Wednesday, December 30, 2009

What's the difference?

Two posts in one day! How about that! But I'm not going to be around for the weekend, and I wanted to continue my train of thought on this theme park development thread, so here goes:

I have been thinking about WDW and Disneyland Resorts in relation to other parks around the country, and wondering, what is the difference? Not totally from simply a financial success perspective, but from a little different angle. WDW and DLR are destinations; other thrill parks are not.

For my example I used the only thrill park that I am fairly familiar with, that is, Six Flags Great America. It's a lot of fun, and I'm led to believe it is profitable, even if the parent company itself has either filed or is considering filing bankruptcy. And it might even be a destination for some people, sometimes. I don't know of people who make a trip specifically to the area to go to Great America, though I am sure there are people who spend a day or two there in conjunction with a trip to the great city of Chicago, or maybe with visiting family in northern Illinois or southern Wisconsin.

Disney resorts are, on the other hand, destinations in and of themselves. People like me save up for a week at Disney World, spend most of their waking hours at the parks, and eat at their restaurants. Everything's Disney for that week.

At Great America, there is one thrill park, and one water park. There is a large shopping facility nearby called Gurnee Mills, and another enclosed water park close by also. There may be other attractions in the area, but I don't know what they are, and I live here. By comparison, there are four major theme parks, two water parks, shopping and even those other facilities like the Wide World of Sports and the Race Track at WDW.

We haven't even touched on the hotels. Both US resorts have hotels on the grounds with dining options, nice pools, spas, and tons of themed environs to put their guests in the mood for the parks and resorts. Great America has no hotels of their own, though there are plenty of hotels nearby. The hotels help to drive the experience; they become part of the experience at Disney, while they are just utilitarian at Great America.

Disney offers something different; a one-of-a-kind experience for their guests. Both resorts, but especially WDW, are immersive, in that you don't have to leave the grounds. Everything you could want on your vacation is right there. The experiences at the parks are unique as well. There is no park in the world like EPCOT, none like Animal Kingdom, really, either, and there is nowhere that I know of that utilizes the monorail, which may not truly be futuristic transportation anymore, but it still SEEMS like it, and that is KEY. I don't know if Great America offers any sort of character dining; they might, but then again, the Warner Brothers characters just aren't lovable like the Disney pantheon of characters are.

Which brings us to CONTENT. This is probably the most important difference between Disney parks and resorts, and places like Six Flags Great America. Disney has that huge library of movies and characters, and they aren't shy about using our emotional attachment to their stories to pull us into their parks and attractions. Although Great America tries to incorporate Superman and Batman rides into the parks, the themes are lost except for in the very immediate vicinity of the rides themselves. Characters are not enough to bridge this gap; Great America can't use Bugs and Tweety Bird to the same effect as Disney uses its characters and stories.

You really don't have to travel too far to find something like Great America. Thrill ride parks are all around the country. Some are themed better than others. The Hard Rock park in one of the Carolinas has apparently already closed its doors, but it was trying to be themed around music - a pretty loose theme by my estimation. But the point is that if you live in Missouri, you don't travel to Gurnee Illinois to find your thrills, you go to St. Louis, or maybe to Branson. If you live in Ohio, maybe you go to Cincinatti, or maybe up to the Cleveland locale, but you don't drive to Illiois. Etc, etc. You get the point. However, you DO very much fly or drive to Florida or California to experience the Disney difference.

And that, in a lot of words, is why Disney is a destination, and the big thrill parks generally are not. There are exceptions, but Disney gets people from all over, they get repeat customers, and they get people from most demographic segments of society. Perhaps they draw a line at a certain level of affluence, since a Disney vacation is not cheap. But still, they cross over a lot of barriers. They provide an experience that is not duplicated, or even really attempted to be duplicated, by any other park, really, that I know of. (I've not been to Knott's Berry Farm; maybe it does some of this...but not to the level of Disney.)

So, Disney is the model to look at when we're contemplating what sort of park we want to make. Because one of the goals is to become something of a destination, a place where people will travel to visit, maybe as the secondary goal of their trip, but maybe as the primary goal. Again, that's an extremely tall order.

THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG - review of sorts...

(I hate to call these sorts of posts "reviews" because I'm not all that critical normally, but I can't come up with another word to describe "review" will have to do...)

We got out to see Disney's latest "hand drawn" animation film, THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG yesterday. I took my two sons, who were a bit reluctant simply because of the word "Princess" in the title. But I suspected that, just like BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, SLEEPING BEAUTY and other films they've been coerced into watching, they'd be entranced anyway.

And they pretty much were. Some big laughs out of my younger (7 years old) son, and plenty of snickers out of the more worldly 9 year old, also.

As you probably know, the story is set in New Orleans, and starts with a young African-American girl and her wealthy Caucasian friend listening to the fairy tale "The Frog Prince" and then debating the desirability of kissing a frog, whether it will turn into a prince or not. We learn then than Tiana, the poorer of the pair, is the daughter of New Orleans' best seamstress and that her father dreams of opening his own restaurant.

Cut to Tiana, as a young woman, working multiple jobs to save money to fulfill her father's unrealized dream. Seems her father has passed on, and he never did get that restaurant. A prince, Naveen, comes to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, and Tiana's rich friend has her sights set on him. But Naveen gets suckered into a tarot reading from the Shadow Man, who uses some voodoo on him and his servant, which ends up with Naveen turned into a frog and the servant changed into the likeness of Naveen. Circumstances collide and the upshot is that both Naveen and Tiana are turned into frogs, and they have to work their way through the bayous to find another voodoo practitioner whom they hope will be able to help them. Along the way they battle gators, Cajun frog hunters, and finally the evil voodoo spirits that the Shadow Man sends to recapture the frog Naveen.

This was a very good film, with layers of content, nothing too far beneath the surface, but still there nonetheless. I asked my boys afterwards if they liked it, and of course, they really did. I really liked it also. It was an entertaining story with a typical Disney message: Wants are different from needs. (It's funny because in dentistry we deal with something like this in issues we face every day, it seems.)

I loved the music, and the background animation was rich and detailed and exuded a magnetic charm - makes me want to get back to N'awlins. I don't think this film stacks up with the heavy hitters of the Katzenberg/Eisner times, but it's not too far out of the team picture. It's definitely a return to the formula that made Disney famous, then brought them back from the edge. If five stars is the best, I think I have to give this one 4 stars, maybe even pushing 4 and 1/2.


Tuesday, December 29, 2009

So what's on the agenda for this theme park?

In the last few posts, I sort of convinced myself (if no one else) that designing and developing some sort of themed entertainment concept in my part of the world (the Chicagoland area) is possible and while success isn't a given, it isn't totally impossible, either.

I also argued that there were only two types of layout that would work. One would be to more or less copy EPCOT's basic idea of pavilions separated by beautifully decorated common areas and walkways. All "attractions" are located indoors, with perhaps a few notable exceptions (which haven't been determined at all). The other model would be a totally enclosed structure, sort of like Mall of America, or like what developers tried to do with Old Chicago, a theme park in Bolingbrook, IL.

And in the last post, I considered (very superficially) the reasons for failures of amusement parks around the country, and decided that most of it had to do with the places getting stale. Any park of this sort, or even any museum or attraction, has to depend on repeat business. Change is going to have to drive the attendance of these types of customers/guests. The Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago is popular because they are constantly changing the special exhibits and the films that can be viewed there, and because the permanent exhibits occasionally get updated or redone completely in some cases. (For example, there has always been an exhibit on biology, with a heart model you can walk through, on the mezzanine which has been totally redone, and which my family and I will likely see next weekend.)

I have a couple of ideas for content of this project. I think they can be made sufficiently broad to encompass a lot of quality exhibits and attractions. Whether they can support the kind of change that would be required remains to be thought through.

About a year ago, I posted that we had visited Legoland Schaumburg, located near the very large enclosed shopping mall called Woodfield. Legoland in Illinois is a large enclosed space in a strip mall. They charge something between 20 and 30 bucks to get in. They have a walk through attraction at the beginning, with all sorts of large scale Lego creations. They have a dark ride through a Lego-based story (I can't recall the content now), they have a 3-D theater with an animated Lego-type story, they have a "Lego Factory Tour" where you crowd into a smallish room and see Lego's being "created". There is a play area where kids can build with Legos and run their creations on ramps, similar to the facility in Downtown Disney. There is a snack bar, and a Lego store. There are also, spread throughout the facility, several large scale Lego figures built by their artists.

When I look at what they have to offer, it doesn't sound like much. We'll have to do better than this in our theme park. We have to offer unique attractions that entertain families, that can hold the interest of the teens, and that can be run indoors, since we can't do any massive outdoor types of thrill rides, at least not to start out. It would be cool to add something "like" Rock'n'Roller Coaster later, perhaps, as one of those upgrades, something themed to our park of course.

I don't know how much of my ideas I want to post here. Probably I should just post everything, since I'm non exactly inundated with's not like anything I post is very likely to end up in the hands of someone else anyway. ("Hey, let's go read that Disney Fan Ramblings blog to get ideas for our new entertainment concept! He's got the best ideas and he's putting them out for us to borrow from freely!!!" Yeah, that's likely to happen...more likely is "Look at the lame ideas this guy has! At last we get some comic relief!" ) Still, I think I'll just keep arguing with myself here and sort of working some of this stuff out in print. Look for more posts on this thread sometime soon...

Monday, December 28, 2009

Why do they close?

A few months ago I posted an entry mentioning that Kiddieland, one of the nation's oldest amusement parks, was closing after 80 some years of operation. Located in suburban Melrose Park, it is a park I visited many times when the kids were a little younger, before we started making multiple pilgrimages to Walt Disney World.

It closed not because it was unprofitable, but because for some reason, Art Fritz, the founder who once refused to talk to Walt Disney (according to the story) about the park he was thinking of building in California, willed the park and its assets to one "side" of his family, and the land it sat on to the other "side". As time passed, the land became more valuable and the part of the family that owned it wanted the park gone so they could cash in on a windfall from its eventual sale. A family squabble, in other words.

I write about its closing here because it seems to be the exception to the rule: Most parks fail because they just don't make it economically. While reading up on Old Chicago on Wikipedia, I noted that the article linked to a list of abandoned or closed amusement parks from all over the world. Some of them were just names on a list; some, however, had their own pages. I obviously didn't read all of them, but the sampling I did read suggested that attendance and downturns in the economy cause most of the failures.

Why is this? After spending the weekend pondering (off and on, at least) the reason(s) parks fail, I think the biggest reason is that they become stale. They don't change, or don't change enough. I can't speak for everyone, but I know from my own experience that you sort of "grow out of" these parks with time. This is especially true if what the park tries to deliver is thrills. There is always a bigger, scarier, more thrilling ride coming down the pike, and probably Six Flags or Cedar Point has it. These parks change yearly, getting rid of some attractions and replacing them with the newest incarnation of a big thrill ride.

Disney does not depend on thrills. It depends on content. Oh, there are some thrills to grab the teens and young adults who crave this sort of thing, but mostly its patrons form an emotional attachment to the rides. I realize it from talking to Disney fans in my patient base, and from reading the discussions at MiceAge - they fondly recall their own experiences as a youth and want their own kids to have those same experiences, or they want to relive those experiences again and again. Emotional attachment.

EPCOT, it seems, depends on the excitement it generated in younger generations to bring back repeat business. I read it again and again, that people were inspired by the content of that park, even if it isn't your classic Disney content. Much like a museum, it depends on stimulating the minds of its guests, and that stimulation is fondly recalled later on. (People currently bemoan the direction of EPCOT, because it doesn't seem to particularly be trying to inspire any more, and if this observation is correct, this direction won't be good for EPCOT in the long run.) It's an emotional attachment again, but from a different direction.

So in order to make a successful theme park in any climate, let alone a cold weather climate, we'd have to continually update and revise the attractions. Change the content a bit, and change the presentation of that content dramatically every now and then. In the absence of the lovable characters that Disney has, we would have to depend on generating excitement, stimulation, even inspiration. Tall order.


Wednesday, December 23, 2009

More ramblings on designing a theme park...

In the last post, I sort of rambled on about whether it would even be possible to design a "theme park" for a small midwestern town near Chicago. There are challenges, to be sure. But aren't there challenges anywhere? The major challenge for Walt Disney, it seems, was simply that no one had really ever done what he was trying to do. Everyone said it was a folly; it would not be a success. No way. But Walt proved the naysayers wrong, simply by doing it the way he believed would be best, and, maybe more importantly, the way it would have entertainment value and interest for him.

Then the challenges in Florida, not the least of which was how to build a theme park on swamp land. That challenge entailed a massive engineering effort to drain the land and create "lakes" and "rivers" where marshes had previously existed. He had the economic power to get certain concessions from the Florida state government, basically making him his own local governing agency.

The challenges in the upper midwest mostly involve the weather, assuming that land could be acquired and governments and civic organizations could be gotten on board. There are plenty of amusement parks in this part of the country. But they operate seasonally, closing for good by (at the latest) early November, and reopening in the spring, usually in April for weekends only. I personally wouldn't want my theme park to be a half year enterprise. I'd like to operate year round.

This limitation gives me two possibilities. First, a completely enclosed structure could be built. As I mentioned in a previous post, Disney considered making a theme park in St. Louis, where the weather is a little better than here, but where it is still a factor. When he considered this location, imagineers apparently drew up plans for a four story building, one square city block in size. (A Haunted Mansion was to be the focal point of that park.) Imagineers apparently also pulled out those plans when designing the "World Bazaar" for Tokyo Disneyland.

As some (including the author of Futureprobe, in response to that aforementioned post) have noted, enclosed structures have been done on a large scale. The Mall of America is one such structure. I've never been to that one, but I have been to other large-scale malls (there are many around the Chicagoland area) and one completely enclosed amusement park, done in the 1970's, called " Old Chicago". This park was in suburban Bolingbrook, and consisted of a "mall" with stores around the outside, and a fairly large amusement park in the central open area. Attractions included a rollercoaster with a couple of corkscrew type inversions, a log flume ride, several spinning rides, and other standard amusement park attractions, like a carousel and (I believe) a ferris wheel. That particular park wasn't profitable in the end, partly because the amusement park part couldn't compete with Great America and other area parks, and the mall part certainly couldn't compete with places like Woodfield and Yorktown. Neither one was good enough. About the only thing it had going for it was that it could operate year round, and as a high school kid at that time, I can tell you that it was a popular destination for our group outings and date nights in the winter months.

The second possibility is to mimic EPCOT and design a multi-acre park that consists of wonderful landscaping and pavilions which host the attractions. I am partial to this sort of design, but it too has limits. First, it requires a bunch of land compared to that enclosed structure. Second, the weather will play a role in wintertime usage, where you'd have to contend with snow packed walkways. A day like yesterday, for example, in the Chicagoland area, would see snow falling gently all day. But we've also seen near blizzard conditions.

I suppose that EPCOT in Florida has to contend with hurricane season down there. I was actually at Disney in 2004 (I think) when Hurricane Jeanne hit. We were staying at the Port Orleans, got in a few hours before they closed the airports. The tollway booths were abandoned; you simply drove right through. We got to WDW and were told that the parks were closed (we realized this would be the case) and that we'd better plan on staying in our room all day on Sunday. We provisioned up with cereals and non-perishable foods, a small styrofoam cooler (that we overpaid for) for milk and such for the kids, and some bottled water. Then we got to watch the trees parallel the ground for most of the day, until about 5 or 6 pm, when we could go outside finally. The parks opened the next day, and obviously they weren't terribly crowded.

Anyway, with preparation, and maybe walkways that could be covered, possibly heated, good drainage, etc etc, you could make open spaces that would be as beautiful in the winter as they would be in the summer. I like this idea. But it seems far less do-able to me than simply enclosing the entire structure from the get-go.

Water parks and some of Disney's own location based entertainment ideas seem to suggest that this is feasible. And since we're just pipe-dreaming here, we'll forget about the costs involved for now, and just concentrate on whether something like this could be accomplished from the technical and engineering standpoint.

See? Isn't this fun?

Monday, December 21, 2009

Thoughts on Theme Park Development...

I know, I's a pipe dream to think that I could ever design and develop my own theme park idea into something that becomes a reality. What do I know about the business end, or the creative end, or the development end? I'm a dentist. I know teeth.

Then again, what did Walt Disney know about creating the first real "theme park" experience? What, for that matter, did he know about creating the first feature length animated film? Walt didn't much worry about that stuff. He just "did". He had lots of help, to be certain, and a brother who backed him about 98%. He was successful when he did something, generally, and people came to believe in him, to trust him, to have confidence in his inspirations.

I keep thinking about this subject. Some nights I "think" myself to sleep with planning such a project. I usually skip right over the hard part - getting started. In my pre-sleep daydreams, I'm usually at the point of figuring out what's around this corner or that bend, in my park layout. The devil isn't so much in the details of the park. It's in getting a start.

I don't know the history behind other themed entertainment developments like I do about Disney...not saying I'm some sort of Disney History expert or anything, just that I know how Walt got from point A (his dream) to point B (actually starting). He had a studio behind him. He had a relationship with another studio, ABC. He had access to a talented group of artists and builders - the "Nine Old Men". He had ways to get credit from banks to help fund his idea. And last, he had a pretty large stock of creative content to draw upon. In my opinion, it's the CONTENT that drives most of the theme in his theme parks.

I don't have any of these things. I'm not a very good artist. I don't have any big organization to stand behind me. I don't necessarily have people around me who are interested in doing this sort of thing (my 9- and 7-year old sons don't really count...though they'd probably be willing to loan me that contents of their piggy banks to make a park). I certainly don't have a body of content to draw theme from.

Can it be done without this content? When you think about the other rivals to Disney for the theme park dollar, mostly you come up with Universal Studios parks. They're doing the Harry Potter thing, and they are drawing their content from numerous sources, everything from Marvel comic heroes to Dr. Suess. I've not been to Legoland California, or to Knott's Berry Farm, but I did go to Santa's Village in the suburbs of Chicago. They used a theme without a ton of content. The park was the "North Pole" (sort of) and this was Santa's land. That has the makings of a pretty strong theme, and indeed, the park was profitable for many years. It closed in the last 4 or 5 years, but I have fond memories of it from my childhood.

Disney's own EPCOT sort of does it without using Disney's body of content. I posted elsewhere that EPCOT might be the only Disney park that would be reproducible in another location. So maybe it follows that a theme park that uses EPCOT as its inspiration could work elsewhere. Even in a cold climate.

Because that's where I'm interested in placing this imaginary theme park. I want to do it in my small city, not too far from Chicago. When I rule out the climate, I think the area has a lot to recommend it. It's within an hour of two pretty big airports. A third airport is proposed, and if it gets developed, it would be pretty close by. It's close to a world class city with plenty of other things to do. It has a pretty good source of labor. It's by the crossroads of two major highways, and it's accessible by Amtrack as well.

It has a few things to make it not exactly ideal also. The weather here can be beautiful, but it can really stink too. While the crime rate isn't sky high, we have our share of "bad" neighborhoods. The downtown is perhaps on its way up, but it isn't too far from its bottom still. Did I mention the weather? Right now there is about a half inch of snow on the ground. Not bad, considering last year at this time, we had about an inch of ice underneath all the snow.

What makes me think this area could become a tourist destination? Well, what made Walt think that Orlando, Florida or Anaheim, California could become tourist destinations?

When I was getting out of dental school, I asked a physician friend of mine if there was "room" for me to come back to this town and practice dentistry. He said to me that there was always room for quality, that doing quality work would make me successful and it wouldn't matter how many other dentists were around this area.

I think I could apply that sort of thinking to a project like this. Quality will out. If I or someone else could develop something that's worth seeing, people will come see it. Heck, they drive to the middle of Iowa to see the "Field of Dreams" from the movie. I think if it's good enough, local residents will go to it. And maybe, if it's really good, like almost Disney-good, people would come from other parts of the country to see it.

I still know it's a pipe dream, but it doesn't stop me from thinking about it.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Roy E. Disney RIP

Just a quick entry to note the passing of Roy E. Disney, son of founding Disney brother Roy O. Disney and nephew of Walt Disney, at age 79. He was born on January 10, 1930, and passed away on December 16, 2009, after a bout with cancer. Rest in peace.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

My sons publish their second "Disney Times"...

I mentioned in an earlier post that my sons (mostly the older one but the little one wants to be in on it too) were "publishing" a "magazine" called "The Disney Times". Their first one was all hand-drawn and hand-written, but it was quite nice. They aren't the best artists, and most of their descriptions were on the order of "It's the coolest ride in Disney!"

They recently "published" their second edition. This time I helped with typesetting in WordPerfect. My older boy has learned how to find and capture pictures from the internet, and he wrote all the text and selected the pictures. I more or less formatted it for him, but he was selecting fonts and such. I'm proud of his effort, so I scanned the pages. One didn't transfer when I emailed it to myself at this computer, but here are the first three pages of "The Disney Times", written by a 9 year old (with some assistance from a 7-year old and from Dad...)

If I get the chance I will try to upload page 4 later (which is on Animal Kingdom Lodge). Maybe I have a budding magazine/book publisher on my hands...