While perhaps not intentional, Theme Park University has become known for two things: learning about extinct attractions and telling it like it is. Today we are going to focus on attractions that do not work for one reason or another and the ripple effect it has on the entire industry.
For the most part, as the judgmental human beings we are, if we experience something new for the first time, we often form a stronger opinion of something as opposed to a more forgiving one. Recently, after hounding a friend of mine to experience a food truck for the first time for over a year, he gave it a go. He decided to dive in at a monthly event where there are more than 20 trucks to choose from and over a dozen cuisines.
My friend decided on a hot dog that was injected with his own choice of sauce and then wrapped in a bun made from Hawaiian bread. He hated it.
“There were long lines to every single truck,” he explained. “I waited 45 minutes to get a hot dog which was $8 and pretty terrible. I waited in traffic to get there and the crowds were horrendous. I will never be doing that again.”
I was dumbfounded. After visiting over 20 different food truck events in the area, I had sampled many of them and had mostly wonderful experiences and a few swing-and-a-misses. However, it never even occurred to me that one single attempt could sway someone from never even wanting to eat at a food truck again. They are all independently owned, offer completely different food and there are literally hundreds of choices at any given event! Nope, he was done.
The same can be said for themed entertainment offerings. Take escape rooms as an example. Considering they have only been in existence in North America for the last two years, most people on this continent have still yet to even try one. Escape rooms are exploding everywhere and if you don’t have one near you yet, you will soon. The blessing and curse of these particular types of attractions is they are all very small businesses started by someone visiting an escape room elsewhere and thinking, “…ya know, I can do that!”
For the most part, the theming, design and just plain clever thought put into most escape rooms I’ve visited makes my heart happy. People, not corporations, are able to tell an original story where the audience becomes an active participant and nearly everything they see and touch in that room is authentic and organic to the story. Then there are those escape room owners who said, “I can do that!” and went out to the dollar store and Ikea to buy everything in their room for decorations. They spend next to no money on props, theming or even storytelling, nor do they care.
The escape rooms that use cheap props and don’t tell a story get one of three responses from guests. Either A: They enjoy the experience because they like solving puzzles and have nothing to compare it to. B: They have played escape rooms before and know they just got cheated out of $30 because the owner is trying to make a fast buck or C: They feel like they have been had and know that while the game might have been challenging, it was nowhere near worth paying $30 to be in a room that costs no more than $100 to decorate (yes, I have been to attractions and escape rooms that fall under this category).
It is response C that is dangerous and hurtful to the entire industry. The vast majority of people who feel they wasted their time and money will most likely never return to that type of attraction again. Look at it this way. As a business owner, you’ve got a quality product. You’ve done your research on the market you’re in, gained insight from as many other people in your field as you can and you’ve even hired the right people who have the skills that you lack to create something that you know can compete with (if not top) the best of the best in your category. However, the competitor down the road threw his business together with little thought, no insight and next to no money trying to make a fast buck. Their pissed off customers will most likely never be your elated ones, simply because they don’t want to be “burned” again.
It gets worse. Let’s use Hard Rock Park as an example. In my opinion, Hard Rock Park did a lot right. They created something outside the box which is a risky move in the theme park world. However, what they got wrong, they screwed up royally and the next thing you know, $400 million is down the tubes. There were a lot of investors who got burned in the deal. Most took the hit as a write-off. If you want to know what I think killed the park click over to this link.
However, very few guests even went to the park. Most didn’t even know it existed and many who were aware scoffed at a $50 ticket price for both adults and children. I am a firm believer that content and/or word of mouth didn’t kill this park. Not enough people saw it to even know what was there to begin with. The ripple effect actually hurts Myrtle Beach, South Carolina the worst.
Anyone who says Myrtle Beach can’t support a full blown theme park of any kind is crazy. With a tourist base of 14 million a year, and no other theme parks in any direction within a 3.5 hour drive, it can absolutely sustain a profitable park. Considering the failure of Hard Rock Park (and its predecessor Freestyle Music Park), no one is going to touch Myrtle Beach in the theme park business for many years to come. Investors are afraid the same fate might happen to them and they have every right to feel that way. As confident as I am, I would be nervous sinking hundreds of millions in too.
Finally this article will talk about the new, and most likely, very short-lived immersive theater show in Orlando: The Republic. Without question, it is the harshest piece of writing seen at Theme Park University. Also worth mentioning is that it was easily the worst entertainment experience I have ever paid for. Granted, I did not pay full price to see the show. I got a reduced rate since it was part of the 2015 Orlando Fringe Festival and was still in beta testing.
Which brings me to an issue that needs to be addressed. Yes, I only paid $11. Yes it was a beta test, meaning it was still a work in progress and would be tweaked by opening day. After writing the article, I received both official and unofficial correspondence from staff members of The Republic. The response I got from all of them can be summed up thusly: the reason I wasn’t given a good experience is because I only paid $11 and not full price, $35. Granted, everyone I dealt with was very courteous and extremely apologetic, but that answer is total crap. Any entertainment offering that is ready to open their doors to paying customers (no matter how much you’re charging) needs to be extremely close to fully operational. Sure, some effects might not work, a few actors might bumble their lines and even lines of dialogue might be cut or swapped out, but that product needs to be “show ready.”
It wasn’t. For me personally, it was a mess. It was impossible to follow. The actors were lost and it wasn’t intriguing, engaging or entertaining in the slightest. My litmus test for any film or play I see is this (please feel free to use this): about a half hour in and I find myself bored or disinterested, I think to myself, “If a bomb were to go off right now and all the characters just died off in an explosion having nothing to do with what I am watching and the credits start rolling/the curtain closes… would I give a damn?”
In the case of The Republic, the answer was no. Coincidentally enough, a bomb (in the form of a sound effect) somehow did go off at the end of the show, which is how it ended, but about an hour too late for my taste. I must point out that there are a handful of A‘s out there who seemed to like the show. Or at least the idea of it. Many of which made mention that this was their first brush with immersive theater. Then there were a decent amount of B‘s who had done shows like Sleep No More or Then She Fell and thought this was a total mess compared to anything they had seen before.
Perhaps it was the tone of my article, but I had several people in the C column that also saw The Republic reach out to me personally and privately. “I wish I would have called pineapple (the safe word) early on just to end it,” “on a scale of 1 to 10, this was a zero” and “if this is the best Orlando can get, we are in trouble.” It goes on and on.
On a personal note, a quick thank you to those who reached out to me to talk about your experience at The Republic. Positive or negative and most of you I have never met (or often even heard from) before. Despite my experience on the first night of beta testing where the staff wasn’t interested in feedback, I am. Always. My opinion may sometimes be broadcast on a website but at the end of the day, I am only one in a sea of viewpoints.
The other piece of feedback I continuously heard was on how much I participated in the show or didn’t, as the case may be. “You get as much out of it as you put into it,” is continuously echoed over and over again. Not only to me, but in nearly every interview and marketing I have seen for The Republic. Let me put this as bluntly as possible, because this is a common misconception in interactive entertainment.
If a paying customer doesn’t enjoy themselves due to their actions in an interactive show, it is not the fault of the customer.
Some day, those of us who have heard this audience blaming excuse will all form a support group and sing “Kumbaya” while holding hands around a campfire. The Republic didn’t make sense at any point of my 90-minute journey. Not even a little. Nor did it for any of my friends who all did different things than me. Interactive or immersive shows have to be written or designed in a way where everyone that is involved gets something out of it regardless of the level of participation or how they participate. Any other mindset on this is dead wrong. It is the job of the show’s creators and designers to engage the audience, not the other way around.
Let’s also call a spade a spade here. While a term to describe The Republic could be immersive theater (even I have used it), a more accurate one would be live action role playing or LARPing. If LARPing sounds like a foreign term, you’re definitely aware of it happening. If you’ve ever been to a renaissance fair and seen guests mingling around in period costume and pretending they are really “there”, you know exactly what I am talking about.
LARPing is something you do with your friends at ren fairs and comic book conventions. It is not an attraction, much less something to be paid for. Yes, there are a fair amount of people who are interested in it. However, there are plenty of places where you can do that for free or perhaps pay a cover charge and you’re free to create your own adventure.
Keep in mind, the people who do enjoy this already use established characters and familiar time periods within a universe they are already have knowledge of. Creating one from scratch has to be incredibly inventive, intriguing and requires engaging characters and even then? It’s an uphill battle to get audiences on board.
This is why the beta test answer of why The Republic fell flat doesn’t jive with me. It needs more than tweaking. It needs to be figuratively blown up and put back together again. However, there wasn’t enough time to do that between beta testing and full paying customers. If the show is to survive, it needs to be widely accepted by people who can enjoy live interactive themed entertainment, not just people who love role playing.
What’s worse is when the show closes and fails (you know my guess on that), no one will want to open a new immersive theater show in Orlando for quite some time (even though I feel that’s a slight misuse of the label). More importantly, there is a higher chance of patrons experiencing something like this for the first time and not giving immersive theater a chance anywhere else.
Finally, I do not believe that anyone who creates a “bad” attraction or show does so with malice. In their mind, it might be with good intention. Maybe they are just lazy. Maybe too stubborn to ask for help. Maybe they think they don’t need it and naysayers “just don’t get it.” Let’s just hope that at least someone who reads this might have a small lightbulb above their head now and be aware of how their product affects others, for better or worse.
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Images Copyright: Theme Park University and The Republic