Are Theme Parks Pricing Millennials Out of the Ability to Experience the Magic?

If you’re a Millennial like me, then you may have asked yourself the same question. In fact, I read an article recently on another Theme Park website that explored how changing demographics are changing the theme park business. Fascinating article. However, there was an item of mention that troubled me. When commenting on the observation of the addition of food and wine festivals, expensive up-sell experiences, and line-skipping passes to appeal to adults without kids, it was stated in the form of this development being great for Millennials. And that got me to thinking. Is it, though? Considering the current economic climate and the career status of those who are in their early 20s and to early to mid 30s, are these new trends truly accommodating of this group?

Instead of limiting this topic to the changing population (baby booms versus baby busts), I think it’s more effective to explore this topic of how changing demographics are changing the theme park business with the addition of the income criteria coupled with population. This is an important element to add to the discussion because it’s no surprise that it’s taking much longer to land a full-time position earning a truly livable wage for us than it did for our parents (see images 1-3). In fact, the Pew Research center (image 4) shows that our parents had far more purchasing power when they were rearing us than we do today. Essentially, non high-level mangers or non-executives have exponentially less disposable income correlating to the cost of living than our parents did in the 1980s, 90s, and early 2000s. Furthermore, it’s much harder to get a mortgage than it was 10-20yrs ago, rent rates are way up, and student loans enter repayment. When theme parks keep adding expensive up-sell experiences in order to capture the young single adult or young couple without kids (as we are currently in a baby bust that doesn’t look like it will change with GenZ), I am not entirely sure they are considering the financial burdens and increasing cost of living that 20 and 30-somethings currently face. Our parents COULD afford more vacation than we can today.

Whenever I see a Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, or blog post about a new experience at Disney Parks especially, but also Universal Parks, lesser so at Busch Gardens and SeaWorld (who DO tend to cater to where current finances are for Millennials), I wonder who is actually paying for these experiences? Most of these special tour and dining experiences are in excess of $100/person and often much more. After paying for either day tickets or annual passes, hotel nights (if applicable), plane tickets or fuel for the car, I find it difficult to believe that the typical Millennial is able to afford these experiences. Therefore, if the typical Millennial possesses an inability to afford all the increases and special experiences in the parks, then perhaps this “changing of the theme park business” is actually not a good thing for those of us who are in our 20s and 30s. Seems to me, that the more logical course of action would be to follow the median economic status of the biggest group of park guests.

According to the the article that inspired me to write mine, the largest group of park guests is trending toward late GenX and Millennials (with GenZ not being too far behind) without kids. It makes perfect sense for the parks to add in “adult” activities in order to entice Gen-Xers and Millennials such as food and wine festivals, line-skipping passes, and special events, but the prices of these events is outpacing the income of the group that the theme parks know will soon surpass the number of “families” that are guests at the parks. The disadvantage of a proliferation of high-priced up-sells is alienating the very group of current and potential park guests that is outpacing the more traditional families that have been the main source of income for the parks. More than anything else, in terms of spending money on entertainment, Millennials are looking for a good deal–more than our parents–because we have much higher overhead and less purchasing power than they did when they were out ages taking their kids (us) to the parks. Therefore, it’s important for the current theme park business model to recognize the desire for Millennials to continue to support and enjoy the parks as more traditional families get smaller and Baby Boomers getting older with currently empty or soon-to-be-empty nests.

Although it seems common sense for the parks to adapt their respective business models to accommodate the finances of Millennials, the opposite appears to be coming to pass. Instead of packing better deals for young professionals without kids, the trend seems to be catering to only upper-middle and upper class individuals and families. The antithesis of what should be done in order to capture the next generation planning vacations to the parks. If the trend of continuing to add expensive additions to your park ticket continues, then theme parks will become as exclusive a destination as a European vacation or exotic cruise. “This park wasn’t built to cater only to the super rich, everyone in the world has a right to enjoy…” as Dr. John Hammond countered the lawyer’s desire to charge exorbitant prices during the lunchtime debate scene in Jurassic Park (one of my favorite scenes from the iconic film)Disney and Universal should borrow a line from Hammond and modify the business model to create magic for Millennials–especially Disney Parks, as they are increasingly catering to only the super rich.

So yes, we are experiencing theme parks changing their business models to adjust for fewer families and more singles/couples without children. And Food and Wine festivals are a huge hit! I truly enjoy them. But, in developing offerings that attract adults without kids, the parks are in danger or pricing Millennials out of enjoying the magic. Millennials are looking for those after-hours events, food and wine fests, and line-skipping passes but not at the cost of not being able to go to begin with. Theme parks should reevaluate the pricing structure and take the current economic times facing millennials into question. Millennials represent the majority of folks soon to be going to the parks as young professionals, with the traditional families of 3-5 becoming less common. But, Millennials are burdened by rising rental costs, rising student loan repayment cost, lower salaries than our parents, and rising cost of transportation.

“Skull Island: Reign of Kong” Theme Park Attraction Review

IMG_5531“What’ve they got in there…King Kong?” (Malcolm, Dr. Ian 1993). That is precisely who you will encounter on your expedition into the jungles of Skull Island at Universal Studios Islands of Adventure this summer! Fortunately, I was able to take part in a soft opening on Saturday afternoon and am able to share my thoughts with you. The presence of King Kong at Universal Orlando Resort represents a long awaited triumphant return ever since Revenge of the Mummy took the place of Kongfrontation at Universal Studios Florida (original park). Although the ride design is completely different than the previous attraction, it is exquisitely designed and integrates trending themed entertainment attraction technology with practical effects and animatronics. From the queue to the ride path itself, you will be completely immersed into the dark and frightening world of Skull Island. Along your expedition, you may encounter prehistoric-sized creatures, the dead, and maybe even the undead.

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IMG_5512For those who have been hanging in and around Islands of Adventure for the last week, you may have had the opportunity to partake in a soft opening of the highly anticipated attraction. If not, definitely plan a trip to the park soon in order to experience the newest attraction (although, the Hulk coaster is reopening soon). What I appreciate most about Skull Island: Reign of Kong is the attention to detail, experiential storytelling, and production design. As an entertainment scholar, I was incredibly impressed with the ability to see horror film theories and frameworks woven throughout the experience. Now, is that something that the typical park guest is going to notice? Probably not. However, the fact that feel that I am going through the diegesis of a horror film serves as empirically-based observational evidence that the ride meets the expectations of both spectacle and narrative. As I mentioned on Twitter, the writings of Freud, Carol Clover, Geoff King, and Linda Williams are alive and well!

IMG_5445The experience of the attraction begins even before you enter the queue. As you gaze upon the exterior design of the attraction, you will begin to feel drawn into the world of Skull Island. What lies beyond the massive 100% to scale gate? Once the thoughts of feeling compelled to venture into the jungles behind the gate enter you mind, you will have no choice but to sign up for the next expedition. If you have been to a Disney, Universal, SeaWorld, or Busch Gardens theme park, you are already familiar with the theme and story of the attraction beginning at the queue. The Reign of Kong queue is full of creative design to capture your attention and compel you to further descend into the dark catacombs. Prior to entering the indoor part of the queue, the outside is lightly themed with bamboo, greenery, and some rock formations. Thankfully, you have a great view of Kong’s massive stone gates. The heaviest of the queue theming begins once you enter the catacombs.

IMG_5515It’s not called Skull Island for nothing. Between the entrance to the catacombs and the loading platform, there are hundreds if not thousands of skulls within the rock walls and openings. This is where I can really infer the adherence to horror film theories explored and defined by the scholars I referenced earlier. Just like going to see a horror film with the foreknowledge that voluntarily subjecting oneself to terror is part of the experience, the same can be said about this attraction. In Freud’s writings on the principle of unheimlich or what we refer to as the uncanny, he explains that we are psychologically drawn to that which should otherwise remain hidden. Certainly skulls of the dead are items that should remain hidden beneath the earth; however, they possess an attraction that begs for one’s attention. Moreover, scholar Carol Clover writes prolifically on the concept of the unpleasurable pleasure. What does she mean by that? This concept is a framework through which to view why we are drawn to that which would otherwise terrify us. In real life, if you were to see a foreboding cavern filled with low-key lighting and the remains of the dead, you would most likely run IMG_5526away. But since we know that this is a ride at a theme park, we are totally okay with venting further and further into the dark now knowing what awaits. Because we are aware that we are in a safe zone, it’s okay to experience otherwise unpleasurable sights and sounds. Just like going to see a horror movie. Both Linda Williams and Geoff King write on similar topics and theoretical frameworks that deal with spectacle, pleasure, and attraction. The sheer spectacle of the queue is enough to beckon anyone; and from the radio announcer, 1930s music, and witch/priestess’ frightening words, there is a coherent and steadily flowing narrative throughout the attraction queue. Even if you have never heard of King Kong (I know, that is doubtful), after passing thousands of skulls and listening to the witch-priestess chant in an unknown language about Kong, that plus the fire and cavernous rumblings tell you that Kong must be powerful and terrifying. Even after the witch-priestess causes fire and darkness, do you turn back? Of course, not!

IMG_5528One of the most interesting additions to the queue concept that has never been done before, except during Halloween Horror Nights (HHN) is including entertainment team members commonly known as scare-actors. Scare-actors are entertainment cast, in themed costume, whose goal is to frighten you with a classic jump-scare. Ordinarily, this is something that is only done during HHN since everyone who has come to the event is there with the intention of being scared. Interesting to use the same concept on a daily operations attraction. But, this is a frightening attraction and setup very similarly to a horror film. So, looking at it that way, it is a logical progression in queue development to include live performers who can increase the scare factor. IMG_5527Additional animatronics are also integrated into the queue in order to heighten the sensations of terror among the park guests. After meandering and wandering through the catacombs of Skull Island, you finally locate your ride vehicle and driver who is going to take you on an expedition beyond the stone gate. Following picking up safety glasses in order to protect your eyes from harm–oh the irony–you board the expedition vehicle. After riding in the front row on the the truck, I would advise not sitting there. So often, row one on a ride is the best no matter what is said about every seat providing an equal experience; however, on this attraction, I would advise sitting in the middle or back if at all possible.

KongVehicleThe ride vehicle at Reign of Kong is massive. It seats up to 78 park guests. So, the benefit to that is moving large crowds efficiently and quickly. Of course, there was no Express Pass queue during the soft opening, so that will definitely mitigate the efficiency and speed of loading standby (or standard queue) guests once it officially opens. At first, I thought the driver was real! The driver moved naturally and in a non-robotic fashion. Turns out that the drivers are, in fact, animatronics! Just goes to show the quality of immersion, storytelling, and theming went into Kong. The image in this paragraph is from publicity photos and shows a real driver; but the animatronic driver sits right up front behind the wheel. So Cool! Once you leave the IMG_5510loading dock, you proceed through the catacombs and outside to the pathway leading to the colossal stone gate. Unlike the forced perspective that is often found in the Disney and Universal parks out of logistic and engineering necessity usually, the King Kong gate is full scale. In many ways, you will feel just like Jurassic Park’s Malcolm when the doors open and you venture out into the wilds of Skull Island. During rainy weather, the attraction designers paved a way for the vehicles to bypass the gate which does take away from some of the initial impression but ultimately will not negatively affect the park guests’ experience on the ride.

SkullIslandBatHaving experienced the Kong attraction as part of the famous studio tour at Universal Studios Hollywood, I was very interested to see how that same technology was integrated into this stand alone attraction in Florida. Although the rides are not identical, Skull Island: Reign of Kong at Islands of Adventure borrows heavily from the Universal Studios Hollywood counterpart. After proceeding through the stone gate, you will encounter prehistoric sized creatures over head and on the ground. You won’t be able to ignore the giant gorilla skull and bones just inside the gate. As your driver is working on his or her PhD, you will have the opportunity to Kong_T-Rexmeet some of his or her colleagues in the field along the expedition. As to not spoil the actual ride portion of the attraction, I will not go into too much detail but provide more of an overall analysis of the storytelling. As I have written in previous articles, a theme park attraction based on a work of literature or creative media is essentially a short film. It has, say 3-5mins (sometimes longer if it’s a show) to take the park guest through a three-act story. Paralleling the plot structure of a movie, Reign of Kong provides an exciting story for those who dare to explore the jungles of Skull Kong_AnimatronicIsland. You have a well-defined beginning, rising action, crisis, showdown, and denouement. Although my ride experienced a technical glitch on one of the 3D screens, it did not significantly take away from the enjoyment and thrill. There are many elements I like about the attraction, but I was hoping for more practical effects and animatronics than proliferated 3D screens. Still, the visuals are fantastic and do an excellent job of immersing you into the wilds of the ancient jungle. I cannot be certain, but I believe one of the video sequences is taken from the Hollywood counterpart attraction.

IMG_5519Best part of the experience awaits explorers just before disembarking. I won’t tell you what it is because it will ruin the surprise. But, I will tell you that it is truly a welcoming and beloved echo from the past. Theme park technology and what the modern guest is looking for may change over the years, but some things remain a constant. Being a fan of theme parks turned scholar, I greatly appreciate the closing scene on the ride. I was even a little teary-eyed when I rounded the final corner. Whether analyzing Skull Island: Reign of Kong from an objective or subjective perspective, it is clear that the attraction is and will continue to be a huge success for Universal Orlando Resort. Excited to ride it again!

The “Attraction” of Horror: a ‘Psycho’analysis (part 1 of 2)

HitchcockAttractionJust as audiences are fascinated by horror movies and seek to watch that which would be repulsive in real-life, they are equally fascinated in immersing themselves into the experience by way of a theme park attraction. This phenomenon is not limited to horror movies, because rides like Jurassic Park the Ride (Jurassic Park River Adventure in Florida), Revenge of the Mummy, and Pirates of the Caribbean beckon millions of guests a year. In addition to attractions based on the movies, movie studio executives and theme park engineers created attractions that embody what Carl Leammle first envisioned, by taking the audience behind the magic of the movies. This is the case with the (now closed) Backlot Tour at Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Hitchcock: The Art of Making Movies at Universal Studios Florida (Murdy, 2002). The relationship between the cinema and theme parks is a strong one and creates an energetic synergy that entertains millions of people each year by eliciting laugher, screams, tears, and smiles.

BatesMotelFloridaThe most admired and revered part on the famous studio tour at Universal Studios Hollywood is the Bates House and Motel. As the tram passes the iconic motel and house that set the bar against which all other slasher films would be judged, an actor portraying Norman Bates charges toward the tram wielding the famous butcher’s knife (Murdy, 2002). Even though the audience knows this is a tour behind the scenes of the most utilized backlot and studio in the world (Milman, 2001), there is something uniquely special about this chance encounter on the tour. And, that something is what the designers of the guest experience on the studio tour use to bring about the successful convergence combining both the original movie and the live experience. In order to successfully complete the transposition from the movie to the live experience, the attraction designers tapped into the uncanny or unheimlich (Freud, 1919) of Psycho and utilized the elements of terror and shock to facilitate the aura of horror that exists just by looking upon the timeless motel and house.

Psycho_SoundstageCentral to Psycho and the single most famous scene in cinema history (Cosgrove, 2013) is the groundbreaking shower scene. And, it is the highlighted element at the former Universal Studios Florida attraction Hitchcock: The Art of Making Movies. One of the opening day attractions located in the former Production Central area of the park (Singer, 2013), this attraction took park guests into the world of suspense and horror as meticulously crafted and defined by Alfred Hitchcock (ThePsychoMovies.com). Although it was replaced with a less critically important and pivotal movie themed attraction in 2002 (mostly to attract younger audiences), it is an excellent example of the fusion of horror cinema and themed entertainment attractions. In addition to the Art of Making Movies attraction, there was a recreation of the infamous motel and house in the park built for the filming of Psycho IV: The Beginning in 1989-90 (MovieMassacre.com, 2014). For those who have seen Psycho, the very sight of the motel and house is enough to strike fear into the mind and bloodstream. It is representative of the very best that horror cinema is able to offer society. In no attraction, based off a work of horror, is there a better example of the very essence of horror films than in the synergistic experience of beholding the four-fold elemental process of the Hitchcock: The Art of Making Movies attraction (Singer, 2013).

PsychoShowerClensePrior to ‘psycho’analyzing  the attraction of horror, it is imperative to understand why the shower scene is the single most famous scene in all cinema. The shower scene is a roller-coaster of emotions; and, in many ways, this scene in and of itself follows the basic structure of a story (introduction, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement). The scene begins with Marion closing the shower curtain as we get a closeup shot of her face as the shower turns on.  Given this closeup, the facial expressions are easily denoted on her face. The flows of emotions on her face resemble the face of someone who is being cleansed from or baptized for their transgressions. This emotional transition is made more clear when comparing this scene to the earlier one with Marion and Norman in the office when she suddenly feels as if she “stepped into a private trap” and wants to see if she “can step back out of it” (Psycho, 1960). In addition to the metaphoric sin cleansing affect of the shower, Marion is also physically and emotionally exposed and vulnerable. And, what about that showerhead? Throughout the movie, there are eyes on Marion (real estate buyer, boss, police officer, mother’s eye, etc…). The frequent cuts to the showerhead essentially imply the showerhead as yet another eye watching Marion. Furthermore, the frequent cuts to the showerhead also help to create the sensation that something is not right.

Following the symbolic cleansing in the shower, the audience witnesses the shadowy figure emerging from the bathroom door and walking up to the infamous shower. Due to Hitchcock’s use of the cinematic rule of thirds, we are already expecting the entrance of someone before the door ever opens. Through the eyes of the camera, we see Marion’s private space is violated by this shadowy figure. The camera slowly zooms in to the figure through the opaque curtain until the moment when the shadow throws open the curtain and there is a closeup of Marion’s face exhibiting total terror as the knife is raised against her.

PsychoShowerScreamImmediately after the shots of Marion’s iconic scream and the knife, the speed of the cuts increases exponentially. Aside from having to creatively cut the film in such a way that neither Marion’s naked body nor a knife officially penetrating her body is seen, the speed was necessary to enhance the disorientation and violence of the relatively short montage. Through both objective and subjective shots, we are both mother and Marion within hundredths of seconds of one another. The precise cuts in the film give the illusion that Marion is being stabbed multiples times; however, there is only one shot that captures the knife barely penetrating Marion’s vulnerable and exposed flesh. The terrifying key to this scene is the fact that very little violence is actually seen; most of what is shock-inducing is what is not seen and implied through the artful use of music, cuts, and angles. Hitchcock once said, “there’s nothing more frightening than an unopened door.” This implies that there is a greater fear of what in unseen than that which is visible in the diegesis on the screen.

MarionCraneEyeIt is nearly impossible to closely read this scene without acknowledging the most famous orchestral screeches in cinema history. Those famous screeches greatly enhance the disorientation and terror of the scene. Coming out of nowhere, the terrifying sounds from the orchestra create the sound design for the knife penetrating Marion and slashing her to death. One could cut to black and allow the music to be heard throughout this iconic scene, and the audience would still feel anxious, macabre feelings and shock. Interestingly, this same action would also reveal how short the shower scene really is. Regarding the sound design, there is much more of the water heard than the sounds of murder. Following the murder, the score greatly slows down and deepens. This musical movement allows the audience to reflect upon what has just occurred and begin to contemplate the various consequences of mother’s actions.  Lastly, the camera slowly spirals out from Marion’s eyes symbolizing that everything Marion planned has just gone down the drain through this seemingly random act of violence, and then there is a cut to the drain of the bathtub itself cementing this metaphoric notion. Keeping with the reoccurring theme of eyes, this also reinforces the fact that the eye is the window to the soul and someone is always watching.

CONTINUED NEXT WEEK. Check back next Monday 🙂

BatesMotelAETVDon’t forget to watch Bates Motel on A&E tonight! It’s the season finale and it’s going to be intense!