PICTURES: Planet Hollywood Observatory

Among the exciting new developments in Orlando is the new Disney Springs, which is Disney’s remarquable foray in retailtainment anchored by none other than the World of Disney store. The two-year redevelopment made way to one of the most interesting retail experiences, which draws big crowds of theme park goers every night.

Interestingly Disney decided to keep some of the ‘classics’ from the Downtown Disney days such as T-Rex, Rainforest Cafe and Planet Hollywood Observatory, which I decided to check out to get an idea of how this institution reinvented (or not) destination family dining.

The building is still as impressive with its huge observatory dome. Only it looked a bit more modern with a new visual identity and lighting. Once inside its a real anthill with people everywhere waiting for a table. And everyone wants to eat inside for the dome experience because we were offered a table outside and we didn’t have to queue!

Some of the new movie displays include videos built-in the glass windows; very cool. My favorite thing in the new decor is the very 80’s cosmic carpet.

But what the 700+ diners distributed on 3 different floors are here for is the massive projection onto the dome, where birthdays are celebrated and occasionally karaoke songs played for a massive sing-along.

The music is blasting, disco lights are flashing, waiters are running everywhere with huge plates of food, this is destination family dining at its best!

 

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The First Malaysian Attractions Benchmark Report is out

Our friends at ParkDB recently released the first of a series of country-specific Attractions Benchmark Reports. This one is for Malaysia in collaboration with MAATFA. To download the full report click here.

And now here are our thoughts on the Malaysian attractions industry.

By 2018 Malaysia will count 3 world-class internationally branded theme parks along its North-South corridor, from Johor Bahru to Ipoh, providing the destination with great tools to strengthen its positioning as Asia’s preferred family holiday destination, which will hopefully result in an increase in length-of-stay and repeat visitors. This is a great achievement and contribution from our industry, which we should be proud of.

With both LEGOLAND Malaysia Resort and the newly opened Movie Animation Park Studios, Malaysia is spearheading a new model of theme park development through partnerships between experienced private investors and/or operators and state-owned companies, which departs from the other model of private developers building theme parks in exchange for government favors or land, which is increasingly showing limitations in terms of sustainability.

Furthermore, with Sunway Lagoon’s recent extension (Nickelodeon Lost Lagoon) and the new RM200million+ water park under development in Desaru Coast, Malaysia will be home of two of the best water parks in the region, therefore competing with Thailand, which has seen the recent addition of great products e.g. Ramayana, Black Mountain and Vana Nava water parks.

Beyond theme parks and water parks we see a huge potential for indoor attractions with hundreds of malls across the country crying for a new generation of lifestyle & entertainment anchors to save them from increased competition and online retail. Maybe this is an opportunity for Malaysia to develop a unique exportable know-how with support from the government? After all Malaysia led the way for theme park (Sunway, TAR) and shopping mall (Sunway, IGB, Pavilion) development in the region. It’s time to be regional champions again.

We need to look at a new generation of indoor attractions different from traditional FEC’s or indoor theme parks, such as Berjaya Times Square Theme Park, and more adapted to new trends such as active play (e.g. District 21), edutainment (e.g. KidZania, Petrosains, Aquaria, Entopia), lifestyle-driven (e.g. The Top) and IP-based (e.g. Angry Birds Activity Park, Thomas Town, Sanrio Hello Kitty Town). But we should always be careful to build the right product for the right audience and in the right location. If all projects announced or rumored get developed, Malaysian malls will offer lots of exciting new indoor entertainment concepts including wind tunnel, wave house, indoor skiing, VR theme park, RDE (Retail Dining Entertainment) and fun museums.

Now, as mentioned above the role of government in regulating, guiding, supporting and funding our industry is critical for its sustainability and long-term impact on the country’s economy. This is why we believe government should increase the Tourism Development Infrastructure Fund available for our industry, attract more talents, suppliers and investors through incentives and special programs, and reconsider its proposed entertainment tax, which goes against all required support.

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.

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

PICTURES: Millenium Park, Kolkata, India

Recently I went to India for a holiday. This was my fourth trip to this amazing country. When in Kolkata I was lucky to visit the popular Millenium Park by the Ganges river, which was full with families having fun on a beautiful sunny Sunday afternoon.

Here are a few pictures and some of my thoughts.

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Millenium Park is in the heart of town, next to the administrative centre, and therefore very easy to reach for middle class families who solely rely on public transportation. It is where small boats depart on cruises on the river, an experience not to be missed with singers performing classic Indian tunes.

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The robust children playground is one of the most popular attractions. No matter how rich or poor, how developed or not, active play and interaction with other kids always work!

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Lots of families with kids, parents and grand-parents enjoying watching each other have fun, this is the recipe for success.

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Some mild thrill as leveled playing field for kids, teenagers and adults. Feeling a bit scared and dizzy and sharing it with other people is one good way of creating lasting memories, something our industry is built on.

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I loved watching these teenage girls race these bumper cars with so much passion and laughter.

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The best for last. This rocking boat is handled manually by this man who uses a wheel on a driving belt to push the boat and give it speed, very DIY. Who said our industry had to be high-tech!?

REVIEW: Entopia by Penang Butterfly Farm

Already a very popular attraction visited by more than 5million people and ranking high on tripadvisor, Penang Butterfly Farm recently underwent a major upgrade and became Entopia, a Nature Learning destination. And it’s well worth a visit.

The location, next to Escape Park, has its pros and cons. It’s only minutes away from the major family resorts of Batu Ferringhi but a good half hour drive from Penang city centre. It doesn’t seem to deter school groups and tourists thirsty for nature exploration, who are showing great support to the new facility, and I wanted to find out why. So I recently went and here are a few of my observations.

It starts with a strong and relevant presence on the main road; the building is covered in foliage (vertical gardens) with good signage and a neat looking ticketing and entrance. It feels like we’re in good hands!

The ticket price is higher than Taiping Zoo’s at RM49 (US$11) for adults and RM29 (US$6.5) for children but if you search online you will find lots of discount offers that make it very affordable for every kind of visitor.

The facility is made of large outdoor gardens (Natureland) and a two-storey indoor discovery centre (Cocoon).

The best way to introduce the exhibits is maybe quoting the website: “Entopia is a place designed to inspire visitors to experience nature in a new way. We wish to share the unheard lessons of our natural world with everyone, especially the young. Entopia is a movement to live in harmony with nature – a rallying call for Penangites and the world to get involved! As a centre for nature learning, we bring the best of the insect world and the plant world together for everyone to experience the harmony in nature. It’s a living classroom to learn new things, have fun and share the love of nature. Today, we are pleased to unveil to all our visitors a real-life blueprint for a paradise for invertebrates, plants and humanity.”

This truly transpires in all aspects of the facility starting with the well-themed, well-curated and very entertaining mystery cave featuring amphibians, scorpions, spiders and snakes, which I had the chance to be guided through by a very knowledgeable and jovial tour guide.

Natureland exhibits feature good signs with relevant information, good audio with ambient music and voice recording. The choice of species is just right, not too many. The atmosphere under the butterfly dome is very pleasant, just the right temperature, water features and great photo opportunities.

After Natureland the natural path goes along the café for those in need of a break and then onto Cocoon, the indoor discovery centre. Visitors start with the upstairs exhibition area first, which features nice interactive displays to learn more about butterflies, including their place in some myths and legends, classification and life cycle. My favorite is a small back-of-house type room, where visitors can learn about butterfly breeding with actual breeding going on. Before going down visitors can sit in a cinema room, which is showing a BBC Earth movie. I guess it is more aimed at the school groups market.

The lower part of Cocoon is dedicated to a very cool crawling insects themed exhibition area featuring a dedicated ants room and another room for snails, beetles, etc featuring great jewel tanks placed inside fake tree trunks.

The last exhibition area put me a bit off. It looks like a very themed children museum, where each of the 5 small rooms teaches things about butterflies in association with a theme e.g. a bridal shop, a toy store, a candy store, etc. I guess this is meant more for kids but my childhood must be very far now because I really didn’t understand much of what was going on. I’d be interested to know if kids actually engage. Maybe I’ll learn something about how to create kids exhibitions!

Then it’s classic: a nice big store before the exit, and even a specialty store for nature enthusiasts with material for terrarium, etc: great idea to engage the community.

Overall the experience is world-class and I have to congratulate the staff on a great and visibly passionate attitude as well as a strong attention to details, which results in a very clean and well maintained facility.

I mentioned earlier what struck me at Taiping Zoo was the sense of generosity given by the place and its operator. Well, I find the same applies to Entopia. Just look at how full the entertainment program is and you will feel there’s more than you need or expect. So maybe generosity is one of the keys to success for our industry in the region? Good thing I’m feeling generous in 2017!

REVIEW: Vinpearl Safari Park, Phu Quoc, Vietnam

In a series of reviews of zoos and safari parks here is Vietnam’s first and only safari park, recently opened on Phu Quoc Island by Vingroup.

A bit of background first. For the readers who don’t know Vingroup, it is the Wanda of Vietnam, the country’s largest developer and now a well-diversified conglomerate. Strong from the success of their first integrated resort (opened in 2004) in Nha Trang, featuring a cable car, aquarium, water park, amusement park and marine park, they embarked on a more ambitious project in Phu Quoc featuring an amusement park, water park, night spectacular and a safari park.

Phu Quoc has been earmarked as the Phuket of Vietnam but the destination has been struggling to develop – mostly because of environmental and manpower issues – when Danang soared and became in less than 10 years the leading beach destination in Vietnam. An example of such environmental issues is the very poor waste treatment; we had to drive past open-air waste collection along the main road to reach the safari!

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Following the opening of Vinpearl Land will be the opening of Sun Group’s own integrated resort as well as the Grand World casino project under construction next to Vinpearl. This will be the end of the charming Phu Quoc island where all you could see were fishermen villages, nuoc mam factories and pepper plantations, and the beginning of yet another global tourism destination probably very Asia-focused i.e. Vietnamese domestic, Mainland Chinese, Taiwanese, Koreans, etc. The island already welcomes more than 1million visitors p.a. and direct international flights to China and Singapore will start in 2017.

We visited Vinpearl Safari Park on Sunday 1st January 2017, which was a very busy day for the park. There were a majority of Vietnamese visitors (mostly in groups) despite a high ticket price (VND500,000 or US$22) and only a few foreigners (Mainland Chinese, Russian). The type of tourists who can afford a holiday in Phu Quoc – where hotels charge minimum US$100 per night – can probably afford such ticket price. Vingroup clearly doesn’t target school groups or Vietnamese middle class families.

As we walked into the park we were greeted by English-speaking staff, who informed us we could wait for a shuttle to take us to the safari bus or walk around the zoo for about 1km, which could take us up to 2hours. We decided to go have a look at the zoo to get our money worth!

The zoo is very average for a new zoo. It does not adopt any of the new design approach. There is not much shade and the landscape is very boring as they have not made much effort to enhance the rather poor native forest, which can be found around Phu Quoc. Rock work is very basic and not very well executed. The attempt to provide an audio system failed and there is only one area with soundscape: in one of the aviaries, which is much nicer as a result. Everything is visible: keeping facilities, pipes, pumps, feeding containers, etc. Another mistake is the size of the enclosures, which is too big and therefore it is hard to see the animals, when on top of that there is acrylic or fencing between you and the animals.

After more than an hour walking in the heat of the zoo we finally made it to the start of the safari journey. Big disappointment: the vehicles are normal transportation buses like the ones you can see in the city, with people standing in the middle as they were packed on the day of our visit.

The 30min safari journey took us through a few large (and bare) enclosures where we saw tigers, lions, rhinos, ostriches, antelopes, a bunch of young giraffes and lots of zebras. The guide spoke Vietnamese, English and Chinese; she was giving very basic info and she was not much of an entertainer.

Speaking of entertainment, there was very little show component. When we arrived there were supposed to be black African performers in costumes to greet visitors but it felt very awkward, as nobody really knew what to do, neither the performers nor the visitors. The only other form of entertainment is the animal show located near the entrance, which we didn’t go to.

Vinpearl Safari Park seemed to meet the expectations of its visitors but overall I found it sad. There was no magic, which I would expect from an animal-based attraction. There was no life either and it felt the people owning and operating it had no real passion for wildlife. It makes me feel a bit angry actually. It is small things; like landscaping, enclosure design, animal shows, etc. They don’t cost much and yet they make such a big difference. Why bother investing so much money to deliver a very average experience, which will be neither memorable nor educational when you could make it so much better for the same investment? Wait, I think I know the answer: because the owner and operator is a real estate developer!?