Are Movie Franchises Taking Over Theme Parks?

Posted by Elizabeth Alton on Wednesday, September 17th, 2014

Anna and Elsa at Disney Theme Parks

In a move that didn’t surprise many fans, Disney is launching a new attraction based on its hit film Frozen. What may be unexpected to audiences, however, is that the new ride will be coming to EPCOT. The classic Maelstrom attraction in EPCOT’s Norway section is being replaced with a ride that’s inspired by the world of Frozen, its beloved characters and soundtrack.

According to the Disney Parks Blog, “When Walt Disney promised that Disneyland would never be completed, so long as there is imagination left in the world, he made a promise to our guests that we take seriously at all our locations around the world. This year, one particular product of imagination — Disney Animation’s blockbuster hit Frozen — captured the hearts and minds of people around the world and gave us a new opportunity to make good on Walt’s pledge.” The post goes on to explain that Frozen has already played a successful role at the parks through special events and character greetings. Disney’s Imagineers feel that the elements of Frozen are a natural fit for the Norway Pavilion.

Theme Park Concept Art from Disney

The announcement is both exciting and bittersweet. Maelstrom is an EPCOT classic, with its log flume and animatronic Vikings. But even more so, it’s a dying breed of rides that’s not actually based on outside intellectual property. One has only to look at the latest blockbuster rides, most notably Universal Studios’ Harry Potter attractions, to see the connections. Today’s breakout successes are based on the characters, worlds, and storylines already familiar to the public thanks to movies, comic books, or book series. What does that mean for the future of innovation and original ride development?

The Walt Disney Company takes a unique approach to content development. One of Disney’s greatest strengths has historically been its existing intellectual property created for its movies. Continuing to invest in this area and develop related attractions is just a natural extension of Disney’s thriving business model. Creating and subsequently licensing its own content is unique to the industry, and represents a hybrid  between original ride creation and developing rides based on existing brands.

Universal Studios and Harry Potter

Other large parks like Universal Studios are playing it safe with purchases from established content franchises. Expansions of the Harry Potter area, for example, are borne out by the franchises’ ongoing appeal as well as the previous success of Universal’s attractions. A quick glance at the company’s latest rides list shows a proliferation of other movie influences: The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, Despicable Me Minion Mayhem, and TRANSFORMERS: The Ride 3D to name a few. Again, this approach isn’t outside the norm for a company which has built its business in large part through its connections with its parent movie studio and Hollywood. But the sheer volume of rides that are based on movie worlds does give pause.

Research from groups like Insight Kids underscores that this could be a smart strategy on the part of theme parks. Research that they shared at the recent World Congress of Play event shows that kids connect strongly with brands. For example, they’re more likely to ask for “their Legos” than “their blocks.” As a result, unbranded rides have to fight harder to connect with younger audiences. There’s a good chance that unfamiliar rides, like Maelstrom, could be seen as boring, irrelevant, and out of date. In a field where relevancy and the perception of fun is everything, developing rides based on films is a natural decision.

But this does raise an important question for the entertainment design field as a whole. One of the great pleasures of theme parks is being transported into whole new worlds. In the past, some of those worlds have been familiar and others have been created wholly for park goers’ entertainment. Will we start to see the wholesale phasing out of non-branded rides in favor of more recognizable characters?

TRANSFORMERS: The Ride

In a sense, this changes the entertainment designer’s job. At least, it minimizes the skillsets needed to dream up entirely new worlds and emphasizes the ability to translate content from one medium to another. Designers will need to become very effective at playing in other people’s creative worlds and working between multiple formats. The role of theme parks executives hunting for the next major trend and snapping up the intellectual property rights before someone else will also become increasingly critical.

Anticipating when movie-related attractions become dated and should be phased out of theme parks will also be important. A number of rides based on movies, Universal Studios’ Twister, for example, feel dated in the face of more modern technology and approaches to ride design. If parks are making huge investments in individual attractions simply to purchase the IP rights, however, will they be less willing and financially able to let them go? As movie fads change, related brand attractions could feel outdated faster than independent ones.

What does the trend mean for smaller regional parks without the budget and staff to pay millions just for the rights to brand their next roller coaster after the latest kids movie or action flick? Will the lack of branding be just another factor that divides the biggest players in the industry from smaller parks? Creatively, it could actually be spun into a differentiator if these smaller parks choose to develop rides based on original concepts. The bar will be high as they compete with known brands, but a sub-segment of the market will no doubt be looking for these opportunities. Still, as the landscape evolves, positioning these attractions as a draw will require creative marketing campaigns.

Pirates of the Caribbean Theme Park Attraction - Disney

Another impact to the overall creative ecosystem is on intellectual property creators and how they approach new projects. Will books be written, comic books created, and movies produced with the theme park industry specifically in mind? Certain types of stories such as fantasy, science fiction, action, and animation tend to fare the best in terms of theme park popularity. Handled correctly, theme park attractions represent a major and completely unique revenue stream for big entertainment brands.

It’s evident that there’s a shift underway. The bigger question is whether we’re just seeing the trend of major theme parks continuing to follow their existing business models on a larger scale or whether movie and comic book worlds are completely taking over theme parks. The fallout of that, from entertainment design practices to the marketing potential for parks still developing original attractions, is tremendous. Our bet is that in ten years, the connections between movie screens and theme park attractions will only be stronger.

Images courtesy of The Walt Disney Company, Flickr, Orlando Theme Park News, thehpfan.com

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