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What Disney Can Learn from Other Parks by Kevin Yee, MiceAge.com

There’s a reason that Disney is the theme park industry leader: they do a lot right, their product is superior, and people keep coming back (and paying the asking price). Universal has made inroads of late, but by and large, the bigger picture suggests Disney is still the far and away leader.

That goes double when you spend some quality time with “other” amusement parks, as I recently did these past two weeks. We took a coaster tour up the country, stopping at Six Flags Over Georgia, Dollywood, Holiday World, King’s Island, Cedar Point, Kennywood, and Carowinds. Seven parks in fourteen days will exhaust you, especially with driving in between everything, but it was also invigorating. And eye opening.

Read what you’re missing...

On the surface of things, there’s very little basis for comparison when holding up Disney next to these other guys. Let’s face it, Disney wins. “Theming” at most of these parks looks amateurish at best by comparison, and most of the time, they don’t attempt much in the way of theming. The purpose of the rides lies elsewhere: maybe to provide physical thrills, or otherwise give the patrons a chance to bond together over something that isn’t theme-based.

Monster Mansion at SFOG tries, it really does. I still like it.

But let’s not dismiss the experience so readily. There’s something to be said for these other parks. The bigger ones (Cedar Point, King’s Island, Carowinds, SFOG) contain a lot of thrill rides—many more than a typical Disney park. If the average Disney visitor only goes on ten rides, that would be about 2/3rds of the coasters at Cedar Point alone, not to mention the flat rides, spinning rides, and kiddie rides. In short, just as people sojourn to Disney for theme, many others travel specifically to these parks for their iron rides. They don’t need theme. They want thrill and physical limitations pushed. Coasters up to 120 MPH and 400 feet tall? Check. Flying coasters, standing coasters, winged coasters, inverted coasters, suspended coasters… it’s all here. My favorites are the hyper coasters—tall and fast with lots of airtime, but no inversions (Goliath at SFOG is still one of the best, though Intimidator at Carowinds is also pretty impressive).

But apart from the big coasters, there are still reasons to like these parks, especially the smaller ones. There’s something pure about the experience at Kennywood, Dollywood, and Holiday World. They may be smaller in footprint in some cases, but there is still an entire day’s worth of things to do. They are more likely to dabble in dark rides, for one thing. Sure, the Garfield’s Nightmare boat ride (a former tunnel of love, now tricked out with 3D dark light paint) will never rival Peter Pan’s Flight for immersiveness. But does it have to? Working with a teeny tiny fraction of the Disney budget, these parks do impressive work for what they have to work with.

Like a hillbilly Splash Mountain, this ride at Dollywood lacks costly animatronics,
but it’s fun all the same. The old-fashioned way: blasting opponents with water.

Plus, there is something nostalgic about this kind of experience. Something that feels a bit more – dare I say it – authentic than a Disney escapist vacation. I suppose it’s possible that someone living in Orlando even craves such a return to reality, to break the surface and come up for air every so often. Because it ceases to sound ironic and instead sounds kind of honest to admit that rides are, er, rides. You aren’t really in the Congo or Thailand or Bavaria when in a Disney environment. The experience of more carnival-based rides feels at least like it’s not pretending. The lack of pretense can feel refreshing. There’s also the advantage that it’s not holding itself up for any particularly high standard, so it’s easy to jump higher than the bar.

And indeed, these smaller parks jumped high. The employees are more likely to be friendly. The food is more likely to be priced reasonably rather than atmospherically high. That goes double for souvenirs (even the vaunted and highly visible Cedar Point offered a full-sized wall map for – wait for it – 99 cents). In fact, I’ll use that data point as the beginning of a list of recommendations.

Things Disney Can Learn From These Other Parks:

  1. Charge less for things, but do it strategically. Not every souvenir is priced below a dollar. Many are cheaper than Disney – this is to be expected, since Disney is a premium product and can command top-dollar. But a few things are rock-bottom, dirt-cheap, like that 99-cent souvenir map. This is a win-win for Cedar Point. They make a few pennies (pay for the printing costs) and get oodles of free advertising right on the wall of the customer’s home! It might even attract attention of those visiting the house. Disney, by contrast, doesn’t even sell wall maps at WDW any more, and when they do (for things like special occasions), the price is much higher. A 99-cent map is brilliant. Walt had insisted on similar pricing for souvenir guides.

  2. Souvenir cups are your friend. On vacation, in every park I visited, I bought the souvenir bottle. Some had free refills for the day, others had small upcharge refills, others had a $5 all-day wristband upcharge. It didn’t matter; they were all a better deal than paying by the cup. If there had been no bottles with cheaper refills, I would have simply had water most of the time. Disney is missing out on money here.

I seldom keep them as keepsakes,
but I do sure use them on multiple trips.

  1. Free is customer-friendly. I was blown away by Holiday World. This is a park that is half traditional amusement park, and half water park (included in admission), and it’s pretty huge in terms of acreage. But that’s not what blew me away. They had free wi-fi coverage over the whole park—YES! They gave out free sunblock in the water park areas—AMAZING! And they had completely free sodas available at refill stations every few yards—UNBELIEVABLE! Really, free sodas! I see that on the Disney Cruise Line and literally nowhere else. Yet here it’s included with the park admission. If I were a local in Indiana, I’d buy an annual pass on that basis alone. Simply incredible. What goodwill that generates.

Free sodas! Free sunscreen-help yourself!

  1. Keep kids too small for coasters occupied with inventive things, not immersive things. Kids don’t need to feel like they’ve entered another world to have a great time; they just need a great diversion. A simple wooden sluice at Dollywood kept my 5-year old busy for most of an hour, racing the little floats (provided) through the watery course over and over again. We had to pry him out of there. Simple, easy to build, and presumably easy to maintain.

The sluice just keeps going on its twisted course—hours of fun!

  1. Keep up with the industry trends at IAAPA. I know Disney attends the amusement industry trade show – I’ve seen them there – but they are slow to incorporate things I see there. New ice cream types, new potato-based snacks, new water screens—Universal and SeaWorld seem to get this stuff first. One thing that caught my eye was the pressure pads in use at exit gates in the Cedar Fair parks. The magnetic exit gate won’t open unless you’re standing on the pressure plate—which is only INSIDE the enclosure. Safe and reliable.

Pressure pads at kids’ rides.

  1. Ride reservations CAN be done “just right.” FastPass is a big hit with tourists because they like that it’s free (unlike these other parks), but the joke is actually on them. If it’s free for everyone and in use by everyone, no one is really benefitting that much. An upcharge system costs more for the vacationing tourist, but we bought it for every park available, and it was worth every cent. Even on the park where we didn’t need it in the slightest (Carowinds), that was a fluke. Normally we would have needed it to bypass crowds, but it was 105 degrees on the day we visited that Charlotte, NC park (summer heat wave, you know!) so there were no crowds. I didn’t regret my “wasted” $120 for the three wristbands. I considered it insurance—good to have if we needed it, but also fine that we didn’t, since that meant we had no waits for anything anyway. That’s the way insurance works. You’re happy either way. I’ll have a much longer essay on ride reservations at these parks soon on my site: ultimateorlando.com

FastLane at Cedar Fair parks is a wristband, and you pay per person.

I’ve done coaster trips every few years now, and look forward to another one soon to see old favorites again like Busch Gardens Williamsburg and Hershey Park. Plus I still have to check out Knobels, Dorney Park, and Six Flags Great Adventure (New Jersey). At the end of the day, these other parks perform a dual duty of satisfying something primal in my own needs, as well as providing contrast to the Disney parks. I savor what we have all the more by making sure to include these other parks from time to time.

$20 for parking at SFOG?! You gotta be kidding me.

On my drive home, we came with 28 miles of Hilton Head Resort, a DVC property in South Carolina. I was tempted to detour, but thought I wouldn’t be allowed in without a reservation, and I have to admit the photos I’d seen online looked rather boring. It would depress me to see a boring Disney hotel, so we skipped it.

I leave you with two funny signs we saw on our trip: Liberty Square (where we took a ferry to Fort Sumter, the place where “the cannons spoke for war”)...

...and Hungry Bear Restaurant in Tennessee.

Being a Disney fan is a curse sometimes – reminders are everywhere!

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Kevin Yee may be e-mailed at [email protected] - Please keep in mind he may not be able to respond to each note personally. FTC-Mandated Disclosure: As of December 2009, bloggers are required by the Federal Trade Commission to disclose payments and freebies. Kevin Yee pays for his own admission to theme parks and their associated events, unless otherwise explicitly noted.

© 2012 Kevin Yee

Find Kevin on Social Media

Readers are invited to join Kevin on Facebook, where he offers regular "Where in Walt Disney World" photo quizzes.

On his public Facebook page, Twitter feed, and Google+ account, he also offers regular smaller updates on the parks.

Kevin’s Disney Books

Kevin is the author of many books on Disney theme parks, including:

  • Jason’s Disneyland Almanac (co-written with Jason Schultz) is an exhaustive listing of every day in Disneyland history, from 1955 to 2010. You’ll find park operating hours, weather and temperatures, and openings and closings of any park attraction, shop, or restaurant… for every day in the park’s history.
  • The Unofficial Walt Disney World ‘Earbook 2010 is a photo-rich volume of 70 pages that park fans will find especially useful if they want to know what’s changed at WDW since their last visit.
  • Walt Disney World Hidden History: Remnants of Former Attractions and Other Tributes As the title implies, this is all about those little things in the parks that have significance to insiders and long-timers, but are never explained or highlighted.
  • Your Day at the Magic Kingdomis a full-color, hardcover interactive children’s book, where readers decide which attraction to ride next (and thus which page to turn to) - but watch out for some unexpected surprises!
  • Mouse Trap: Memoir of a Disneyland Cast Memberprovides the first authentic glimpse of what it’s like to work at Disneyland.
  • Tokyo Disney Made Easy is a travel guide to Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySeas, written to make the entire trip stress-free for non-speakers of Japanese.
  • Magic Quizdom offers an exhaustive trivia quiz on Disneyland park, with expansive paragraph-length answers that flesh out the fuller story on this place rich with details.
  • 101 Things You Never Knew About Disneyland is a list-oriented book that covers ground left intentionally unexposed in the trivia book, namely the tributes and homages around Disneyland, especially to past rides and attractions.

More information on the above titles, along with ordering options are at this link.