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.


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