Hard Rock Park 9: Why The Park Did Not Fail

Pretend for a moment that you have decided to open up your own restaurant in your hometown. You take the right steps getting it open: obtain a business license, rent a space, hire a staff, design the menu, have a big grand opening, etc. For some reason, despite your best efforts in creating a quality restaurant experience, no one shows up. How do you find out why? No answer truly satisfies that question. Aside from getting all the phone books in your local tri-county area, and dialing up every resident and asking them – you’ll never truly know. Imagine having a theme park where you expect tens of thousands of people to show up every day from all over the country and around the globe. If they don’t show, it’s up to you to put together the pieces.

Hard Rock Park Kites

Copyright HRP USA LLC

I have spent weeks talking about Hard Rock Park here at Theme Park University.  We have discussed why the park was formed in the first place, why Hard Rock was chosen as the brand, and reasons behind it’s unique design. We also talked about one of a kind attractionsclever details that distinguished it from an amusement park and even exciting plans for the park’s future. Years of planning and construction went into the project and the design was carefully thought out. Why did it fail?  How did $400 million dollars worth of an investment end up in bankruptcy after many years of careful planning?

If you’re looking for a simple, short and sexy answer you’ve come to the wrong place. Before Hard Rock Park opened to the public I read every article I could and followed the progress from afar. Nearly five years ago, I toured the park with Jon Binkowski – Chief Creative Officer, Stephen Goodwin – Chief Executive Officer, and Dale Kaetzel – the park’s General Manager. While I genuinely loved visiting the park, what truly drew me in was the story of how it got built, the smart decisions that were made in it’s design and just how fresh their approach was.

Copyright HRP USA LLC

Copyright HRP USA LLC

After it’s closing I, like many fans of Hard Rock Park, was left devastated and confused.  How could what seemed like such a slam dunk end up as such a huge flop? Since then, I have come across dozens of design team members, hourly employees, vendors and more. Even after I started writing this series for TPU, employees who were involved with Hard Rock Park from it’s inception reached out to me and shared their stories. I do not proclaim to have the same insight as the folks who put their blood, sweat and tears into the project. After many years of my own research, I’ve got a pretty good handle on why things went South. What follows is based on my own research  and what I know not only about Hard Rock Park, but the theme park industry.

Before we discuss why it failed – it’s important to know reasons it DID NOT fail in no particular order. Feel free to disagree.

Eagles Life in The Fast Lane Roller Coaster Hard Rock Park

Copyright HRP USA LLC

Reason #1 – Content

Every article leading up to this one has focused primarily on Hard Rock Park’s originality.  Throughout this process I have received tons of feedback, in the comments section of TPU, our Facebook Fan Page, and privately. Nearly all of them are in agreement – they loved the park and miss it, or kick themselves hard for never visiting. According to exit surveys of guests leaving for the day, out of a scale of 5 being excellent and 1 being poor – the average guest ranked their visit as a 4.5. More importantly, most customers surveyed had an intent to return in the future.

I have heard many times, including from senior management at Freestyle Music Park, that Hard Rock Park just wasn’t family friendly enough and that’s what scared people away. Perhaps that’s true, but in my opinion, not enough guests visited to be offended in the first place. The primary reason I took the time to write two separate articles focusing on details is most guests that never got a chance to visit, never knew how detailed it was. If an exit sign depicting a chicken shitting bricks comes across as offensive to you, how do you know it even exists unless you visit the park?  Yes, there were a few complaints about some edgier elements that you wouldn’t find in a Disney park, but not enough to shut the place down. If more guests came, complained and asked for their money back, or even boycotted I could buy into this – but I don’t.

Lastly, to the fan boys who think that Led Zeppelin The Ride wasn’t a unique enough design or there were too many flat rides in the park, I say Get over yourself. To ride enthusiasts, that stuff matters – not to the average theme park family. Don’t believe me? Without being too creepy, stand at the exit of any attraction in the world that you personally think lacks originality in some way. As guests are leaving, with a complete poker face, ask them reasons why they did or didn’t like the ride – paying particular attention to the children under 12 in the group. If the majority of the answers are “They didn’t put any thought into it’s design,” or “These jokers just bought this thing right out of a catalog,” I will eat my shoes for breakfast. No seriously, I will.

Hard Rock Park

Copyright HRP USA LLC

Reason #2 Hard Rock Was The Wrong Theme

This conclusion is ridiculous. Go back to the first article in this series, and you’ll see that Hard Rock International was the only company after September 11th to take a chance and lend it’s name and brand to a theme park in Myrtle Beach. Investors required the park to be branded in order to give Jon and Steven any money to build the park. No money = no park. Chances are, if you’re reading this, you’re a theme park fan. If you had a plot of land, willing investors and a brand that was successful and a check for $400 million to build your park. Would you walk away… or give it your best shot?

Hard Rock is an established brand with international appeal. Walk into a Hard Rock Cafe anywhere in the world and you will see people of all ages. Hard Rock Hotel in Orlando successfully caters primarily to families  – the exact same crowd Hard Rock Park was targeting.  Probably most importantly – Hard Rock is a merchandising powerhouse. Not only do Hard Rock Cafes, Hotels and Casinos make a ton of money in their own right, people buy the t-shirts.  You probably own a t-shirt or a pin yourself. If not, I’m sure someone in your life does own some merchandise.  This was also a gigantic selling point to the investors. While theme parks do make a lot of money from ticket sales – the per capita numbers is where the real profit comes from.

“Per cap” is a financial term used to guesstimate how much money each guest spends once they enter a business.  When you visit a theme park, you pay for admission, parking, lunch, a snack, merchandise, games and more. The per cap numbers for Hard Rock Park met their projections exactly. Guests ate, drank and bought merchandise.  The problem was, there weren’t enough guests entering the park to begin with.

Hard Rock Park Led Zeppelin

Copyright HRP USA LLC

Reason #3: Myrtle Beach Can’t Support A Theme Park

This argument, which I have heard more times than I can count, also makes no sense.  If you go back to the very first article I wrote in this series, the main reason it was built, was Jon Binkowski had a theater near the Waccamaw Pottery Mall area that he wanted to expand. The small park idea, ballooned into a branded theme park. Hard Rock didn’t scout out locations, Jon presented that specific plot of land to dozens of brands and Hard Rock. Everyone was on board with Myrtle Beach for obvious reasons.

Myrtle Beach gets around 14 million tourists visiting a year. The goal for Hard Rock Park was to bring in 3 million of those visitors through it’s gates. Was that number a little unrealistic for the first year? In hindsight, absolutely. Most families visiting Myrtle Beach stay between four and seven days. They spend a majority of that time at the beach. However many attractions have thrived for years including Medieval Times Dinner Show which currently costs $51 plus tax and fees. An all day pass to the Nascar Speed Park, will currently set you back $39.99. Ripley’s has a total of five separate attractions in Myrtle Beach and if you want a combo ticket that includes all five, you will shell out $54.99. If you’re looking to open an all day attraction in Myrtle Beach with roller coasters, live shows, a nightly fireworks show and  geared towards all ages of the family – do you honestly think a theme park couldn’t compete with go-cart tracks,  wacky museums and dinner shows?

As for broader competition, it’s roughly a six hour drive in almost any direction to get to other competing theme parks: Six Flags over Georgia, Carowinds, Dollywood or anything in Orlando. In terms of drivability, there was an entire market who wouldn’t have to drive as far to get their theme park fix in Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Tennessee.  Myrtle Beach was ripe for a theme park and still is.

Hard Rock Park Myrtle Beach

Copyright HRP USA LLC

I am expecting theme park fans to tell me how wrong I am, and that’s ok.  No one will ever know with 100% certainty what happened. When opening any business, there’s always risk.  However, put yourself in Jon Binkowski, Stephen Goodwin and the investors shoes while building Hard Rock Park. Based on the successful Hard Rock brand and the market  of 14 million people who visit Myrtle Beach, would you think it was doomed from the beginning?

So what did go wrong?  What are some of the definite reasons that lead to the park’s demise? Have patience. Any internet dweeb can, and often have, pissed on Hard Rock Park’s team with the tone of “Those fools should have known better!!”.  Not this dweeb. In a world of 30 second sound byte answers to very complicated questions, I refuse to stoop to that level. You need to know all the things they did right, which was a lot, before you can understand what they did wrong. There are some great lessons here. Come back next time and we will tackle the nitty gritty into why the park filed for bankruptcy.  Beyond that, I recently had a chance to chat with Jon Binkowski - Hard Rock Park’s creator, and got his input on what it was like to put this colossal project together. There’s more to come!

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10 Comments

  1. jedited
    Posted April 25, 2013 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    I think a HUGE reason has to be: they were undercapitalized.
    MOST theme parks take a few years to find their “groove”. Even new Disney parks struggle for the first few years until they figured out the market and became profitable in their own right. Even Disneyland. Disneyland was successful the first SUMMER, but still struggled the first few years until they found the right mix to be the HUGE powerhouse they are today.
    Given enough money and a couple of seasons, Hard Rock would have been able to figure it out, but they were operating on a wing and a prayer and they opened in the worst financial crisis in a generation. Bad luck all around.

  2. DifrntDrmr
    Posted April 25, 2013 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

    I’d love to hear about the nighttime show.

  3. mpl
    Posted April 26, 2013 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

    I’ll tell you about my one and only visit. First off, they did almost no work in the parking lot…it looked run down from the start. Go to the entrance and Maximum RPM is down… no discount on tickets. And from what I read, Maximum RPM was almost always down. Very few rides…only a handful actually. It was hard to reride Led Zepplin because you had to sit through a 5-10 minute preshow every time (if they would have let people exit and bypass it to reride, that would have been an improvement). Way too many empty buildings (restaurants, etc.) not being used. They should have spent that money on building a few more attractions. Shows that didn’t begin until the afternoon… so if you came in the morning and rode the 4-5 rides, you were basically done and bored. The Satin ride was just boring to me… if you want to look at a dark ride done right look at Disney or Universal. Ticket prices were way too high in my opinion. I mentioned most of this to their customer service when I was there and you could just tell the reality distortion field…they were not willing to admit that their park was anything but perfect.

  4. Posted April 28, 2013 at 10:16 pm | Permalink

    I’ll assume that the jibe at the “fanboys” was directed at me, as I was the only one who replied with those criticisms on the Led Zeppelin page. If not I’ll try to defend the fanboys anyway.

    First, I never said that was the reason the park failed. Any park that can build even a mediocre B&M coaster should be able to pull in enough guests to last more than a year, and Led Zeppelin, while sporting a mediocre layout compared to other coasters in the region, was still far from a mediocre experience in my personal estimations. However I would contend that the ride hardware itself was the biggest weakness in terms of content quality, and that in the long run this deficiency wasn’t going to help them compete for regional theme park visitor’s vacation dollars against Orlando or Pigeon Forge. Whether or not they even made it to the point where some of the problems of ride quality became a leading issue of profitability I’m skeptical of, but wouldn’t write off completely as a subtle factor. Especially located in a vacation town, Hard Rock Park had to expect that many of the families they’d attract would already be familiar with at least one or two of the major competitors in the southeast, and that comparisons would be made against the quality of favorite attractions.

    Are you really going to argue that no one cared about the quality level of the rides themselves compared to other parks in the region and the quality of the themed environments were all that mattered to average guests? Or if your standard of measurement is what the lowest common denomination of visitors says about a theme park while they’re in the process of visiting said park, I would suggest that we should probably be equally dismissive about the niche rock references and quality detailed theming you’ve spent the last several pages heaping adoration upon, since the average twelve year old most likely won’t wax too much poetic about what they liked or didn’t like about those design features either. They might not know or care if a particular flat ride was purchased out of a catalog, but they absolutely will know if they’ve ridden something similar-looking for much cheaper at a local fairground before, especially if the fairground version seemed bigger and faster, if not as pretty looking. The most common criticism I’ve heard amongst visitors: not enough to do. Since the numerical quantity of attractions was pretty reasonable for a new theme park, I would probably interpret the real problem behind these complains as there wasn’t much re-ride value for most the attractions they did have.

    Amusement rides by their definition are meant to amuse, so I wouldn’t expect to hear much criticism if I were to ask people (in a way that wasn’t creepy) their immediate thoughts while they’re still walking down the exit ramp on whatever adrenaline high the ride was supposed to give them. But asked or not I can always tell a big difference between the five star attractions that has people cheering when they return to the station and talking excitedly about going around again as soon as they get off, and the three and four star attractions that everyone walks down the exit ramp calmly agreeing that it was an enjoyable experience for a couple of minutes. Led Zeppelin was almost there, Nights in White Satin was certainly a cult favorite that could provoke extreme reactions in either direction, Maximum RPM might have had some promise if it ever worked, and everything else was a generic roster of filler attractions that seemed to have been built for no intrinsic reason other than to be decorated with a rock and roll theme that was already in love with its own concept. And I too loved Hard Rock Park’s concept!

    Also, a note on exit surveys: be wary of the information they do and don’t tell you. Because the sample population is strictly limited to people that have already been convinced spend $50 to visit, exit surveys are less a ranking of the park’s overall quality or marketability and more a ranking of whether or not the park’s marketing strategy managed to find their ideal target audience and met their expectations. Ironically if the park had lowered its admission price and/or had a good word of mouth marketing strategy that brought in a much wider demographic, these rankings would most likely go down, since the number of visitors who were already the self-selecting fans in their ideal target audience are going to be a much smaller percentage.

    I think jedited’s point is pretty accurate. Any new theme park that had been properly financed should have been able to weather poor turnout for more than three months while still finding their stride before being cannibalized by creditors.

  5. RollerMunkye
    Posted April 29, 2013 at 3:20 am | Permalink

    Here’s my $0.02 on why HRP didn’t survive:

    They did virtually no advertising apart from a couple billboards on the road to Myrtle Beach. Coaster groups were essentially the only people outside of Myrtle Beach that knew the park existed. Even the Hard Rock Cafes, Hotels and Casinos had no tie-in promotion at all, which should have been a no-brainer.

    The park was actually quite nice. It was a bit small, it was definitely overpriced at the outset, and they completely screwed up the appropriate hours of operation. Since the beach is the big draw to the area, neither Family Kingdom nor Pavillion typically opened before 4pm. HRP tried opening at 10am, and nobody showed up. If you can find trip reports where people stayed later, it usually had far more people in attendance after 5pm.

    Financially, the plan was flawed. HRP had almost no money in reserve after construction was completed. That meant the park needed to be profitable from day one. With no advertising and a flawed business model that didn’t suit the available clientele, it was just a matter of time before it fell apart.

    I actually had plane tickets to fly down from Chicago when the announcement was made that HRP was bankrupt. When I made it to the rebranded FMP the next year, the ticket price was better, which helped, but with the loss of all of the licensed IPs and the sour reputation from the previous year, it was going to be an uphill battle to save the park.

    The final nail in the coffin wasn’t actually HRP or FMP’s fault: the financial market crashed, the economy went off the cliff, disposable income evaporated and people stayed home in droves. Otherwise, they probably would have been able to secure additional financing and survive past the first season. The truth is, it was a pretty good start for a new theme park, it just couldn’t survive long enough to figure out what they were doing wrong and grow a fan base.

  6. JohnHensler
    Posted April 29, 2013 at 7:36 pm | Permalink

    I agree with Jedited — the park was waaay undercapitalized. They really should have billed the opening season as a “backstage preview” and charged about half of what they charged at first. And they should have had enough cash to weather a couple of years of lower-than-expected attendance. And they really should have tried to get the Halloween event going in that first season.

    Secondly, they really needed to market the hell out of it, with discount tickets at all hotels and area resorts. That’s what most of the other attractions in MB do (my parents live there) and that’s what brings in people.

    All said, I agree with your rationale about popular “reasons” for failure. I really believe that if they had a couple more major investors willing to ride out the storm we would all be celebrating one of the more unique theme parks on the planet. Sadly, I was only able to visit once, but thought it was a park with huge potential.

  7. Jason Schutte
    Posted April 29, 2013 at 11:22 pm | Permalink

    They didn’t appear to market to children. Millions of kids scream “I want to got to Disneyland to see Mickey, daddy” or “I want to go to Universal to see “Harry Potter”. No kid ever screamed “I wants to go see a dark ride based on the Moody Blues”. I guess a couple pot smoking teenagers may have wanted to ride the Led Zeppelin coaster though. The recession, lack of capitalization, lack of attractions, ect… all contributed too.

  8. pbw32002
    Posted April 30, 2013 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

    I was lucky enough to visit the park during its first few months of operation. I have thoroughly enjoyed reading the articles and agree with almost everything. There is no need for me to continue with the discussion as to why the park failed so I will give you a list of things that I found surprising (some might say “shocking”) in the park:

    1. Upon arriving you can’t help but notice the mega-churches next to the parking lot. Then when you enter the park you see a candy store with a semi-nude young woman with lollipops held by male hands conveniently covering up her boobs. I wasn’t offended at all but can imagine some would be.
    2. The Led Zeppelin coaster was fun but the pre show idea needed to be scrapped. They could have shown the video of the band in the large cue building while waiting to ride. And again, while I wasn’t offended by Robert Plant’s genitalia in full view on the giant screen during the pre show, I can imagine some would be. However, once was enough (seeing the genitalia) and to subject the patrons to this over and over is ridiculous.
    3. The outdoor show was well done but the scene where 2 of the performers emerged from the Volkswagon bus with billowing smoke and obviously stoned out of their minds (acting!) might have been offensive to some.
    4. When we asked an employee what the unmarked door in the British section was, he cleverly answered (in a British accent) that “Nights in White Satin” was like Disney’s Small World but on acid. While we found this hysterical, I can imagine… BTW,there where no kids around when we talked to him.
    5. And finally, the employees could not have been any friendlier and seemed to love their jobs (unlike certain Six Flags parks). It was incredibly hot that day, around 95 degrees, and Maximum RPM hadn’t opened to the public yet so I never got to ride it. We were able to ride everything as many times as we wanted in the 4 hours spent there because there was no one in the park. I would have gone back every year since I live in Florida, have a cousin living in Myrtle Beach and have OD’d on Disney, Universal & SeaWorld. What a shame that it closed.

  9. ArthurLevine
    Posted April 30, 2013 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

    Another reason (IMHO) the park DID NOT fail that often gets mentioned: its physical location. Yes, it was a bit off the beaten path, but sleepy orange groves way off the beaten path in California and Florida did not prevent the Disney parks from success. There are countless other examples of successful parks in out-of-the-way places. If people knew about it (which WAS a problem IMHO) and wanted to visit, they would have found it.

  10. AaronMichaelGordon
    Posted May 3, 2013 at 10:17 pm | Permalink

    I think you need to make the distinction between “why the park’s concept didn’t fail” and “why the park failed,” because the concept was sound, but the park is now closed. So, it DID fail, even with a really strong concept.

    1.
    Their first mistake, in my opinion, was in using THAT concept in THAT location. Myrtle Beach is in the Bible Belt, the Old South, the Deep South, etc. Outside of the inland ‘islands’ of cosmopolitan ‘New South’ metropolitan statistical areas, it really is a highly religious, highly conservative region of the United States. Granted, there are massive contradictions in Jesus’ America (you can drive out of town and find your very own lap dance at one of many sex shacks, for example, unless you’re a dirty, dirty homosexual, of course. Sarcasm included with price of admission,) but I think Hard Rock Park delivered those contradictions in a way too upfront manner for the local audience and the regional visitor. Or, to put it another way, sure…Dad loves Classic Rock and getting his rocks off at the local titty bar…but Mom is still dragging him to church on Sundays, and collectively they don’t want their kids to see a simulation of an acid trip.

    In addition, Myrtle Beach is primarily a regional destination, rather than a national or an international destination. Which isn’t to say that people don’t go to Myrtle Beach from outside the South, but their primary visitor is from the South, yes? I live in Washington DC presently, and have lived in Atlanta and Miami: in two of those places, Myrtle Beach doesn’t even register as a vacation destination, and while it was on the Atlantan radar, it’s not a ‘special’ vacation destination. Whether or not the park was right in the center of town or on the outskirts is almost irrelevant in this case: the concept was wrong for the region and the visitor base…and while Hard Rock is a global brand, Myrtle Beach isn’t a global destination.

    2.
    I think their next mistake was in viewing the Hard Rock brand as ‘special,’ ‘unique’ and worse ‘better than just The Beatles.’ Now, don’t get me wrong: the idea of a theme park with different zones themed to different musical genres is certainly more complete an experience than dedicating a park to just one band, but Hard Rock ISN’T a unique brand or experience. There are Hard Rock Cafes everywhere; we’re long past the days when sporting a Hard Rock Cafe shirt meant that you went to someplace cool, one of the few places with a Hard Rock Cafe capitalizing on a local music culture. Hard Rock Cafes have become “chain restaurants with music” that one can find in nearly every city, whether or not there is a musical culture base. They may as well have themed it to 7-11. The Beatles as a brand, at the very least, had unique cachet: there are no other Beatles themed parks in the world, they have an international fan base (perhaps attracting people to Myrtle Beach JUST for the park, with the beach being secondary,) and there’s not too much controversy associated with The Beatles. Dollywood is successful because Dolly Parton is basically beloved by everyone.

    3.
    In keeping with the prior mistake, it was also absurd not to partner with Hard Rock International. If they were going to use their brand anyway, give up some control and gain access to a wealth of capital. Sure, the vision of the park may have been compromised (it was anyway, considering their monetary and license limitations,) but it might still be running as the Hard Rock Park, no? With Hard Rock as an active partner with a voice at the table, you can be certain that in-restaurant promotion would have been going on, as well as a larger media and marketing push. THAT might have translated into people putting the park and a Myrtle Beach visit on their radar. If people don’t know that the park exists, how do they know to visit the park?

    4.
    I think they simultaneously went too big and too small for their budget. Too big, in that their ambitions were to create a fully-realized, day-long theme park experience for under $500 million dollars, when even the most maligned recent park openings had larger budgets. Disney’s California Adventure, for example, probably cost $650 million for the original park alone (not counting Downtown Disney, one hotel and some infrastructure work.) At best, that was a half-day park on opening day…which wouldn’t have worked if Disneyland hadn’t been right next door.

    Remember, the big guns in this business can get away with those half-day, half-assed park openings, because they already have a visitor base, and in Disney’s case (especially in Florida,) they’re catering to a long-term vacation crowd, where multiple day park passes and the entire resort are structured around this modern Catskills concept: one or two (Epcot) fully realized parks and a couple of half days… but to their average long-term visitor, it’s just a week at Disney World. Universal’s Islands of Adventure’s developers knew, for example, that they couldn’t get away with that, and opened their park as a full day experience on Day One (and really, until Harry Potter, still couldn’t make a dent.) And that park cost $1.1 billion NOT including resort and hotel improvements.

    So…they wanted to create a full-day park on, at best, half of the budget needed to create that park. The concept of the park was too big for the cash on hand, and the attraction roster wasn’t enough to justify the cost of admission or keep people in the park all day, so they went too small in that aspect, when maybe a bit less strict adherence to the theme and the brand would have left some money in the pot for a few more rides and attractions.

    5.
    They didn’t look at viable alternatives for the site. Considering their budgetary limitations, why not open a small park, or one land of the park at a time? Why not start with a much less expensive musically themed water park, especially considering that the tourist trade is interested in sun-worship and water fun? It seemed that the desire to create a real theme park overruled the logic here. Because a well-themed and developed water park…an all-day immersive experience could have been built for the money that they had.

    Anyway, that’s my two cents. I think the concept is strong, but I think the leadership team was too bullheaded, too caught up in their own vision, to recognize the limitations to the location, the draw of the Hard Rock brand and their financial shortfall.

    Two additional notes: the insistence that an LZ song needed to be heard in its entirety should have immediately dropped that band from the ride. And while I’m not a fan of off-the-shelf or used amusement experiences, SixFlags was in the crapper at that time, and they could have easily acquired the rides needed to make the park a full-day experience. They could have themed the queues, played rock and roll in the lines, and made the profit they needed to finance the park that they envisioned in their heads as they went along.

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