Sunday, 28 August 2011

Busch Gardens Williamsburg and the use of theming to appeal to audience

Busch Gardens Williamsburg is a very well renowned park, and I could sit here and tell you all the things you’ve heard before, but I’m not because that would be boring. BGW is a really strange park that has interested me for quite some time. Even prior to visiting, I could see they do things really quite differently there.  After visiting several times, researching and writing about the park in my dissertation, I only confirmed my initial observations. I’ve faced people telling me I’m wrong or just looking at me confused for years, so I thought it was about time I collected all my thoughts on this strange but brilliant park together in one place, instead of fragmented bits around various internet forums. So here's some theoretical ramblings on Busch Gardens Williamsburg...

BGW is a completely different experience than the other parks in the chain. In fact, the Tampa Bay park with which more people are familiar is so different it’s hard for me to think of them as being part of the same chain.  It’s so weird, because they even employed the copy and paste “it worked there so lets do it there” type approach, they have a similar set of rides and experiences on offer at both parks. So why are they so different? The answer is, quite obviously, audience. The parks, despite similar basic “hardware” (for want of a better term, I’m referring to the physical rides themselves, the other attractions such as zoo exhibits) have dressed them completely differently.  Tampa has a wider cultural audience to please, since Williamsburg attracts almost exclusively Americans, but more importantly it needs to draw people away from the Disney and Universal complex and offer something very different. Its draw is predominantly large roller coasters. And, despite Williamsburg having the same basic hardware, its local competition is a park that far more successfully caters to the thrill seeker audience. Kings Dominion may not offer the quality of rides we see at Busch, but it does undoubtedly offer more in terms of quantity and thrill level. But BGW isn’t after that audience, it’s catering to families.

Comparing the Busch parks demonstrates perhaps the world’s greatest example of why theming matters. Before we go any further, lets point out that when I say “theming” I mean anything that isn’t the basic hardware of a ride. That includes name, colour, scenery, landscaping, signage, etc – anything that contributes to creating a “theme”. Too many people seem to think it only refers to physical fake stuff. Disney-style theming is rare and because of this we see little evidence that a fully immersive experience gets guests to spend more, and so little evidence it’s important. Without the brand image behind Disney, would it work? I’m not sure. But the aspect of theming that undoubtedly works is the same aspect we see on packaging and advertising - catering through the use of theme a product to an audience. 

Lets think about chocolate for a moment. A product typically associated with kids or women depending on brand and packaging, but you can easily target it at grown men, in the case of Yorkie. Some chocolate is targeting at posh dinner parties, some at Valentines Day gifts, etc. Possibilities are endless because it’s not the product that defines its audience, it’s the marketing. This is no different at a theme park. That said, I have long argued that rides that utilise their features are rides that work best. If your ride is tall, use that height thematically. If your ride is about falling, use that sensation thematically.  Use strengths, not weaknesses, to create and enhance experience.  The best concept is usually one that speaks for itself, the one that people just get.

There are endless examples of rides that do utilise their features and rides that don’t. Sometimes it’s clearly a conscious decision, other times it’s just ignorance to the importance of all this – its usually obvious which. Most thrill rides use their thrilling aspect to produce a theme that enhances that thrill. It’s usually a negative connotation to insight fear, or one that implies great power. Oblivion, Kraken, Behemoth, Intimidator, Raptor, Beast, something to do with dragons, monsters, superheroes and other manly men and boys stuff - Grr! And the elements these rides enhance are usually things like force, falling, death-defying feats, etc. Oblivion uses the fact that you cannot see where the ride car goes as it plummets vertically down to create fear. Kraken is a sprawling mess that resembles a sea serpent. Behemoth and Intimidator are… well.. tall, and that’s about fear of heights and falling. You get the gist.

It’s not unheard of for rides to do the opposite, but it’s rare. Why? Because it’s far harder to make someone smile than to scare them shitless… And because roller coasters are typically for thrill seekers. You’d have to have a really good reason, and do it really well to pull off marketing what is essentially thrill ride hardware to a more timid audience, who might think riding the ghost train was brave. Why would you waste the money on something like a roller coaster, when you can thrill them with something far smaller and less costly? The over used example is Air at Alton Towers. Being the worlds first flying B&M, it made sense to draw as much attention as possible to that aspect of the ride, like Oblivion before it. Its theme was not originally planned to convey gentle, graceful flying. Alton had a problem; this ride wasn’t going to be very tall. I’m guessing that theming it could make all the difference from a ride that just looks pathetic, to something people want to travel to go on. They utilised what the hardware gave and produced a theme so magical, it opened up a whole new experience of theme park attraction to those intimidated by the likes of Nemesis and Oblivion. Air isn’t particularly thrilling, but it’s certainly more thrilling than it conveys through its theme.  The real magic of this ride is that it doesn’t put off thrill seekers, either. It’s a theme that applies to all. Thrill seekers look at it and, whilst it’s certainly no Nemesis, they still see a big roller coaster with an interesting added element o the flying position. Others look at it and see a very graceful flying machine. It’s, to this day, the only large roller coaster my mum will go on, and her reasoning is really quite simple… She didn’t see a ride which was going to throw her around forcefully, drop her or make her jump, she saw the chance to experience flying. She doesn’t like the backwards dive much, because that is very much a “falling sensation” (best bit, in my opinion!), but had it been marketed as one she’d never have gone on it to start with.

So what’s all this got to do with Busch Gardens Williamsburg anyway? Absolutely everything. They have, through theming, dumbed down all of their roller coasters. Not just one for the sake of conveying an unusual experience like Air, but all of them. The family theme park has put a huge emphasis on being a family friendly environment, not wanting to attract thrill seekers, but allow thrill seeking family members something to do and perhaps encourage those less brave onto big scary 200ft pieces of hardware. What’s interesting is that despite their odd thematic choices they are very successful. I think, in a strange way, they are proving that the key to bringing guests through the gates is adding big major attractions. Too many “family parks” around the world make the mistake of not adding large-scale thrill attractions, when they are ultimately the moneymakers when you lack a brand such as Disney behind you. What BGW have done is introduce these large investments, but be careful to not turn off their core market of families through the use of theming.  Their fantastical, childish themes and delicate colour schemes convey something rather different that what you’d usually throw at the sceptical adult audience who typically ride these things. They’ve taken thrill ride hardware and made it suitable for all who are tall enough to ride it and I wonder, do they get a wider variety of people actually riding their coasters, as is clear with Air? It goes further than just getting them in the queue though, as the park further attempts to engage the widest possible audience with it’s landscaping. Griffon is the best example, where a feature is made out of its first drop with that fantastic viewing bridge and splashdown element. So even if you aren’t brave enough to ride, you can sit and watch and enjoy it that way. Its always seemed strange to me that Griffon is one of the least intimidating large roller coasters I’ve been on, yet it’s smaller sister, Oblivion at Alton Towers, is possibly one of the most intimidating rides in the world. Griffon is a baby blue in colour and everything about its visuals suggests a calm riding experience - except the fact that it’s got a 200ft vertical drop. It even moves gracefully down it, somehow, and around it’s first majestic inversion. The strangest thing is, it is a tame ride experience, and I do wonder how much of that is subjective?

I think I get why BGW does what they do, but that doesn’t stop it being weird. It’s nice to have a park take an unusual approach, and especially nice to see it so well from it.  The strange thing is how so few people seem to notice its weirdness, or learn anything from it. I get so frustrated with a certain family park in the UK that seems adamant in copying everything from the Busch parks except the one thing that is making them so successful, thrill ride investments!  The fact that there is a park down the road with thrill rides is not important, what is important is how to dress and market your attractions! …Or maybe I’m wrong, but that’s what I’m seeing.

One thing that BGW has done which I fail to get, however, is Mach Tower. At the start of this I said the park was weird and perhaps the way in which they are weirdest is their adamant avoidance of Intamin. I’ve heard numerous rumours as to why the park hates Intamin so much, but it still seems odd that whilst BGT go ahead and install an Intamin roller coaster, BGW buy a drop tower and coaster from two lesser known companies.  Mach Tower confuses me for a number of reasons, firstly… why get a drop tower at all? Kings Dominion has one, they are the most thrilling ride experience on the market and they are difficult to theme because they do one thing and come in one shape. When I heard they were getting one, I expected an indoors family-friendly one, such as the one at Phantasialand. To add to the weirdness, it’s theme is apparently… that it’s a may pole? I don’t get it, may day isn’t cool or scary! Such a weird ride choice, manufacturer choice and theme choice. But you know, I think it’s just an extreme version of the deal with Griffon and Air. Are they, however unsuccessful it may be, trying to encourage a wider audience on board what is actually a very intimidating piece of hardware? And from what I hear, it is also quite tame ride. It does make me wonder.

Anyway, I hope that wasn’t too theoretical for you all. I’d love to hear your thoughts! Am I looking too deeply into this? Am I wrong?

If you’d like to read more on my thoughts regarding Busch Gardens Williamsburg, including a comparison with Alton Towers, check out the section on theme parks in my dissertation “Themed Environments”. Maybe I should actually write a less theoretical review of this wonderful park at some point, too.


  1. BGW is a very unique park! I also agree that Mach Tower was an odd choice, but I am glad to see them choosing different manufactures than Intamin for the sole purpose of seeing what other companies can bring to the table.

  2. Very interesting post! I've not been to BGW but maybe someday we'll make it over there.

    PS: Thanks for the link!