In these lockdown times, I’ve been reading Tom Mehrmann’s book, Taming the Mouse. It tells the story of how a small, local theme park in Hong Kong faced off with the might of Disney and came out on top. For years after the opening of Hong Kong Disneyland, Ocean Park attracted more visitors and made more profit. There are plenty of things that the park did right – a bookfull of them – from focusing on the local culture, to putting the mission first.
One thing that interested me a lot was the initial fear of Disney’s roster of intellectual property attractions (IPs).
IPs certainly have a place for attracting visitors to the park – but only when they are highly culturally relevant. That’s one of the reasons Hong Kong Disneyland couldn’t lean heavily on its IP, the characters weren’t as recognisable as Disney bosses anticipated.
IP in British theme parks is a relatively new phenomenon that began in the 2010s. The success of a Peppa Pig event at Paultons Park in 2008 led to the park making the decision to launch a full-time Peppa Pig World in 2011. The park’s association with the famous pig now dominates its marketing. A few weeks later, Blackpool Pleasure Beach launched with Nickelodeon Land and – in 2013 – Wallace and Gromit’s Thrill-O-Matic.
But, as is often the case with IP, the biggest budgets get the biggest names. So its no surprise that Merlin was one of the earliest and longest running adopters of IP attractions in the UK. None more so than Thorpe Park. Saw the Ride was one of the first IP attractions to reach our shores. Opening in 2009, there was a lot of discussion at the time around the length of the agreement and what the fate of the ride would be afterwards. 11 years on, that discussion has become muted. But IP seems to have become the go-to tactic for the park since then: I’m A Celebrity, Angry Birds, the Walking Dead, Derren Brown, and now Black Mirror.
Alton Towers seems to be going in the same direction – with increasing reliance on the CBeebies roster of characters and most recently, David Walliams’ Gangsta Granny. But, one of their most successful attractions in recent years has been the Wicker Man, a completely original story and concept (despite sharing a name with a film, which caused some confusion at the time). Even Chessington World of Adventures is turning the stories of Julia Donaldson into attractions.
In a document produced by Merlin and circulated in October 2019, the company made clear why its continued leverage of IP would form a central part of its strategy: “Merlin believes it is well-placed, given its global reach and multi-format expertise, to benefit from the growing opportunities to partner with leading owners of intellectual property content. These partnerships provide Merlin with additional means to deliver memorable experiences to visitors of its attractions and offers its partners opportunities to increase engagement with their customers.”
And in a lender presentation, it was made clear that this tactic is to continue: “Merlin expects to continue developing further relationships with more intellectual property owners or content owners over the coming years, building on the success of its existing relationships.”
Could some of this increasing reliance on IP as a tactic be a response to the incoming London Resort – formerly London Paramount? With its roster of partnerships with the likes of BBC Worldwide, ITV and Paramount Pictures, the park will be dominated by IP – perhaps entirely. According to some reports, Merlin CEO Nick Varney has expressed his doubts about the project going ahead – and according to one report he even lambasted the ‘outdated’ IP.
But as the local and national press continue to fawn over the arrival of “Kent’s Disneyland” (with the question of whether it will actually happen another one altogether), there is no doubt that an Orlando-ification of the UK sector could be happening. The US style tactic sees the major parks compete for increasingly popular franchises: Harry Potter vs Avatar, Star Wars vs Nintendo – leaving the smaller parks to spend their limited resource on negotiating IP deals.
But as a tactic, does it even work? Expert attractions analyst, Lesley Morisetti, found that the majority of attractions did experience volume growth when introducing an IP attraction. The extent of that growth differs widely – from 30% to 100%, she suggests. There is, of course, an additional risk. Parks cannot simply lean on IP to prop up a bad attraction, which will anger visitors and – more so – fans of the franchise. The UK parks seem to be getting better at avoiding this approach: compare the ill-fated I’m A Celebrity Maze with the most recent Walking Dead experiences at Thorpe Park’s Fright Nights, which received rave reviews.
Tom Mehrmann and Ocean Park didn’t adopt their own IPs to try and match Disney, by the way. They focused on Ocean Park’s own heritage as a local and generational park. It paid off, as Disney faced challenges when the market was not familiar with the famous mouse and his band of cartoon pals.
So, for most, IP attractions are worth the investment. And it looks like they are here to stay, with Merlin standing firm on the tactic, despite the success of their original stories in recent years, and even the smaller parks seeing success with adoption. With the London Resort still in the pipeline, it’s an Americanisation of the sector that we should start getting used to.
But not right now, of course.