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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REVIEW: Fear the Walking Dead Survival, Fremont Street Experience, Downtown Las Vegas

On my recent trip to Las Vegas I headed up to where it all started – Fremont Street – to experience their newest attraction: Fear the Walking Dead Survival.

For those who don’t know Vegas this is an area a bit less glitzy than the Strip (a lot less actually!) but which has been undergoing major redevelopment in an attempt to attract young adults. Fremont Street Experience consisted in covering the entire street with a giant LED canopy, which comes alive at night with music, live performances and all sorts of events. It houses the famous Slotzilla zipline, which takes people the whole length of the canopy. And Fear the Walking Dead Survival is by the same operator.

When I checked online the website offered to buy tickets for one of the 20min slots running from 1pm to 12am (clearly nobody would want to go to Fremont Street before 1pm!). All slots showed still available (total 36pax) before heading out so I figured it would be OK to buy on the spot, and it was. I paid $32.

There were a total of 15 people in our slot, that’s almost half of full capacity. Not bad for 4.30PM on a week day. And it was all young adults in groups of two or four. Right on target audience!

After splitting us in two groups, the experience started with a briefing by a military personnel followed by picture taking and QR code reading (for us to buy pictures at the end of the attraction), sanitization and scanning before the next briefing by military personnel. Our group was then split again into 2 small escape rooms where we had to solve a simple challenge to open the door. A nurse was waiting for us to rush us to a lift (a moving platform) after which we ended up in the dark following a few ‘haunted’ corridors to the final room: the 3D shooting game (by Triotech). Once complete we exited where we started and of course we were offered to purchase pictures.

Sorry that was quite a quick description but that’s basically what happened: a succession of proven attractions concept (escape room, haunted house, 3D shooting) to support a simple (but effective) storyline and leave you on a high with the feeling it’s worth your $32!

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Surprisingly I did have a good time! I had no idea about the Walking Dead franchise but I thought the live actors and the excellent theming delivered an experience that felt genuine. I liked the fact that I had some interaction with other people in the group that I didn’t know before. I liked that technology was used to serve an immersive experience. Overall Triotech successfully found a new way to sell their 3D shooting game, which otherwise can feel quite dated and a bit boring.

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

REVIEW: Bollywood Parks, Dubai

Let’s start with a bit of context. I visited on a Sunday (work day in Dubai) only 3 days after opening of the park. I took the red line from the city centre all the way to the end and caught a taxi (AED35), which took me there in less than 10 minutes. The road, signage and landscape approaching Dubai Parks & Resorts are as good as Walt Disney World in Orlando! The taxi drop off is at the beginning of the themed Riverland dining & shopping village, which is very similar to Shanghai Disneyland’s village. I ate a cheeseburger menu (AED30) at one of the most expensive McDonald’s featuring the latest in design and service (touch screen, staff offering desserts at the table, etc).

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Bollywood Parks was not opening before 2pm so I had time to walk around the new nearby Outlet Village and get a glimpse of the Lapita hotel and the 2 other parks: LEGOLAND (open) and Motiongate (opening Dec 2016). The entire site is still more or less under construction but you can tell it will look fantastic when it’s all done!

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I had purchased (or attempted to purchase) my ticket online but there was a small hiccup and I never received my confirmation (apparently they are having issues with their online ticketing in some countries). After 3 emails and 1 call I was still not able to get to the bottom of it but I won’t bore you with the details. These things happen when you open. The most important is that the team (and Guest Service Manager Hessa) was able to deal with me and make me feel welcome, and even a bit special!

So as one would expect Bollywood Parks is really about the sing & dance; the number of rides is limited so if you want the thrill you will be better served at the nearby Motiongate or the future Six Flags (opening 2019).

To get it out of the way here is a quick review of the 3 rides and 1 attraction open on the day of my visit.

  • Lagaan: Thrill of Victory is a motion simulator, which takes you on a roller coaster ride (literally) in the imaginary world of wooden puppets hitting a cricket ball: you! The choice of going without 3D glasses gives justice to some of the most beautiful visuals I have seen since Arthur: the 4D Adventure at Futuroscope; so poetic it makes you smile when the ball (you) rebounds onto parachutes showing portraits of the Lagaan movie stars.
  • Sholay: The Hunt for Gabbar Singh is a good quality 3D shooting dark ride where you will enjoy being thrown odd things at and shoot them: bottles, grenades, fruits, etc
  • One Unleashed is a 5D cinema featuring a great preshow with a live actor turning into a hologram. The movie is of good quality, the storyline is very efficient and the 5D effects are well synchronized, not too many and including some nice scented effects. Of course having Shah Rukh Khan in the cast helps!
  • Cinemagic featuring Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara was my favorite attraction and probably the most ‘on brand’. This 30min journey in the making of a movie trailer is hosted by a wonderful live actress. It involves a lot of audience participation and it is run at a perfect pace. People loved it and told me they felt they stepped into the world of movie-making for the time of the show. Hats off to the crew! Another example showing there’s nothing better than true audience participation and sharing a moment together with your friends/family or even people you don’t know.

There are another 2 rides but they were closed when I visited. Don: The Chase is a dark ride on tracks and and Krrish is a soarin-type ride. That’s it my friends: 5 rides and 1 attraction for this brand new park!

The overall layout, theming, landscape (with water features) and soundscape are all very well done and although the park was still quiet when I visited I could tell it will be very nice as soon as it gets a bit busier. The only little hitch is the view over the LEGOLAND water park from some of the areas in the park; not good!

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The Retail and F&B are on the light side. They will need to improve if they want to milk that cow! And this is where I think IMG Worlds of Adventure is doing a better job. A lot of the retail is based on the film franchises the park has but I wonder how strong they are for people to buy souvenirs and how will they take advantage of future Bollywood hits?

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Now let me tell you about the shows because that’s really why you want to go visit Bollywood Parks. Starting from 3.30pm it’s non-stop in various areas of the park. You will be running from one stage to another and you won’t even notice the night falling! My favorite was BP Remixed, which was a mix of some of the most famous movie songs featuring a Shah Rukh Khan look-alike. Good fun.

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Crew members are having as much fun as you are and it makes for a great staff interaction. I couldn’t help but to start a conversation with a few of them. They were all passionate about the park and of course about Bollywood movies! They told me more than 60% of the staff was from India and that’s why it feels so good! In general staff came across a lot more friendly and professional than IMG Worlds of Adventure I had visited the day before. Later I was told all the management went through a dedicated college course and some of them even got sent to Orlando to train. That explains.

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Bollywood Parks is much better seen at night when the magic of music, dance and lights falls on the beautiful setting of the park. The team at Dubai Parks & Resorts understood it and it is clear they want visitors to come late, which explains the Dabang Stunt Spectacular show programmed at 7.30pm, the first resident Broadway-style Bollywood musical in the UAE at Rajmahal Theatre (separate ticket) located in the heart of the park and the Rock On!! Stage restaurant and night club open until 2am. I am not sure what the experience would be for someone who comes at 10am when the shows have not started yet and the only way to escape the heat is by doing the only 6 rides and attractions in the park!?

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So in summary Bollywood Parks is a small park but well themed, well executed and full of energy and action to be experienced at night, which I believe will be a hit with locals and visiting Indians! I spoke with 2 couples whom I saw repeatedly around the park, one from Hyderabad, India and the other from Saudi Arabia; I thought that was quite representative!

A few questions I am asking myself though. Would this work better in India? When you see how passionate the staff is and when you’ve experienced service in some of the hotels in India, you would think this is something they can pull together over there and the market would be a lot bigger. Also, is Dubai the right location? Are there enough leisure visitors? The slow start of IMG Worlds of Adventure is not a good sign; let’s see how Dubai Parks & Resorts does.

My first aquarium

As a consultant in the themed attractions industry I get to work on a wide variety of projects from theme parks to museums but I hadn’t worked on an aquarium project until one came up last year in Jakarta.

For my client Taman Safari I started working a year ago on a development plan to establish the group as Indonesia’s leading wildlife attractions operator, recognized for the quality of its conservation and education programs. We identified aquariums as a natural extension of the existing business and at the very same time were approached to take over a project in the basement of Neo Soho mall in the very heart of Jakarta. Perfect timing!

After conducting some due diligence and identifying the project had a high potential, we conducted a feasibility study and some market research to establish a preliminary design brief. After meeting the various turn-key aquarium designers we realized we had to take a different approach if we wanted to build something unique for our market. So we decided to pull together some of the best talents from different horizons (James Peterson, Jon Coe, Judy Rand, and Peter Wilson), put them in a room and ask them to imagine a ‘new generation’ boutique aquarium. The outcome was a very rich and inspiring document, which became our ‘bible’, clearly defining what the Jakarta Aquarium should be and which we are still following to this date.

Taking from the rich heritage of Taman Safari Group, their values of conservation and education, the amazing biodiversity of Indonesian seas and the need for ‘escapism’ from a growing urban population in Jakarta we came up with a storyline around the Depth of Indonesia, which describes both the unique interactive and learning experience as well as the focus on Indonesia’s islands and waters. In addition to some very well curated tanks showing the great biodiversity of Indonesia’s marine life we wanted to introduce elements you would not necessarily expect in an aquarium such as arts installations, kids play areas and a signature live cultural show, which we believe will be a huge hit. The design team has been working hard on addressing the needs of a new generation of aquarium visitors, including the ‘plurals’ (kids born with a mobile device), who demand an interactive, multi-dimensional, and largely self-guided experience.

Construction started a few months ago and we are on a very tight schedule for an opening in December this year. All consultants including Perculas for tanks and LSS,  Aquablu for husbandry, Kingsmen for thematic, Magian for A/V and Peter Wilson for show production are working in good spirit, excited about bringing something new to Indonesia and about the perspectives ahead… maybe a second aquarium for me!

The vast majority of visitors will be families from Jakarta and more specifically from North and West Jakarta, where a huge middle / upper middle class currently lives. Second would be school groups since Jakarta Aquarium will be Jakarta’s only aquarium (SeaWorld shut down recently) offering great education programs. And third would be tourists to Jakarta and mostly from the rest of Indonesia as Jakarta gets over 30 million domestic tourists yearly. We intend to position Jakarta Aquarium as one of the top 3 ‘things-to-do’ for tourists in Jakarta.

We are lucky that the aquarium is probably in the best location in Jakarta as part of a huge development with foot traffic expected to exceed 5 million a month. We think we can reach 1 million visitors p.a. at the aquarium, which allows us to charge around USD10 and still get good returns. We have also worked on maximizing additional revenues. Our retail store and 4D theatre will be with direct access and frontage to the mall. We are also developing a penguin-themed restaurant with one of Indonesia’s most popular chefs, which will become one of the most thought-after restaurants in the mall.

For more information stay tuned!

And before I end this post I would like to thank Steph, Hans, Josua, Peter and John for giving me the opportunity to work with them on this existing project.