2 major trends shaping the visitor attractions industry in Asia

Recently Celebrating Life co-organized with blooloop.com the third blooloopLIVE Asia event in Singapore at the Asian Civilisations Museum. The attendees’ feedback was overwhelmingly positive, especially on the quality of the content. Among the highlights were Wonwhee Kim from The ParkDB who shared with us a very well put together history of Singapore attractions and Kevin Barbee who took us on a journey into branding and theme parks.

This put me in a reflective mood and I started looking back at what happened in our industry in the last few months. I thought I would share with you two of the major trends I believe are affecting us and could shape our industry in the future.

A new model of theme park development

In the last few years we have seen the emergence of a new model of theme park development through partnerships between experienced private investors and/or operators and state-owned companies to develop world-class theme parks in better locations and in more integrated ways.

Shanghai Disneyland is the proof-of-concept with one of Disney’s best parks and 11 million visitors in the first year of operation. Universal Studios Beijing seems to be following the same path with a product expected to be of the highest quality. In Malaysia, LEGOLAND Malaysia Resort as well as the newly opened Movie Animation Park Studios are other examples of such partnerships. In Indonesia we are excited about the $200million Sea World announced by Ancol in Jakarta.

These partnerships are not easy and all the above mentioned projects have taken a long time and gone through much pain but the outcome from a product and sustainability perspective is by far better than the alternative model of private developers building theme parks in exchange for government favors or land. The best example of such failure is Wanda Movie Park, which was forced to close after only 18 months of operation.

In-mall themed attractions

With the retail environment changing fast due to the rise of online retail and oversupply of malls, developers are increasingly looking at themed attractions as new anchors for a more lifestyle offering. This is probably the biggest growth opportunity for our industry in the region in the next few years.

Taman Safari Indonesia partnered with Aquawalk (Aquaria KLCC) to open Jakarta Aquarium at one of Jakarta’s busiest malls, Central Park. Aquawalk is also working with the Central Group to open an aquarium in Phuket’s largest mall and back home it is working on a variety of FEC projects with the first one opening in one of Kuala Lumpur’s largest mall (Midvalley Mega Mall) end of 2017.

In China, the first SEA LIFE aquarium and LEGOLAND Discovery Centre recently opened in Chongqing and Shanghai respectively. Shenyang K11 will also see these two popular in-mall brands by Merlin Entertainments together with a new concept by IP2 Entertainment under National Geographic license.

KidZania is continuing its expansion; after opening Manila and Singapore the popular franchise recently announced Surabaya, Indonesia.

The question is who will be the next KidZania or LEGOLAND Discovery Centre in the region? A lot of IP owners (BBC, Cartoon Network, Mattel, Hasbro, Line, etc) are keen to enter that space but they will need to establish a winning concept before rolling it out in the many malls crying for help.

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REVIEW: Movie Animation Park Studios, Ipoh, Malaysia

After some delay and growing frustration from people who had bought annual passes back in early 2016 Asia’s first animation theme park – Movie Animation Park Studios – soft opened on 26th June, on the first day of the Hari Raya break.

The park seemed to have been well received by local Perakians and other Malaysians visiting family for the holidays with a good coverage from print, online and social media. So I decided to head up to Ipoh on their first Sunday to check-it out.

Driving from Kuala Lumpur you can’t miss the park: massive billboards all along the highway and very good signage from the exit toll and all the way to the park. Driving into the car park from behind and looking at the park from the other side of the lake provides a very nice sense of arrival.

My first encounter with the park was with the staff at the ticketing building who were very friendly and professional. They came up to me and made sure I could get in as quick as possible with my annual pass I had bought online. I was up for a very good start and I have to say that relationship with the staff never failed throughout the whole day. Staff members at the park are incredibly well trained, friendly and helpful. They look good, happy and more importantly they seem to really be on top of things. Believe me, it’s not easy in Malaysia.

Immediately after the gate visitors take a bridge across the lake and into Animation Square, which is made of two themed façade streets covered by a canopy. It was probably my least favorite area. The facades are a bit too heavily themed and there is no real unity; it lacks of interaction between the street and inside the buildings, leading to the feeling of standing in the middle of an asphalt road in the city, far from Disneyland’s Main Avenue or Universal Studio’s Hollywood Boulevard feeling!

I decided to explore the Fantasy Forest Zone first and was very pleasantly surprised; I think other visitors too as the zone was a lot busier than Animation Square. The theming is very well done with beautiful rockwork, water features, fake trees, etc. The layout is quite intricate and the overall storyline a bit hard to get. It seems some of it is based on the Adventurers characters created for the park but not known to anyone. Lots of things for kids (and parents) to have fun including a nice water play area and merry-go-round. Unfortunately the Tree House, Upside Down Pyramid and Adventurers Walk were all closed when I visited.

The indoor playground – Coral Kingdom – was very busy with kids enjoying the various active play elements and parents sitting in the cool air.

Next to the exit of Fantasy Forest is the BoBoiBoy 4D Theatre, which seemed to be one of the most popular attractions. After a short queue I got in and the theatre was packed with young kids (and their parents) all very excited to see the latest adventure of their favorite character BoBoiBoy. The 4D theatre is state-of-the-art with very smooth seat motion. The movie hits the spot, it is full of adventures and a bit funny at times but it could do with a bit more interaction with the viewers. Nice plug-in at the end of the show for the Tok Aba Kokotiam café serving BoBoiBoy’s famous hot chocolate at the exit of the theatre!

Now time to catch the 4:30pm Stunt Legends show, which is clearly the signature attraction of the park, especially on that day when a lot of attractions were closed: the entire Dream Zone, BoBoiBoy Hero Academy, Cartoon Factory, etc.

The arena was not full but busy with visitors excited about seeing Southeast Asia’s first car stunt show. Foreign and local talents try cheering the crowd before the show starts and then it’s on for 20min of car chasing, smoke and loud engine noise. The script did not make much sense to me (and to the majority of people I guess) but the colorful characters seemed to be entertaining enough and the crowd left happy. Overall the show delivers but might need a bit of tweaking to become more memorable.

The next attraction I went to was a bit of a let-down. Wormwhole Technologies is a mix of glow-in-the-dark, magic mirrors and 3D art. Maybe good for selfie-obsessed millenials but WTF is this doing here? It felt like a last minute afterthought to fill in some empty space.

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Next was a much better planned and executed zone, the Smurfs. Like Fantasy Forest, very good theming and a playful environment anchored by the Smurfs theatre with a meet & greet area and the Smurfs Partyland. The theatre offers a live show featuring Grandpa Smurfs in a story, which is a bit too complicated for the audience and in English, which is not necessarily widely understood. Overall acting, show set and A/V is good though.

Before leaving I tried a few of the Zamperla rides in the Lakeside Zone: Disk’O, Flying Carousel and Hawk. They seemed to be very popular with young adults and tweens (maybe because not many rides were open that day). But on the negative side they project the image of a carnival fair instead of an international theme park from the entrance of the park. This could become an issue in positioning and pricing.

Now let me share with you some of my general thoughts on F&B, retail and entertainment.

All F&B outlets I saw were at-the-counter service with limited menu selection and quite reasonable (too cheap?) prices. The interior design is on the simplistic side and did not visibly get visitors too excited. Even the giant starship restaurant, which looks really cool from the outside felt like a basic shopping mall food court inside.

On the retail the side my main observation is the lack of generosity in the merchandising. Shelves are not full and the range of products is very limited, even for BoBoiBoy and Smurfs for which you would think there are a lot of cool existing products to choose from.

And as far as entertainment is concerned it is a bit light for the time being without the Dream Zone. The Center Stage located in the heart of Animation Square is where small shows happen every 30min. In my time in the park I saw a short hip-hop dance number by a local group and a sing along by the park’s international and local talent crew. The main issue is the poor stage design, which makes it hard to see (especially at night) and to pull in the crowd.

After spending a few hours in the park I realized one thing missing was a good sound system to provide a sense of immersion. It just wasn’t consistent and often times contributing to a sense of emptiness or incompleteness of the park, in Animation Square for example.

One last note before the final judgment, on the visitors profile. A majority of them were Malay and to my surprise more middle-up than middle-low. This means a lot for the overall atmosphere and the future potential of the park: more ancillary revenues, more attractive for international visitors, more rewarding for staff, etc.

And now the final judgment! Overall I am feeling very positive about Movie Animation Park Studios. Of course the price, even at RM131 (USD30), was way too high for the little that was open when I visited but I would definitely give it another chance because what I saw was a great insight into what this park can become IF (and it’s a few big IF’s):

  • The staff remain as friendly, helpful and professional
  • The show content is improved and refined (sound system, better scripts, bilingual)
  • The F&B offering caters more to a middle-up crowd
  • The park fills up with more retail, more music, more mascots, etc