movie properties that the Big Two has been deploying in their parks have absolutely been the safest of safe choices:  Pixar, Harry Potter, Despicable Me, and Star Wars have all proven themselves to be sure-fire hits at the box office and in toy aisles, and it’s little wonder that they’ve managed to replicate that success at the parks.  Even the two companies’ next big attractions that are currently under construction – Universal’s Skull Island (at Islands of Adventure) and Disney’s Pandora: The World of Avatar (Animal Kingdom) – aren’t anywhere near as risky as the ravenous fanbase would like to make out, as King Kong has been a major cinematic force for the past 81 years and Avatar, despite proving its ultimate staying power, has already raked in nearly $3 billion.

At this rate, by the time the next decade comes to a close, only those franchises that have had nine installments and at least as many Happy Meal tie-ins will even be considered for a possible themed attraction.  And as noted in a recent All-Star Roundtable, the longest-lasting rides thus far have been wholly original creations.

So, where do we go from here?

What both of these issues ultimately result in is a little something creative malaise, which invariably leads, sooner or later, to consumer atrophy and apathy both.  A breath of fresh air is required to shake things up, get the juices flowing again, and to reignite the passions of all parties on all sides.

In nearly every major artistic medium – at least, the ones that have been deemed relevant by popular culture – there is an independent movement of some form or another, one that cyclically rises up, smashes the status quo, and irrevocably changes the playing field for all others, corporate or indie, who follow.  This is precisely what theme parks need right now.

Perhaps the most appropriate analogy would be to Hollywood (one made before in this column).  After a particularly creatively fertile decade in the ‘70s, the summer blockbuster – created by maverick directors Steven Spielberg (by way of Jaws) and George Lucas (the first Star Wars) – became the predominant product, strangling and over-commercializing the ‘80s.  In the early ‘90s, with the rise of film festivals and the explosive birth of the worldwide web, independent filmmakers were given the sudden and unexpected opportunity to make a splash in the big pool, irrevocably changing the name of the game.

Pulp Fiction

With titles like Pulp Fiction, Fargo, and sex, lies, and videotape, a whole new generation of directors and writers smashed down the establishment’s doors and cleaned house – the effects of which are still felt to this day, despite each of those filmmakers’ assimilation into the mainstream Hollywood machine.

Think it’s far-fetched to believe an indie movement could exist, let alone thrive, within the world of multi-million dollar themed attractions?  Think again.  The haunted house industry routinely relies upon the almost-exponentially-growing home haunt field, which sees a swath of amateurs set up haunted mazes literally in their backyards (and oftentimes with no intention of recouping their [sometimes formidable] expenses), to recruit new designers, technicians, and storytellers.  In fact, some attribute the current trend of extreme haunts to the influences from this experimental sector of the business.

Though it is admittedly (and considerably) more difficult to erect a miniature version of Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey in one’s front yard than it is to set up a small haunted walk-through experience, the precedent and the possibility is there for those individuals who are similarly motivated (and for those possible guests who would have to employ liberal amounts of the suspension of disbelief).

All that’s needed, like with both filmmaking and haunted houses before it, is a further democratization of the requisite design tools.

The cautionary tale

Beyond providing a type of minor leagues to Hollywood’s pro ball, where up-and-comers could get the experience (and accumulate the hype) needed to join the professionals, there is yet another service that the indie movement of the ‘90s offers the beleaguered theme park industry:  as a cautionary tale.

To answer the challenge issued by the independent studios that were suddenly creatively dominate, the traditional Hollywood apparatus responded in literally the only way it – and other big businesses – knew how:  by gobbling all the little players up.  By the time the decade was over, nearly every last indie was suddenly the subsidiary of one of the larger, traditional shops (even Miramax, arguably the progenitor of the movement, found itself the property of – ironically enough – the Disney Company).  And those major studios who couldn’t buy any of the smaller guys up just started their own in-house “independent” production companies, such as Sony Pictures Classics or Fox Searchlight Pictures; if small titles like The Blair Witch Project were going to be raking in the cash, Hollywood was going to make sure that it would land squarely in its coffers.

The Blair Witch Project

Should the themed industry be successful in establishing and cultivating a fresh wave of talent in a new, smaller-budgeted segment that would place a premium on experimentation and new types of immersion, it will also be imperative to not allow Disney and Universal to interfere with what will surely be a disruption to their long-standing (and stale) business model.

Despite the sublimity of the metaphor, what is needed to ensure the brightest and most expansive future for theme parks is not Miramax, after all, but Google.

Previous Contrarian entries:

3 Reasons Why Universal’s Strategy for Beating Disney May Be the Wrong One

2 Big Reasons Why Theme Parks May Live to Regret Copying Hollywood

2 Unavoidable Reasons Why Amusement Parks Will Become Extinct

3 BIG Reasons Why Marvel’s Super Heroes Haven’t Saved Disney’s Theme Parks (Yet)