From day-trip to vacation destination: The rise of theme park resorts

The response from Disney’s CEO, Bob Iger, on the marketing budget required to launch the new Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge resort at Disneyland, said it all: “don’t expect much, I am thinking that maybe I should just tweet, ‘It’s opening’”.

The movie franchise, owned by Disney, has taken $9.3 billion in revenue worldwide (MentalFloss) since its inception more than 40 years ago.

And with a cult following in their millions, it is no surprise why Iger isn’t planning on pumping much marketing budget into a resort that will fly faster than the Millennium Falcon.

Immersed in a world

For the guests that will visit, they aren’t just staying for the day. They will visit to become immersed in a world that has gripped them across nine films – staying over in themed hotel rooms, drinking green milk just like Luke Skywalker and adding to their own enviable collection of apparel and merchandise.

Disney is just one of the pioneering park owners that have helped shift theme parks from a jolly day-trip destination to a contender for your next, annual vacation.

The day-trippers

On a previous blog article, we spoke about the average spend that guests spent on a day out a theme park – totalling $171 for a family of four. This figure comprised of:

  • Admission tickets – $23.60 each
  • Food and beverages – $8.80 each
  • Retail and merchandise – $4.30 each
  • Midway games – $2.40 each
  • Car parking – $14.85

While theme parks continue to work hard to increase footfall, naturally, park owners have realised that to increase revenue they have to keep guests there for longer. A simple equation but not so simple to execute.

Do guests actually want to stay longer? Of course! Who wouldn’t want an extra day (or longer) to experience the ride they missed yesterday?

Extending the offer

If spending close to $200 in one day was in any way a ‘limit’ for the average guest, theme parks have risen to the challenge of squeezing more guest spend by shifting the experience of visiting – from a day-out to a long weekend, and even a fortnight-long vacation.

Merlin Entertainments’ Alton Towers, for example, has five different on-resort accommodation offerings to choose from. A one-night weekend stay in June, for a family of four, will start the prices at $504 (£382) on average.

While most bookings come with free access to the park and other perks, the secondary spend in retail and F&B will continue to increase average guest spend per head.

This approach is obviously paying dividends for Merlin, who are set to add over 500 new hotel rooms to their portfolio of theme parks and FECs globally. More importantly, there is a clear demand for guests that want to stay over at their favourite resorts too.

Adding experiences

Sticking with the Alton Towers example, Merlin has done well to expand the portfolio of experiences available at the resort. The more content, the better the chance that families will want to stay over and explore… or become a loyal repeat visitor with a season pass.

New rollercoaster rides are just the start. Crazy golf course, waterpark, spa, themed restaurants, live shows, The Alton Towers Dungeon and more experiences are awaiting holidaymakers.

Challenging the vacation market

Where Disney, Universal, Merlin et al have led, others will surely follow. The spend of US and UK families on a vacation, average $5,420 per year (£4,148) – a figure that theme parks are targetting, and a figure that families will be willing to pay for a theme park holiday.

Theme parks, by their nature, are immersive resorts of escapism that bring the family together – the exact blueprint used by companies to sell all-inclusive destinations and cruises that families are spending their money on already.

Research by the US Family Travel Association, confirms the rise of theme park breaks. “Theme parks… are the most common vacations the respondents have taken”. This movement has also been fuelled by:

  • US families taking shorter, but more vacations
  • ‘Children amenities’ being a key factor in accommodation booked
  • “Visiting new places and exploring together” being the main priority of a vacation

Psychologically, we want it

A really interesting article published in the Scientific American by Krystal D’Costa looked into why theme parks are now so popular as vacation destinations. Put simply, these places help us reaffirm ties with those we love the most.

“Disney franchise and other good examples of art… such as movies and plays – help us construct social connections. Packaged with interactive experiences, visitors get to live tales and the experiences create lasting memories because they reinforce messages we have already received previously.”

“When we experience an instance of storytelling or humour or music with someone else, we’re creating a bond through that experience that helps define our places within our network relative to each other. Revisiting stories could then be an act of reaffirming ties—which could help us understand why people return to Disney theme parks and other forms of creative entertainment.”

The future for theme park resorts

Worldwide spend on theme parks surged by 5% to a record $44.8 billion according to IAAPA, which resulted in record attendance levels of 1.1 billion in 2017. By 2022, that figure will increase to 1.3 billion visitors.

The attractions industry is growing, fast, and resorts are supercharging the change. Leisure behemoths with hotel facilities are being built as standard across the US, Middle East, North Africa and Asian regions in anticipation for the experience economy to become one of the most valuable on the planet.

Theme park resorts aren’t just here to stay, they’re here to dominate all of our downtime.

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Insights Analyst Lead at Katapult. He works on providing data-driven audience and market trends, as well as operational insights, to assist the client and design team in creating immersive, commercially-successful experiences. Robbie has over 10 years' experience in the leisure and tourism industry and has worked with iconic brands, theme parks, family entertainment centres, museums and visitor attractions around the world.