What’s happening in water parks in SE Asia?

This article was originally published in blooloop.com

I was recently approached by one of the big fives looking at putting together a report on water parks in SE Asia.

I realized a lot had happened in our region in the last two years, from the opening of Cartoon Network’s first branded water park in Thailand to the opening of Yangon’s first water park in Myanmar.

It certainly does look like something big is going on for someone sitting in Europe or the US. So here is a quick overview for you.

First we have to go back to the why of water parks in SE Asia. It’s actually very simple. It starts with an all-year warm weather. To which you need to add good value scalable equipment, which allow owners to start small and charge very little, and gear up and eventually charge more when they can. I have seen many small neighborhood water parks in Indonesia that would cost less than USD1million to build and still provide a good return for their owners.

The development of sizeable water parks in SE Asia is almost exclusively driven by property developers, who see them as ways of anchoring their residential/resort communities at no loss.

  • Jakarta alone has 13 water parks in its greater urban area, almost all as part of new townships. The latest in date was developed for a whopping USD13.4million by developer Sinarmas Land in Bekasi
  • In Malaysia property developer Sentoria has developed a business model selling condos in resort cities anchored by water parks (Bukit Gambang and coming soon in Morib and Kuching)
  • In Thailand, developers of resort condos in Hua Hin, south of Bangkok, have also used water parks to pull buyers in resulting in 3 highly themed water parks (Black Mountain, Santorini and Vana Nava) all competing for the same weekend/short break business

Whilst traditionally water parks in the region are either not themed or themed after local myths and legends e.g. Suoi Tien in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam or Pandawa Lima in Solo, Indonesia, the trend is for IP-based water parks, which command a significant price premium.

  • In Malaysia LEGOLAND water park opened at a price of MYR120 (USD30) and achieved 630,000 visitors in its first year of operation, making it a much more profitable investment than the next door LEGOLAND theme park
  • Still in Malaysia Sunway Lagoon finally opened its new Nickelodeon Lost Lagoon expansion and used it to increase its price to MYR150 (USD37.5)
  • In Indonesia the developers of Jogja Bay Pirates Adventure Waterpark decided to develop their own pirates-based IP commissioning a local animation studio to create a multimedia show as part of the offering, which also includes a beautifully themed pirates ship
  • Still in Indonesia Bakrieland, the owner of The Jungle water park, is planning to further develop the Jungle IP with an animation series featuring the park’s mascots and new water park locations throughout the country as part of an IPO for its leisure division
  • In Thailand Cartoon Network Amazone water park is proving to be a hit with both Thai residents and International tourists flocking and willing to pay up to THB1,590 (US$45)

Jogja Bay Pirates Adventure Waterpark

Now what’s next for water parks in SE Asia? Here are a few trends we might be looking at in the near future.

  • Hybrid: it’s all about being more than just water park, from a combination with a safari park with live animals roaming the water park to a combination with an adventure park with aqua maze, etc for team building
  • Indoor: with more shopping malls being developed and always bigger it wouldn’t be surprising if developers decided to look at indoor water parks combining ‘spa’ areas for adults and kids play areas similar to Korean water parks
  • Gamified: video games are coming to theme parks, so why not to water parks too; manufacturer WhiteWater is already in the ‘game’ with its Slideboarding ride
  • Luxury: with the emergence of a strong upper middle class we see the potential for a luxury offering, which would bring the experience of an exclusive beach club to demanding families
  • Crystal Lagoons: this giant lagoon pool technology developed by a Chilean company is possibly the next big thing; it’s already in Bintan, Indonesia and Hua Hin, Thailand and expanding fast

REVIEW: Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum, Singapore

This is a long overdue review of the beautiful Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (LKCNHM) in Singapore. This recently opened museum probably deserves more than this short review; it is very rich and interesting in terms of design and art direction. But hopefully these few words and pictures will make you feel like checking it out for yourselves. I promise it’s worth it!

I went on a weekend and didn’t know I had to book online to make sure I get a spot, but fortunately that wasn’t an issue and I was able to get in. I think the museum adopted this session policy to control the amount of people in the museum and make sure the experience is always at its best. Since the museum is a bit far from anything (inside the National University of Singapore campus), they wouldn’t want to have to turn people away, which explains the pre-booking.

At an admission price of S$21 for foreigners (S$16 for Singapore residents), the museum is on par with other similar institutions in Singapore (the new National Gallery is charging $20 for foreigners) but surprisingly not free for local residents, which is the case of all museums owned by the National Heritage Board.

On the overall visitor experience I would say it was very pleasant and fulfilling. Although the space is not that big (only 2,000sqm), it is very rich and I stayed for a good hour and a half. The visitor mix was good: some families with kids, a few Chinese tourists and non-Asian tourists; maybe around 60pax visiting at the same time, just the right amount.

The overall design by gsmprjct is very bright and flows very well. Half of the museum is over 2 stories with high ceilings and the other half houses a mezzanine where the exhibits continue.

Here are a few of my visit’s highlights:

  • Great intimate videos produced by scientists from the National University of Singapore, which are consumed a bit like youtube content
  • The ‘cabinet of curiosity’ installation on the mezzanine, which is a living history of the Raffles Museum and tells visitors how the collection on display was put together
  • Feature wall covered floor-to-ceiling with glass jars; it could be an art installation
  • Live animal tanks (scorpion, murk fish, phasmids), which make for good talking points (and distraction) for kids
  • Dinosaur light & sound show in the central high-ceiling area, which makes for a little pause in the visit

The selection of specimens is very relevant with interesting links to Singapore and its history and a focus on small living organisms rather than big mammals, which works well in a small space. The message is very clear, raising awareness about our environment and the need to protect it. The only small negative is the texts tend to be a bit too lengthy and complicated; they lost me a few times. I guess this is what happens when research scientists are involved in building a museum!

Now for those who read this review until the end I urge you to go; this museum is a must-visit for anyone involved in designing and/or building visitor attractions.

REVIEW: Planet J, Macau

Macau has reached a turning point with gaming revenues declining and incentives from the government to make the destination more family-friendly to attract more non-gaming visitors.

Sands China is at the forefront of entertainment-based resorts. The Venetian brings to Macau some of the best concerts, sports events and touring exhibitions (Titanic, Da Vinci, Transformers, Dinosaurs Live). Across the street at Cotai Sands the DreamWorks Experience offers a variety of interaction opportunities with studio characters including a daily parade, photo opportunities and themed meals. Also at Cotai Sands is the new Planet J, the world’s first live action role-play theme park.

Planet J was first announced in November 2014 for an opening in the summer of 2015 but it was officially opened in February this year. The team behind the concept comes from Jumpin Gym USA and their vision is to pioneer family entertainment with a revolutionary model breaking free from the traditional theme park experience using interactive Live Action Role Play (LARP). The total investment is reported at MOP1billion (US$125million) for a total floor area of 100,000sft.

My visit took place on a Thursday afternoon during Easter holidays. Macau was generally busy and Cotai Sands in particular had a nice buzz about it (but not crazy busy like The Venetian used to be a few years ago). When I reached the complex I headed to the information counter but the lady didn’t know about Planet J; she had to look it up in the directory! The park is actually on the 3rd floor together with a food court and a huge toy store.

The main entrance is looking good with a couple of staff in uniforms welcoming visitors in the ‘kingdom’. They were a bit surprised to see me; I understood later the park is actually only soft opened and they don’t get that many visitors, and even fewer non-Chinese visitors.

The first counter is to purchase tickets, which are priced by the hour. On that day the price was discounted to MOP150 (US$19) from the ‘full’ price of MOP1,090 (US$136) for one hour!

Then the second counter is for checking in and collecting devices. I counted they have a total of 30 check-in counters, but only 2 open that day! The devices look like smart phones with an old book cover and the staff can choose the language for you. I am guessing the idea in the future is to collect more data to make the experience more unique. But when I went I was not asked to key in anything. The main purpose of the device is to indicate visitors their scores and when their time in the park is up.

Once equipped with my device I was offered to go in with a guide, which I thought was a bit weird but when I realized there were only 3-4 other families inside I understood it wasn’t much of a problem. I asked my guide and he said that for now they are still testing the model and prefer to have guides either with groups at all times or in the different rooms.

As you enter the park the intricate layout with a ramification of small rooms and a central hub, the theming and the great lighting make you really feel like entering a different world. The park is divided in 8 zones (not all open yet) including the darker ‘Magic Stone Mine’ and the more pop ‘Green Pasture’, where I spent most of my time. I repeat the theming is very well done, which is not surprising since part of the team is reported to be from Disneyland and Universal Studios.

The concept is actually much more simple than what I anticipated when visiting the website www.planetj.com. Each zone features a number of interactive games (200 in total but only 30 functional for now), which are mostly digital tablet inserted into a bigger themed display and some more active games such as hand-gesture fighting, twister and other skills games, which seemed fun to play as a family or a group of friends.

The games rules are not always easy to understand and I am glad I had my guide to explain and save me some time (each game is limited to 1min to complete the mission). The system is not completely stable yet and I had a couple of incidents where my device crashed once and the game froze as I was playing once.

After one hour the screen of my device indicated that the time was up so I had no other choice but to head back to the exit (through the shop of course!) and leave the ‘kingdom’ without feeling like I experienced a revolution in theme parks! And this leads me to my review of the Planet J concept.

First, there is a world of difference between what the website describes and the reality of the park. The exchange of information is only one-way (games sending scores to devices) and there is no role-playing as visitors are never asked to make a choice that will make their experiences unique. Also games are too repetitive and not immersive at all. There is no story building during the park visit. It’s just about how many games one can make in one hour and how much points one can score; very basic gaming principles.

Second, the concept is not fit for the target audience I thought they were going for – teenagers & young adults and international visitors – but more for families with young kids from Hong Kong and Mainland China, which were the only visitors when I went. I would say the reason is the lack of thrill and immersive experience, which one would expect from a LARP park.

Third, the heavy reliance on technology means something is bound to go wrong during one’s visit and that could spoil their entire experience. One more point is the difficulty to deal with 2 devices (which means I had to keep juggling between my phone and my device to take photos for example).

Fourth, Planet J’s concept relies on a new world they have created with magical characters and stories. Although I appreciate the effort, it doesn’t help with the immersion when these characters are not known to the public. I would have thought going for an established IP would have made more sense.

Fifth, the park is probably suffering from too much theming but not enough fun (no live show, no mascots, etc). Also the succession of games with their rules and the staff attending to visitors makes it almost impossible to go wild, which is something one would expect in a park.

Lastly, the business model seems a bit challenging with very limited opportunities for incremental revenues from F&B (no kiosk in the park and no time to stop when visitors’ time is counted), retail (no established IP) or any other services (pictures, etc) since there is nowhere and no place to really hangout and enjoy time with friends and families. Also the instant capacity is limited to 2-3pax per station ie 600pax, which is on the low side for a US$135million investment.

I feel I haven’t been very forgiving with this review but I wanted to be honest and share my views as a professional. I had rather high expectations and I guess I was disappointed. I am hoping it is because the park is only soft opened. If the team can really bring some level of role-play then I would gladly go back and review it again.

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