Location Based Entertainment

Steve Alcorn
Alcorn McBride, Inc.

Small is beautiful (sometimes)

For those of us who work in Theme Park Design, it’s easy to become so fixated on bigger and better, that we sometimes forget to appreciate what can be done with a small budget, a limited space, or a tiny operating staff. After all, building new parks keeps us pretty busy. And then there are the countless rehabs and upgrades.

In the words of Walt Disney, “Disneyland will never be completed. It will continue to grow as long as there is imagination left in the world.” That attitude prevails, and ensures that all of the Disney parks will constantly be changing and evolving. It’s sometimes painful for those of us in the industry. We work on a project countless hours, toiling until that fabled 2am on opening day, then watch our creation being demolished a decade later. But that constant flux guarantees the parks will remain fresh and vibrant.

But Not every park needs to be a giant. Tivoli Gardens has demonstrated this principle for over a hundred years. Smaller regional parks can be successful, even if they are seasonal. Except for Disney’s parks, European theme parks are all regional, as are the majority of American parks.

Another type of smaller attraction is the public venue. In Las Vegas you can wander beneath a four block long video screen, watch a fountain show or volcanic eruption, and experience a pirate ship battle—including a sinking ship—all for free, from the public sidewalks.

Some parks cater to only one specific market segment. Legoland is really just for kids and their parents. Some of the hard iron parks appeal almost exclusively to teenagers.

I believe it’s possible to design parks for even narrower vertical markets, provided that the return on investment is properly analyzed. A Native American experience located on Indian land near a major highway in the American West is an obvious example of an untapped market. NASA’s Space Center Houston and Kennedy Space Center are both major visitor centers. Is there room for expansion into a full-scale theme park?

The ultimate vertical markets are corporate ones. Visitor centers, such as the one at Coca Cola’s Atlanta headquarters combine the best elements of themed entertainment with a pitch to buy more product.

Trade shows are also making more and more use of themed entertainment techniques. Automobile shows, in particular, use high budget, state of the art audio, video and lighting to generate excitement about the manufacturers’ latest offerings.

Location Based Entertainment (LBE) is any form of entertainment tied to a particular location other than your home. LBE includes amusement parks, theme parks, ride films, large-scale arcades, bowling alleys, pool halls, water parks, casinos, and multiplex movie theaters. I suppose sporting events should also be included in the list, but no one does.

Obviously, LBE has been around for more than a century. But in the 1990s there was a real explosion of LBE startups, focusing on high-end multiplayer interactive and virtual reality computer games. This form of LBE was thought to be the next big thing. Then came the shakeout, and few of those new ventures exist today.

What went wrong?

Many of the new startups were based upon virtual reality or elaborate multiplayer computer simulations. The cost of development for some of these installations exceeded $1000 per square foot, and yet the constrained indoor space in which they operated provided limited revenue generating potential. In short, the bottom line added up to a negative number.

A lot of these facilities didn’t properly analyze their capacity. Restricted entryways, slow throughput, and a high spectator to player ratio resulted in many missed revenue forecasts.

Also, most LBE’s failed to carry a story line; there was no theming. A roomful of noisy simulators is only appealing to a narrow market segment, and only for limited time. And many LBE’s failed to distinguish themselves from one another. One roomful of noisy simulators is a lot like the next. Without clear branding, LBE’s failed to attract a repeat audience.

Few LBE’s were located in areas with high enough traffic to support their required attendance. Many were in shopping malls. But malls are sparsely populated most weekdays. Teenagers aren’t available during school hours to feed dollars into those expensive simulators. Most LBE’s generated 80 percent of their income during the 20 percent of the week between Friday afternoon and Sunday morning. Some LBE’s located in prime tourist areas fared better.

As home computers became more powerful, much of the LBE experience was available in your family room. Spectacular graphics and accurate real-time simulation were once the exclusive domain of the powerful, expensive computer systems installed in LBE’s. Now the most modest desktop computer exceeds their performance.

The interaction between different players was also a unique selling feature of LBE’s. But in the world of Internet connectivity, multi-user games involving thousands of people are now commonplace.

But the LBE situation isn’t hopeless. One needs to look no further than video games to find an example of an entertainment technology that rose from the ashes.

Video games arrived in force in the early 1980s. Atari, Nintendo, Sega, and a dozen other took off like a rocket, and that first Christmas stores couldn’t keep the cartridges on the shelves. But by the late 1980s there was a tremendous shakeout. Public interest waned. But new technologies, PC-based games, and exciting new graphics and storylines revive the industry. Sony’s PlayStation and Microsoft’s X-box upped the ante. Video games are thriving. It might be possible to orchestrate a similar comeback for LBE’s.

To survive, LBE’s need to offer a social environment that’s not available to someone sitting in his or her family room. A truly successful LBE must involve all of its players in the game. The content is what matters. There needs to be a gathering place where people can meet—perhaps a pre-briefing room—and a cafe, bar or restaurant where they can dawdle afterwards, to talk about their shared experience. You may be able to join thousands of people online from the computer in your family room, but you can’t chat with them about the game over drinks afterwards.

The future of LBE’s is unclear. It will take good theming, and a better understanding of the customer before LBE’s become a major force in themed entertainment.

The Family Entertainment Center (FEC) is a type of LBE that doesn’t depend upon sophisticated networked computers. This market segment also blossomed in the 1990s, and then experienced a shakeout.

Discovery Zone was the leading FEC. As with most FEC’s, the focus of Discovery Zone was on “soft play”—indoor obstacle courses that kids explore, climb through, and slide down.

Discovery Zone was wise to include quiet areas for adults to hang out while their kids played, and a cafe to encourage guests to stay longer. They also provided party rooms for birthdays, and a small arcade for additional revenue.

But the concept wasn’t successful because of that old 80/20 problem. 80 percent of revenues were generated during 20 percent of the week between Friday afternoon and Sunday morning. There just weren’t enough birthday parties to pay the bills.

Today only the largest and best located FEC’s still exist. The FEC is still a concept that bears watching. People are willing to spend a lot of money on their kids, and the right mix of story, environment, and revenue model might still lead to a successful concept.

Theming doesn’t stop with LBE’s and FEC’s. It’s trickled down from theme parks to the neighborhood mall, restaurants, and nearly every public space.

But just because a space is themed, doesn’t mean it tells a story, or provides an experience. That’s still best done in theme parks—and in the occasional smaller facility that transcends its peers. These include some very special visitor centers, museums, and specialty attractions. Such transcendental smaller attractions are my absolute favorite venues, because they’re almost always examples of someone doing a lot on a limited budget.

How does a theme park designer achieve this kind of excellence? By learning from the successes—and failures—of the past. And then thinking creatively about how to surpass them in our next project.


Steve Alcorn is an entrepreneur, engineer, inventor, author and teacher best known for his involvement in the theme park industry. In 1982 he joined Walt Disney Imagineering (then known as WED Enterprises) as a consultant, where he worked on the electronic systems for Epcot Center. During his time with Imagineering he designed show control systems for The American Adventure, wrote the operating system used in the park-wide monitoring system, and became Imagineering's first Systems Engineer. In 1986 he founded Alcorn McBride Inc. The company's show control, audio, video and lighting equipment is used in most major theme park attractions around the world. Mr. Alcorn is the author of several novels and the book Building A Better Mouse: The Story of the Electronic Imagineers who Designed Epcot.