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Guest Column - March 2004

The Evolution of Play Becomes the Experience of One

Themed Attractions

By Jim Zazenski


For everyone in the commercial play attractions industry, please note: It's high time to get out of the stuff business.

In their seminal 1999 book, The Experience Economy, marketing gurus B. Joseph Pine and James Gilmore point to theming as the most important element in creating what properties, customers and guests want from the commercial play industry.

The evolution of play dictates that eventually every functional piece of a commercially built play attraction will become a me-too commodity, or be made obsolete by the sexiness and sizzle of some new concept, some snazzier technology.

It doesn't matter how unique or proprietary any of our commercial play and attractions products are today. Climbing a tree gives way to the rope swing, which soon becomes a tire swing, which evolves into the wooden roller coaster, which eventually is torn down to make way for the virtual-reality ride.

Meanwhile, consumers around the world are spending more and more of their disposable incomes on entertainment—all forms of it. And as they spend, they are becoming equally more demanding, more ambivalent and immune to anything that doesn't have a unique entertainment aspect.

Over the last several years, this "bigtainment bang" has had a profound impact on virtually every one of our society's business and social institutions. Consumers increasingly expect and are drawn toward infotainment, edutainment, eatertainment and retailtainment. When a coin-operated Laundromat installs big-screen TVs, a bar and a cool kids play area, it too becomes an entertainment attraction.

Laundrotainment.

For those of us who design and build commercial play areas, the future is a place where the combination of entertainment standards and technological innovations in everything from soft-foam to robotics is pushing sky-high the expectations of our customers and their patrons.

The kids and families who ultimately grow our bottom lines have themselves grown up with and understand the modern evolution of "stuff." And that's not what they're buying.

What customers and guests now want from their entertainment time and money, as Pine and Gilmore so appropriately labeled it, is an experience. More so, they want an experience that matters.

They want to spend their time interacting with a series of events and situations that have been theatrically staged, time that pulls them out of their present to places where their imaginations can run wild. They want a memorable and engaging experience that stays with them long after they've left.

Call it the Experience Economy. Call it the Hollywood-Disneyfication of the marketplace. The bottom line is that consumers are now predisposed to place a very high value on the visual, emotional and physical experience created for them by a product, service or idea.

And for almost any industry, family-friendly themed play attractions are a very good way to give consumers that experience.

Let me add one minor caveat. While theming is a tremendously value-added foundation for any attraction, I think the entertainment experience argument holds especially true toward dry-play attractions, as opposed to wet-play.

Most kids still tend to consider water an interactive entertainment experience in and of itself—with or without the incorporation of a themed concept. Anyone who's seen kids play firefighter with the backyard garden hose or perform slow-motion underwater gymnastic moves at the pool knows what I mean.

Creating a memorable experience for kids and families at a dry-play attraction, however, is where building interactive activities around a fun, engaging theme really pays off.

A theme-centric philosophy is a major part of the success of a new family entertainment facility in Niagara Falls. Designed for young children, the "Spider-Man and Friends" fun house is a relatively small attraction within the teeming, 30,000-square-foot Marvel's Adventure City "retail-tainment" complex that draws some 12 million tourists a year.

It would have been easy to create a standard-issue play area to stick in a remote corner somewhere in such a vast entertainment venue. For many properties, that would have done the trick. But the people behind Adventure City demanded that even the periphery attractions add value to the overall consumer guest experience by creatively building upon the Marvel brand, its many costumed hero characters and the action-adventure theme.

The Marvel experience is in no way an isolated or unique project. Quite the contrary. Like others in our field, our entire company is rushing toward the commercial play industry's new epicenter of themed entertainment and attractions. Already our concepting and design team includes résumés with extensive backgrounds in big-budget movie-set production and theme-park design.

A few years ago we would have never have considered putting this kind of focus and energy into themed entertainment. Nor did we imagine that we would be dealing with so many major entertainment and big-brand companies, all looking to extend their presence by adding to the experience of commercial play installations.

Regardless of the unstoppable trend toward themed attractions, however, there are several of critical quality considerations for success.

First of all, a themed development must treat the theme as the foundational concept, not as some sort of afterthought. This does not mean cheap, one-dimensional shortcuts like slapping on decals or plywood facades as "theming" features.

News flash: The difference between decorated attractions and holistically themed entertainment experiences is like night and day. Customers know the difference.

Secondly, the theme of any attraction is not the exclusive domain of any one discipline or contractor. The extremely popular Great Barn attraction in Georgia's Stone Mountain Park owes much of its success to an integrated team of child psychologists, conceptual artists, designers, architects and technologists who together transformed the restored 1870-circa barn into a four-story fantasy fun-land where kids become characters in an Interactive ball-play computer game.

And finally, themed attractions are only as successful as the quality of their concept and materials. We've all been in those places where half the machines don't work, the floor is pitted out with trash, where little kids are crying because high-school kids are invading, unsupervised on the slides. When you're selling an experience, everything matters.

Everything.

More than anything else, we in the commercial play and attractions industry must understand that we've transcended beyond the commodity chore of designing, building or operating. Our customers—the hotels, resorts, restaurants, shopping centers, recreation centers and Laundromats—are relying on us to understand the dynamics of the entertainment experience.

It is only by giving them a stimulating, entertaining and meaningful play experience that the people we do this for will keep coming back for more.