Theming has become an extremely important tool for park operators who wish to find new ways to connect with their visitors. Using familiar, popular icons for attractions and rides is a proven attraction dynamic and gratifying ingredient for the ‘story’ of a theme park. And, moreover, there is virtually a never-ending supply of materials being churned out by creative people everywhere, through books, movies and various other media.
According to Bill Butler, marketing co-ordinator and associate show producer for Garner Holt Productions, theming gives guests a sense of added value when they invest time and money in visiting a park or FEC.
“It is important in reinforcing to guests that they are getting an experience of unusual quality and design, more than what an un-themed competitor might give,” he says. “Theming has been proven an essential element in illustrating this qualitative benefit for guests.”
Indeed, theming provides entertainment on several levels – it can either provide support for a ride, show or attraction in which customers participate, or it could be the primary source of entertainment itself. Theming can also help in the areas of marketing and sales by offering a sense of visual creativity.
The winter issue of InterPark pulled focus on the growth of theming in the global amusement and attractions industry. And, indeed, one would be hard pushed trying to find anyone working within the industry who failed to acknowledge the importance of themed elements in today’s climate.
“Theming is becoming increasingly important because it gives a newfound identity to the park or FEC and marks a defining line between venues,” says Frederic Bouvard, president and CEO of French themed environment specialist Art & Design.
Bouvard develops his thoughts, drawing attention to the deeper-set advantages themed attractions and environments can provide operators.
“As a market opens, there is little competition and public awareness is generally limited. Consequently, the park’s offering focuses on the rides and attractions. In mature markets, however, operators must deliver more than just rides – and this rings especially true due to the fact that if the competition doesn’t already have it, the chance of them offering a somehow similar ride in the future is quite real.”
However, Dave Cobb, senior creative director of the diversified Thinkwell Group, immediately points out an ironic problem with this growth: “Theming has invaded everyday life – restaurants, retail stores, even themed dentistry – so in some ways, it could be argued that audiences may have become numb to it.”
Cobb argues that as theming in amusement spaces is becoming increasingly advanced and pervasive, consumers are becoming more sophisticated in the process. 
“The question to ask is – does your theming support your experience as a whole? Simply putting some good scenery around an off-the-shelf widget might work for a while – but eventually the audience will move on to a new widget.”
The amusement industry has never been more fluid and subject to change. Over recent years, attitudes have shifted significantly on the part of park and FEC operators, as they have come to understand how theming can positively affect the customer experience and the bottom line for the business.
However, today’s parks and FECs cannot afford to provide guests with a theming experience that falls short of what they receive at the movies or sitting at home with a game controller in their hand. 
“Guest demand certainly challenges parks and FECs to stay on the cutting edge by providing them with memorable experiences,” says Jeff Schilling, founder of Indiana, US-based Creative Works.
One key divisive argument surrounding contemporary theming projects surrounds the often-differing ideas of ‘lucrativeness’ and longevity. Many argue that the huge movie-influenced licensed theming projects are most lucrative, due to the cross-branding with other products and mass media exposure. Yet it is also said that such ventures are short lived due to the fact that they stay in the public psyche for a relatively short period of time. Following this argument, because of this some operators opt for more traditional, ‘timeless’ themes.
“Clearly, film-based attractions are among the world’s most popular,” says Butler.
“However, attractions and environments based on films that have not been successful, or are not memorable, tend to make guests more aware of their failure as films than of their successes as a ride or show. In this way, ‘classic’ environments are more obviously sustained over time.”
“My opinion is there are different types of success,” Hamilton told InterPark. “If money is the goal, then maybe the movie influenced theme projects are the way to go. However, if one goes this route you may find yourself having to update and change more often to stay popular with your customer base. I like the idea of longevity – traditional themes will always have a place in our society.”
It soon becomes apparent that, although it may be attractive in its simplicity, the polar argument surrounding ‘lucrativeness’ and longevity does not hold weight for many industry observers.
Craig Hanna, chief creative officer for Burbank, California-based Thinkwell, said: “Both examples are successful, as long as the ‘traditional and timeless’ plays off a universal theme that everyone understands and appreciates.
“Take Pirates of the Caribbean – before the blockbuster Disney movies came out based on the ride, the ride had no tie-in to intellectual property, yet was arguably the most successful attraction in the park for many, many years and is an evergreen to this day. Why? Pirates, adventure and swashbuckling is a fairly universal theme.”
Schilling adds: “In our opinion it depends on the venue itself, the attraction mix chosen and how it has positioned itself in its marketplace. For example, Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida, is specifically set up to showcase the latest blockbuster movie experiences and characters in their attractions and to capitalise on the merchandising aspects they offer. Warner Brothers Studios does the same.
“However, these parks expect to update their attractions on a regular basis with the latest blockbuster movie experiences, so the short-lived nature of the movie influence isn’t a problem for them. Other parks and FECs who stake their name or their entire brand on a specific movie title, character or even genre certainly run the risk of becoming unpopular as time goes by simply because they are not set up to change.
Schilling continued: “A recipe for success that we’ve seen at parks and FECs is to choose a timeless theme for the overall facility and select specific themes for the attractions inside that may relate to a popular movie, character or genre. For example, a park can implement a generic ‘jungle’ theme throughout the entire park grounds while installing a King Kong-themed attraction inside.”
Through this dualistic approach, Schilling says the timeless theme provides longevity to the business in choosing its name, its logo and setting up the overall branding, while the popular themes in the attractions provide timely marketing opportunities on an ongoing basis.
Ultimately, analysts believe the real success comes through the successful merging of content and theme so that they are one and the same.
“We live in a very instant-gratification society,” says Cobb, “but people will still gravitate towards something beautiful that will resonate and endure over time, versus a quick, gaudy fix that elicits nothing more than an ephemeral reaction.”
Linking theme parks with contemporary society perhaps highlights the fickleness of today’s consumers. Yet although this may seem to unearth a degree of negativity or cynicism on the operators’ behalf, this process is a perfect reflection of today’s fast-paced, disposable consumer society. This ultimately serves to highlight the industry’s close ties with the society it serves.
Regardless, it is clear that attitudes towards theming are always changing.
“The search for what is appropriate for any given era requires the whole industry to be ready and responsive to new techniques and methods of creating attractions,” says Rick Cortez, at Illinois-based SVI Themed Construction Solutions. “Attractions will always be a reflection of what we interpret the public wants to entertain themselves with.
In the short-term future, although the global economic downturn may result in operators hesitating to invest in new, expensive rides or attractions, theming may be the key ingredient for those looking for an alternative, in order to offer something new by enabling a cost-effective modification of existing rides, attractions or areas.
“Once you experience a themed experience/park/ride/attraction, you walk away with a connection and a memory,” says Schilling. “When you get a taste of something you like, you want more and expect nothing less the next time.
“As time goes on though, people will want change. While we may like something, we don’t want to experience the same thing every time. As these new markets are developed, technologies get better and the line between fantasy and reality blurs, we will see the sophistication of theming evolve and become more common as a necessity than it is today.”