24 February 2011 // Thoughts

Guest Blog: Robert Niles of Theme Park Insider

Today on Insights, we have a special treat for our readers: a Q&A with Robert Niles, founder and editor of Theme Park Insider, a consumers’ guide to the world’s most popular theme and amusement parks.  Theme Park Insider has been named the top theme park site on the Internet by Forbes and Travel + Leisure magazines and has been a finalist for the Webby Award for best overall Guide/Ratings/Reviews site.

In 2001, Theme Park Insider became the first travel-related website to win the prestigious Online Journalism Award, presented by the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and the Online News Association, for its pioneering citizen journalism initiative, Accident Watch.

Niles is a former Walt Disney World attractions host, trainer, and lead, who worked at the Magic Kingdom from 1987 to 1991.  Since then, Niles has worked as a staff writer, editor and website producer at top newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times and the (Denver) Rocky Mountain News. He holds a master’s degree in journalism from Indiana University and a bachelor’s degree from Northwestern University in political science and the Honors Program in Mathematical Methods in the Social Sciences.

Thanks for joining us today, Robert!  So, to kick things off, what was the first theme park you ever visited, and what do you remember about that visit?

Actually, my first memory of a theme park visit is … leaving one. I remember being carried by my grandfather under the monorail tracks in the old parking lot as we were leaving Disneyland after a long day when I was a toddler.  It was dark, and I remember the flash of light as the monorail streamed past me. Perhaps the sound woke me.

I was born in LA, and we visited all the local theme parks: Disneyland, Universal, Magic Mountain, Knott’s, and those that aren’t here any longer, such as Busch Gardens, Marineland and Lion Country Safari.

My favorite memory was getting picked to be one of the kids in a fake Rice-A-Roni commercial on the Universal Studios Tour. That started a two-decade personal streak of mine, getting picked as an audience volunteer every time I visited a Universal theme park.

So was it that close proximity to local parks what inspired Theme Park Insider?
I started Theme Park Insider when I was working a newspaper website in Denver.  We were trying to use a lot of reader-submitted content on that website, and I thought it’d be an interesting experiment to see if I could build an entire website based on reader-contributed content.  I’ve always been a big theme park fan, and I worked at the Walt Disney World Resort when I was in college, so I decided to make theme parks the subject, since I knew them well and could kick-start the website with what I knew.

For the first eight or nine years, I ran the site in my spare time, adding features as I dreamed them up or – more often – as readers demanded them.  In 2009, I ditched the news industry and made the site my primary job – and have been enjoying every moment since then.

You and your contributors post daily entries about your experiences at the parks.  What do you think designers should consider when crafting a great amusement or theme park?
A great theme park needs to envelop me in a story in a way that completely convinces me that I’m in a different time or place. It must be a multi-sensory experience that engages me with visuals, audio – even smells and taste (food is a too-often overlooked component in great theme park design).

It all starts with the themed land, the layout and design of the exterior, feeding me into more interactive adventures within. Like many visitors, I most enjoy rides and shows that don’t get old after additional visits, experiences within which I can continue to find new detail every time I ride or watch.

Games and structured social interaction are becoming more important parts of the theme park experience, so I love to see smart use of those elements within the parks, as well.

With these design characteristics in mind, describe your perfect theme park day.

Obviously, a perfect theme park day begins before the park opens, when I arrive with my pre-bought ticket in hand!  That way, I can go straight to the park’s most popular attractions, before lines build up.

Beyond that, the park would offer a nice mix of rides, thrills, interactions and shows in a comfortable environment. (That means protecting me from the heat or rain, but not forcing me indoors on a lovely day.)  Lunch would be at a great table service restaurant with well-prepared, fresh food that fits the area’s theme. Then I’d walk back to a nicely themed hotel, where I’d relax, swim or nap before returning to the park for dinner, a nighttime show and some late rides after the crowd’s thinned for the day.

Technology has increased by leaps and bounds what theme parks can do, but some argue that it’s at the cost of the “human element.” What impact do you think technology has had on the theme park industry?

The best technology wows me without my noticing that I’ve experienced technology in action.  The blending of technology with good old-fashioned stagecraft offers the potential to tell three-dimensional, interactive stories in a completely convincing way.

But we all know that and have been trying to do that for years.  What I find most exciting now is how technology can bring visitors into the storytelling experience, empowering and enabling them to communicate their experience within the park, with people in the park and at home. The industry’s only just begun to tinker with that tech, and it is powerful.

So with that said, what do you think is the future of theme parks?  How will parks keep people coming back?

If social media can help shape narratives that empower revolutions, imagine what it could do within the context of a theme park narrative?  Tens of thousands of people each day, united in a fantastic social narrative that draws each person within it into an ideal entertainment experience.

It won’t be as simple as creating some MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game).  People come into a park within varying desires to interact with it. Some people love coasters; others simply want to stroll and look at pretty things.  Some parents want to watch their children at play; other people want to watch other folks their age and find new friends.  The challenge for theme park designers is accommodating these varying levels of commitment while exposing everyone to the opportunity to participate in immersive social narratives in ways that they will find not necessarily comfortable, but natural.

The design team that does this well will own this industry, creatively, for years after that triumph.

Thank you, Robert!  Be sure to check out Theme Park Insider for breaking park news and views.