Themed entertainment… take us away

The themed entertainment industry showed resiliency in the Great Recession, then rebounded with vigour. “It’s simple,” says Steve Birket, president of Birket Engineering and international board president of the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA). “People want to be taken away.”

Due in large part to the efforts of TEA, themed entertainment is a recognised branch of the out-of-home entertainment industry, reaching many divergent market sectors.

TEA’s boutique size of 1,100 member companies in 34 countries belies its influence and leadership. Its annual conference on experience design, summit and awards shape international dialogue. Its NextGen initiative influences curriculum in colleges and universities, and helps young people build dream careers. The annual TEA/AECOM Theme Index is the definitive industry report of the world’s top-attended theme parks, water parks and museums.

The world and the industry are watching as Disney Shanghai and Universal Beijing take shape – and local operators gear up to compete. John Robinett, a senior vice president of AECOM and former TEA International Board member, says: “History shows that as Disney and Universal move into international markets, quality goes up and then pricing ceilings, enabling local competition to rise to the new standards.”

Monty Lunde, chief executive of Technifex, who founded TEA in 1991 in Burbank, California, adds: “With continued Chinese government support, the growth of theme parks, water parks and cultural attractions will continue there for many years.”

These are major land deals. Today’s model is the integrated resort, blending entertainment, hospitality, retail and more. “We see tremendous value added to the developer’s assets when a quality entertainment product is included,” says Roberta Perry of ETI, a past president of TEA.

Mr Birket adds: “The scale of a project makes possible the integration of so many elements. Theme park development benefits from the economies of continuous large flows of guests.”

Connecting emotionally with guests

Craig Hanna, another TEA past president and chief creative officer of Thinkwell Group, which designed the Warner Bros. Studio Tour: The Making of Harry Potter, says: “World-class intellectual properties, often based on blockbuster motion pictures, books, toys or video games, can connect emotionally with guests and utilise the marketing and recognition of that intellectual property.”

We are social creatures – we want to laugh and cry together

Nick Farmer of UK-based Farmer Attraction Development, also a TEA past president, comments: “IP-driven facilities such as LEGOLAND Discovery Centres, operated by Merlin Entertainments Group, are hot,” adding that several IP owners are currently planning their own centres within large shopping malls around the world.

“Every time a project is named for a TEA Thea Award, it creates a ripple of awareness through the region,” says David Willrich of DJW, immediate past president of TEA Europe and Middle-East division. Recent Thea recipients in Europe include Titanic Belfast and Puy du Fou, and in Asia, Chimelong Ocean Kingdom. “The highest recognition of this industry is to receive a Thea Award,” he says.

TEA members bring their magic to museums, science centres, retail, visitor centers, casinos and even military training. “Immersive storytelling is not specific to a market,” says Mr Lunde. “What immerses soldiers in a believable battle environment can also transport park guests to outer space.”

The mantra of the industry is to reinvest; its lifeblood repeat visitation. “Out-of-home entertainment has to be more compelling than what can be seen or done in living rooms,” says Mr Hanna. “We are social creatures – we want to laugh and cry together.”

“What TEA and its members do has cultural, social, artistic and economic impact,” TEA chief operating officer Jennie Nevin concludes. “They are the creatives, the artisans, the tech wizards, who make something unique yet robust enough to work year-round in a challenging environment, and then go on to top it because the industry can’t ever stand still.”