’tis the Off-Season for Holiday World’s Leah Koch

eah Koch holiday world with clock

Halloween is officially over, therefore ’tis the season!

Of course, when I say, “’Tis the season, I mean for the annoying, borderline-hurtful question we at seasonal facilities get: “What do you do when the park is closed?

Then while you formulate your response, they start hypothesizing: “Do you just take a vacation for a couple months and show up right before you open again?”

For me, the sarcastic reaction in my head immediately starts on something like this: “That’s correct. There’s nothing we have to do in the off-season. We literally just sit around waiting for the season to begin again.”

But I don’t say that.holiday world and splashin safari  logo 250

First I take a deep breath, then my real answer formulates—generally something along the lines of: “Oh we have a lot to do. Before we were even done with the 2014 season, we were planning for 2015. Now it’s just time to implement any changes.” Nine times out of ten, that response goes through slightly gritted—but smiling—teeth.

Realistically, it’s time for me to start thinking about it from a different point of view. If people think we have no work to do, then we’ve done our job well.

Because making sure our guests have a wonderful time can be rather simple: just be sure they can’t see how much has to be done ahead of time to create their carefree day. (We on the inside know better, though, don’t we?)

I’ve worked in more than five departments at Holiday World (the blessing and curse of being family at a family-owned park), and I’ve watched guests’ faces light up when our Hosts and Hostesses show that they love their jobs. Overall, I think the hardest challenge of making it look easy (and answering that pesky question) was around this time last year.

We had Thunderbird coming, and I was spending days at a time researching Thanksgiving’s origins in hopes of finding a name half as good as The Voyage … to no avail. (Believe it or not, Thanksgiving as a holiday does not lend itself easily to a series of interesting ride names.) When people would ask what I was doing, I could share nothing. I’m pretty sure a lot of people thought I wasn’t doing anything. Or that I was really inefficient working on the few projects I could talk about freely.

Meanwhile, we were hard at work within our “cone of silence.” Once we had a name, we developed the overall feel of the ride and worked with PGAV on how to theme the station. We had a very contentious (for us) debate about track colors, and then train colors.

Every decision received a lot of thought and discussion—especially the train colors. We asked to see the train rendered about six different ways. And when people asked what we were doing at Holiday World, we all would sputter off something vague about planning, marketing, or training.

Vague on the outside, but dying on the inside for everyone to know how incredible Thunderbird was going to be.

It’s all becoming real now, and I’m growing more and more excited. The track is going up quickly (75 percent is up at last report) and it looks beautiful.

Leah and Lori Koch, holiday world try out the Thunderbird train

My family and a few members of the Holiday World team got to go see the train last week, and we’re very proud that we get to reveal a car next week in Orlando.

Are you planning to attend IAAPA’s Expo next week? Please drop by B&M’s booth, number 4815, on Tuesday at 4pm ET to say hello and see Thunderbird’s colorful wings. We’ll save you a seat.

Images and video kind courtesy Holiday World
1. Leah Koch standing next to Santa’s countdown clock – it counts the days and months of the year. The hands are currently at this year’s closing day, October 26.
2. Animation of the Thunderbird train.
3. Leah and her mom, Lori Koch, trying out the Thunderbird train last week in Cincinnati.

Exhibit Design and Compelling Points of Entry

space shuttle at kennedy space centre visitor complexWhen I read a really good book, the story hooks me in the first few sentences. But what got me to pick up the book and open it in the first place? Maybe it was the cover design, the review I heard on NPR, the reputation of the author, or all of the above.

Unless one of those things, or all of them in concert, compelled me to notice and invest a few precious seconds, the most brilliant writing in the history of humankind could have been lost on me. The pages of the book could have revealed the mysteries of life, the path to infinite riches, nirvana, or even how to operate Windows 8, but it wouldn’t have mattered if I didn’t take the first step.

It seems like things used to be different. You remember young Abe Lincoln—walked mileslincoln by rockwell
to borrow a book, any book, with a plain black binding. He experienced enough backbreaking labor as a child to be motivated to seek knowledge and a better life. You could call that personal relevance.

Back when I walked to school in the snow, seekers of knowledge—students, museum visitors—worshipped at the altar of keepers of knowledge—teachers, professors, curators, who projected a take-it-or-leave-it attitude. “If they aren’t willing to hang on my every word, then they deserve the dismal fate that awaits them.” But nowadays, knowledge is everywhere, on my phone, my computer, my TV. And it seems like the tables are turned. Keepers of knowledge have been forced to compete for bandwidth. It turns out the keepers actually want people to take an interest in the subject they care about, even if they are motivated by self-preservation. Whatever works, right?

So for me, and perhaps others that curate, plan, design, and otherwise contribute to exhibits, programs, and the whole the museum experience, it helps to remember that I want people to leave the museum with a bit of knowledge, a spark, a light bulb, or heaven forbid “inspired.” But they can’t leave the museum—inspired or not—unless we entice them to enter the museum, and once inside, continue to emotionally and intellectually enter the multiple treasure troves of stories about science, history, art, etc. of. It reminds me of the food court at my shopping mall, where they keep offering samples and saying “taste me.”

And that’s where compelling points of entry come in. They may be visual, interactive, shocking, shiny, mysterious, or maybe just an emotion-provoking line of text, but it somehow stirs the emotions and entices people to take the first step. From there, we have a much better chance of getting them to take the second and third steps into the mysteries of life we hope to share. And like a good book, maybe it will change the way they see the world—even motivate them to share it with a friend.

So nothing new here. Everyone already knows this stuff. I just find it helpful to remind myself of these basic principles to keep me on track developing exhibits.

Images: top Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex courtesy Kennedy Space Center. Middle, A young Abe Lincoln by Norman Rockwell.

Ardent Leisure Performance Reports for 2014

Main Event Ardent Leisure t

For you data hungry types out there, this is something for you …

If you know where to search on the web, you will be pleasantly surprised with what can be found. Since I have been providing economic and market research for several years, I know where most of the data are located.

Take for instance, the detailed statistical data that are available on Ardent Leisure Group’s website.  Two of the documents I found particularly interesting are the Main Event Investor Presentation, a May 2014 report by UBS, and Ardent Leisure Groups FY 2014 Results.

Types of data that can be found in the publically available Main Event Entertainment Presentation include Revenue and EBRITDA over the last 15 years and also Average Center Revenues Compared to Best in Class Brands.

It is that time of year again when Ardent Leisure produces its FY 2014 report, which covers each of the Groups businesses (Main Event Entertainment (fec), Health Clubs, Bowing, Theme Parks, and Marinas) separately and then compares the performance with prior years.

As in previous Blogs, I have pointed out some of the tables which particular interest to the economic consultants, developers and operators in this group.

For instance …

Ardent Leisure EBITDA 2014

Ardent Leisure Main Event EBRITDA 2014

Ardent Leisure Development Sites 2014

Ardent Leisure Theme Parks 2014

Ardent Leisure Capex 2014

Considering I supply research for consultants, developers and operators in the Leisure Time Industry, I tend to mostly be focused on a certain type of data. If you don’t find what you’re looking for, please check out Ardent Leisure Group’s website for a goldmine of information.

Five Zoo Innovations That Have Been Around for Decades: #3

PGAV heart of africa columbus zoo

Heart of Africa at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium

Stacey Tarpley continues her review of innovation in zoos…

I want to talk about the things that have been slowly happening, without much fanfare, across the United States in nearly every city from New York to Saint Louis to Portland. I want to talk about how things that the supposedly paradigm-changing design from Europe insists are innovative, or at least ‘rarely seen in zoos’, have actually been around for years (and in some cases, decades) here in the United States.

Zoo Innovation #3: The Quintessential Wild: Herds of Animals Freely Roaming Acres of Land 

Herds of wildebeest and antelope, zebra and impala, the occasional giraffe and a few rhino wandering without a care in the world across fields of tall grasses waving in the breeze as a pride of lions looks on from their perches high above the savanna: this is the quintessential vision of ‘wild’ in most peoples’ heads. C’mon. You know what I’m talking about. In this innovation, we’re talking about recreating this ‘wild’ in captivity, and what it comes down to is multiple species of animals in large social groups moving through and around vast open spaces.

This image has actually been replicated again and again in a captive setting by zoos of all sizes and shapes. And really it is a very complicated innovation to achieve, since most of these characters have very specialized needs, physically and socially. Rhinos, for example, do not play well with most other animals. Lions, of course, can never be housed with antelope. Giraffes are a mixed bag: sometimes easy-going and carefree, other times wildly skittish and frightened of their own very long shadows. However, over many years, keepers have developed an understanding of which species can actually be housed together and today its commonplace–to the point of it being expected–to see mixed-species exhibits throughout the zoo, not just in the Africa section (although Africa seems to be the most likely to have the large, wide open spaces).

Beyond mixing species, other innovations have made these spacious and natural-seeming exhibits possible. One method, rotation, links exhibit yards by a common back of house building to allow species to be rotated through yards throughout the day. For example, the lions may be in Yard A in the morning, while hyenas may be in that yard in the afternoon. Hiding barriers and layering views is another innovation that makes wonderfully complex exhibits occur.

This innovation is actually one of the oldest tricks in the books, developed in Germany at the turn of the 20th century. It involves hiding barriers in deep empty ravines called moats.

Hagenbeck Tierpark Nordland

And finally, creating the savanna itself is somewhat of an innovation all on its own. Finding the perfect soil mixture and grass composition to withstand the pressure of herds of hoofstock day in and day out has taken decades to perfect, and some might say, is still being perfected. In fact, this horticultural challenge is one faced not only with hoofstock animals, but in nearly any animal exhibit where the animal is terrestrial, spending the majority of its time on the ground.

Creating the true feeling of ‘wild’ in captivity is very difficult, and although it has been achieved to varied success repeatedly across the U.S., it is no less a feat. Especially when created with few visible barriers.

NIRAH runs out of time. What lessons should be learned?

NIRAH Aquarium

We read on the Blooloop website recently that the planning permission for NIRAH, the massive fresh water aquarium attraction planned for Bedfordshire, has expired with several million pounds of public money having been invested in it.

NIRAH (National Institute for Research into Aquatic Habitats) was given the go-ahead to build the aquarium in Stewartby, Bedfordshire, north of London in 2007 with a supposed completion date in 2012. The project, which was originally set to have a budget of £375 million and was planned to be FOUR TIMES the size of the Eden Project in Cornwall, never got off the ground and the old brickworks site where it was to be built remains empty. Prior to relocating the planned project to Bedfordshire, NIRAH had previously caused much excitement in North Somerset back in 2002 when they announced the project would be built at the old RAF Locking site.

Bedford Borough and Central Beds councils are owed at least £1.6m, while central government is owed more than £3.5m. Back in 2012, a report from the BBC described the project, which by then had a price tag of £600 million, as ‘dead in the water’ and noted that land ownership issues, which ended up in the High Court, were never resolved. Indeed, even back in 2009, Council bosses admitted that they felt ‘left in the dark’ and were “deeply concerned” about plans. Perhaps they should have stepped in then or were they all in too deep?

Out of £3 million of public money identified in 2012, £400,000 was paid to Directors, £1.2 million in professional fees and consultants fees (including £100,000 in PR), and £1.1 million in costs relating to planning applications. That left a balance of £300,000, not to mention that small question of the fact that we now know that including accumulated interest, £3.5 million is owed to government, plus the sum of £1.6 million owed to the local councils.

The local MP, Nadine Dorries has called for an ‘explanation of the matter’, which I would have thought is the very least that could be expected. Maybe there should be an enquiry into the use of public funds. How on earth did these local and national government authorities ever think that this was a viable project? What kind of feasibility studies convinced them that it was viable and who was responsible? How did the project consume so much money over the years with nothing to show for it? Were no lessons learnt following the failure of Millennium projects such as the Centre for Popular Music in Sheffield and the Earth Centre in Doncaster?

Whilst often it seems that deserving, sustainable and well-supported smaller projects fail to gain the support that they need, the larger and more eye catching projects which promise so much gain support from local and national government , almost irrespective of the economic case, the strength and suitability of the concept or the experience and credibility of the promoters.

Keith Thomas, Chief Executive
Petersham Group Ltd.

Thibault Paquin, Celebrating Life, Visits LEGOLAND Malaysia Resort

LEGOLAND Malaysia entrance

Review by Thibault Paquin, founder of Celebrating Life, a total destination building company specialized in Asian markets.

Last weekend I paid a long overdue visit to LEGOLAND Malaysia Resort.

Opened in 2012 as Malaysia’s first international theme park it is now flanked by a waterpark and a 250-room hotel thus the name ‘resort’.

Well, to call it resort is a bit of a stretch. The complex is surrounded by construction works in the middle of nowhere, about 25km from Johor Bahru town centre; not really what I would call a resort location!

OK, enough negativism for this introduction; but I had to share this first impression I had when I got there (by public bus, that’s another story I will spare you); I was a bit scared I must admit. In fact, I had a good time and let me tell you why.

LEGOLAND Malaysia Driving School

I will start by stating the obvious: it is an international theme park. And that in itself is quite a draw in Malaysia where, despite being one of the most developed country in the region, the level of quality (and maintenance) is not always up to expectations.

LEGOLAND Malaysia posterI had purchased my ticket online the day before (USD 45), which is quite high for Malaysia. Of course no discounts available the day before; Merlin Entertainments know their revenue management! I thought I could use the barcode on my mobile but that was not the case so I had to go to the ticketing counter first to redeem my ticket. Thankfully there was no queue.

Speaking of it; I must admit I was surprised by how quiet the park was for a Sunday, during School Holidays and just after the opening of Star Wars Miniland (supported by an advertising campaign). I would say at least 30% of the visitors where from Australia or the US and looked like theme park regulars (maybe living in Singapore), and the rest were Malaysian families with young children.

I started my visit naturally walking around the circular path, which would take me from Lego City to Land of Adventure, Imagination, Lego Kingdoms and finally Lego Technic. Visitor flow and signage are very well done; it’s impossible to miss any attraction. Also, I thought there was just the right amount of food & beverage kiosks and redemption games along the way, creating a nice sense of happening without being overwhelming.

Although I did not have food at the park I had a look at all their outlets and they looked appetizing as well as clean and well maintained. The choice of food is mostly LEGOLAND Water Park Malaysiainternational with only one Asian outlet. I wonder why they made this choice? I would have expected more demand for Asian food.

I was very impressed by the attention to details in the theming and the landscape; the park is full of surprises and funny things such as an old man snoring on a bench! It makes it fun and creates the magic that one would expect from a theme park.

LEGOLAND Malaysia TheDragon rollercoasterThe best ride is by far The Dragon, which is the main roller coaster of the park and boasts a nicely themed queuing area (inside the Lego castle) and dark area at the beginning of the coaster. Maybank is the ride sponsor and I found the brand integration very well done (Maybank logo is turned into a coat of arms). The same goes with the other park’s sponsors (Nissan, Coca Cola, Ribena, Walls, Canon), which are well taken care of.

On the down side of the product I would list the number of kids playgrounds (maybe 4 or 5), which present not particular interest and as such remained empty. It feels like they serve as fillers but don’t add much to the visitor’s experience.

The staff were all very nice and helpful; they were everywhere you would expected them to be and engaging visitors, especially kids. Knowing how difficult service training can be in Malaysia I have to take my hat off for the management of the park!

LEGOLAND Malaysia Star Wars

Now, Star Wars Miniland. This new addition to the park, reported to have cost USD 2million, is a series of 6 rooms each housing a giant Lego display inspired by the Star Wars video produced by Lego. Great displays if you’re a Star Wars fan but in my opinion a bit repetitive and not very interactive. If you don’t plan to go but still want to have a look you may watch this video I shot:

My final attraction before leaving the park was the Miniland at the centre of the park. LEGOLAND Malaysia Miniland - KL ClusterInspired by different locations in Malaysia and Asia, these scenes are very well done and certainly a treat for all Lego fans out there. Unfortunately the tropical Malaysian weather hasn’t been too nice with them and they start aging. I wouldn’t be surprised if the park replaced them by something else in the future.

Verdict? A very pleasant international theme park – and I insist on “theme” as the Lego theming is one of the highlights of the park – but very targeted towards young children and maybe more enjoyable for non-Asian children (food offering, hands-on activities). Not convinced by the product extension trying to cater to an older crowd (Star Wars Miniland). Not sure about the return visitors rate either. For me it was not so much the heat or the lack of shade (actually I thought it was fine and most people I saw seemed fine as well) but the lack of shows and the remote location that would keep me from visiting again.

Five Zoo Innovations That Have Been Around for Decades: #2

PGAV Destinations Discovery Cove

Stacey Tarpley continues her review of innovation in zoos…

I want to talk about the things that have been slowly happening, without much fanfare, across the United States in nearly every city from New York to Saint Louis to Portland. I want to talk about how things that the supposedly paradigm-changing design from Europe insists are innovative, or at least ‘rarely seen in zoos’, have actually been around for years (and in some cases, decades) here in the United States.

Zoo Innovation #2: The “You’re Not in a Zoo” Promise: Visitors and Animals Share the Space

The goal of most modern zoo exhibits is to transport the guest to another time and place when visiting a zoo or theme park. It’s the romantic notion of sharing an experience with the animals; that we are walking in harmony in this big ole crazy world. What it comes down to is that we neither cage the animal nor cage the people, but we literally share the same space. This can take many forms and has over the years, from walk-through (or swim-through aviaries and in one case, a frigid indoor penguin exhibit),

PGAV Destinations St Louis Zoo Penguin and Puffin Coast

to swim-with programs like with dolphins, reef fish or sharks.

In fact, this is one category where European zoos have already taken some great risks Dudley Zoo Lemur Walkbefore the US zoos, allowing guests to freely share space with primates like lemurs.

These complete immersion exhibits are incredibly engaging, exciting and oftentimes, most represent the idyllic view of what a zoo is supposed to be.

The problem comes, however, when the animals represent a danger to the guests, which is to say, with most captive animals, or when sharing the space is literally impossible, like in an aquarium (short of donning a wetsuit). Here is where the most advanced innovations have come: getting guests as close as possible, through a barrier, but to feel as if they are sharing the space. The old stand-by of layered views with hidden moats do not achieve this due to the minimum horizontal distance needed to provide a barrier between the animals and people via a moat. You just cannot get close when you have a moat. But, a few clever innovations of the recent decades have gotten us closer than ever before, feeling as if we are in the animals’ space, in the habitat.

Think giant acrylic underwater tunnels at aquariums and a few zoos;

PGAV St Louis Zoo Sealion Sound

think tunnels through dangerous animal habitats with glass panels on either side and sometimes above your head;

Bronx Zoo Congo-Gorilla-Forest

think pop-ups into prairie dog exhibits, pop-ups into penguin colonies, pop-ups into tigers’ habitats.

The idea of us literally sharing the same space with animals is a beautiful dream to have, but the reality of the situation is we will always have to keep ‘us’ and ‘them’ separate for everyone’s safety. Barriers of some kind will always exist, but getting creative to minimize those barriers is the real innovation.

SeaWorld’s Discovery Cove
Saint Louis Zoo Penguin & Puffin Coast
Shark Swim at Georgia Aquarium
Lemur Walk Through at Dudley Zoo
Saint Louis Zoo Sea Lion Sound
Bronx Zoo Congo Gorilla Forest
Jungala® at Busch Gardens® Tampa

Theme Park Sponsorship Case Studies from Merlin

Thorpe Park SAW the ride

Following my recent blog about theme park sponsorship I wanted to call your attention to a site that I found particularly interesting due to the amount and type of information (i.e. ridership; amount of photos sold; etc.) available.

A few years back, and still available on the web, Merlin had had a webpage that dealt with “Sponsorship in the UK / Brand Activation.”  At this time, Merlin provided case studies and sponsorship opportunities for several of its attractions. I have taken the liberty of showing a few of them below.  If you’re interested in seeing others, please let me know.

Case Studies included:

Merlin Entertainments Sponsorship SAW


Merlin Entertainments Sponsorship Cussons

Sponsorship opportunities that existed at the time included:

Merlin Entertainments Sponsorship Queue Line Tv

Please let me know if you’ve come across other websites with good information on sponsorships. Thank you for anything you might suggest.


Theme Parks, the Golden Baby … and In-Park Fine Dining

La Masia del Tibadabo restaurant

I recently wrote a blog about EE charging extra to skip the call centre wait line. Well it occurred to me that the blog could be seen as a bit negative, you know, criticising parks providing poorer service for those who don’t choose to buy express tickets.

I’d like to redress that by suggesting something positive that would both help the standard visitors to get a bit of value back and at the same time address a problem that seems endemic to UK theme parks.

This idea occurred to me when I was visiting Tibidabo Park near Barcelona last week with the fine folks from the TEA. Tibidabo is an historic place, some say the second
oldest amusement park in Europe, in fact the introductory film in the park says it, but I can think of several European parks who might disagree. It’s owned by the City Council and like a lot of council owned attractions it needs a bit of care and attention.

But the lunch was really good. The food was delicious and nicely presented; the restaurant was well looked after and had great views; ok, the staff could have been a little more attentive, but overall it was a very good quality experience for an amusement park.

Looking around European parks, nearly everyone has a good quality waiter service restaurant. Some, such as de Efteling, Europa Park and Port Aventura have several. In fact the only ones that don’t all seem to be in the UK; that’s maybe a historic thing, the British used to care less about food than they do now.

So here’s the idea. Give a reasonable discount to the waiter service restaurants to the fast pass holders between say, midday and 3pm. They are likely to take advantage of the offer, after all they have already shown that they don’t mind spending money, and the other thing they have lots of is time because they don’t have to queue.

Then for three hours a good proportion of them can take advantage of the offer, leaving the rides freer for standard riders, as well as increasing occupancy in the high end restaurants. That’s a big advantage for European parks outside the UK, but UK parks would have an additional benefit, since just maybe they could make a success of in-park fine dining at last.

Five Zoo Innovations That Have Been Around for Decades: #1

Cincinnati Zoo Interior Carnovora

Recently, the “next big evolution” of zoos – a slick, futuristic set of renderings by a ‘big-A’ architecture firm in Europe – has been gaining traction in the media.

Whether due to a slow news month in August, or a wisely-timed, ingeniously-worded press release, the articles that have continuously been showing up in my inbox from my colleagues have reminded me of the vast differences between the zoos and aquariums in the United States and those found in the rest of the world. And yes, this includes most of those found in Europe.

But this is not an architectural critique. I want to talk about real innovation. I want to talk about the things that have been slowly happening, without much fanfare, across the United States in nearly every city from New York to Saint Louis to Portland. I want to talk about how things that the supposedly paradigm-changing design from Europe insists are innovative, or at least ‘rarely seen in zoos’, have actually been around for years (and in some cases, decades) here in the United States.

Below you’ll find the first in the series on Zoo Innovations. Stay tuned for all five.

Zoo Innovation #1: The Amazon vs. The Cat House: Zoogeographic Organization Rather than Linnaean

This innovation is so old, we’re already looking for ways past it. But historically, zoos grouped similar animals together into familial exhibit congregations such as cat houses or bear pits. This was a direct result of zoos being places of learning: places where scientists would literally study what made animals closely or distantly related to each other. This style of design held fashion from the earliest official zoos, developed in the 19th century, through to the mid-twentieth century.

Often now we see not just abandonment of these Linnaean exhibit buildings, but full areas of zoos and groupings of exhibits being themed as zoogeographic areas, like Africa and South America. This thematic grouping style is similar to the ‘lands’ of theme parks, and generally make wayfinding and orienting much easier for the guest.

Additionally, this layout supports a more ecosystem approach to science, which reflects how society is currently viewing the world around us: as an integrated, interconnected web, rather than a series of individual elements. Although American zoos and aquariums left the cat house, primate house, and pachyderm house long ago, the torrid remnants of the Mad Men-era of zoo design unfortunately often remain for birds and reptiles, although we are seeing these groupings being slowly replaced with multi-species, thematically integrated exhibits as well.