Recently, I was watching an episode of Super Carlin Brothers, a Youtube channel devoted to Disney, Harry Potter, fan-theories, and other miscellaneous pop-culture nerdom and was excited to see a video about their recent trip to Walt Disney World. Alas, the excitement quickly turned to dismay as criticism was turned to none other than Figment from Journey into Imagination. Who was this character, they asked, how dare he have a ride devoted to him when he doesn’t even have a movie or tv show? I felt a knife twist into my heart. No! How can you not understand the brilliance of having an attraction not based on pre-existing IP? Do you not understand the history of this character?
But wait, that’s not all. It wasn’t long after that I, in what seems to be a monthly occurrence, was watching or reading some top ten list on a theme park blog and wincing as bare steel roller coasters or incoherent monstrosities appeared higher on the lists than classics like Thunder Mountain, Pirates, or new ground-breaking attractions such as Flight of Passage. What!?! How can you even think of comparing Millennium Force with Space Mountain?
But it gets even worse. Routinely I’m dragged into debates on internet forums and blogs about how Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey is more groundbreaking than this or that because robot arms > everything, or how Evermore and Star Wars land are going to change the industry because they’re going to bring live action role-playing games to the industry and how immersive that is. Think of the stories. It goes on and on and on a spinning whirlwind as I scream into the abyss, “BUT WAIT THAT’S WHAT NOT THEME PARKS ARE FOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOR!!!!”
Perhaps it’s time to take a breath.
You see one of the side effects of the success of the themed entertainment industry over the last century is that it’s actually not just one thing anymore. It really hasn’t ever been. Even at its genesis the medium was diverse: there were amusement parks, pleasure gardens, and theatrical spectacles all beginning to occupy the same spaces: three very different kinds of experiences. But its appeal continues to broaden and the reasons guests show up continue to diversify. But yet, we often treat it as a monolith, each one of us having our own particular ideas of what a themed experience is and should be: expecting the rest of the world to judge according to those same standards. But of course that’s not the case. Audiences visit theme parks and attractions for many different reasons. And parks and experiences vary widely in which types of these audiences they target and how specifically or with what consistency. It’s up for debate I suppose whether trying to satisfy all the dimensions of audience expectations or specializing in only a few leads to a better outcome. It may be that trying to make the best experience for one type of audience alienates the rest and makes the business infeasible. Or it might be that trying to appeal to everyone leads to a race to the lowest common denominator: creating a muddled mess that no one likes. Like most things I suspect the truth is somewhere in the middle – optimizing for a few types of guests but not all leads to balance. But that’s really a debate for another day. First, we need to figure out exactly what those types of audiences are in the first place.
So, I’ve decided to try to do a bit a categorization of the different motivations of the theme park/themed experience guest. This is a highly unscientific, non-exhaustive, and a wee bit biased look based on my personal observations from a lifetime spent in the parks and on the web interacting with and observing fans. Each type below is an extreme, a vertex on a seven-pointed star, and can be combined with as many or as few others as fits the individual. But perhaps if we’re all a little bit more aware of what we personally value in a park, and what others may value, there might be less talking and designing past each other.
1. The Casual Guest
Your average guest. The Joe-the-plumber of the theme park world. This guest or family doesn’t really know anything much about theme parks except they’re fun, expensive, and overflowing with fried food. They’re simply visiting to have a good time with their friends and family. They want thrills, they want excitement, they want to laugh, they want to see cool things, make memories, etc. For them, there is not much difference between their local regional park, and the cream of the crop except price and scale. For these guests a theme park or experience is primarily a place of rides and fun, not a place of art or story. Their views might even be a tad cynical: perceiving parks as being capitalistic profiteers that trap you inside and suck you dry. Stereotypes, whether positive or negative, heavily inform these guest’s expectations. In fact, a park designed with a heavy focus on art and story and not enough on basic fun and thrills might actually turn off and repel such a visitor as it might heavily conflict with their expectations of what they wanted for the day. Though generally, as long as they’re having fun and doing cool things, they’re happy.
2. The Thrillseeker
This is the wretched cretin that dared to write that a simple roller coaster was better than the Haunted Mansion. Just kidding… Almost. But for this guest, it really is amusement parks they prefer more than theme parks – though they’ll likely use the words interchangeably. For this type of guest, it really is all about the rides, and specifically all about the thrills the ride can give. They’re looking for the number of inversions, or the most innovative ride system, or the fastest launch, the best layout, etc. They might appreciate theming in the sense of vehicles that are stylized well, a track well nestled into a landscape, or an overall concept executed well (the Tennessee tornado indeed feels like being whipped into a tornado), but that is more or less where it ends. Furthermore things like exposed steel tracks, unthemed midways, what you and I might call “general ugliness” of a park are largely irrelevant as long as the rides are worth waiting for.
3. The Lifestyler
This is really a more recent type to evolve, but growing fast, and is mostly exclusive to Disney at the moment, with exceptions made for Potter-heads. The term “Lifestyler” is often used as a pejorative on the internet, and I don’t mean to use it that way. But it does pretty accurately reflect the attitude of guests for whom the brand or an IP form part of a personal identity. This guest type perhaps finds its roots in the classic midwestern yearly family pilgrimage to Disney World but now encompasses a whole lot more. This is a guest type for whom the main appeal of theme parks is getting to be immersed in the brand and IP at hand. These guests aren’t visiting the Magic Kingdom or Islands of Adventure because they like theme parks as much as they’re visiting because they really like Harry Potter or really like the Princesses, etc. For these guests the fondness and attachment to the brand, stories, characters, and IP came first and a trip to these destinations is the logical extrapolation of expressing and experiencing that fandom. A place to be immersed 100% in your favorite stories and live them out. These are the guests most likely to dress up in costume or Disney-bounds, popularized and elevated the meet and greet, and for whom character breakfasts are the highlight of a vacation and not something you suffer through only to get the pineapple-coconut bread*. This is the type of guest that the biggest players in the industry, Disney and Universal, are actively trying to create and target their product to these days. It’s also the reason I have to wait an hour for a dole whip because it’s become an instagram sensation. Ok, that might just be more a sign of the times, and an apparent obsession I have with pineapple. Moving on…
4. The Lorekeepers
If theme park fan-fiction were more of a thing, these are the people that would be writing it. For these guests, it really is all about the story. All about the details. These are the people for whom discovering the stories behind everything is the appeal and fun of the parks. They’re the ones with dozens of theories on Master Gracey, and pour over the intricate links between SEA members over the decades. They’re the ones who will eat up experiences like Evermore and will no doubt come back again and again and again to decipher the puzzle. It’s also another big direction the industry seems to be headed in or at least interested in – with huge investments in immersive theatre, multi-day immersive experience hotel stays, virtual reality, experiments in non-linear storytelling, the influence of RPG’s, games that you can step inside, etc. This group therefore includes not just the guests who absorb the lore of a park, but also those who want the experience of park-going to be more active and interactive. People that want to play pretend in the best playground imaginable.
5. The Spectacle Seeker
This type of guest is kind of the anti-thrillseeker. In that for this person, the rides, thrills, etc are merely a means to an end in the themed entertainment space, and the real appeal is the show the ride creates. The more elaborate, the more stunning, the more illusions, the bigger the sets, the more the animatronics, the more mind-blowing the better. This is the person who lives for the large scale immersive sets inside Pirates, or the illusions on Mansion or Tower, for whom really the dark ride is really the whole reason for attending. For this person, what one sees or experiences on the ride is infinitely more interesting than the ride itself. This guest is drawn to the theatricality of theme parks, in shows, rides, or otherwise. If the spectacle is worth it, the rest doesn’t all that much matter.
6. The Front Porch Swingers
These are the people for whom the parks are a fun place to get away and relax, more than anything else. They soak in the lush environments, sip mint juleps, or head to Epcot for dinner and fireworks on a Wednesday evening after work: who’s favorite weekend activity is hiking the hidden trails of Ft. Wilderness. The kind of guest who is content to just walk around, window shop, people-watch, listen to a swing band, ride the train or maybe nothing at all. The guest who uses the park as a “park” in the most literal sense of the word: more in the vein of a public space to enjoy, than an amusement enterprise. Generally these guests tend to be locals, as locals are usually the only ones who can afford to use the parks in this manner. This would also include guests that use parks in therapeutic ways – such as those who use the parks as a great place to get a couple miles of walking in, to quell anxiety and meditate, or autistic kids for whom regular visits seems to help their symptoms. I feel like this use case also can specifically speak to the lack of such welcoming, enjoyable, well-designed, pleasant public spaces in the real-life communities the parks are built in.
7. The Theme Park Intellectual
Last but not least, we have the guest who reads this far into articles like this one. Honestly a rather peculiar and interesting type of guest. These are the guests that are most capable of understanding and appreciating the nuance of the storytelling and art of the making of themed environments and attractions – but also the most rare. Unfortunately in a world where attending theme parks is for most people something they only have the ability to do a couple times a year at most, and often less than once in a decade, or once in a lifetime, there isn’t much in the way of wide-spread “theme-park literacy” as one might call it. Nevertheless, these guests have it, and for those of us that do exist, the parks really are a form of art just as nuanced and interesting and powerful as the best works of literature, playwriting, motion pictures, etc and deserve to be experienced as such. And are often annoyed when others don’t see it that way. These guests see great potential in the medium of themed entertainment for superb storytelling, craft, amazing experiences, and are often frustrated that the industry is often too preoccupied pursuing its business ends and more casual or lifestyler guests to aim as high as they’d like to see.
And there you have it. 7 types of theme park guests in their purest forms. Put them on a 7 pointed star and see where you land. I myself find myself pretty firmly seated in between 5, 6, and 7. What about you?
*(Seriously, guys that bread at Ohana is life. My patronus would be cast on childhood memories of eating that bread. And the no longer offered jello cubes. Coincidentally my boggart, would be the 6 foot rodents messing up my hair and stealing said bread. Enough with the mixed IP metaphors. Anyway where was I….)