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Reawakening theme park magic while staying socially distant and safe

June 22, 2020

By Dennis Tanida

What happens when the guests’ fantasy is interrupted by reality?

What happens when a place filled with joy and fantasy is suddenly dealing with a real-world crisis that contradicts every aspect of its design philosophy and culture? Not only is the magic and wonder of the place diminished, the enterprise is left fighting for its financial viability. Compounding this is the need to address the implications of the crisis, resulting in a struggle to get guests to return to what will be a radically different environment. Such is the predicament of the theme park industry as it deals with the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many, if not all, of these entertainment institutions have been shuttered for months, and they may be among the last to reopen their doors. 

As the theme park industry assesses its next steps for safe operations, it is also trying to predict the guests’ appetite to return. One group of visitors is anxiety-driven, who will not return until they are assured the park can safely accommodate hundreds and thousands of guests per day. However, other visitors cannot wait to get back to the magic—one way or another. Why is there such a discrepancy? 

Today’s theme park environment is designed to elicit emotional responses from guests, who build happy memories with each visit (Image Credit: Adobe Stock)

Storytelling, placemaking, and face masks

Today’s theme park environment is designed to elicit emotional responses from guests, who build happy memories with each visit. Much of this is done through the art of storytelling and theming. At one end are the largest operators, such as Disney and Universal, who have embarked on “world-building” immersive environments, reflecting cinematic places from “Star Wars,” “Harry Potter,” and more. In other words, this is theatrically driven placemaking. Smaller venues may not be creating such immersive worlds, but the story is still king.

When today’s reality—face masks, hand sanitizer, social distancing—intrudes on the fantasy, the guest becomes disconnected from the story around them, unable to fully immerse themselves in the experience.

To reopen a theme park pre-vaccine, the guidelines from health authorities and the attractions industry indicate that parks must include constant cleaning and sanitization, facial coverings for both guests and staff, thermal imaging, social/physical distancing, touchless transactions, and reduced attendance capacity. These strategies may work well in the real world; however, it is challenging to accommodate these in a fantasy environment and keep the guest experience and magic alive. How we creatively integrate these real-world requirements matters.

Transparent communication is the first key to success as guests will need a clear understanding of the park’s safety and wellness plan up front. Safety has always been the utmost operations pillar at parks, typically delivered invisibly. It has now become even more critical to the guests’ emotional well-being that safety—especially health and wellness—be visibly evident, yet well-integrated and seamless. 

Empathetic, rather than data-driven, messaging should be utilized to emotionally connect with guests. A focus on clear, concise, and story-driven messaging and graphics will lessen the visual fatigue of clinical signs. Theme park guests are often repeat visitors who understand the story-based culture and expect the park’s brand to deliver on the fantasy. It is critical that safety messaging fit the theme. By focusing on the park’s uniqueness, the message can be carried effortlessly.

At various theme parks, the show, ride, and attraction experiences are storyboarded with the audience in mind. With the pandemic, we now have a new story to tell: the visitor’s journey through the park from parking, screening, gate entrance, and ultimately, the attractions. A clear and informative path will reduce the confusion and lessen anxiety. It is important to start that branded experience early and carry the theme throughout.

The parks are introducing dazzling new and innovative technology that keeps the visitor physically safe. Similar technology can be used for convenience and better guest service—like virtual queuing, remote food-purchasing apps, and touchless interactions—which will improve crowd control and help physically distance visitors. Pre-purchase of tickets at home along with a reservation policy or timed entry will help with managing capacity.

When today’s reality—face masks, hand sanitizer, social distancing—intrudes on the fantasy, the guest becomes disconnected from the story around them.

Can smaller be better—and safer?

In this new world, the theme park industry will need to change and take risks to survive. While maintaining the integrity of their storytelling, parks must be proactive—not simply reactive to ever-changing safety requirements. The guests will accept change as a result of this crisis. Things that had been “because we have always done it that way” should be reassessed. Things taken for granted in the past are precious. Outdoor space and open air are now a premium experience. Spaces where guests can gather in small (family) groups and relax provide a respite from the active parts of the park. On the other hand, indoor attractions have become more of a liability. 

At many theme parks, the show, ride, and attraction experiences are storyboarded with the audience in mind.

Ultimately, for the parks to reopen, the financial numbers must work. With reduced capacity, this poses a huge problem for an industry focused on attendance to keep the gates open and finance the extraordinary experiences they offer. We need to ask ourselves: Are there ways to capitalize on smaller crowds? Isn’t the biggest guest complaint the crowds and long lines? Are we now in a position to provide a more exclusive experience? We see Las Vegas embracing a new marketing campaign promoting a more intimate visitor experience. As the parks slowly reopen and test capacity limits, we will see how the ideal guest capacity evolves. 

Challenging situations can inspire creativity and innovation. During visits to a theme park, visitors expect to escape to a fantasy world filled with fun and happiness. Parks need to take steps to ensure that all health concerns are satisfied as they get back to fulfilling the promise of an exciting guest experience.

As an industry, we can all share in new creative approaches that improve the experience. While keeping visitors safe and healthy, we cannot forget that it is the creative magic that they crave. We must focus on the guest, continue to tell the story, and work to integrate new requirements seamlessly.

Our motivation is simple: smiles, joy, and serendipitous experiences.

  • Dennis  Tanida

    Known for his ability to turn the ordinary into memorable experiences, Dennis is a senior designer focused on culture, arts, and entertainment projects.

    Contact Dennis
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