Theme Park, Amusement Park and Attractions Industry News

Licence to Thrill

Branded content for parks and attractions

What operators like Disney and Universal have known for a long time is that incorporating well-known brands and characters into theme park attractions creates the ultimate cross-marketing opportunity. Now numerous other licence owners are waking up to the potential parks have to create real life experiences that immerse guests deeper into the brands or intellectual property (‘IP’). From George of the Jungle to American Idol, Owen Ralph highlights some of IP about to thrill guests in the months to come, and what it can do for park operators.

In the January 2009 issue of Park World, BRC Imagination Arts founder Bob Rogers warned: “If there are two attractions near each other, and if they offer the same elements, they will compete on price. The cheapest will win. Your operating margins will get smaller. This means a complete loss of any differentiation, ie. brand equity.”

Venues such as the Efteling in Holland, Phantasialand in Germany and of course the Disney parks worldwide, have spent years building up their brand equity. Some of their attractions might be the same as those in other parks, but the theming, the storylines and the atmosphere are such that guests come because they realise they can’t get quite the same experience anywhere else. No longer are they competing on price alone.

But if you don’t have the time to build your own brand like those parks above, one option is to piggyback on someone else’s. “Dozens of companies and operators have developed successful theme parks around the globe since Disney got the ball rolling in the 50s,” notes Keith James, president of Jack Rouse Associates (JRA). “There are hundreds parks around the world that have realised the potential of using brands or brands licensed from others.”

Currently working with Ferrari on a major project in Abu Dhabi, JRA has helped realise numerous branded attractions over the years, working with names such as Kellogg’s, Coca-Cola and Legoland. “What no one else has done,” adds James, “is develop on the scale of Universal or Disney, for a variety of reasons, including leveraging of intellectual property, site locations, funding capacity and a host of others.”

“I think there were a lot of brand owners trying it before, but on an incidental basis,” says Roger Houben of 3D Branded Attractions (3DBA), who recently set-up a new IP business together with partners including Falcon’s Treehouse. “It took too much effort for these people to do deals based on a single attraction and it was distracting them from their normal business, so they asked for a lot of money. Even if the parks were prepared to pay for it, there was still another issue in the cost of execution and ensuring the attractions met the quality required by the IP provider. All these were barriers that made it quite complicated unless you had in-house departments like Universal or Disney.”

Viable Attractions

As sales of home entertainment (DVDs etc) dwindle, licence owners are also keen to find new ways to exploit their brands and build relationships with consumers. One company that has set up a dedicated attractions division in recent years is HIT Entertainment, which owns the Bob the Builder, Thomas & Friends, Barney and Pingu licences among many others.

Teri Ruffley, who joined HIT from Intamin in 2006 to become its director of live events (now events and attractions), soon identified the potential parks and attractions could offer to HIT as a brand owner: “The theme park industry is an interesting and viable business for HIT because we have a portfolio of preschool brands that have global recognition and appeal as well as longevity,” she says. “We are currently one of the only licensors to offer financially viable attractions, and work towards structuring deals that are mutually beneficially and sustainable for us and the operator.”

Another IP owner dealing in preschool brands is Entertainment Rights, based in London. The company recently appointed 3DBA as its attractions partner, and hopes to reveal details soon of its first project for the amusement industry, based around the character George of the Jungle. Mat Way, the company’s global head of live entertainment, says: “The development of these immersive attractions presents exciting opportunities for consumers to engage with our brands in a way they’ve never experienced previously.”

It’s now nearly 30 years since Sesame Workshop teamed up with the Busch Entertainment Corporation to develop a complete park based around its popular Sesame Street television show and characters. Sesame Place opened in Langhorne, Pennsylvania, in 1980 and is now one of nine Sesame Street-branded parks or attractions around the world (see panel over the page). Many of these are children’s areas within existing theme parks and given the brand’s appeal, this makes perfect sense.

A well-documented success story is Thomas Land at Drayton Park in England, a park which had the confidence to rip out all the attractions in its former Robinsons Land children’s area and replace them with 10 new ones themed around the Thomas & Friends franchise from HIT Entertainment.

“We knew the new area would be extremely popular and we were proved right,” remarked the park’s Edward Pawley just a few months after it opened. But not even he could have predicted what a hit Thomas Land would be, contributing to the park’s most successful season ever, including an extended winter opening

“In addition to an attendance increase of over 40%, Drayton Manor is also enjoying a substantially increased in-park spend, including retail, catering and ride photography sales,” notes Ruffley.

Retail Therapy

Indeed, it should not be underestimated how powerful a driver of secondary spend branded attractions can be. “It’s early days for us in this market,” says Way, “but I’ve done smaller scale projects and I know the potential licensed characters can offer, and it’s enormous. I think once we’ve got our first attractions up and running we will be able to come to the table with some very interesting information about the impact on footfall and retail.”

The Thomas brand, which was first introduced into the park market at Fujiku Higlands in Japan back in 1998, has now also been rolled out to a number of Six Flags parks in the United States. As it continues to embrace the family audience it once arguably neglected, the park chain has also introduced a number of Wiggles Worlds, based around the high-energy Australian children’s franchise.

The original Wiggles World opened in 2007 at Dreamworld on the Gold Coast of Australia. The same park also features Nick Central, dedicated to characters from the Nickelodeon children’s TV channel, which can also be found at a number of Cedar Fair/ex-Paramount park properties in the United States, Movie Park in Germany, a themed Holiday Inn outlet in Orlando and at Nickelodeon Universe, a dedicated indoor amusement park at the Mall of America in Minnesota (see panel, right). What all this illustrates, of course, is the global nature of the licences involved.

Mat Way is in no doubt why branded areas work well within amusement parks: “Brands now play a large part in our everyday life and we are seeing more parents and grandparents taking children out to live shows and theme parks to enjoy them. It’s no longer enough to sit kids down in front of the television to watch their favourite characters. That plays into our hands at Entertainment Rights, where some of our brands have a lot of heritage across several generations.”

Of course there is an extra, often very significant investment required when introducing any IP, and park owners may run scared when they compare the individual components like for like with other attractions.

“The investment a theme park operator makes in licensing a brand is really an overlay and therefore incremental on its existing capital investment,” highlights Ruffley. “The key benefit for an operator is the associated marketing power of the brand. In addition to this, the operator can access the existing consumer channels for marketing and cross promotion. Therefore, the strength of the brand presence and access to these channels can provide for a significant impact on attracting visitors. In many cases, it can also draw in a new audience, a new demographic to a park.”

Of course how choose a particular brand is a matter of careful consideration. Generally it is agreed that they should already have some presence in the market you operate. Before it opened Hong Kong Disneyland, the Walt Disney Company ensured it had a local TV outlet for its characters, as they were relatively unknown compared to other parts of the world. But it can wok the other way round too. In 2006, Studio 100 from Belgium bought the park TéléCoo and transformed into Plopsa Coo to help launch its Plopsa characters into French speaking territory.

Brand Rehearsal

“If the brand doesn’t have a strong local presence then certainly the theme park can help build awareness of the brand,” says Keith James. “But, if the brand doesn’t have a strong local presence that can drive attendance it would seem foolish to pay a licensing fee for the brand.”

As both brand owner and attraction operator, clearly Studio 100, which launches a new Plopsa outlet soon in the Netherlands, is in a fortunate position. But there are other ways for parks, particularly smaller venues, to experiment with licensed characters before committing to a new attraction or complete overhaul of an area.

“A licensed character appearance can help the park gauge the likely appeal and success of that particular brand before committing to a licensing partnership,” says Simon Foulkes of Rainbow Productions in the UK, which supplies traditional park mascots and licensed costumed character appearances. “Booking several different licensed characters at the same venue will provide a simple litmus test to compare their relative popularity and appeal.”

Rainbow also offers a live show division, as do brand owners such as HIT and Entertainment Rights, providing venues with another way to “dip their toe in the water” or indeed bolster the appeal of brands already in the park. But does inviting outside characters in render a park’s own mascots redundant?

“We see the two having different roles and purposes in attracting people to an attraction,” says Ruffley. “In some cases, park mascots have become brands in their own right and have high recognition regionally.”

“Traditional mascots help parks to build their own brand,” agrees Foulkes. “Examples include Liseberg with its green rabbits or a new character we currently have in development for Thorpe Park called Max Thrill.”

Of course it takes a lot of time, money and confidence for parks to develop their own brands. How many of today’s operators, for example, would have the courage or resources to create concepts as strong as Disney’s Haunted Mansion or Pirates of the Caribbean, which started off as theme park attractions, and then spawned the film, rather than the other way round?

Let’s hope some do. Although most IP-owners have deals in place with park operators that restrict the number of licences within a certain geographical area, there is still a danger that by integrating brands that are ubiquitous in the outside world, theme parks are themselves becoming commodities.

In the same article that he urged attractions operators to consider their brand equity, Bob Rogers also warned: “We are commoditising our parks. Identical solutions are appearing everywhere for everything. Our attractions are all starting to look alike.”

Rogers wasn’t just talking about the brands inside parks, but nevertheless integrating someone else’s intellectual property should not be considered the magic solution for all attractions.

“Being based on a brand is not a guarantee of success,” concludes James. “Likewise, not incorporating a brand does not doom a development to failure. Ultimately success or failure is driven by the quality of the product and the audience’s acceptance of that product.”

Sesame Street

The first Sesame Street-branded theme park opened in 1980 as a result of licensing agreement between Sesame Workshop and the Busch Entertainment Corporation (BEC), which operates the 16-acre facility near Langhorne in Pennsylvania.

Following the success of this first park, Sesame Place, other Sesame Street attractions have opened around the world including Parque Plaza Sesamo, Monterrey, Mexico; Vila Sesamo at Hopi Hari, Sao Paulo, Brazil; Sesame Street Movie Magic at Universal Studios Japan; and a Sesame Street kids area at Sea World on the Gold Coast in Australia.

In the States the deal with BEC has been expanded so Sesame Street characters and attractions will go into the other BEC parks including SeaWorld Orlando, SeaWorld San Antonio, SeaWorld San Diego and Busch Gardens Williamsburg and Tampa Bay.

“We see our themed entertainment offerings as one of our most powerful outreach efforts where our audience gets to meet, play, and learn with their Sesame Street friends up close and in person,” says Peter van Roden, vice- president of themed entertainment for Sesame Workshop.

“We try and pick relationships with the best park operators in key territories around the world, and enjoy very close relationships with these partners. By the time they open and are operating with the Sesame characters and attractions, they are well versed in our mission and approach. We trust our park partners to know what new ride or attraction will serve their park and our shared audience, and support them in fulfilling their needs. Approval is a smooth and fast process.”

This summer, Busch Gardens Williamsburg will open Sesame Street Forest of Fun, a new kid’s area, while SeaWorld San Diego will debut a Sesame live show ahead of a bunch of new Sesame Street attractions arriving at the park in 2011. Two parks will welcome Sesame Street into their property for the first time in 2010, Busch Gardens Tampa Bay and Port Aventura in Salou, Spain. Sesame Workshop has also signed a deal with Universal Studios to introduce a number of attractions at Universal Studios Dubailand beginning in 2012.

Nickelodeon Universe

As well as dedicated Nickelodeon attractions and themed areas at parks in the United States, Germany and Australia, the children’s television channel now has a full undercover amusement park dedicated to its characters including SpongeBob SquarePants, Dora the Explorer and Jimmy Neutron. Nickelodeon Universe opened last March at the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota, where it replaced Camp Snoopy.

“Mall of America opened in 1992 and was built with a seven-acre amusement park in the centre,” explains marketing manager Jennifer Lauerman. “The mall has a history of investing in order to remain top-of-mind, fresh and exciting for more than 40 million annual visitors. When the contract to use the Snoopy licence ended, rather than jumping into a new relationship with another brand, management decided to temporarily brand the facility as ‘The Park at MOA.’ After an extensive search we were able to come up with the ideal partner for Mall of America. Partnering with Nickelodeon has helped make the amusement park more thrilling and inviting for guests of all ages.”

Nickelodeon Universe is the first entirely Nick-themed amusement park in the world. More than $25 million was invested in new rides, attractions and theming when it opened last year, and painstaking care was taken to re-theme and upgrade many of the existing rides.

Has all that effort and investment paid off? “It is clear from talking to many of our guests, and from customer research, that Nickelodeon Universe has been very well received,” says Lauerman. “Total ridership increased by 21% over the past year. The long weekend following the grand opening was our busiest four-day stretch in history. The excitement continues, in fact just one week ago we had our third busiest ridership day in the history of the amusement park. We are happy with the reception that Nickelodeon Universe has received  – and
the numbers bear that out.”

Movie Park

When it lost its Warner Bros franchise a few years ago, the owners of Movie Park near Bottrop in Germany decided that, rather than get into bed with a single licence holder, they would partner with the owners of multiple intellectual properties (IP).

“Warner still has strong brands, but whereas as you or I may be familiar with Bugs Bunny and Tweety Pie, my kids are not,” notes Movie Park general manager Wouter Dekkers. “It’s all now about Dora, it’s about DreamWorks, it’s about Shrek.”

One of the first licences to be brought in after Warner was Ice Age in 2005. The animated movie from 20th Century Fox gives its name to Ice Age Adventure, a re-themed version of the park’s old Looney Tunes Adventure dark ride. The park expects a boost this summer when Ice Age 3 is released.

Perhaps the biggest statement came in 2007, when the park added Nick Land, the first Nickelodeon-branded area in Europe. Attendance that season leaped to over one million after teetering below 900,000 the previous year, and then jumped again to 1.17 million in 2008 following a Nick Land expansion and the addition of a Shrek 4D movie.

Dekkers reveals that the park had earlier tried to create its own characters for a number of its live shows, but it simply hadn’t worked. “It was awful,” he says. “Parks like Efteling or Walibi have a long history. People know the brand and can connect with it. We soon realised that unless you’ve got that history, you need to stick to well-known licences. Our long term plan is that everything in the park should have an IP of some sort.”

One of the park’s biggest licences is Shrek 4D, and Movie Park is the only non-Universal or DreamWorks outlet in the world to have it. Dekkers adds that although he is now dealing with some pretty big studios, the development process for new attractions is remarkably quick: “With Shrek for example it took us only 15 days from signing before the start of the season to get all the software. The guys from DreamWorks and Universal were fantastic and we have some good friendships now with many of the licence holders, which makes it relatively easy when it comes to passing artwork etc.”

Merlin’s brand magic

Merlin Entertainments has become one of the world’s largest attractions operators, second only to Disney, by building and acquiring a strong portfolio of “chainable” brands, including Sea Life, Madame Tussauds and Legoland. Mark Fisher. Merlin’s managing director of resort theme parks, explains the group’s philosophy, and its approach to incorporating intellectual properties from the outside world.

Merlin Entertainments is all about building strong branded attractions – brands which have a recognisable, defined core proposition, values and attributes, and which can be replicated across borders and in new markets, but also reflect the individual locations they are in.
Madame Tussauds, for example, is about getting up close and personal to ‘celebrities’ through wax figures – but the style and figures within our eight attractions worldwide varies place from to London to New York to Shanghai etc, as does the fish ‘stock’ within the various Sea Life aquariums or even the sets within each Legoland.

Intellectual property does have a role to play inside our attractions, and we look at all opportunities and assess them both in commercial terms and/or how they add to the visitor experience. Some IP owners are looking for a revenue-driven partnership, while others are looking for exposure in an appropriate environment, and this will dictate the level of our investment, which can be relatively small.

Ultimately though, Merlin is all about developing our own strong brands, so any IP would have to add significant value and be seen by our visitors as a natural fit or extension of our own brand experience. Some good examples here would be the new Bob the Builder 4D show this season at the Legoland parks, the James Bond set in Madame Tussauds in London, Madagascar themed weekends at Alton Towers or visiting stage shows featuring characters like Barney the dinosaur.

Some of our own brands are potentially intellectual properties in their own right. Indeed, Madame Tussauds is a stronger and older brand than any of the IP within it. Rolling out three of our ‘midway’ attractions globally each year – Madame Tussauds, Legoland Discovery Centres, Sea Life and The Dungeons – is at the heart of Merlin Entertainments’ growth strategy.

Patently it is easier to take an established brand to new territories than it is to create new local ones; you are ‘selling’ an established branded experience that people may already know and which is recognised as unique. That said, Merlin has been equally successful in developing local brands like Alton Towers – now a successful short break resort destination with a theme park, two hotels, waterpark, spa and conference facilities.

Paramount’s park strategy

It has been almost three years since Paramount sold its North American theme park chain. However, the company still views the attractions industry as an important arena for guests to engage with its licensed properties, and in the coming years a number of new branded entertainment outlets will open around the world carrying its name. Here Paramount Pictures’ executive vice-president of recreation, Mike Bartok (pictured), reveals his company’s approach to the theme park market.

Theme parks and attractions are a unique opportunity for consumers to experience and interact directly with our licensed film properties. As parks and other themed attractions aim to offer a higher level of guest experience, they will become more dependent on strong IP.

The quality of the attraction is “Paramount” to the leveraging of our film properties, so we look for operators that can help us deliver a world-class experience. Given that Paramount used to own and operate theme parks in North America, we have significant capabilities to evaluate operators.

I believe a number of territories have a local guest demographic ready to connect with our characters and properties. We look at markets that have strong responses to our films, as well as markets that do not yet have a “Movie Studio Park” offering.

We are very excited right now about the Paramount Movie Studio Park under development in Incheon, South Korea. We had a groundbreaking ceremony in December last year and the park is scheduled to open in late 2011. We have several other theme parks, attraction complexes and retail dining entertainment centres under development in places such as China, Japan and the UAE.

Pictured below: Nickelodeon Universe at the Mall of America


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