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

Anecdotes and Outliers: When Kids, Tweens and Teens Go Against Type

Posted by Amy Henry on Wed, Jan 18, 2012 @ 01:35 PM

“You can’t trust 6 kids in Podunk…” might be a phrase you are familiar with if you’ve attempted to make decisions about the youth market based on qualitative research…Or, “those kids just aren’t representative.” Enter quantitative research, developmental models and other reassuring statistics and structures that show us what’s really happening in the world. But the problem is that sometimes youth defy expectations, act counter to “type,” and occasionally, the outliers are more relevant than we might care to think. The question for youth researchers: when do we change our minds about youth, and how do we know whether what we’re seeing is really right, or just reaffirms what we already believe?

I found myself wondering about this recently in relationship to what I’ve come to believe (and often seen) about gender identity and children’s play. It might be easy to see that gendered play is part nature, part nurture (clearly, boys will try on the tutu in the daycare dress-up trunk if they’re given permission, but at the same time, just try to talk a boy out of their crush on cars). And there’s no denying that girls gravitate towards princesses and pink in large numbers, if not exclusively. Countless studies and developmental paradigms provide explanations ranging from exposure to gender expectations to a cultural/biological need for boys to separate from their mothers, while girls model their behavior. But, what happens when you’re confronted with anecdotal evidence that all seems to converge on the same themes?

My four-year old son recently caught a severe case of Spiderman fever. superheroesDespite never seeing any of the recent or old Spiderman films or cartoons, and rarely finding himself in the toy aisle of any store (mom and dad prefer shopping online to taking a preschooler into a manufactured Mecca), he seems to have a version of the Spiderman narrative inscribed in his mind…This “version” seems to be the result of a telephone game of sorts that has been playing out in his preschool. Clearly, someone has heard of this magical man with webs shooting out of his wrists, but my son has brought home numerous variations on this theme. “He is friends with all kinds of spiders…” “He wears a red costume because that’s his favorite color…” “He says nice things to his friends – but the bad guys don’t…” Some of these ideas seem more authentic than others…

But his conflicted parents encourages him to dress up as a firefighter instead of a crime fighter this past Halloween. And he agreed. When we showed up at his school parade, we cringed – our little one was a lone community helper amidst a sea of superheroes. And here’s the kicker – it wasn’t just the boys. There were a few preschool princesses, but supergirl and spidergirl lined up right behind our son. And just the other day, we warned my son that our friends with daughters ages 3 and 7 (without an older brother to pass down his toys) might not have cars or superhero toys, only to arrive and find that – right next to the Barbie castle – was a pile of well-loved Spiderman dolls, vehicles and even trading cards. Soon, imaginary webs were flying.   

So what does a student of youth do with this kind of info? Do we deny the evidence that shows that the stereotypes are often true (regardless of what causes them)? Do we encourage brands and organizations to go against type and to stop making all of those girls toys for girls, and boyish gear for guys? Probably not…But, back to our original question, when do we acknowledge that these outliers might be evidence of a real trend or truth, and when do we simply dismiss them as “not representative?”

Clearly, the answer is more art than science…But a few questions might help.

  • Are you making assumptions about what one “like” means about another category? Youth often relate to brands, products and experiences in complex ways. Youth – particularly kids – can sometimes love both an experience and its opposite…Being an athlete doesn’t mean one’s not an artist…Liking TV doesn’t mean that you shun books or reading. Being connected to Facebook doesn’t mean that friendships in the real world don’t matter.
  • Does your method fit the answer you want? Don’t get us wrong – we think quantitative information is incredibly valuable. YouthBeat is founded on the premise that your perceptions might lead you astray if, for example, you see a six year old on Facebook and assume every elementary schooler is a member of the site. Or when you need to know how many teens really own iPads. In other words, 6 kids in Podunk might help you really understand your audience in a nuanced way. But if you’re wondering about your brand’s ability to resonate among members of an unexpected group, qualitative might help you understand not just the “whats” but the “hows.” Clearly, Spiderman hasn’t replaced princesses as the most popular play-thing of the preschool girl set, but careful observation and age-appropriate conversations might show just how “super” they think those heroes are.
  • What perceptions are we bringing to the table – and where do we place them? Finally, any great researcher knows that your own knowledge and experience with a category or audience segment is both your advantage and your Achilles heel. Knowing a lot about kids, tweens and teens, we would contend, is an incredibly important foundation on which to build your youth-specific custom study. In our opinion, you can’t truly make sense of the data you get back without knowing how these groups of youth express themselves, develop and make meaning of the world. But as important as knowing a lot is knowing when to blink…Even the most strongly held conventional wisdom deserves a re-think when evidence to the contrary emerges. This applies not only to what youth do, but perhaps even to what might be “good for them.” 
Regardless of what you know about youth, don’t forget to pay attention to the occasional outlier – it might just inspire you to get a leg-up on the next big insight.

Tags: youth research, qualitative research, quantitative research, superheroes, Superman

What’s the Most Compelling Superhero Power? A Little Listening…

Posted by Amy Henry on Mon, Oct 11, 2010 @ 01:30 PM

For the past few weeks, director Davis Guggenheim’s (An Inconvenient Truth) latest opus, Waiting for Superman, has stirred up sentiment regarding the quality of U.S. education today. Widely available clips from the movie feature shockingly raw and honest (although admittedly, this candor is characteristic of Rhee) assertions from national education figures like Michelle Rhee, chancellor of schools for Washington D.C., that kids in her schools are getting a “crappy” education. Guggenheim drives his point home with rankings (meant to trip a very American competitive trigger) which places the U.S. behind too many other nations in regards to math and science.

But these numbers are nothing new. And Guggenheim’s praising of charter schools and vilification of teacher tenure have led educators, administrators, union leaders and educational activists to balk at what they call an “incomplete” picture of the story behind education.

So what has made this underground film strike a nerve? Admittedly, it’s a bit less underground than another film that focuses on education, Road to Nowhere, directed by Vicki Abeles (it’s hard to stay under the radar once you’ve won an Oscar).  But more than Guggenheim’s prior successes, what most people talk about when they talk up this film is the kids. In debates over educational opportunity and access, and in speeches about what should be done to prepare our nation’s children for economic participation or to set them up to master the adult curriculum, it’s hard to hear what real kids think. This simple act of assuming that kids have the agency to tell their own stories has made all the difference in this documentary.Waiting for Superman

As we watch the lottery for a place in charter schools, and we see the potential students of these schools clutching their number, we’re moved by the idea that this scenario resembles a pro-sports draft – but only the stakes are higher and the participants embody more anxiety than bravado. But the most captivating moments involve a child speaking to camera, telling us why they want to learn.

This strategy has legs outside the documentary space. If you’re the president, in need of a little boost, call a town meeting among youth. Let them talk…Because when they talk, our words and ideas look and sound a bit better.

As market researchers, most of us have already learned this lesson. To prove a point, let kids speak it. To convey an idea or insight, show that kids are on to it. But the latest in political statements capitalizing on conversations with kids remind us that an authentic kids’ voice should serve as the starting point, not a last resort, for all our great ideas.

Witnessed the power of real youth voices rallying your team, stakeholders or consumers? Let us know...We're listening!

Tags: Education, movie, Youth, TV, MTV, Superman