The State Of Themed Entertainment

School has started back up for the Fall, and the themed entertainment conference time has begun. The middle of September found us in Birmingham, England for the International Leisure Industry Week (LIW). The end of September found us in Maastricht, The Netherlands for TiLE and the third week in November will find us in Atlanta for the mother of all theme entertainment shows, IAAPA.

This year is also a historical year for the themed entertainment industry. “The Happiest Celebration on Earth” is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the “Happiest Place on Earth.” Disneyland opened on July 17, 1955 and on September 12, 2005 Disneyland Hong Kong opened to rave reviews. In past articles we have gone over the history of themed entertainment; however, given the history and celebrations of this year, I feel we need to step back and see where we have been before we step forward.

The first park I had the chance to work on was Disney’s Islands of Adventure, the nightclub theme park that was very controversial with the Disney brand at that time. Shortly after that was Disney Studio Tours, followed by Disneyland upgrades, then came Knott’s Camp Snoopy, “The Theme Park Under Glass.”
One point to understand is that the Knott family began as a roadside stand in the 1920s, and in 1934, Knott’s began to sell chicken dinners. To entertain the crowds, they added a Ghost Town in 1940, and in 1968 they added a fence and started charging admission. Because of its long history, Knott’s Berry Farm currently claims to be “America’s First Theme Park.” Since then, they have added water effects, roller coasters and other attractions, providing visitors with the feeling of a Midwest state fair. As a side note, the best chicken dinner I have ever consistently had was at Knott’s Berry Farm in Anaheim, CA.

However, the claim to be America’s first theme park is not valid. The man who started Hershey’s Chocolate was also a very generous man. In 1905, Milton Hershey built his chocolate company in the town now called Hershey. As a reward for his workers, he built a park to create a more pleasant environment for workers and residents than any typical factory town of the time. In 1903, he proceeded to survey a site along Spring Creek suitable for his park. On April 24, 1907, Hershey Park opened with a baseball game played on the new athletic field. This park was planned to be the typical community park: a spot for picnicking and boating. On July 4, 1908, a merry-go-round was installed and opened. An amphitheater was constructed adjoining the pavilion. This is what I would consider the first true theme park. The original park was then followed by the acoustically perfect amphitheater, bowling alleys, tennis court and a scenic railroad.

A story I recently heard was regarding the Oakland Children’s Fairyland. Created in 1950, Children’s Fairyland is a historic 10-acre outdoor park and educational facility in which children’s literature is “brought to life” through fairytale exhibits, animals and talking storybooks that children activate by turning a “Magic Key.”

Walt heard about it and came up to visit. He hired away the general manager and the lead puppeteer. Their theater-training program for 8 to 10-year-olds has run for 48 years and has trained many of America’s foremost puppeteers, including Frank Oz. It is the longest-running puppet theater in the U.S.
So what does this mean to us? The TEA (formally the Themed Entertainment Association), which “Represents the Creators of Compelling Places and Experiences,” has job postings. This is very good. The slowdown that hit most of the industry is starting to pick back up. The job postings are for creative designers, project managers and other positions that are filled early on in themed projects. The TEA members are seeing new projects for sound system rentals, exhibit designs, family-themed playgrounds, museum projects and video-wall projects-in essence, a lot of good “bread and butter” work for the AV industry.

LIW is a new show for us; it is one of Europe’s leading leisure business trade events. LIW is specifically designed for all areas of the leisure industry: including theme parks, heritage centers, fitness and health clubs, leisure centers, showmen, caravan parks, holiday centers, sports clubs, pools and spas, museums, hotels, resorts, wellness, family attractions, retail malls, architects and designers, pubs and bars. As you can see, it really covers anything that deals with discretionary income. If it is fun and you want to do it with your friends and family, LIW has products that will do it better, faster and cheaper. LIW is structured as a series of smaller conferences within each vertical market that surrounds a central exhibition trade floor.

What we heard the following week at TiLE (Trends, Technology, Theming and Design in Leisure Environments) is that even in Europe, they are seeing the crossover between leisure and entertainment attractions; museums and other educational and cultural venues; and retail and corporate facilities. The dividing lines between industries are blurring, as designers and integrators learn from each other. It was interesting to see that sustainable design and “green” construction methods have migrated across the pond and that the sessions were so well attended. Other topics spoke about refreshing or re-branding older attractions.

For this year’s IAAPA expo in Atlanta, GA, more of the same will be seen. IAAPA (as stated in past columns) is a cross between high-tech rides, county fairs and carnival attractions. It is always held at the close of the fair season in the U.S. and prior to the start of the summer planning sessions. For our industry it really is the sessions and networking that IAAPA brings. Last year, the Themed Entertainment Association announced its re-branding as the TEA (as in the beverage one drinks.) They are the creators of compelling places and experiences. This is the group you need to market to and join if you really want to work in the themed and leisure entertainment industry.

This article was originally published in System Contractor News.