I spent most of the past two weeks in Orlando, Fla. It's Theme Park Central, between Disney's (NYSE: DIS ) magnetic resort and marquee parks in the Anheuser-Busch (NYSE: BUD ) and NBC Universal chains.
These are the big boys, the destinations that can spend liberally because they are open year-round. Disney's Magic Kingdom drew nearly 17 million guests through its turnstiles last year, and that's just one of its four parks. In fact, seven of the country's nine more popular parks lie within miles of one another in the heart of Florida.
Regional operators can't match the capital investments that the Disneys and the Universals are doling out. They serve thriftier penny-pinching locals and have seasons truncated by weather and school calendars. However, this doesn't mean they can't learn from watching the big boys respond to consumer trends and audience demands.
In fact, going by Six Flags (NYSE: SIX ) snapping up of a significant stake in Dick Clark's DCPI empire yesterday and Cedar Fair's (NYSE: FUN ) acquisition of the Paramount Parks properties last year, I'd say the regional amusement park players are already starting to think bigger than they appear to be.
Let's go over a few of the unmistakable tendencies that will come to define the park of tomorrow.
Tomorrow's theme park will be perpetually fresh. In the past, this has meant investing in new E-ticket attractions to win back jaded parkgoers. That will continue, yet fiscally prudent operators will find ways to make old attractions feel new.
You see this at Disney-MGM, where every few years bring programming enhancements to its Twilight Zone Tower of Terror free-fall ride. Packing a broader variety of thrills within the same ride motivates guests to come back soon.
You also see this in more immersive rides, like Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin at the Magic Kingdom and Men in Black: Alien Attack at Universal Studios Florida. Riders board slow-moving vehicles, armed with laser guns. Moving shooting galleries aren't exclusive to the year-round parks. Several smaller parks like Holiday World and Lake Compounce have similar, simpler versions. The key is that riders receive individual scores, encouraging competition and the desire to get back in line and beat their top scores.
Men in Black: Alien Attack is the gold standard here. Cars can shoot other vehicles, making them spin. The ride's ending is also based on how well your entire car scores. If you've never been fitted for "the last suit you'll ever wear," take my eldest son for a spin.
The bar may be raised even higher when Disney rolls out a Toy Story-themed moving shooting gallery attraction next year.
Disney World's newest attraction is Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor. It's a perpetually running show in the Magic Kingdom that seems unassuming at first. Then the pre-show starts and audience members are encouraged to text in their favorite jokes.
Submitted jokes that make the cut become part of the show where audience members are singled out for improvisational comedy bits. The catch here is that guests aren't being entertained by live performers. Instead, the stars are animated characters, rendered on the fly as voice actors work backstage during the interactive segments.
It's clever, and it's a natural extension of the talking decorative fountain that spews water and playful banter at Islands of Adventure's The Lost Continent and the Turtle Talk with Crush show at Disney's EPCOT.
Smaller parks may not have the financial resources to match the Orlando offerings on a technological basis, but that is why the DCPI purchase by Six Flags is so intriguing. Armed with the company behind the American Music Awards, American Bandstand, and the Golden Globes, interactive stage entertainment can now be branded by an owned brand at Six Flags.
I was actually surprised to see shares of Six Flags dip slightly yesterday on the DCPI news, which has some pretty exciting implications and applications in the future.
Personalization be thy name
Diversity was never an amusement park's strong suit. Sure, there's a plethora of attractions and diversions available, but a day at the park for a young family often involves splitting up so toddlers can go on the kiddie rides while the thrill-seekers head out to the scream machines.
Passive guests go one way. Active riders go another. Tomorrow's theme park will be different. There will be even more layers of customization. You see it already in Disney's EPCOT. Sure, the majority of the guests will scramble for the E-ticket thrill rides after the 9 a.m. ceremonial opening. However, what happens after that is pretty interesting.
Foodies eventually work their way to the sit-down restaurants in the countries. Pin-traders strike up conversations with Disney cast members to swap pins. Oenophiles sample the libations in the countries, while pop-aholics make the most of the free international soft-drink dispensers at Coca-Cola's (NYSE: KO ) Club Station Cool. Everyone walks in with different expectations, and that's important in these fickle times where everyone wields veto power.
A bigger trend seen lately is a guest caste system. Guests staying at Disney World resorts have certain parks open earlier and later for them. Universal resort guests can bypass long lines, or day guests can pay up for that privilege. It may be an unpopular move for the masses -- sanctioned line-cutting, if you will -- but don't expect it to go away anytime soon. Ride reservation systems and VIP experiences attract a moneyed clientele that will typically spend more at the park.
Is it right? Is it just? That's a debate for another time. The point is that the future of the theme park industry entails ever-changing, interactive, and personalized experiences. In many ways, tomorrow's park is already here today.
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Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz enjoys taking his family on coaster treks over the summer. He does own Disney shares and units in Cedar Fair. He is also part of the Rule Breakers newsletter research team, seeking out tomorrow's ultimate growth stocks a day early. The Fool has a disclosure policy.