Pop Culture Shorthand Part 3 - Creating the IP-Based Experience

July 21, 2017

We’ve touched on the history of IP usage and how it has become such a pervasive part of theme park design and production today. We also talked about how without a story, IP is nothing more than a shell of an idea. 

That of course still leaves the question: What is the best way to work with IP? What makes (or breaks) an IP-based attraction?

First and foremost, the core of the property has to be identified. What is it that makes that film or story unique? What is it that has made it as successful as it has become? And while these considerations are important, they goes well beyond material choices or visual style. As an example, Harry Potter is a story that is based around magic, of course. But it is also a story about growing up, finding yourself, and becoming the person you want to be. Each film is filled with mystery and adventure, with the sense of a larger universe that can only be glimpsed by humble muggles like us. This might inspire us to create a unique attraction, which takes us on an adventure with Harry, where surprises are around each corner, with a magical ride system that defies category. All of these attributes are found in the ride Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. A Harry Potter roller coaster, while maybe exciting, wouldn’t have nearly the same connection to the property.

Yet it’s not enough to simply re-create a storyline or moment from a famous film or television show. Any successful IP-based attraction looks beyond the original source material and creates unique moments and narratives that feel perfectly suited to the world, while taking the adventure to places it has never been before. We see this in Forbidden Journey, which is not based on any specific movie in the franchise. Or in Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: BREAKOUT!, which features all of the characters of the films, but in an all-new adventure, which has never been seen before. Another way to think about it is that if there is Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 1, and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, then the attraction should be considered a hypothetical adventure from Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.5. It has to bring something new to the table, which still seamlessly fitting into the existing narrative.

Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey at Universal Studios Hollywood. Photo from Wikimedia Commons. 

But the most important element when leveraging an IP in a theme park, by far, is placing guests directly into the story. This is something that no television show or film can do, and is where theme parks and attractions excel. These rides, when done well, become the ultimate form of escapist entertainment. When visiting a theme park, we don’t want to be reminded that we’re in Orlando, or California, or wherever we are physically. We want to pretend we’re Pirates on Tortuga, or new recruits to the Ghostbusters, or explorers on Skull Island. A well designed and inspired IP-based attraction literally put guests in the action, where they are able to create a brand new story, one that features all their favorite characters, settings, and events. But with one all-important addition: themselves.

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Pop Culture Shorthand Part 2 - Why IP?

July 20, 2017

Yesterday, we re-capped some of the bigger IP-based projects of the past several years, and how the “IP movement” is only gaining ground.

But why such an obsession with IP-based attractions? What has changed? Some of the most classic attractions of the original Disneyland were all new ideas, featuring new characters and situations. There was no Jungle Cruise film, or Haunted Mansion television show, or Pirates of the Caribbean video game. (Of course, Pirates has ironically inspired a series of films, which then inspired changes in the existing attractions, and heavily influenced the newest incarnation of the ride at Shanghai Disney, making in now a ride based on IP!)


Pirates of the Caribbean - Battle for Sunken Treasure at Shanghai Disneyland. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

The reason for this leveraging of IP is to take advantage of the aspect that all films and television shows have in common with the best theme park attractions:


Nearly every project starts first and foremost with the story. If it’s a branded experience, a science museum, or yes, a theme park, story and narrative come first. Human beings have always been storytellers, whether it’s sitting around a campfire, writing it down in a book, or watching it on screen. Or, in the case of theme parks, riding it.

But a narrative is hard to build, especially in the span of a three-to five-minute ride experience. In a theme park, you don’t have the luxury of a two-hour film to introduce characters, settings, and plot elements. But we know that these are vastly important to create an investment in our audience, and to give each attraction real stakes, in the end creating a more immersive and exciting experience.

The classic way to introduce these story elements is the pre-show. Every modern attraction has a pre-show of some kind, even non-theme park locations, such as the World of Coca-Cola in Atlanta.

Even non-theme park attractions can leverage a pre-show to introduce a narrative, such as the World of Coca-Cola, which has an introductory space that includes artifact displays, a live docent, and an animated film.

But when using film or television based IPs, in a way that previous media can act as your pre-pre-show. Guests enter your attraction already knowing the characters, and the setting, and maybe the basic plot. They know to cheer for Harry Potter, or to be frightened by King Kong, or to help Superman fight Lex Luthor. This has become part of our “Pop Culture Shorthand”, and allows each attraction to embrace, and even leverage, those previous experiences, and all the emotion they bring with them.

So you've got your IP and your story? Where do you go from here? Tomorrow, we'll close the series with how to leverage your IP assets to create a one-of-a-kind experience. 

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Pop Culture Shorthand - An Inside Look at IP with Colin Cronin

July 19, 2017

Colin Cronin

Colin Cronin

Here at the JRA blog, we love handing over the posting reigns to our “folks in the trenches” – the designers who create memorable experiences everyday. In a three-part series, Colin Cronin breaks down the what, why and how of intellectual property, sharing the ins and outs of this transformative trend.


In recent years, there has been a major shift in the theme park industry. While the advent of technology has certainly contributed to many of the new rides and attractions you see today, it’s another factor that seems to be tying them together:

Intellectual Property.

Of course, the use of Intellectual Property, or IP, in theme parks isn’t something new. One of the major players, Universal Parks and Resorts, has an identity based almost solely around recreating films and television as attractions - where else could you “Ride the Movies”? And The Walt Disney Company obviously started as a film company first, before opening Disneyland in 1955.

So it hasn’t been unexpected to see IP in theme parks in the decades since. But in recent years, it feels as if IP has become even more influential, driving every aspect of theme park development. And we can probably track that shift to one thing: a boy wizard with a lightning bolt scar.

Today’s IP Stars: A Wizard, a Monkey, A Navi and a Joker

It’s easy to argue that The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at the Universal parks has been one of the more influential developments in the theme park industry since it opened in 2010, and one whose impact is very apparent to see in the last 7 years. While there had of course been IP-inspired lands in theme parks before (including several in the same park) there had never been anything quite to this scale. Wizarding World was a fully immersive, and beautifully realized, recreation of the world of Harry Potter, and the village of Hogsmeade.

As the main setting for The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Hogsmeade set a new precedent, and raised the bar for immersive theme park theming. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

For the first time, fans could actually live out their magical fantasies. They could wear the clothes, eat the food, even perform the magic – with a little help from RFID-activated souvenir wands, of course. This wasn’t just an attraction, or even just a land. This was a living, breathing, actual world – one that, if attendance numbers are any indication, guests have come back to again and again since.

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter was of course implemented at the other Universal theme parks, and the inevitable expansion was opened in 2014, adding Diagon Alley to the mix. Since then, Harry Potter has been the example to beat, and these immersive re-creations of different IPs have become the new standard in theme parks around the world.

Just last year, King Kong made a triumphant return to the Universal parks in the form of a new attraction, Skull Island: Reign of Kong. And at that other Orlando-based park, Disney has re-created the world of the film Avatar, with a Pandora-themed land in Animal Kingdom. Just a few months ago, Disney also completed a renovation of The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror at California Adventure, incorporating characters and storylines from the Guardians of the Galaxy films, and transforming it into Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: BREAKOUT! (This is especially interesting as Guardians of the Galaxy is a relatively new property, the first film having been released in 2014, only three years before the new attraction opened!)

Imagineers remodeled The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror hotel into an alien spaceship to create the first Disney attraction based on the Marvel IP. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Future developments are also IP focused, with Universal and Disney planning expansive Nintendo and Star Wars based lands, respectively. Even smaller regional theme parks are getting in on the action, with Six Flags opening a Justice League attraction in seven of their parks in the last two years. And with a new swath of movie-inspired theme parks being opened or planned around the world, including Motiongate in Dubai and Warner Bros. World in Abu Dhabi, the trend is not likely to end any time soon.

Tomorrow, we'll discuss why IP is so popular, as well as the essential ingredient for IP success. 

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The Arts Mean Business: Breaking Down the Arts and Economic Prosperity V Report

June 26, 2017

The numbers are in, and they are staggering. 

  • • In 2015, the arts and culture sector brought in $166.3 billion in economic activity.
  • • $63.8 billion of that activity was direct spending by the arts and cultural organizations.
  • • $102.4 billion was spending generated by audiences, both directly on event admissions, and indirectly on items such as food, beverage, retail, parking, and babysitting. 
  • • When expanded to include the commercial, for-profit, and educational arts institutions, as well as individual artists, the arts and culture industry contributed $730 billion (4.2%) to the nation's 2015 GDP - more than transportation, tourism, agriculture, and construction. 

All images courtesy Americans for the Arts

These impressive findings are a result of the recently released Arts and Economic Prosperity (AEP5) study, published by Americans for the Arts, a nonprofit organization that "serves, advances, and leads the network of organizations and individuals who cultivate, promote, sustain, and support the arts in America." For this fifth version of the study, Americans for the Arts included findings from 341 study regions, 14,439 organizations, and 212,591 audience spending surveys. 

AEP5 analyzes spending both by arts and cultural institutions directly (on labor and materials) and by the audiences who attend arts events (not just on admissions, but on dining, retail, babysitting, local transportation, and overnight accommodations). It measures three main economic factors impacted by these spending activities: full time equivalent (FTE) jobs, household resident income, and total government revenue. 

The level of economic activity generated by the arts and culture sector has risen $29 billion since the previous AEP study, conducted in 2010. In fact, all three of the economic factors in the study have increased, both on the organizational and audience spending sides. These increases appear to indicate that the nonprofit arts and culture industry has largely emerged from the Great Recession and that disposable incomes have rebounded to a level in which patrons are again willing to spend their time and money on arts and cultural events. 

Jobs, Household Income, and Government Revenue

  • • The arts support 4.6 million jobs, compared with just over 4.1 million in 2010. The number of FTE jobs generated by organizations and audiences is roughly equivalent. 
  • • Arts and cultural institutions support .83% of the US workforce - a greater percentage than that of the legal or public safety sectors. 
  • • Cultural organizations and arts patrons support a combined $96.07 billion in resident household income, up nearly $10 million from 2010. 
  • • As a result of the above, the industry generates a combined total of $27.5 billion in government revenue (a more than 5:1 ROI versus the government funds they are allocated on an annual basis). 

"Arts and cultural organizations provide rewarding employment for more than just artists, curators and musicians," said the study. "They also directly support builders, plumbers, accountants, printers and an array of occupations spanning many industries." 

 Audience Spending and Tourism

Arts and cultural institutions are not only a draw for locals, but also a valuable tourism draw. According to the study, local arts patrons (comprising 66% of all arts patrons surveyed) spend $31.47 per person per event, beyond the cost of admission, on such items as child care, ground transportation, and meals, a figure up $7 from 2010. The other 34% surveyed, comprising nonlocal attendees, spend more than twice as much per person, understandable when adding transportation and overnight accommodations to the mix. Of those out-of-town audience members, 2/3rds responded that an arts event was the primary purpose of their visit. On the flip side, 41% of resident artsgoers said that if a particular arts event weren't happening in their community, they would travel to another community to attend.

Research from the US Department Commerce and other agencies show that arts and cultural travelers spend more, stay longer, are more likely to purchase accommodations, and are more likely to spend $1,000 or more during their stay than other travelers. Bottom line? If cities don't have arts amenities, not only do they miss out on tourist revenue, but they also lose local dollars, as residents spend their tourism money elsewhere.

Making the Argument 

As we've reported previously, museums and other nonprofit organizations are often loquacious in describing their "soft value" - contributions to education, entertainment, community building, and the like. Where they often fall short is communicating their economic value with hard numbers - an increasingly important metric as funding sources become more scarce and audiences demand more bang for their discretionary buck. 

Nonprofit arts organizations provide places for entertainment and enrichment, but they also hire local workers, purchase locally made goods, and attract tourists to local restaurants, hotels, and dining establishments. All of these economic activities generate revenue for their hometowns. The numbers in the Arts and Economic Prosperity V study support the notion that museums and culture institutions aren't just memory makers for families, but money makers for the local, state and national economy. Facts in hand, it's time to spread the message.

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Reinvest to Reinvent and Other Lessons Learned from the 2016 Theme Index

June 07, 2017

The Themed Entertainment Association (TEA) and economic feasibility firm, AECOM, have just released the eleventh edition of their annual Theme Index. Originally a report on attendance figures at theme parks across the US, the Index now covers theme park visitation across the globe and has been expanded over the years to include water parks and museums. In today’s blog, we’ll cover the Index’s theme and water park data, shifting gears to cultural institutions in next week’s post.

The Big Picture

“Slow and steady won the race” in 2016, compared with what the Index described as a “blockbuster” 2015. The top 25 theme parks saw an attendance decline of 1.1%, while water parks enjoyed a 3.6% increase. Despite only a .7% increase in attendance in 2016, Walt Disney Attractions reigned supreme as the top theme park group worldwide, with visitor numbers more than double that of second-place Merlin Entertainments Group. Of the parks themselves, Disney took four out of the five top spots, even though all four showed minor (2% or less) attendance declines. The Index attributed these slight dips to a variety of both natural and man-made external drivers, but maintained that global leisure consumption was strong and that there are reasons for sustained optimism.

Behind the Numbers: Spending, (S)marketing, and Second Gates

Factors like weather, political climate, and the whims of the tourism market can make forecasting unpredictable; however, those parks that thrived in 2016 generally employed one or more of the following techniques.


The most successful parks on the Index, regardless of location, seemed to follow the adage of “you’ve got to spend money to make money.” Reinvestments and expansions, particularly those that employed popular local or global intellectual property (IP), brought sizable returns on investment worldwide.

In North America, Universal Parks saw average growth of 7.4%, bolstered by last year’s opening of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios Hollywood, as well as the continued bump from USH’s relatively new Walking Dead, Fast and Furious, and Springfield (Simpsons) attractions. Regional park operators Six Flags and Cedar Fair also found that investments in new rides, live entertainment and dining paid off, resulting in park attendance increases of 5% and 2.7%, respectively. Water parks were in on the revitalization game as well, with Six Flags' White Water and Hurricane Harbor parks seeing visitation gains from new slides.

This “reinvest for success” story played out at theme and water parks throughout the world. Attendance at Thermas dos Laranjais water park in Brazil spiked 11.2% due to a recent expansion and new Surf Master ride. Chinese operator Fantawild showed 37% attendance growth among its parks, due in large part to new attractions. With the addition of another of its trademark theatrical spectacles,  Puy du Fou saw attendance increases of 8% and solidified its status as an economic driver for its region of France. And In Germany, Phantasialand enjoyed a 5% attendance increase with the opening of its new themed land, Klugheim. On the flip side, Disneyland Paris, which the Index characterized as “overdue” for reinvestment, suffered a steep 14% decline in visitors. As the Index warned, “existing parks can’t sit still; they need to continually reinvest, upgrade, and improve their offers and marketing to maximize their revenue streams.”

Smart expansions and reinvestments often result in large attendance and per cap returns. 


Theme and water parks across the globe looked to smart marketing, or (s)marketing, to not only drive attendance but to increase per caps within the park. 

Much of this (s)marketing, and its resulting benefits, are being driven by “big data.” Operators are making a concerted effort to capture audience information before, during and after the park visit and using that data to (gently) guide the current and/or future guest experience. Examples of more elaborate data-driven initiatives include Disney’s Magic Band and Universal’s new TapuTapu wearable at Volcano Bay, but strategies such as dynamic pricing, season pass holder incentives, and “special event weekends” are also being employed at large and small parks worldwide. Additional techniques, such as social media campaigns and promotional packages with nearby attractions, hope to inspire visitors to fill the parks’ seasonal lulls.

According to the Index, (s)marketing has the advantage of driving additional revenue without the large capital investments touched on above. The key is to make existing customers buy more – more food, more photos, more plush. The additional revenue generated by these efforts then frees up funds to invest in more rides, shows and attractions – a win for guests and operators alike.

Second (and Third and Fourth) Gates

While Disney and Universal submerged themselves in the “resort” pool decades ago, smaller operators in Asia, Europe and the Middle East are beginning to see the benefits of adding second (and third and fourth) gates, as well as water parks, hotels and other shopping, dining, and recreational amenities, adopting a “more is more” philosophy.

The above being said, Shanghai Disneyland Resort, with its theme park, two hotels and multitude of food, beverage and shopping options, has already welcomed millions of visitors since last June and has been lauded by the Index as a “watershed event” in the history of the Asian themed entertainment market.

In other parts of the world, Spain’s PortAventura recently added Ferrari Land as a third gate to its line up, and the newly opened Dubai Parks and Resorts offers three theme parks, a water park, a retail and dining destination, and a luxurious resort hotel. And across Latin America, water parks are seeing positive growth due to their inclusion of onsite accommodations.

These brick and mortar add-ons, when coupled with longer operating days and seasons as well the (s)marketing techniques above, increase length of stay and thus bolster per cap spending, resulting in revenue increases even when overall attendance remains relatively flat.

Additional amenities like accommodations, spas and conference facilities can increase length of stay, bolstering revenue. Here's a look at what's offered at the top European theme park resorts. Chart courtesy TEA and AECOM.

The Unknowns

While spending, smarketing and second gates have resulted in stable – if unremarkable – growth over the past year, looming questions remain.

The 2016 Index only reflects a half-year of operations for Shanghai Disneyland and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios Hollywood. Dubai Parks and Resorts and IMG Worlds of Adventure debuted at the close of 2016. And Ferrari Land, Pandora: World of Avatar at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, and Volcano Bay have just recently opened their gates.

How will these massive capital investments affect not only global attendance numbers, but the theme park industry as a whole? Will IP continue to be the “secret sauce” for a successful theme park recipe? How will recent political events shape global tourism? And will Asian theme park attendance succeed in its quest to surpass that of the US?

Guess we’ll have to wait for the 2017 Theme Index to find out.

For a PDF copy of the full TEA/AECOM Theme and Museum Index, click here. 


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