Summer in the Parks

'Ad Age' Sends in the Troops to Test the Customer Experience

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Shuttling a 5-year-old and a 2-year-old around to various theme parks and events for nearly the entire summer seemed like a great way for my wife and me to entertain our two boys-and an appropriate way to sample an $11.2 billion business.

It's families like ours, after all, that make theme parks a big business. The International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions reports that revenue has grown an average of 4% a year for the past 20 years. The industry had $11.2 billion in revenue in 2005, up from $10.8 billion in 2004.

But that overall rise disguises huge disparities among various theme-park operators. Walt Disney Co. reported a 40% increase in quarterly earnings last month. Increased attendance and spending at its parks boosted revenue at that division 11%, to $2.7 billion. Six Flags, on the other hand, is enduring tough times. The company reported a second-quarter loss last month, and new CEO Mark Shapiro told analysts the company would not meet earnings expectations because attendance had dropped an average of 13% at its 30 theme parks. It is also looking to unload six of its properties, including New York's largest theme park, Six Flags Darien Lake, near Buffalo.

Why? One reason might be the customer experience. While Zimmerman Advertising might help attract people to Six Flags, visitors tend not to return-or recommend the parks to their friends-if the experience doesn't live up to the billing. And it doesn't at Six Flags. Six Flags' Great Escape, in upstate New York, was the one park we visited that didn't live up to expectations at all. We walked through the gates when it opened at precisely 10 a.m. only to find nearly every trash can overflowing, closed attractions, odd smells and mold on one of the toys at the water park. That, as they say, wasn't in the brochure.

Also overlooked by advertising, for obvious reasons, are certain realities: long lines, expensive admission, criminal concession prices, parking fees, etc.

That's not to say that advertising doesn't work. A funky Bronx Zoo print campaign, featured in Advertising Age, was so appealing that we decided to visit the animals for the third time in three years. The annual Children's Day at the South Street Seaport in Manhattan had several color print ads in New York newspapers, as well as New York magazine, boasting appearances by several of my sons' favorite characters from PBS. My oldest, Joey, 5, in fact demanded we go after spotting the ads while I was pointing them out to my wife, Trish.

luring the children

Puppets and candy also are strong lures for kids. Sesame Place is advertised as being "For the kid in all of us," and Elmo and friends go a long way in cranking up the volume on the "Daddy, can we go there?" knob.

Hershey, of course, is "the sweetest place on earth," and not just for the children. Think of the untold value the Hershey Co. gets out of having its products stare children directly in the eye. Instead of inches, kids measure themselves by brands: Children who reach only to the Hershey Kisses can go only on kiddie rides; those who make it to the Reese's Peanut Butter Cups can go on rides for kids up to 48 inches tall; the Hershey's chocolate bar will get them on rides for those 54 inches and taller. (Hershey Resorts and Entertainment is planning a $19.7 million addition in time for the 100th anniversary of Hershey Park next year.)

The kid demographic, strangely enough, is one that seems to be overlooked by Six Flags advertising. Six Flags goes to great lengths to differentiate its parks by playing to their strengths-roller coasters and other thrill rides-but the average family might not realize that parks such as Great Adventure have very good kid-friendly sections. Great Adventure, in Jackson, N.J., has children's areas in which all the grown-up rides are scaled down for children (and two of them are Looney Tunes-themed). My boys, Joey and Danny, enjoyed them tremendously, but the only place such areas are marketed is on the Six Flags website.

Finally, there is Disney, which deserves its reputation as a magical place. About the only bad thing we can say about Disney, and this is stretching it, is the resort's habit of having all employees say "Welcome home" to its guests. It was "Welcome home" when we pulled up to the hotel, "Welcome home" in the hallways, "Welcome home," "Welcome home," "Welcome home."

But I can put up with "Welcome home" considering the way Disney treats its guests. It's the little things, like the "cast members" who did the nightly turndown in our room and creatively decorated the boys' bed and walls with their recently purchased stuffed animals and toys (something they do for everybody). Joey started asking in the middle of the day: "Can we go back to the hotel now?"

But it's more than that, of course. Disney World is a place where reality is suspended on a grander scale. In fact, the company on Sept. 26 starts a 10-year global ad campaign based on the "Where Dreams Come True" premise, using work from all its agencies, including Leo Burnett and McGarry Bowen in the U.S.; Ogilvy & Mather in Hong Kong; Euro RSCG in Paris; and Disney's in-house agency, Yellow Shoes. (The campaign will, for the first time, use familiar music from Disney movies that has never been used in commercials.)

"I wouldn't even call it a campaign as much as an organizing principle," said Michael Mendenhall, exec VP-global marketing, Disney Destinations.

Next summer: Gotta get this past the boss again but ... does the experience of playing the country's top 10 golf courses really live up to the advertising?
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