What makes amusement parks so compelling to kids, tweens, teens?

Posted by Amy Henry on Thu, Mar 22, 2012 @ 11:32 AM

We admit it: this question might not require tons of data and a few highly educated youth experts to answer!

But we’re speaking at Kid Power next week at the Grand Floridian in Disney World, and we have amusement park on our minds! (By the way, there’s still time to register!) Our pending trip to the most magical kingdom got us thinking: what can other brands and organizations learn from the way children of all ages long for a visit to these super-playgrounds?Disney World

  1. The experience begins before it begins...For parents, anticipating a family vacation often includes some anxiety. But for kids, tweens and even the most amusement park-experienced teens, wondering what it will be like (this time, if it’s not their first visit) is part of the excitement, and also part of the tale they’ll eventually tell about their “trip.” Disney’s site lets the traveler prepare and plan, but it also allows youth to rehearse their memories before they happen. This previewing doesn’t only put them in the appropriate mindset for their vacation (looking for the good, not worrying about the worst), but it also immerses them even further in the fantasy before they fly on Peter Pan’s magic boat, or take off on Space Mountain. And social media allows youth and families alike to not only find out about the vacation they’re about to take, but also to share in the excitement with others.
  2. Technology takes a backseat, it doesn’t drive. When the guys at Pixar, who undeniably make the most of technology, talk about their tools, they describe a desire to make it disappear. Don’t panic – they don’t mean to suggest that they’d like to abandon all of the techniques that make their characters look real. Instead, they suggest that technology is done well when you can’t see it – when it does such a great job of helping tell your story that it’s no longer part of the story. If you thought about innovative animation when you think Toy Story, they may not have succeeded in doing their job. Instead, you think about Woody and his loyalty to Andy and his triumphant friendship with Buzz. It’s the same thing at amusement parks – wondering how that ride works might be exciting to the budding engineer, but losing one’s self in the fantasy is much more intriguing. It’s the same with most experiences – technology shouldn’t be the story, but the means of letting the story shine.
  3. Outside voices are allowed!  For today’s children and even teens, there are few places where they can truly run free. Not that we’re advocating unleashing your little ones in an amusement park, but this is one turf on which it’s safe to say that they’re in charge. For parents, a place where children can get a little loud at the dinner table (or snack bar) and where strollers are permitted (even if, as at Disney, you need to valet park your stroller in the lot before you ride), can be just as compelling as the adult-only entertainment options that used to make for a great vacation. Okay, maybe that’s too much. But youth love a place that let’s them feel unencumbered, and sometimes the fenced in, turnstile governed spaces that are amusement parks are, ironically, what allows them to let loose! For brands and particularly organizations, do the experiences you craft for youth and families give them a taste of freedom, or just another set of rules and restrictions?
  4. The details matter. When we think about decisions for our businesses, brands and organizations, we often think about the big picture. In amusement park speak, this might translate to: good rides, available food, convenient parking. But this is hardly what makes an amusement park propel towards mythical status in the minds of youth. It’s the “specialness” and the thoughtfulness that they encounter at every step of a well-imagineered environment. It’s food that fulfills their most fantastic desires. It’s encountering a character walking down Main Street (fulfilling another fantasy: there’s a place where these guys live, and where I might be able to live someday too!). But it’s also the special touches that make an amusement park feel like it exists within its own dimension. For youth, in particular, knowing the nuances often signals that you care enough to cater to them.
  5. The better the fantasy, the more frustrating the fault. Not all lessons from amusement parks are positive ones…A long drive to a park, followed by a bathroom that, well, departs from the fantasy, to a line that requires a ticket, a timeframe for returning and a torturous walk along a path of elevated winding red ropes. With a few kids in tow. In some ways, these inconveniences feel more dramatic and more devastating because of the very fact that they disrupt our fantasies. But this lesson is one that many brands and organizations can learn from – the better your marketing, the more unsatisfying seemingly reasonable shortcomings seem.
  6. The whole family can join in. Finally, we see, over and over again, that this cohort craves time with mom and dad, and occasionally, with their brothers and sisters. They are sentimental about family time in the way that we might associate more with grandmom and grandpop than the youngest members of their tribe. And for all their fantastic elements, the things that might make amusement parks perfect for kids and tweens in particular is the chance to test a roller-coaster with mom or dad by their side, or the luxury of an uninterrupted day of laughing and playing with the people they care about most.

Tags: kids, play, parents, conference, outside, family, free time, Toy Story, kids tweens teens, tweens, Superman

Kids and The Staying Power of Superheroes

Posted by Amy Henry on Fri, Mar 16, 2012 @ 11:57 AM

Super HeroIt’s hard to think about kid culture without thinking about the undying appeal of superheroes. From the classic Marvel heroes and heroines and their iconic foes, to modern day do-gooders like Word Girl (secret power: vocabulary!) and Super Why (secret power: reading!),superheroes seem to find a place in the hearts of kids and in their canon from generation to generation. It’s true that the nature of superheroes tends to change from season to season, from cohort to cohort…Today, superheroes are often seen spruced up by the magical tricks of modern filmmaking, and Superman capes show up on toddler t-shirts, but also in elaborate (albeit, always authentic) form on the men and women of Comic-Con. But there’s something inherent to superheroes in their most basic form that continue to captivate the imagination and the play time of kids in a way that few other motifs and characters can.

  1. They help kids feel bigger than they are. The experience of childhood involves constant reminders of how little power they have in the real world. “Inside voice,” “please, please,” and “hand to yourself” (or even the sweeter exhortation, “hands are for hugging!”) reinforce the fact that kids are constantly being redirected and wrangled in. When they go to the amusement park, they stand on tip-toes, hoping that their height matches the boost of bravery that has made them want to test out the roller coaster for the first time. Size matters to kids, and playing superhero changes all that…It’s not just that Superheroes are big and strong. It’s also that Superheroes often show that even a diminutive person can transform into a tall and strong one with a little radioactive energy in their corner…
  2. They honor kids’ secret identities. Speaking of making the little guy more powerful, Peter Parker makes Spiderman not only more relatable and approachable, but teaches kids that beneath the surface of every overachiever is a person who is a little insecure, who might be struggling to figure out what’s right. For kids in this cohort, who are increasingly required to perform, the idea that you sometimes have to be yourself (humanity and all) is not seen as a weakness, but as just one more strength. And it’s no surprise that just when our leading men started to look a bit nerdier (and we say this in the most affectionate way possible, Jonah Hill and Seth Rogen), the secret side of Superheroes took center stage in plays, in new TV shows on Cartoon Network, and even in the form of quirky toys taking on the image of our old favorites. Kids know more than anyone that it’s not always easy to be cool, and knowing that even their heroes have secret sides is reassuring, to say the least.
  3. They reinforce that the natural order remains intact. Translation: good triumphs over evil.  Despite the bad rap that kids can sometimes get when they choose to play Superheroes over scientists on the modern playground, playing superheroes is generally a positive thing for kids. Playing Superheroes lets kids try on the role of bad guy in a safe space. It helps them negotiate the rules – what should get one captured? What should be punished with entanglement in a sticky web? And, when should you choose a disguise over confrontation? And it helps them feel confident on those days when they just might not. But mostly, it helps them play with right and wrong…Something that kids are fascinated by, even though they don’t always choose to be on the right side! Whether it’s the fantastic Justice League, or the very real “Extreme Justice League” of adults (real-life men and women who dress as Superheroes and hand out food to the homeless and patrol the evening streets), Superheroes can bring out the best in all of us, and kids are not immune.

So what can we learn from Superheroes?

  • Be bold…Don’t be afraid to let your brand don its superhero cape!
  • But be vulnerable, too. A superhero is only as believable as the real guy that lives inside.
  • When you stumble, bounce back with dignity. Every Superhero has a bad day. Brands can too. When you’re down, don’t opt out. Muster your strength and stay clear of the Kryptonite.
  •  And finally, stick to your story. Even though special effects might make your brand look and feel bigger and better than ever, don’t forget that your timeless narrative is still the thing that makes a great brand stand out to its littlest fans.

Tags: kids, play, movie, Youth, Superman

Empowering Kids to Fix the Environment: The Lingering Lesson of The Lorax

Posted by Amy Henry on Fri, Mar 09, 2012 @ 01:06 PM

It’s not news to his many fans that Dr. Seuss did not shy away from exploring the issues on his mind, and exposing the problems of his time, through books intended to talk to both children and to the parents who read to them. In books, like The Better Butter Battle and The Lorax, he exposes the “childishness” in the way that adults (presumably those in power) behave, using his tales to tell lessons about nuclear proliferation and environmental destruction (just to name two). With a film version of The Lorax entering theaters last week, many critics questioned its “agenda.” Its modern day villain, O’Hare, is not only more sinister than the Once-ler because he chooses financial gain over environmental sustainability, but mostly because he does so knowingly. While the Once-ler’s tale is one of youthful exuberance and entrepreneurialism gone awry, O’Hare is an adult who should have known better.Lorax Movie Poster

But  Dr. Seuss’ brilliance – and the resonance of this sophisticated story with small children – doesn’t stem from his cynicism. It doesn’t even come from kids’ natural inclination towards nature, which Richard Louv called “biophilia” in his groundbreaking work, Last Child in the Woods. Rather, the power of his message comes through in the final pages of his book, and in the action-packed chase scene of the film, catalyzed by one seemingly mysterious word: “unless.” This word, the Once-ler comes to understand as a heuristic for a “perfectly clear” call to action… “UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better, it’s not.”

It’s with this word, and the meaning behind it, that the Once-ler shifts the source of agency from the old to the young. The book and film’s namesake sage, the Lorax, is not only “oldish,” but he also “spoke in a voice that was sharpish and bossy.” The film turns Ted’s grandmother (voiced, appropriately by Betty White) into a heroine who transcends granny stereotypes, but also serves as Ted’s bridge to a nature-filled past. Even the Once-ler is an aged, decrepit version of his once youthful, vibrant self. But with a drop of a Truffula Tree seed (the last one!) and the lyrical passing of the baton, the Once-ler tells Ted, and Seuss assures the child reader, that even if they don’t remember what has been lost, they can change the world.

Tags: kids, movies, book, movie, Youth, free time, reading, culture

“Am I Pretty?” Tween Girls and the Need for Feedback

Posted by Amy Henry on Thu, Mar 01, 2012 @ 02:55 PM

A tentative face of a twelve year old girl fills the screen as she leans forward to adjust the webcam. “Hi guys,” she says, as if she’s talking to an intimate group of friends. She’s about to ask what might seem like a quite personal question – but she’s asking it to an anonymous audience. She doesn’t know the many viewers who will find this clip on YouTube, but she wants their feedback.

The question: “Am I pretty?” She follows with an assurance, “You can tell me the truth – I can take it.”

Graph of Youth LooksBy now, many of you have seen this story, first featured on the Today Show. This trend – girls posting videos online and asking “am I pretty or am I ugly” might be something that’s familiar to only a few real girls – but it does seem somewhat symbolic of the way girls in a particularly vulnerable stage of development, and the way a cohort who is used to feedback on their every thought might be more likely to do than any generation before them.

Despite girl-power, girl achievement, and girls leading in many domains in which they live, tween girls are still very aware that looks matter. According to data from YouthBeat, while 15% of tweens say they wouldn’t change anything about themselves, 48% of all tweens – boys and girls – mention wanting to change some aspect of their appearance if they could. Only 4% wished to be smarter (and this skewed boy) and another 4% wanted to be rich.

It might be easy to attribute blame to popular culture, and the unattainable images about beauty that dominate their magazines and screens. But some of the women this age group admires most seem to be saying the right thing, albeit from fairly beautiful faces. Selena Gomez challenges, “Who says you’re not perfect?” Katy Perry encourages them to let their light shine…Taylor Swift identifies herself with the girl sitting on the sidelines – not the cheerleader – in her “You Belong With Me.” And Lady Gaga? She couldn’t challenge the notions of conventional beauty any more…

So who is giving girls reason to re-think their self-worth? It’s not news that girls this age feel like all eyes are on them. And it’s also more timeless truth than timely trend that their bodies begin to betray them in ways that make this stage full of awkwardness and angst. And groups of girls have turned to slambooks in which girls write their name at the top of a page, and pass it to their friends, who write what they really think of their best feature, the thing they hate about them, what they should change about themselves, etc. Like “The Book” in Mean Girls,  these tween sleepover mainstays were often filled with less than flattering feedback. It’s clear that this generation didn’t start, and likely will not end, the practice of girls putting each other down.

But what is different today is the public forum in which feedback is given. Posting a picture on Facebook might leave you open to an unsolicited comment from a friend. But even more menacing are sites like Formspring, whose seemingly innocent device of asking a question of the crowd so you can “get to know your friends” can go terribly wrong when someone names names in their questions. And the story described above shows that YouTube can be a space for finding fun clips, or a venue for victimization.

Clearly, some girls offered their peers support. Many girls know that “inner beauty” is supposed to matter more. But for these girls, the reality of crowdsourcing might be countering all the messages they’re getting from those they admire. When it comes to girls’ self-confidence, aspirational images might be much less damaging than the need for acceptance by their peers.  

Tags: girls, bullying, beauty, youth media, trends, tweens, makeup