All Your Favorite Attractions Are Problematic

First, it was the rework of the Redhead in the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. Now, Disney has announced that they will be replacing Disneyland’s Splash Mountain with a Princess and the Frog themed attraction, which picks up after the end of the movie and weaves a new story (akin to the Frozen ride reskin of Maelstrom at EPCOT, versus the movie recap experience of Little Mermaid: Ariel’s Undersea Adventure).

Red Head Pirate at Pirates of The Caribbean at Disneyland Resort

Obviously, no matter what warm, fuzzy memories we have of Splash Mountain, no matter how much Disney tried to round the edges of the overt racism, the reality is, it’s based on such a stupendously racist and white supremacist storyline that Disney refuses to air Song of the South and so boy howdy was it beyond time for it to go. One of the chief problems we encounter as creatives in location-based entertainment is this clash of memory, “that’s just how it was back then,” “it will cost so much/upset the fans to change it” versus the knowledge that it’s harmful and needs to change.

We get it. It’s an investment. A huge one. Just like any of a number of other resorts, rides, shows, and exhibitions around the U.S., not to mention the world. To give them their due, Disney also has amply demonstrated they know how to concede curatorial authority, as it were. Their intentionality around Expedition Everest as well as core elements of the original Animal Kingdom demonstrates it can be done. Joe Rohde, in his talk at the 2012 THEA awards by the Themed Entertainment Association spoke at length about the Aulani design process, how authenticity and respect were placed ahead of ease and preconceived notions, and actually how easy design decisions can be when they are strongly rooted in authentic, clear direction informed by the actual people and place and not one’s own hot take on the source material. 

Don’t get us wrong: we are, no matter how fond our memories are of Splash Mountain, heartened to see Disney take this step. Reworking Splash Mountain is also an absolute rabbit hole (pun not really intended) because once your eyes are opened to the ways – both subtle and categorically unsubtle – that racism pervades narrative tropes and beloved experiences, it’s overwhelming. The soft-focus memories of Dumbo crash up against the knowledge that the lead crow is quite literally named Jim Crow. As you eyeroll at the corny humor of your Jungle Cruise skipper, your boat bobs around a corner and to a horrifyingly racist vignette. It goes on and on: Peter Pan’s original source material was dizzyingly racist about Indigenous people and the ride does not shy away from it; the Enchanted Tiki Room falls into the trap of so much white-washed, culturally-appropriative Polynesia theming; the European children on It’s a Small World are white as can be (and there are Middle Eastern kids on flying carpets); the Africa outpost in Epcot reduces a vibrant swath of an entire continent to a beverage stop, trinket market, and a few drums. These experiences have always been harmful, and it’s an insidious outcome of white privilege to be blind to it. Once you see it, you cannot unsee it.

This isn’t just a Disney problem. This is an everywhere problem. Racism is everywhere. The normalization of racist tropes is everywhere, from what we collect and how we display it in museums to countless “Wild West” zones in amusement parks to big iconic experiences like Splash Mountain, and thousands of moments in between. We are guilty of it in our body of work, too – there are projects we’ve worked on that, in hindsight, we should have done a little differently. When it comes to what stories are told in our parks and our museums, a large part of that is who’s had a place at the table, for the majority of our industry’s history, to make creative decisions, to greenlight and fund projects, to decide what has value or make a team pause and take stock of what they’re really saying with the stories they’re telling and how they’re telling them. It’s affected by processes and policies, too. At Thinkwell, we’re keenly aware that no matter how good our intentions in the past, we have fallen short at times, and it’s on us to examine what we do and how we do it to ensure we don’t perpetuate racism in our work.

Splash Mountain Drop Down Into The Briar Patch at Disneyland Resort

The harmful experiences in location-based entertainment of the past 20-30 years that we cannot unsee weren’t done out of a ‘let’s be racist, it’ll be great!’ mentality. We’re not condemning the creative minds behind these places or experiences. It’s unlikely that the team behind Port Orleans Riverside, as they designed cast member costumes in time for its 1992 opening, thought through the ramifications of their choices in a resort designed to evoke the grand “big houses” of plantations in the Louisiana Bayou (in fact, the resort was initially named Dixie Landings). But the reality is, their ‘mousekeeping’ staff is largely BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color), and they’re wearing outfits evocative of enslaved people who were assigned to “the big house”’ on a plantation. If you want a real wake-up call moment, stand on one of the lovely, immaculately landscaped paths in the beautiful antebellum south themed resort at shift change, and watch the staff emerge from the stately, pillared houses.

The re-envisioning of Splash Mountain isn’t reactionary: it is another step in a major, beloved, respected company’s commitment to do better, even at the expense of angered fans and significant capital expenditure. In the current economic climate, spending money to redo existing things probably doesn’t sound like the best plan. But we are the makers of dreams. We are the creators of heroes and villains, we breathe life into whole new worlds and reinvigorate beloved places. Why shouldn’t we spend the time, effort, and yes money, making the places we already have welcoming and inclusive? Why shouldn’t we say ‘this is racist, and it’s wrong of us to keep putting it out there for the public as entertainment or something to aspire to, so we’re fixing it’?

Congratulations to Disney for acknowledging it’s time to change. We look forward to seeing what they – and the rest of the industry, ourselves included – tackle next.

 1. Except in Japan, as that park is not owned by Disney and thus they do not have direct control over its content to make a change such as this.

Outdoor Events in the Post-COVID-19 World

As the world begins to re-emerge from COVID-19 quarantine, we see a resurgence in demand for shared, in-person experiences that follow strict health and safety protocols. Both the Pop-up and Touring Outdoor Event sectors offer opportunities for innovation to meet the needs of the “new normal” era.

The way forward begins with accepting and leaning into that new reality. As the world reopens, maintaining health and safety for all guests will be top priority. But that won’t diminish the need to serve people what they crave: time with others, whether that’s the guests they go out with, or the performers they come to see. In-person experiences can provide a regenerative break from lockdown-induced “screen-burnout” and physical isolation. 

Outdoor events in particular are poised for a strong comeback–given the CDC’s latest guidelines indicating that outdoor air circulation mitigates virus transmission–and are thus  particularly ripe for reinvention.

There are many possibilities, but let’s look at just one example. Imagine a fresh, traveling take on the (mostly extinct) drive-in movie experience. 

Is there consumer appetite for a drive-in revival in a fixed, year round location? That’s uncertain. But the appeal of a traveling show that comes to town during certain times of year is hard to question, with the accompanying aura it brings of a special, communal, limited time offering. Call it the Drive-In Spectacular

Thinkwell Group Drive In Movie Outdoor Event

Imagine harnessing the safety of people gathering together in their cars, with the retro nostalgia of drive-ins of old. Take it further and add a dedicated app for ordering gourmet food-truck meals delivered to your spot by drone or P.P.E.-wearing car hops. Pipe state-of-the-art sound via mobile devices directly into car sound systems. Most importantly, expand the canvas beyond just movies to encompass music concerts, theatrical productions, dance performances, and more. Create “safe space” assigned parking spots, where each group of guests or family could put out beach chairs or stand and tailgate around their car, while maintaining a safe distance from their fellow guests in adjacent, marked off berths.

Leverage the live element and liberate actors and performers to circulate in between the cars at a safe distance, adding more  levels of immersive interaction beyond the traditional (and static) stage/audience relationship. Populate the area with multiple massive screens to ensure optimal sight lines for the movie or show taking place. Brand the festival and create an exclusive fan-event atmosphere. 

Live shows during the day, movies at night, make it an experiential festival that refreshes and renews, but this time all from the safety of a mobile protective pod you already own: your car. 

That’s just one of countless ideas for the outdoor event space. Here’s another: how about utilizing the latest lidar scanning and auto-calibrating projector technology to bring mapping shows to your favorite local landmarks–or even into your neighborhood? Ticketed admission to an experience that would display breathtaking visual and audio content–always mapped around a different location–making every performance unique and highly shareable. 

Specially designed media could allow local artists to contribute, or even kids in the audience who submit work in advance, adding to the memorable custom feel of the show. Come away with your own digitally unlocked video recording of the experience as keepsake, or an accompanying AR app that lets you take a portion of the show you saw and overlay it into your own home environment. 

Indoor Social Distance Escape Quest Concept

Shifting our lens from the outdoor to the indoor pop-up realm, we can see another unique set of opportunities in the post-quarantine era. Locking people up in confined spaces doesn’t sound that appealing or safe right now. Why not evolve the traditional escape room into an ‘escape adventure’ or ‘escape quest’?

Exploit disused mall or other retail space to create a multi-room, pulsed experience where self-selected groups move through multiple spaces. They’ll solve contact-free riddles, games, and puzzles and try to spot “I Spy”-style clues in the designed spaces around them. Audio-visual prompts texture the guest journey and keep them on their toes. Remove the crammed together, let’s-touch-everything aspect and open the experience up to become more of an on-the-move challenge. Play to the need for masks indoors and weave it into the narrative — perhaps guests are moving through an archeological site where nothing can be disturbed, or part of a medical survey team investigating a biological weapons facility leak. 

When we look at all these opportunities for re-envisioning what we do, one thing is clear. Continuous innovation is going to be required if we want to survive and thrive on the uncertain but hopeful road ahead.

Virtual Reality & The New Compromise

A Vision, Compromised

For years, the promise of digital immersion and alternate realities permeated its way into the zeitgeist of popular futurism. Yet it wasn’t until American entrepreneur Palmer Luckey revived the VR industry with the release of the Oculus Rift in 2012, paving the way for a new standard in enterprise, education, and entertainment. Virtual reality promised a bold experience, an inclusive platform, and a seamless bridge connecting our world to the virtual one. Companies from around the world sprung up overnight, chasing trends and financial forecasts, hoping to take home a piece of the prize. Fast-forward to 2020, and while virtual reality continues to spark interest in enthusiasts and hard-core gamers, it remains stifled by a range of detractors such as cost, comfort, locomotion, and hygiene.

If ever there was a concern about the hygienic nature of virtual reality, COVID-19 has shattered consumer confidence and left owners and operators reticent in the face of future development. However, virtual reality will not end with COVID, but instead will find new opportunities in a post-pandemic world, evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of the technology as it evolves into its next chapter.


Lessons Learned

In 2019, Thinkwell Group opened the first of its kind, indoor, vertical theme park, Lionsgate Entertainment World, in Zhuhai, China. With three, purpose-built, virtual reality attractions, we learned a great deal from our in-field observations and guest reviews about the benefits and challenges of virtual reality.

Immersion is king. Yet, transportive environments are only a piece of the puzzle. True immersion stems from guest embodiment and real-world physics. Whether wielding a flashlight, steering a motorbike, or solving puzzles, every interaction must carry the burden of the real world or risk breaking the illusion. In addition, real-time media proved far more engaging than pre-rendered content, allowing guests the opportunity to take agency of their world and create a personalized and repeatable experience.

Conversely, we learned about some of the limitations and challenges from our creative partners and guests. Accessibility remains a constant goal for designers, ensuring that all guests can experience safe and comfortable moments together. However, due to the size, weight and form factor of many early generation headsets, guests with limited visual acuity or physical mobility found it challenging to maintain an optimal posture or retain a clear, focused, and immersive visual environment throughout the experience. Thankfully, there continues to be a wave of emerging technology that caters to guest accessibility. While many are still in their infancy, we know that these challenges are not insurmountable, but rather, they are stepping stones along the path to an optimal guest experience.


Looking Ahead

As we look ahead to a post-COVID world, there will undoubtedly be a shift in education, enterprise and entertainment. From visualization in the form of remote collaboration, to annotation in the form of real-time, remote instructions, to storytelling, and a new wave of haptic immersion; students, educators, and professionals are at the precipice of a new era in experiential engagement thanks to advances in emerging technologies.

When it’s time to untether and venture outside, additional emerging technologies can transform public spaces without the use or necessity of limiting hardware. Technologies such as mapped projection, mixed reality glasses, and digital characters or environments can enhance our physical surroundings without the use of single-serving, cumbersome devices. However, there remain three key takeaways for any activation or attraction to remain successful: friendly competition, inclusivity and immersion.

In the days, months and years to follow, social etiquette will shift, industries will evolve and technology will advance. We will remove our masks, we will interact, and together, we will smile. People are inherently social creatures and we at Thinkwell will continue to explore safe, effective, and memorable experiences to bring people together, wherever in the world life takes us.

A Thinkwellian’s 3 City Trip Itinerary: Kate McConnell

During this shutdown, Thinkwellians are still hard at work. Typically, our line of work has a large amount of travel and while we can’t go anywhere currently, we asked our teams the following question to keep creativity and fun flowing: If you had to go on a whirlwind, worldwide business trip for Thinkwell to three cities with a small stretch of downtime in each city, what would you do? Where would you eat, what would you see?

Their responses were amazing, and over the upcoming weeks, we’re going to share a new Thinkwellian’s imagined trip each week.

Travelwell - Kate McConnell

To launch this series, we asked Senior Creative Director, Kate McConnell, if she had to travel to Brussels, Belgium; Miami, Florida; and Shanghai, China, what she would do. From dining and reading in themed spaces in Brussels to Kayaking in Florida, she built out quite the itinerary.  Check it out below!

If Thinkwell was sending me on a whirlwind business trip to this far-flung trio of destinations, the first thing I’d do is to hit up our resident foodies Cynthia Sharpe and Craig Hanna and see if they had any dining recommendations and be sure to plan my meals accordingly. 

That done, it’s time to get to Googling my favorite things to do in a new city — museums, gardens, walking tours, and, most important, bookstores. Sure, I’m not going to speak the language in two of these three cities, but that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy the atmosphere, try to spot my favorite authors in translation, browse their English language section, and pick up a book or notebook or pen to bring home to remember the trip.

In Brussels, I might plan a visit to Cook and Book, which pairs dining and reading in different themed spaces. Their English-language room looks like an old-school library — dark wooden shelves, cushy chairs, and tea and scones to enjoy — while the travel section has a shiny silver Airstream trailer that you can sit in as you flip through guidebooks.

A chocolate-themed walking tour through the city and a visit to the Musical Instruments Museum in the Old England Building or a photo-taking hour in Grand Place at night might round out my visit.

I’m more of a forest person than a beach person so Miami isn’t a place I’d generally plan to go on my own. But a quick search turns up Vizcaya Museums and Gardens, which sparks some excitement as a place to check out on a business trip. Gorgeous formal gardens, architectural tours, and art collections? Count me in. And if I’ve got more Miami time — sea kayaking with the manatees!

Last up: Shanghai. I’ve never made it over to China before, so this will be a fun treat. Of the three of these cities, this is the one where I’d be most likely to book a walking tour (in English, of course) to get a sense of the city — maybe a historical one through Old Town or the former French Concession, or a food-oriented one that lets me sample some amazing street food.

After that I’m heading to Fuzhou Road, which is a whole street full of pen and stationery stores and book shops! Time to stock up on new inks, lovely pens, and some notebooks to write in. 

And that concludes my theoretical Thinkwell trip to a cool trio of cities! I’ll be heading home with some gorgeous photos, wonderful memories, and — I’m betting — a bag full of new books, notebooks, and pens. You can never have too many…


Thinkwell Holidays At Home: Family Activity Packet

As experience designers, we Thinkwellians think a lot about the guest perspective, whether it be for a theme park, museum, corporate experience, or live spectacular. Usually, our design work is for large public gatherings, but we’re all indoors now during this troubling time, thinking about how to best spend our hours creating experiences in the home. With springtime holidays upon us, we wanted to focus our attention on your experience of cherishing family family traditions and memories that make Easter and Passover special. We hope that these fun family crafts and activities will enliven your spring holidays at home. Make them your own, make them unique, and enjoy!

Post photos and videos of your work on social media using #ThinkwellAtHome and #ThinkwellHolidaysAtHome to see what others have come up with.

To download, click the links below.

For Chrome users: On the top right, click the printer to print, or the download button to directly download the PDF to your computer!

For Safari: Hover at the bottom center of the page and click ‘download’.

Holidays At Home Activity Book

When you’re done, return HERE (remember, no peeking!) to see if you had the right answers from the scavenger hunt!

NatureQuest at Fernbank Celebrates Nine Years of Exploration

The Fernbank Museum in Atlanta, Georgia, has long been a favorite of our cultural attraction projects that we’ve completed. This year, NatureQuest at Fernbank is celebrating nine years since opening and inspiring kids, families, and caregivers in the greater Atlanta area to learn more about the diversity of nature that surrounds them. Within an 8,000 square foot exhibit space, NatureQuest seeks to engage all senses to immerse every guest with interactive, local environments and activities.  The scenery, lighting, and interactive elements are designed to be mindful and inclusive while creating a sense of wonder and discovery, and many of the exhibits can be easily rotated with additional content to keep the exhibit current and fresh.

NatureQuest Starfish

When creating NatureQuest, our design intent was to not make the environment a static, observational area. Children are naturally inclined to be scientists – their innate curiosity and drive to ask questions, try something, and see what happens is really the scientific method in practice. They learn by doing and getting involved with their surroundings. So what better way to ‘get on their level’, than by designing environments that encourage them to explore? For instance, the underwater area of NatureQuest allows kids and parents to pick up a starfish and match it to its home on a pier column, or they can crawl through a burrow in another nearby exhibit.  Throughout the space, we intentionally created environments that are meant to be explored, touched, and interacted with in a variety of ways, in the hope that both children and adults will learn more about the habitats right there in Georgia. 

NatureQuest Nightvision Interactive

NatureQuest isn’t just tactile — it’s tech-driven, too. The design seamlessly integrates entertainment technology into a highly educational and interactive environment with more than 50 interactive elements.  An example of this is the augmented reality binoculars placed near the cabin exhibit. Guests can peer through the lenses, and wherever they’re aiming the point of view, a pop-up video appears within the viewscreen to provide insightful information about what they’re looking at. The scientific content is artfully embedded into various aspects of the exhibit such that the interactions with elements are very intuitive and interesting for audiences.  Another example is the fish in the ‘digital’ river are regionally accurate and dart away or swim up for a look as the children ‘wade’ through. NatureQuest rewards exploration. There are no right and wrong answers, just new discoveries to be made and questions to be asked. Every child, regardless of age, foreknowledge, or ability, can succeed in this richly engaging, supportive experience. 

We’re quite proud of the work done at NatureQuest to bring this award-winning project to life. It has become a great addition to the Fernbank Museum, and the exhibit continues to serve the purpose of educating young children and their families of the areas surrounding Atlanta by engaging them with nature itself.

The Making of The Richard Nixon Presidential Library & Museum

How to tell the story of one of the most contentious American figures of the 20th century? 

From the native habitats of Georgia to the dystopian wilds of The Hunger Games, Thinkwell’s exhibit designs have gone to many vibrant places and told some amazing and unexpected stories over the years. But we were offered a new—and deeply relevant— arena to explore in 2013 when the Richard Nixon Foundation came to us with a challenge: to redesign the permanent exhibits at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, which opened its new doors in October 2016. This task offered rich and exciting possibilities, but also posed these vital questions.

Even from the very start there was one thing we knew for sure: there wouldn’t be any hiding from the tough parts of the story. We needed to blow up the expectation that controversial topics like Watergate would be swept under the rug. Instead, we needed to bring them up at the very start, allowing the audience to see that this exhibit was aiming for a level of openness that can be difficult to achieve in many spaces—let alone a presidential library. The award-winning orientation film that guests can watch before entering the exhibits begins with Watergate and with Richard Nixon’s televised announcement that he will resign the presidency.

The next big hurdle Thinkwell faced was where to begin our story inside the exhibits. Richard Nixon was born in 1913, into an America that can feel almost unimaginably distant for the younger age demographic that the museum was hoping to attract. We wanted to start in a moment of action, a moment that would energize and connect with guests. Inspired by the dramatic tradition of in medias res, our exhibit begins in the middle of the story: amidst the turbulence and tumult and change of the 1960s, in a country that is deeply polarized and divided, when Richard Nixon is elected president in 1968.

With the starting point decided, the rest of the exhibit’s structure began to fall into place. We wanted to combine immersive spaces, powerful scenic vignettes, and bold and striking graphic imagery to shape spaces that felt alive and carried guests from moment to moment along their journey. Following Nixon’s first election, guests get to step into a fully explorable recreation of his Oval Office and then move into a series of galleries focused on the major issues, events, and ideas of Nixon’s presidency. These begin with a space dedicated to the war in Vietnam where a life-sized, gray scale vignette shows a pair of soldiers moving through the grass on the battlefield, juxtaposed against a graphic backdrop of photos of the protests at home on the wall beyond. In another standalone gallery that captures the scope and scale of Nixon’s world-changing trip to China, a pair of statues capture Nixon and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai in the moment of their historic handshake, set against a large-scale graphic and scenic backdrop of Air Force One at the Chinese airfield. A frozen moment in time from a celebratory balloon drop scored with the catchy election anthem of “Nixon Now” provides the environment for another exhibit on Nixon’s landslide reelection victory in 1972, a sharp contrast to the Watergate exhibit that immediately follows.

It was here that the combination of the topic and the space provided a unique opportunity for Thinkwell to change the way we traditionally experience stories in museums. We decided to give our exhibit a flash-back—the first one to ever be used in a museum exhibit, as far as we know. Having reached Watergate and Nixon’s resignation, the exhibit narrative was in a place that called for reflection—how did Nixon get here? At the same time, we had a location at the far end of our exhibit space where windows overlooked the little house where Nixon had been born. With a little media and design magic, guests are able to transition back in time, following the Nixons as they flew back to California after the resignation and arriving in California not in 1974, but in 1913. A more subtle transition occurs here as well, shifting the perspective that the exhibit is following from the impersonal and external viewpoint of the outside world to a more personal, inward-looking sequence. This flashback concludes with an immersive and theatrical- ized version of the Lincoln Sitting Room, where guests are brought back to the “present” moment immediately following Nixon’s resignation.

Redesigning the permanent exhibits at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library gave Thinkwell an incredible opportunity to be a part of capturing a fascinating and important piece of history. More than that, it asked us to think in new ways about the stories we tell ourselves every day — stories about politics, about citizenship, about democracy, about America. In a time in which our political landscape has become turbulent and challenging, in which mass protests once again fill the streets of cities across the nation, taking on the story of Richard Nixon and his approach to the challenges of his time never did bring us all of the answers to the questions we started with. But it helped us begin to shape some of the questions that we will need to consider as we look to the future.

Thinkwell’s 2016 Guest Experience Trend Report: Virtual Reality Check

This year’s Thinkwell Guest Experience Trend Report has arrived! The 2016 report dives into a subject that has consumed media and technology coverage this year—Virtual Reality. Commentary on this subject has permeated the consumer landscape more than ever before, and it’s quickly becoming a technology that is more and more accessible.

What does this mean for theme park and entertainment venues? What are guests really looking for, and more important, what are their expectations with VR?

“We are researching and developing high capacity virtual reality attractions and our clients are asking us more and more for virtual reality,” said Craig Hanna, Chief Creative Officer, Thinkwell. “So we felt focusing our annual Guest Experience Trend Report on virtual reality for theme parks made a lot of sense this year.”

Discover the global insights and implications for VR in this year’s report published below.

PDF version of the report is available here: 2016 Thinkwell Guest Experience Trend Report

White Paper | Intellectual Properties and the Branded Experience

Thinkwell’s 2015 Guest Experience Trend Report Focuses on Consumer Trends in Location-Based Entertainment Infused with Intellectual Properties
The recent surge in popularity of intellectual properties (IP) appearing in everything from theme parks and attractions to merchandise and museums had us at Thinkwell wondering whether this phenomenon will be an enduring profit generator for IP owners and the operators of entertainment and education venues. Does the presence of an IP lend credibility, trustworthiness, and value to a venue and would consumers be willing to visit this venue more often? Especially as more location-based entertainment (LBE) venues start to incorporate IPs, would visitors spend more money and time on their experiences and should IP owners start to license their properties more heavily to explore that possibility?
The 2015 Thinkwell Guest Experience Trend Report was created to answer questions like those. For the past two years, Thinkwell has published Guest Experience Trend Reports that investigated the behavior of guests as they explored theme parks and museums and how technology could be utilized to enhance or improve their visits. For the 2015 Guest Experience Trend Report, Thinkwell examined not only the behavior of guests as they navigated experiences, but also the reasoning behind deciding to go and make purchases at LBE venues.
Thinkwell had a nationwide survey conducted that polled over 1,000 adults with children to analyze their spending choices at family-friendly LBEs, specifically family entertainment centers, children’s museums, aquariums & zoos, and restaurants. The goal of the survey was to determine whether families would be inclined to visit one of those venues more often and spend more money on purchases if they were completely infused with a specific IP from a major motion picture, television show, video game, or book.
The results, while not entirely surprising, confirmed that families are indeed willing to spend more on an experience at an LBE if it featured a specific intellectual property. What was surprising however was that the results showed respondents would be less willing to spend an increased amount of money or time at an IP-specific educational experience versus an IP-specific entertainment experience.
Most respondents still preferred authentic and traditional experiences at children’s museums and didn’t necessarily feel that adding an IP would increase the value of the educational experience. Even at zoos and aquariums, which toe the line between education and entertainment, a smaller percentage of respondents stated they would pay more for things like annual memberships, merchandise, and souvenirs at an IP-specific location. But when going out for fun at family entertainment centers however, a much larger segment of respondents stated that they would be willing to spend more money and time on an IP-specific experience.
Entertainment Versus Educational Experiences
An astonishing 76% of the survey respondents stated that they would enjoy the experience at a family entertainment center more if it were infused with a recognizable IP from a motion picture, television show, video game, cartoon, or book. More than 62% of respondents also said they would be willing to spend more money on food, souvenirs, and merchandise if they included characters or imagery from a favorite IP. Not only did respondents claim that they would be willing to spend more money at a family entertainment center if it was IP-specific, 72% also stated they would visit more often than if it was a generic LBE venue.


Though an impressive 61% of respondents also stated they would visit a children’s museum more often if there were exhibits based around a child’s favorite IP, only half of respondents stated they would be willing to pay more for an annual membership, merchandise, or souvenirs despite having IP-specific elements at the museum. In a more traditional educational institution, respondents did not feel that having IP-specific exhibits added any value or incentive to visit the venue more often, nor were they inclined to spend more money on purchases there.

Even at a zoo or aquarium, which blends education and entertainment, only little more than half of respondents stated they would want to visit more often if there were IP-specific exhibits. Because respondents claimed that the primary reason they visit a zoo or aquarium is to spend time together as a family and not to see new or existing exhibits, having IP-specific overlays would not be a compelling enough reason for visitors to visit more often or purchase more merchandise or souvenirs.


While the previous three LBEs might be reserved for special occasions or weekend activities, 76% of respondents stated that eating out at a restaurant is a normal weekly activity. If an IP-themed restaurant was an option in addition to casual chain restaurants, fast food restaurants, and neighborhood restaurants, a majority of respondents stated that it would be a logical choice for their families when eating out. Particularly since a kid-friendly atmosphere was the most important factor for families in choosing a restaurant, having an IP-specific environment would please kids and parents alike, with Disney™, Star Wars™, and Harry Potter™ being popular IPs for influencing families on their themed restaurant choices.


The Why and Why Not
The study conclusively revealed that respondents would indeed be willing to visit an IP-specific LBE venue more often and spend more money on these experiences. But what were the motivating factors for these preferences? Based on 1,032 open-ended answers, the respondents who were more likely to prefer an IP-specific LBE stated that the experiences would be “more fun,” “make the kids happy,” and “make the experience more special.” These respondents felt that seeing recognizable or familiar characters and elements would be a treat for the kids and would be far more entertaining that visiting a generic LBE.
For the respondents that did not feel more inclined to visit an IP-specific LBE, cost was the biggest deciding factor against choosing these experiences over generic ones. These respondents did not feel that an IP-infused experience added any value for the implied increased cost, nor did they feel that the quality of the environment, food, merchandise, or souvenirs would be any better at an IP-specific LBE. Other consistent responses were that an IP would make the experience “too commercial,” “trendy,” and “distracting” so that families wouldn’t be able to fully enjoy their time at an IP-specific LBE.
The Value of Intellectual Properties
After examining the survey responses, the 2015 Thinkwell Guest Experience Trend Report concludes that IP owners can absolutely benefit from licensing and infusing their IPs into family entertainment centers, children’s museums, zoos & aquariums, and restaurants. Respondents were generally positive about wanting to experience IP-specific LBEs and were willing to pay more money and spend more time at these venues. So to answer our initial question about whether extending an IP could be an enduring profit generator, the study confirms that there is a demand for it and IP owners should invest in meeting that demand.
“Thinkwell has believed in the power of an intellectual property in attracting and retaining guests since the very beginning of the company,” said Craig Hanna, Thinkwell’s Chief Creative Officer. “This study highlights that the value of blockbuster brands and IP is only getting stronger, even in an increasingly crowded market, and that the public’s thirst for IP hasn’t been quenched yet.”