Theme Parks in the Social Age

I shared that last story for a reason.

This past Autumn at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, we got to the park at opening time and headed directly to Expedition Everest.  The plan was to ride it as many times as we could before the wait became significant.

(It’s not important to this story, but we managed 4 rides in a row before the lines became more than 20 minutes, and before my back said “Hey! Enough with the astronaut training!!”)

Like all contemporary thrill rides, there’s a climactic point where the park photographs your vehicle and hopefully catches a genuine (or entertaining) (or at least not obscene) facial expression.  They attempt to then sell this picture to you as a memory for a fairly high price.  The philosophy is that they took your picture in a place and in a way that you can’t do yourself.

After one of these four rides, we were inspecting our portraits in the unloading station.  Alice and I always try for interesting poses, but on this occasion I noticed in the photo on the wall that the guy sitting behind me had completely one-upped me.  While Alice and I were mugging in the photo, this guy appeared to be calmly texting someone on his phone.

I thought that was pretty funny.  And as I turned to point it out to Alice, I saw that guy standing next to me.  And guess what? He was texting on his phone.

I good-naturedly chatted with him about his experience of the ride.  It turned out that no, he hadn’t been texting during the ride.  He had been busily recording a video of his ride, and so had tuned out the entire experience in order to focus on getting a good video on his phone.  And he then used his camera to photograph the $20 picture on the monitor.  And at the point when I approached him, he had been in the process of chatting online with his friends, who were receiving the video and photos while they talked.

Man, that’s social.

And it’s also a reflection of how connectivity changes the experience and the economics of theme parks.  Items and experiences that used to be something that you could charge money for are not as profitable as before.  Much like the disruption of all media by the free and profligate ability to perfectly duplicate anything digital, those experiences and items that could previously only be enjoyed by those who paid admission to a park are in a free fall.  The availability of the experience, often as phone camera videos or YouTube videos, has trumped quality and fidelity for most.

So what are people paying for? And how?

It’s not necessarily about money anymore.  Here in the world of social games and digital entertainment, we’ve come to grips with how the “freeconomy” has changed our lives.  Money, we were forced to acknowledge, was just one form of currency.  It’s the easiest to understand, to exchange, and to follow, but it’s just one.

It’s not about shows anymore, either.  Anything that’s non-interactive can be recorded without losing the essence of the experience.  And if it can be recorded, then everyone can experience it to some degree, and the supply becomes irrelevant to the demand.

There are other currencies: attention, connectedness, reputation, time, belief, property.  Heck, Persian Rugs used to be a form of currency, and folks would stockpile them against economic fluctuation.

The truth is that, because of ubiquitous cameras and cellphones, theme parks are now providing an essentially free service that they thought they’d be using to make millions.  But they have been trading in these other currencies for so long that it’s alright.  Expedition Everest could probably drop the price from $20 to $0.25 to have the picture emailed to guests (or, perhaps, $20 to NOT email it to someone? but I digress!) and see business really pick up by simply catering to the relevant marketing channels.

And so, by:

  1. blogging about the guy
  2. texting about
  3. the photo he took of
  4. himself making a video of a ride

I engage as many forms of social technology as I can.

Hm, maybe I should tweet a link to this blog…

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