Universal Studios Florida is the laughingstock of the theme-park industry.
The park's signature e-ticket addition this year, the modest yet multimedia Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit coaster, has yet to open. There have been problems with the anti-rollback mechanism on the 90-degree lift hill. One of the trains failed to make it around the track during a test run last week.
None of these problems is fatal for the coaster, but it does mean the new ride missed its planned springtime debut. Corrections, adjustments, and required testing are now pushing the eventual opening to later this month -- if the park is lucky.
Too bad, because Universal Studios Florida -- a park jointly owned by Blackstone Group
Most Florida schools have been out since the first week of June. They also get going again earlier than schools do in most of the country, with classes resuming by mid-August. Universal Studios Florida really blew it this time.
But I'm not going to join the boobirds.
Some things are worth the wait
See, this coaster is going to be a lot more important to the industry than anyone thinks. Every patron can customize the ride's soundtrack and get a personalized video of the experience. The allure is obvious at first glance:
- Personal touchscreens in every seat allow guests to choose one of 25 songs from different genres. There will be a huge re-ride factor as guests cycle through the various songs.
- The park will make a mint selling videos of the ride, with every seat having its own video camera.
- Merchandising can be huge, especially if the park goes beyond offering traditional T-shirts and water bottles to featuring CDs or digital download vouchers for the songs incorporated into the ride.
These features alone make the delays bearable. Universal Studios Florida is also a year-round park, so it's not the slave to summertime that you see in regional parks operated by Cedar Fair
However, the customization screens have me thinking even harder about the future. This is something that even the Willy Wonka-esque fantasy spinners at Disney
After all, aren't these song-selection screens the equivalent of fast-moving ballot boxes? Isn't this fertile soil for data mining?
Let's start digging
Can a coaster do that? Well, not yet. Anonymous riders are choosing just one of 25 songs and little else. It's easy to see Universal Studios Florida eventually populating the selections with artists that it's thinking about inviting to play during the following summer's concert series. In that case, riders would be able to vote in their choices, and Universal would know that it has secured popular artists. The musical acts being considered will encourage fans to go to the park and ride. It's a viral "rider's choice" winner.
However, isn't this where the data mining starts? It won't be long before guests can swipe cards to identify who they are. The park can offer up benefits such as Web-based ride counts or in-park merchandise discounts, but this is also a loyalty program in disguise that will give the park a better grasp of park-goers' behavior.
The adjacent Islands of Adventure theme park -- also owned by Blackstone and Universal -- will open a Harry Potter-themed land next year. One of the rumored attractions is an interactive experience similar to the MagiQuest fantasy game you see at Great Wolf Resorts
Once a system goes park-wide, it won't be long before the park finds out where someone is likely to eat or what park merchandise he or she is likely to buy, based on a few more data points beyond ride or song preferences. The park can then promote or discount accordingly.
Some of the more successful parks in the country draw millions of guests a year through their turnstiles. They are a captive audience for several hours. Why waste the potential?
We've seen smartphones. Are we about to see the dawning of smartparks?
Hop on some of these other industry rides:
Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz enjoys taking his family on coaster treks over the summer. He owns shares in Disney 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.