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.