Facing a slumping economy, soaring fuel, food and airfare costs, and a stock price that's lost a not-so-amusing two-thirds of its value in the past year, Six Flags CEO Marc Shapiro announced in April that he would attempt to reverse-engineer a content company akin to Disney out of the world's biggest chain of theme parks.
This week the first of Mr. Shapiro's efforts has emerged: a partnership with video-game publisher Brash Entertainment, which up until now had focused on developing video games based on theatrical and entertainment properties, such as 20th Century Fox's "Alvin and the Chipmunks" and Lionsgate Entertainment's "Saw" horror franchise.
Countdown to the slow season
Now, Brash is readying "Six Flags Fun Park," a casual game for the Nintendo Wii and Sony PlayStation 2 consoles that will debut in September*, when the company's 21 theme parks enter their slowest season and video-game sales enter their busiest.
The "Fun Park" game will feature more than a dozen midway classics such as "Whack-a-Mole" and other carnival sideshow skill diversions designed to entertain parkgoers in between adrenaline-squirting roller-coaster rides. The hope, explained Brash Entertainment founder and CEO Mitch Davis, is to "extend the physical product experience into a virtual experience. We asked, 'How can you take a big brand and bring it into the living room?'"
Giving families yet another reason to stay home may seem somewhat counterintuitive, but according to the Entertainment Software Association, recent game usage statistics suggest that casual gaming can easily be harnessed to drive folks to theme parks: Thirty-five percent of American parents say they play computer and video games. Further, 80% of gamer parents say they play video games with their children, and of those, 66% say they feel that playing games has brought their families closer together.
Six Flags derives roughly a fifth to a fourth of its ticket sales from season pass holders -- many of whom are families seeking the most entertainment value for their dollar.
That has not gone unnoticed by David McKillips, VP-corporate alliances, Six Flags.
In April, Six Flags renewed its marketing partnership with Nintendo Wii. A "Wii Experience" will appear in 10 of its theme parks across the country, with each participating park offering a sideshow of 10 Wii consoles for guests to play between rides. In addition, four-person "street teams" will interact with park guests, allowing them to sample the portable Nintendo DS video-game system while in ride lines and high-traffic areas of the parks.
"The power of the Six Flags brand is untapped," Mr. McKillips said. "We see 20 [million] to 25 million people every single year. The Wii brought the attention on casual gaming, but also on spending time as a family. And it brings the same experience [enjoyed at the park] to the home."
Diversifying Six Flags is a high priority, given recent economic trends. While the company has been busy slashing the cost of admission at its venues by up to 50% in preparation for cash-strapped summer attendees, consumers have also been retrenching in their travel: About 2.7 million fewer passengers will travel with major U.S. airlines this summer due partly to high fuel prices, a weakening economy and capacity cuts, the Air Transport Association of America recently announced.
Driven to stay home
And while Six Flags' regional park strategy focuses less on "destination" tourism, a la Disneyland, the same fuel prices that are gouging airlines are also affecting consumer driving behavior: The Department of Transportation said figures from March show the steepest decrease in driving ever recorded -- a drop of 11 billion miles compared with March a year earlier -- or 4.3% less than usual.
For his part, Mr. McKillips is optimistic: "We are going to utilize our core assets, and extend outward. This new management is saying, 'We don't just want to be a ride park.'"
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Correction: An earlier version of this story said "Six Flags Fun Park" would be available at the end of November and for the Xbox 360.