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.

Malaysia, the Orlando of Asia

When I first read the phrase ‘Malaysia, the Orlando of Asia’ referring to the Singapore-Johor corridor in a report from ECA I was a bit surprised and thought it was maybe a bit exaggerated. Universal Studios Singapore and LEGOLAND Malaysia combined are attracting fewer visitors than one single theme park in Orlando.

I have been spending a lot of time in Malaysia in the past year and I thought I would look into this phrase again, from a different perspective.

And yes, I think Malaysia is probably the Orlando of Asia but not so much for the number of theme parks and their attendance – Hong Kong for example beats Malaysia big time – but because it is where the future of our industry in Asia is being shaped. Let me explain why.

Recently I was having lunch with Aaron Soo (former CEO of Sunway Lagoon), who was back in Malaysia for a few days after having opened Wanda’s first indoor movie park in Wuhan, China. We started speaking about all the good things happening in or out of Malaysia:

  • First, Galasys is on its way to revolutionizing theme park ticketing with their cloud-based “Intelligent Tourism” concept; something that has been recognized by the founder of alibaba, who recently took a stake in the company;
  • RSG, the company behind Movie Animation Park Studios, managed to signed up both DreamWorks and The Smurfs for Asia’s first animation theme park, which is about to give sleepy Ipoh a serious shake;
  • The same RSG just announced a partnership with French video game publisher Ubisoft to build in Kuala Lumpur the world’s first next gen theme park where “every guest is a player, every ride is a playground, every visit is a game”
  • Actually, theme parks in Malaysia have recently become the first stepping stone into Asia’s Location Based Entertainment (LBE) for the world’s best entertainment brands (LEGOLAND, Hello Kitty, Thomas & Friends, Nickelodeon and 20th Century Fox) and even local brands (Malaysia’s animation sensation BoBoiBoy);
  • In the aquarium world, home-grown Aquaria will be expanding in Phuket in a partnership with the Central Group; and
  • Let’s not forget some of Singapore’s biggest attractions are actually Malaysian owned: Universal Studios (Genting) and KidZania (TAR)

We have Genting to thank for; they really started the Malaysian family entertainment industry 40 years ago with their first resort up in Genting Highlands. They were among the first to bring to Asia concepts such as a themed hotel or a large indoor theme park with First World Plaza featuring one of Asia’s first Ripley’s Believe it or Not museums.

But maybe more importantly it’s the people. Malaysia has a great pool of people who are well trained (they have often studied overseas) and know how to run international standard theme parks. They export very well and this is why you find them in Manila, Macau and everywhere in China (it’s an easy move for Malaysian Chinese in particular). But recently Malaysia has begun to attract industry people from other countries, seduced by innovative companies such as Galasys and RSG, and you can feel the energy; it’s all happening.

If you think of Orlando as a sunny place, which is home of innovative companies such as SeaWorld Entertainment, Ripley’s and countless design studios and ride manufacturers, Malaysia could very well become the Orlando of Asia. It already has the sun and a few emerging innovative operators! It just needs more studios and suppliers.

So if you too want to shape the future of our industry in Asia, join the party and move to Malaysia, the Orlando of Asia!

REVIEW: LEGOLAND Malaysia Resort

On 21st September I paid a long overdue visit to LEGOLAND Malaysia Resort. Opened in 2012 as Malaysia’s first international theme park it is now flanked by a waterpark and a 250-room hotel thus the name ‘resort’.

Well, to call it resort is a bit of a stretch. The complex is surrounded by construction works in the middle of nowhere, about 25km from Johor Bahru town centre; not really what I would call a resort location!

OK, enough negativism for this introduction; but I had to share this first impression I had when I got there (by public bus, that’s another story I will spare you); I was a bit scared I must admit. In fact, I had a good time and let me tell you why.

I will start by stating the obvious: it is an international theme park. And that in itself is quite a draw in Malaysia where, despite being one of the most developed country in the region, the level of quality (and maintenance) is not always up to expectations.

I had purchased my ticket online the day before (USD 45), which is quite high for Malaysia. Of course no discounts available the day before; Merlin Entertainments know their revenue management! I thought I could use the bar code on my mobile but that was not the case so I had to go to the ticketing counter first to redeem my ticket. Thankfully there was no queue.

Speaking of it; I must admit I was surprised by how quiet the park was for a Sunday, during School Holidays and just after the opening of Star Wars Miniland (supported by an advertising campaign). I would say at least 30% of the visitors where from Australia or the US and looked like theme park regulars (maybe living in Singapore), and the rest were Malaysian families with young children.

I started my visit naturally walking around the circular path, which would take me from Lego City to Land of Adventure, Imagination, Lego Kingdoms and finally Lego Technic. Visitor flow and signage are very well done; it’s impossible to miss any attraction. Also, I thought there was just the right amount of food & beverage kiosks and redemption games along the way, creating a nice sense of happening without being overwhelming.

Although I did not have food at the park I had a look at all their outlets and they looked appetizing as well as clean and well maintained. The choice of food is mostly international with only one Asian outlet. I wonder why they made this choice? I would have expected more demand for Asian food.

I was very impressed by the attention to details in the theming and the landscape; the park is full of surprises and funny things such as this old man snoring on a bench! It makes it fun and creates the magic that one would expect from a theme park.

The best ride is by far The Dragon, which is the main roller coaster of the park and boasts a nicely themed queuing area (inside the Lego castle) and dark area at the beginning of the coaster. Maybank is the ride sponsor and I found the brand integration very well done (Maybank logo is turned into a coat of arms). The same goes with the other park’s sponsors (Nissan, Coca Cola, Ribena, Walls, Canon), which are well taken care of.

On the down side of the product I would list the number of kids playgrounds (maybe 4 or 5), which present not particular interest and as such remained empty. It feels like they serve as fillers but don’t add much to the visitors experience.

The staff were all very nice and helpful; they were everywhere you would expected them to be and engaging visitors, especially kids. Knowing how difficult service training can be in Malaysia I have to take my hat off for the management of the park!

Now, Star Wars Miniland. This new addition to the park, which Merlin claims cost USD 2million is a series of 6 rooms each housing a giant Lego display inspired by the Star Wars video produced by Lego. Great displays if you’re a Star Wars fan but in my opinion a bit repetitive and not very interactive. If you don’t plan to go but still want to have a look you may watch this video I shot.

My final attraction before leaving the park was the Miniland at the centre of the park. Inspired by different locations in Malaysia and Asia, these scenes are very well done and certainly a treat for all Lego fans out there. Unfortunately the tropical Malaysian weather hasn’t been too nice with them and they start aging. I wouldn’t be surprised if the park replaced them by something else in the future.

Verdict? A very pleasant international theme park – and I insist on “theme” as the Lego theming is one of the highlights of the park – but very targeted towards young children and maybe more enjoyable for non-Asian children (food offering, hands-on activities). Not convinced by the product extension trying to cater to an older crowd (Star Wars Miniland). Not sure about the return visitors rate either. For me it was not so much the heat or the lack of shade (actually I thought it was fine and most people I saw seemed fine as well) but the lack of shows and the remote location that would keep me from visiting again.