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Is now the time to ban phones at theme parks?

I would hope that most people on this planet would savour the experience of visiting theme parks without having to glance at a screen.

Globally, we spend on average 7 hours per day looking at our devices - so surely theme parks should offer us respite from a digitally-focussed, screen-based world?

Instead, we are seeing the mobile phone's role in our attractions heightened, because they give operators greater insights and seek to provide an 'enhanced' experience and wayfinding for guests.

The problem is, as we are so consumed and addicted to our smart devices, we could be in a situation where phones are now killing the magical experience in theme parks - or worse for us as designers, guests aren't experiencing the world's we've created with them in mind.


A challenge for Disney too

Take Disney's 100 Firework Show in October 2023 as an example. Were all guests glued to the tremendous (once-in-a-lifetime) light display in front of their eyes, or, recording it through their phone instead?

Here's some footage from the event. Just how many mobile phones can you count in the footage?

In Disney parks, the phone has become inescapable. The words of sum up the issues at Disney perfectly.

"The intersection between technology and vacations can be a deeply personal and often-heated subject. For some guests, even the usage of an app to manage a vacation is too much stress... there’s no question that trying to plan a Disney Parks vacation without significant use of a smartphone or computer is becoming nearly impossible, and it is definitely having a tangible effect on trips overall."


What if...

What if we banned phones at theme parks and other visitor attractions? Would we see a positive or negative change for both operators and guests? Let's step into the hypothetical world together to find out.


What could we gain?

#1 Human connection and authentic memories

33% of the world's population regularly report feeling lonely. Our theme park reconnects guests by simply taking the devices away from their hands. They are free to hold hands, make eye contact and even have a conversation.

#2 Full immersion and escapism

Without a mobile phone, guests can fully step into the world's that we've created in our hypothetical theme park. The multisensory experience of the zones, queue lines and even the rides provide full escapism from a chaotic and confusing world. For those that work in the industry with us, surely this is the main reason we do what we do - to bring people together to create long lasting positive memories.

#3 A better experience for all

We've all been in those situations where a mobile phone of another guest has detrimented our own experience. A selfish selfie taker slowing down the queue, or, the arms of others recording a video, in the way of the fireworks display. What if these occurences didn't happen? Even better still, what if every amazing experience was spontaneous and not planned by the guest themselves?


What could we lose?

#1 Data, data, data

It's not just the operational insights we'd lose access to, but the guest's ability to move around the park based on real-time information. Even with real-time data shared on wayfinding screens throughout our park, would guests arrive at rides in a state of disappointment after seeing the size of the queue?

#2 Social media amplification

Today's word-of-mouth platforms can make a huge difference to the exposure and opinions of theme parks and attractions. Our hypothetical theme park may miss out on rich content being shared by guests after their visit, but perhaps the lack of content creates more intrigue for others?

#3 Safety and security

While many theme parks still have legacy safety areas such as meeting places for lost children, our guests may need significant coaching to overcome the psychological impact of not having a phone - a link to others and emergency services. Could this anxiety rule out the idea of a ban on mobile phones completely?


Is there a middle ground?

In the run up to publishing this insights article, we ran a poll on our LinkedIn page to see what our followers thought about smart phones - and whether they contribute to a better guest experience at theme parks and attractions. The results were split 50/50. If there was ever a need for a middle ground solution, then surely this is it.

Phone pouches?

One practical solution that has already rolled out across some smaller experiences and live performances, is the use of locked phone pouches. They've been around for over 10 years, but now starting to gain traction in a social media dominant world.

Initially created to stamp down on illegal sharing of live show content, these pouches have now become a way to engage audiences away from their phone and interact with eachother and the show. Secret Cinema is the shining example of the use of such devices.


There is of course the option of implementing new habits into the culture of guests that visit our theme parks. Take the impact of Covid-19, for example. The specific and clear requirements made 99% of guests where masks and stand 2 metres away when attractions first re-opened.

A great starting point from a phone perspective are cinemas. We automatically switch our phones to silent when we visit - so why can't we do the same for theme parks too?

What do guests think?

We asked visitor attraction guests themselves, just what they thought about their use of mobile devices. Their responses were interesting:

  • 56% admitted to using their mobiles while at visitor attractions

  • 34% said they used it between 5-15 minutes during their visit

  • The majority used their phones for emails, messaging, social media

Putting people first

Here at Katapult, we always think about the guest experience - our mission is to design experiences that bring people together. While smart phones do offer functionality and entertainment in everyday life, they can have an overbearing negative impact on us.

Our industry is never going to be able to solve what is a global addiction to mobile devices, but we can lead from the front and ask ourselves - can we create a better world for guests to be amazed and engaged?

Whether that world is better with or without a phone, that still needs to be discovered.

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