What Can The Science of Experience Teach Us About Themed Resort Design?

Posted by Elizabeth Alton on Friday, May 29th, 2015


In a recent article, Fast Company explored the science of experience. The authors came to the conclusion that experiences make people happier than material objects, for a wide variety of reasons: they’re harder to compare, impossible to take away, and give us the stories we use to bond with other people. One aspect that the piece didn’t explore is that the more immersive and absorbing an experience is, the more that it pushes your boundaries, the more satisfying it’s likely to be. There’s a direct connection between this way of thinking about experiences and why themed resorts are a great addition to theme park complexes.

Huge entertainment complexes are being developed around the globe that are anchored around theme parks; new ones are springing up in Asia at record rates, while expansions are happening at established brands. These multi-billion dollar developments are also making ample room in their plans for hotels, retail, and dining establishments. But increasingly, we’re seeing themed hotels rather than more generic accommodations or those based solely on luxury. There are a few reasons why this matters and they’re all critical to entertainment design.

Developers and designers are focusing on what makes people truly happy. The Easterlin Paradox is a question that’s big in psychology: does money really buy happiness? Research seems to reveal that the answer is yes, up to a certain point. There’s a minimum threshold that kicks in around $75,000 per year. At that level, most people find that their core needs and desires met and some of the stress of survival is alleviated. (Obviously, this varies depending on family size, where you live, circumstances, and so forth. But as a principle, it generally holds up.) As a result, more money doesn’t necessarily make them happy. To find increased happiness, other factors need to be evaluated. One big area is experiences. What experiences are individuals having? How exciting, interesting, and engaging are the experiences they’re regularly having? Are they sharing those experiences with people they love? Each of these factors has a big impact on happiness.

Disney Themed Hotel

There’s a similar point to be made about hotels. There’s a baseline threshold that’s going to make the average traveler happy. Clean, spacious and comfortable rooms. Good customer service. Affordable prices. Basic amenities like Wi-Fi, a restaurant, room service, and an in-room bar. These vary a bit by traveler, but there’s a reason why the vast majority of generic American hotels generally resemble a good quality Holiday Inn. That’s the Easterlin threshold of the hospitality world. Beyond a certain point, routine touches don’t make guests happier. 300 channels on a cable package vs. 125 channels doesn’t make a noticeable difference in the guest experience. An 800 thread count sheet isn’t inherently better for guests than 600. Instead, what makes the difference is a memorable experience.

A uniquely themed experience extends the immersion beyond the theme park, stage shows and extravaganzas into every aspect of the vacation experience. Themed décor, experiential elements to the hotels, and the feeling of an integrated experience all appeal to guests. In a well-done themed resort, the vacation experience is 24/7 – not just the time you’re spending in a theme park or visiting nearby attractions.

Disney Art of Animation Resort

From a business perspective, themed hotels have an easier time competing in a crowded hospitality marketplace. An onsite hotel wins on the basis of proximity. But if there’s a big price gap, many visitors will sacrifice convenience and stay offsite. But a themed offering is something that’s harder to replicate. It extends the stories and themed of a park, and guests want to stay onsite because it better completes their overall experience and keeps the immersion going. Resorts with onsite themed hotels have a competitive unique selling proposition, offering an entire experience rather than just a place to sleep.

There’s also a possible argument that it’s easier to please customers in a themed environment. In the Fast Company piece, the authors note that people have a harder time comparing distinct experiences. It’s easy to compare two hotel pools and decide that one is deficient. But a room that transports guests deeper into a theme a la certain Disney hotels or a room decked out in LEGO decor and characters is more difficult to compare. Guests are more likely to conclude that they’re satisfied with their vacation if the theming efforts are of generally high caliber.

Universal Japan

The last point to highlight here is the power of the destination. Unless a theme park is within an easy drive, committing to a trip is a fairly significant investment for visitors. By adding hotels and other opportunities for a complete themed resort experience, developers and designers are creating a standalone destination. Vacations are characteristically more expensive and guests have higher expectations for how they’re using their limited vacation time. As a result, a themed hotel helps create a 360 immersion experience that is likely to satisfy the average visitor.

Fast Company’s main points speak to the very core of why entertainment designers do what they do: experiences make people happy. This has an obvious connection to design within theme park walls. But design trends are increasingly pushing that same focus on theming, experiences, storytelling, and immersion in hotels, dining, and retail establishments. Designers and developers that master this principle are no doubt coming out ahead with winning properties.

Images sourced courtesy of LEGOland, Disney, Universal Studios Japan

One response to “What Can The Science of Experience Teach Us About Themed Resort Design?”

  1. Very interesting article. While the Easterlin Paradox
    is controversial, as you point out, it provides a fascinating analogy and explanation of why themed integrated resorts are competitive.



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