Parks are increasingly offering better and more WiFi access for guests, bringing added benefits for both operators and their visitors. Beth Whittaker discovers more…

Who remembers a world without the internet? As someone in their mid-30s I remember the day dial-up internet was installed at my family home; I was in my teens and I’d sit there waiting patiently, while the computer whirred and chirped away at me until a connection was made… Only to be disconnected five minutes later when a sibling or parent decided they needed to make an ‘urgent phone call’ – right in the middle of my multiple MSN Messenger chats with friends I’d seen at school just an hour previously!

Ever since, my love for the internet and my day-to-day reliance on it has continued to grow. It could even be argued that I have become too reliant on the joys of fast internet connection, the introduction of 4G and free public WiFi spots… All accessed from the comfort of my smartphone! Whether it’s using Google maps to navigate my way around unfamiliar surroundings; logging into my banking app to do a quick transfer; checking my emails; ordering a taxi; or checking out where the nearest coffee shop, cinema or department store is, oh and let’s not forget social media updates… it’s safe to say I spend a good chunk of my time with my nose in my phone making the most of the internet.

Over the past few years, the importance of a strong WiFi connection, whether for business or leisure, has grown at an exponential rate and as such iPass Inc – one of the world’s largest commercial WiFi networks – recently revealed data from analysts Maravedis Rethink (2014) that showed there would be 47.7 million public WiFi hotspots deployed worldwide by the end of the year. The iPass WiFi growth map shows that over the next three years, global hotspot numbers will increase to over 340 million – nearly one WiFi hotspot for every 20 people on earth by 2018; this compares to one WiFi hotspot for every 150 people today.

According to the report, in 2014 France was the ‘country of WiFi’ with the most hotspots in total, followed by the US and UK. By 2018 this is expected to shift to the US, followed by China and France. Europe is currently considered the ‘continent of WiFi’ with 50 per cent of the world’s WiFi estate, but by 2018 Asia is expected to strip Europe of this title. Today, China has five times more commercial WiFi hotspots than any other country, while community WiFi has been driven by Europe and North America.

“Over the last few years we’ve seen the emergence of the ‘WiFi first’ generation,” said Evan Kaplan, President and CEO of iPass. “WiFi has become cool again; in fact, it’s seen by most as an essential utility, just like water or electricity. Most of the devices we use are WiFi only and even on the most advanced 4G handsets, 78 per cent of data goes over WiFi. Simply put, it’s the network of choice for consumers and soon they’ll be able to roam this alternative network of millions of hotspots.”

So, how does this growth in, not only the availability of WiFi, but the desire for it by the general public, fit in with the amusement industry?

As a sector, the theme park industry is generally up there and at the forefront of customer trends, so for many the implementation of WiFi is no different with more and more parks rolling it out for free and introducing complementary apps. However, in the same breath there are still a good number of parks that aren’t offering this service. Can free WiFi really make all that much difference to the customers’ experience and in turn generate business for the parks? Or, is it more about keeping up with appearances and, in reality, is it an unnecessary add-on?

In the US in 2014, hundreds of Xfinity WiFi hotspots were launched at Universal Orlando, across both theme parks – Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios Florida, as well at Universal CityWalk. Coverage includes all main walkways, most indoor dining and shopping venues, plus attraction queue lines.

According to a report released by Amalia O’Sullivan – vice-president of Xfinity Internet, Communications and Data Services, Comcast Cable – wireless access is increasingly important to customers and a network that not only meets today’s needs but stays ahead of tomorrow’s demands is required O’Sullivan comments that in order to power customers’ growing number of connected devices anytime and anywhere, access needs to be provided on the go – at a shopping district, in a restaurant, on a train platform, at a sports stadium or even in a theme park.

Xfinity launched its latest wireless effort in support of Universal Orlando’s new mobile app, which helps guests to navigate around the park, check wait-times, view interactive maps and find nearby dining, shopping and restroom options. The app, available as a free download for Apple and Android mobile devices, gives guests the ability to pull up attraction wait times, maps, show times, ride updates, social network features and in-park notifications. Over time, there are plans to add features like e-commerce purchase capability, customisable itineraries, social sharing and more.

For O’Sullivan, the proof that a good internet connection is an important feature lies in the figures. Since Xfinity WiFi has been launched at Universal Orlando the provider has seen up to 5,000 unique devices connect to its hotspots daily. This is encouraging news for both the park and Xfinity and over time that number is bound to increase, as more people become aware that free WiFi is available around the park.

Another leader in the theme park sector, Walt Disney World Resort, has had WiFi available at its convention hotels since 2011; in 2012 the operator expanded this throughout all of its resort hotels and parks, making the service available to guests at no charge. It is also now available on-board Disney buses, monorails, ferry boats and in certain backstage areas and the number of WiFi access points has steadily been increased to provide coverage throughout the resort.

According to a Walt Disney World Resort spokesperson: “With the increasing use of smartphones and other WiFi enabled devices by visitors, adding more WiFi coverage was a logical amenity. The development of the free My Disney Experience app for smartphones created another reason to offer the support of WiFi.

“In addition, many guests from other countries visit Walt Disney World and the availability of WiFi has been an important amenity for their ability to use mobile devices without incurring roaming charges,” continued the spokesperson.

With Europe crowned ‘the continent of WiFi’ it is no surprise to hear that the UK’s number one children’s theme park, Legoland Windsor Resort, has worked hard to build a stronger WiFi connection for its guests.

Based in 150 acres of parkland, mobile network coverage at the park is patchy, with mobile phone masts few and far between. However, with 57 per cent of the UK population using their mobile phones to access the internet, the public have come to expect the ability to get online whenever and wherever they are. For Legoland Windsor Resort, this is of particular importance in ensuring its guests can share their experiences via social media, as well as access mobile-based information and entertainment on site.

“Interacting with our guests is a key part of visiting Legoland,” said head of retail Russ Gaines, “and we have brilliant conversations with our guests before and after their visit, but with low 3G signal in the resort, driving this interaction through social medial and our mobile app while they are here proved difficult.”

Legoland Windsor addressed this issue by working with The Cloud, a leading WiFi provider in the entertainment and parks sector, to provide high speed WiFi across the entire resort. With a wealth of experience installing WiFi at other resorts including Alton Towers, Thorpe Park, Chessington World of Adventures and large public areas, The Cloud had the expertise to ensure that the service met expectations.

Since installing The Cloud WiFi at all the high footfall areas, rides and buildings at the resort, Legoland Windsor has been able to provide its guests with free, fast internet access across its entire site, as well as accessing the Legoland app featuring in-resort features including exclusive promotions, games, a list of the fastest moving queues to guide guests to attractions and a map. Alongside this, the WiFi service has allowed Legoland Windsor to promote its attractions. For example, the branded landing page for guests logging into the WiFi was used to promote its new area within the resort for 2014 – Pirate Shores.

“The introduction of The Cloud at Legoland Windsor has been a success from all sides,” continued Gaines. “It has had a very positive response from both our team and our guests whom we are now able to engage with during their visit as well as before and after.”

Legoland Windsor also worked with Picsolve as part of the WiFi upgrade; when guests purchase a photo of themselves on a ride they can now use the WiFi to download a free digital copy of the photo, which they can instantly share via social media. Picsolve’s global business development director, Baz Slatter, believes that with 83 per cent of theme park guests (in the US) owning a smartphone, it’s no surprise that over the past two years, the demand for instant, real- time photography has rapidly increased.

“With half of all guests downloading ride images on smart devices, the industry must seamlessly integrate acceptable WiFi and digital solutions into its offering to fulfill this growing demand,” he said.

In an online article published by The Cloud on how theme parks can attract more customers, the company’s Richard Towey commented: “British theme parks epitomise everything joyous about a fun day out. The focus on high-octane thrills provides a welcome break from the norm, the open-air plans ensure everyone gets a much-needed helping of fresh air and there’s a genuine sense of escapism on offer for whoever dares to take on the breathtaking rides.

“Sometimes all it takes is a very simple addition to a make visitor happy and contribute to good word of mouth. Whether it’s the introduction of a new restaurant at the food court or a revamp of the customer toilets, all the little changes go a long way when it comes to keeping people satisfied.

“Recent trends would suggest that one of the best improvements to make is the introduction of WiFi, either for free, or at a small charge. Many of the bigger theme parks in America have installed wireless high-speed internet on their premises for the many visitors who wish to tap into their mobile devices while they’re on-site. However, if the investment of time and money is evident, there really is no reason why British sites can’t follow suit.

“It seems businesses are adamant that WiFi will be the obvious choice when consumers are faced with the option of free or paid access. Further to this, mobile internet is not only a blessing for smartphone users, but for businesses as well. If the access is provided, the uptake for any web offers they’re trying to push should be improved as a result. Many businesses are already seeing what WiFi can do for their growth and theme parks could do with taking note.”

One of the UK theme parks that is leading the way in WiFi trends is Blackpool Pleasure Beach, which has been offering free WiFi to park guests since 2012. The main reasons behind the offering were to enhance visitors’ days out and encourage them to interact with the park via social media during their visit.

“WiFi also allowed us to support the growing corporate side of our business and increase our product offering with a range of new services such as Speedy Pass Mobile and Picento,” said a spokesperson for the park. “Free WiFi bene ts the business in a number of ways. It is an added benefit for when we host corporate events and from a cost point of view, saving us hiring this in each time it is requested. The main benefit is for our visitors, allowing them to interact with us as they enjoy their day by sharing pictures, which form a platform for social engagement between the guest and our marketing team.

“One other benefit is the ability to ask questions and receive answers to any queries. The WiFi has also benefited our on park photo team as they can now instantly share images with guests by email, or an app, rather than print out hard copies.”

According to Blackpool Pleasure Beach, since introducing free WiFi the park has seen an increase in the number of people using social media to do things such as check in and upload images. There has been an 80 per cent increase in Facebook likes and a 300 per cent increase in Twitter followers, which the park attributes in part to its on-site WiFi.

“Our revenue from social channels has increased year on year, as has our on park guest satisfaction ratings,” said the spokesperson, “both of which we attribute to the connection between free WiFi and the ability for visitors to interact with us and ask questions.”

In Germany, Movie Park worked with internet provider Gelsen-Net in order to react to a generation that has become more mobile and digital. The park wanted to guarantee an unlimited access to its Movie Park app and supports interaction on social media while visitors are in the theme park. Alongside this, Movie Park wanted to develop its customer relationship management by accompanying its guests during their stay in the park with automatic offers via email.

For Movie Park’s Jessica Demmer, the importance of implementing WiFi is three-fold: guests are now more relaxed as they can be entertained while waiting in queue lines; guests feel even more welcome at the park as they are part of the Movie Park network while there and can be assisted online during their visit; and guests can be sure they will receive the latest information for planning their visit.

A total of 26 WiFi access points have been implemented throughout the park and in the long-term it is hoped by Demmer that it is a service that will motivate repeat business. “The WiFi is brand new this season so we have to see how it develops,” she said. “But of course, we hope that our guests will feel better connected, informed and entertained – one of our goals is definitely to be ‘closer’ to our guests.

With Asia predicted to be the continent of WiFi by 2018, we look to Ocean Park in Hong Kong, which has formed a partnership with Hong Kong Broadband Network (HKBN) to offer guests free high-speed WiFi, along with a range of innovative mobile app functions. The partnership will see the installation of over 470 WiFi hotspots, supporting more than 40,000 mobile devices with a transmission speed of up to 1GB per second. To give the network added flexibility, optical fibres will be installed, making it possible to extend network bandwidth requirements to meet future demand and undergo system upgrades.

The first phase of the WiFi development project was completed in the third quarter of 2015, with free WiFi access spanning the main entrance and various key attractions.

When the second phase was completed in the first quarter of 2016, free WiFi service were extended to all guest areas, including all attractions, restaurants, retail stores, theatres, queuing areas and classrooms.

With the support of this high-speed WiFi network, Ocean Park plans to introduce a mobile app that will include a virtual guided tour that is enhanced by location-specific conservation and educational information. In addition, through using the park navigation service and geo- analytic tools, guests will be able to discover all the latest information on different attractions and make advanced bookings for a more leisurely and enjoyable theme park experience.

With continuous efforts to enhance guest experiences at the park, described as a “top priority” by Ocean Park’s Vivien Chan, through daily satisfaction surveys and suggestions, the team understood customers wanted to know more about the instant queue line wait times; be aware about shorter queues; learn more about the animals; and that international guests wanted to stay connected with family and friends.

We have established that wherever in the world your park may be, the surging use of mobile data is already integrated into our daily lives and free public WiFi has become a global trend. For overseas visitors, free WiFi can significantly reduce roaming costs, while for local visitors, there are always data usage limits on their mobile plans, so WiFi is welcome, as long as it is quick and free.

Recent Picsolve research has also highlighted how the demand for instant social sharing is now global, with 62 per cent of UAE citizens claiming WiFi will improve their experience at a theme park and 50 per cent wanting to share their attraction photos online. It is evident that parks around the world must now respond to these trends by adopting dedicated digital platforms that incorporate the in-park guest experience with social media.