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Few industries were more challenged by the pandemic than location-based entertainment (LBE), with theme parks and pop-ups turning into ghost towns or closing altogether.

Now that these gates are wide-open again—hopefully for good this time—the industry is pulling out all the stops to entice people back. But are enchanted kingdoms and touring attractions enough for today’s consumers?

So far, the answer seems to be a resounding yes. As consumers rushed to get out into the world again, both Disney and Universal posted record-breaking revenues for their theme park divisions in 2022. Disney’s parks grew 73% from 2021, bringing in US$28 billion for the full fiscal year, while revenue from Universal’s parks increased by 50% to US$7.5 billion year over year.

“There’s a lot of pent-up demand from people who are really eager to get out and go to theme parks,” says Ty Granaroli, Paramount Pictures’ EVP of themed entertainment. “And one thing you see that’s really unique is that for the last year and a half, operators are making more money with fewer visitors.”

Paramount Global is investing heavily in themed entertainment, with more than 12 as-yet-unannounced attractions in its pipeline, in addition to the 14 already operating worldwide. They range from large-scale theme parks and resorts in the Dominican Republic, to lower-scale activations at entertainment centers in China and museums in the US.

Attendance for most theme parks and experiences is back up to at least 80% of pre-pandemic levels. And despite the lower attendance rates, guests are spending more money per capita on tickets, on-site refreshments and consumer products.

However, the post-pandemic success in more traditional park settings somewhat disguises a greater overall ratcheting-up of consumer expectations for entertainment experiences. With that shift in mind, Paramount’s next moves are all about cranking up the scope of immersive elements in its attractions, enhancing the overall brand experience and moving away from a ride-by-ride format, says Granaroli.

“When we mention immersion, we are talking about the idea that people really want to interact with their environment and leave footprints,” he explains. “What operators are trying to do is flesh out the experience and go way beyond just the rides and attractions, so that everything the guest sees, hears and touches fulfills a story.”

Themed attractions can no longer get away with slapping a brand on a ride or restaurant and calling it a day, adds Granaroli. Operators are now looking to upgrade the level of guest interaction with a property’s characters and environments to achieve the kind of immersive impact that kids are increasingly used to in gaming and other entertainment experiences.

Last year, Paramount opened its second Nickelodeon Hotels and Resorts location in Riviera Maya, Mexico after five years of development. The resort’s IP integrations are carefully planned and executed to work with its physical features, so that each experience gives guests a feeling of immersion and authenticity.

“Everything we build is part of the storytelling, from the environment, to the music, to the buildings themselves,” says Granaroli. “When you’re in a Bikini Bottom land, you want to hear SpongeBob music and see his house; and when you go to the pizzeria, you want to hang out with Mikey and the rest of the Turtles. It’s all about playing with the simple things guests experience, from how they order their tickets, to what they see while waiting in line for an attraction.”

A newcomer in the hotel and theme park space is Florida-based Falcon’s Beyond, which is leveling up its guest experience with tech and gadgets. While Paramount mines its deep well of brands and franchises, Falcon’s is starting anew, building out a proprietary action-adventure brand called Katmandu and putting kids and families in control of the experience.

Florida-based Falcon’s Beyond is leveling up with tech and gadgets that put kids and families in control of their experience.

“Agency is a massive trend right now with kids,” says the company’s EVP of global licensing and business development, Daryl White. “When you’re watching a movie, the superhero is the star of that content; but when you’re at a themed attraction, the guest should really be the hero who works alongside those characters to save the day.”

At the heart of its interconnected attractions is the company’s BeyondMe platform, which allows guests to create and customize their own avatars through an RF wristband, which also acts as their pass. By visiting rides, playing games and attending shows at any of Falcon’s parks worldwide, the guest’s avatar obtains experience points to level up their character and obtain new outfits, creating a gamified global experience.

In the near future, guests will also be able to redeem their points for prizes through the app’s e-commerce site, and bring their online avatars to the company’s mobile games and Roblox titles. However, Falcon’s is careful not to let tech into the driver’s seat of the guest experience, White notes. “When developing a new ride or experience, story is always key, and we never focus on technology first. We start with understanding what the message is we’re trying to convey, and the guest experience needs to tell that story. Then we go back into what technologies we can use to help elevate that guest experience.”

One example is the Voyage of the Fathom Wanderer ride in Falcon’s first Katmandu theme park that opened in the Dominican Republic in March. The ride begins with guests watching the movie on a flat screen until they are swiftly lifted into a mid-air suspended theater. Then, in front of a massive curved 3D screen, they soar through the adventure, teaming up with explorer Kilgore Goode and his robot Busby to protect the underwater realm of Azurlan from a vicious sea monster. (The Goode character will also be featured in new TV projects Falcon’s is developing to further build out the Katmandu storyline.)

“As you go into some different ride systems, you can see all this mechanical stuff like hydraulics and wires, and it just takes away the magic,” says White. “In this ride, we’re moving people backward and forward in their seats, and using wind, mist and scents—but none of it is visible to them, so they stay locked into the experience from [the time] they sit down.”

Together with its resort partner, Melia Hotels International, Falcon’s invested more than US$350 million in the new theme park. And several more Katmandu parks are set to open worldwide, including one in the Canary Islands in 2024 and one in Mexico in 2025. While the bombastic scale of theme parks and resorts make for great vacation spots, not everyone can afford them. That’s why LA-based Kilburn Live focuses on creating smaller-scale branded experiences for kids and families who want a local day trip that won’t cost an arm and a leg.

Founded in 2017, the company has developed and operated themed attractions based on major IPs, including touring pop-ups World of Barbie with Mattel and The Search for Snoopy: A Peanuts Adventure with Peanuts Worldwide. But the show that Kilburn COO Jonathan Sanford says put the company on the map was The Dr. Seuss Experience, which launched in 2019.

“Even though Dr. Seuss wasn’t our first show, it was the execution that showcased what our capabilities were with major brands and licenses,” says Sanford. “This was during 2019, when the LBE space was very focused on Instagrammable pop-up places where you could get the best pictures possible, like The Museum of Ice Cream.”

Within the first two weeks of opening in Toronto, the attraction sold more than 70,000 tickets, which blew past Kilburn’s expectations. It then traveled to the US in 2021, making stops in Houston, Chicago and Denver. Now four years in, the show is headed to Washington, DC with signature activities based on nine of Dr. Seuss’s books, including Trufulla tree swings, a maze of Sneetches and a Circus McGurkus carousel.

However, touring shows have one huge challenge, notes Sanford—finding venues large enough to house them. “With movies, for example, there’s a distribution network in place that you can use to get that content to the 2,500 screens in North America,” he explains. “There’s no such thing for LBE. Venues are so scarce that once you find one that works, you have to hold onto it because you want to be able to route all your content and attractions through it.”

The issue is so widespread that Kilburn is now sub-leasing a Toronto venue to one of its direct competitors in exchange for storage space. In 2023, the company is looking to establish a steady distribution network for its shows by locking down venues in key cities across North America, but this depends on what spaces become available throughout the year.

Once venues are secured, the next challenge is working with partners to expand the show into new merchandising opportunities, says Sanford. While Kilburn is interested in supporting its attractions with exclusive merchandise and limited-edition collectibles, its shows are too small-scale for IP owners to justify creating new products.

While Sanford sees AI and digital interactivity as potential emerging trends in the LBE space, he predicts that the industry’s overarching challenges of limited venue space and sparse merchandising opportunities will force some of its players to either merge or close for good.

“I see a consolidation coming, and that will be healthy for the industry at large,” he says, adding that when this consolidation occurs, the companies left standing will have more opportunities to bring their shows to new markets and keep them there for longer stretches.

This story originally appeared in Kidscreen’s June/July 2023 issue.

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