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

Parents and Licensed Products: Where Principles Meet Pragmatism

Posted by Amy Henry on Thu, Aug 26, 2010 @ 01:03 PM

This past weekend, I reached a parenting milestone that most moms and dads would nod their heads to: realizing you’re that parent that you never thought you’d be!

Our son has many unbranded wooden toys, books written for Waldorf classrooms and will be starting at a Montessori school in the fall. But on a trip to Chicago with my husband and son, we found ourselves at the Disney store. All three of us “oohhed” and “aahed” as we eyed the ceiling-high shelf of Toy Story products. And needless to say, we left with Woody and Buzz. On Sunday, we returned because we “forgot” Jessie

So while all this is new to me, fortunately, my short stint as a parent was preceded by years of listening to moms (and the occasional dad) across the country talk about their feelings on licensed products (products that borrow equity from characters) or property-based products (e.g., a Woody or Buzz doll).Toy Story Woody Doll

While critics of commercialism like Susan Linn of CCFC see no gray areas when it comes to these kinds of products (which Linn is referring to when she writes about “unfettered commercialism actually prevent[ing] [children] from playing”), even the most anti-corporate, anti-media parent will usually admit that denying your kids the characters they love is not as easy as it seems. For other parents, it’s a no-brainer. For them, childhood is as much about the joy of having a doll, action figure or other toy that takes on the likeness of their most fantastic friends – just as it did for many of us, pre-Nickelodeon’s hay day.

But back to that first group of parents…in talking to them about licensed products, they often make some good points. Most child development experts would agree that the best objects of play allow kids to create their own narratives – not simply imitate the storylines they see on screen. And many worry about setting an expectation that enjoying a story is about owning an object versus possessing an idea in your mind.

On the flipside, there’s the smile on your child’s face when they see a character whose gentle nature or clever mind or self-deprecating silliness has captured their hearts. And it’s pretty hard to resist.

But as many marketers have learned, the power of characters is actually quite fleeting. While tweens and teens will happily tune-in to SpongeBob, they’re unlikely to wear him on a t-shirt – or even on their PJs. And kids as young as 7 years old will let a researcher accompanying them to the grocery store know that products with characters on them are really meant for their little brothers and sisters. So for most parents, the licensed product “dilemma” is one solved by time…Just in time for more tricky challenges to take their place.

For years, youth marketers have debated whether borrowing or “buying” a halo from an established kids property or creating your own equity characters (think the Trix Rabbit or the Rice Krispies guys) is the easy-street to success. But either way, we think the decision requires serious contemplation. So, how can marketers meet the needs of parents when it comes to the character connection?

  • First, honor the characters you choose to align your brand with or you choose to promote through products. Be authentic to their essence – and that means knowing what their essence is according to kids. A character’s actual bio doesn’t always reflect the story that kids tell about the character – and knowing and creating to that narrative is the first step to getting your property-driven products right.
  • Second, make sure your products keep in mind their true purpose: play. Many licensed products go beyond pure character appeal to meet parents’ needs for age-appropriate play for their kids. For marketers to leverage these properties with integrity, it can’t just be about getting the branding right, but should also pay homage to the real star, your consumer.
  • And finally, when creating your own characters, know that kids love the rich stories behind their favorite characters. Woody isn’t simply a cowboy. He doesn’t just have a look that kids love. He has a heart, a soul and a strong script that allow kids to go beyond observing him to bringing him into their own stories. And it’s just this kind of complexity that makes these characters as much fun to “play” with, as they are to watch.

Tags: research, kids, Nickelodeon, movie, mom, Youth, Toy Story