What the Dickens?

Sarah Woods takes a look at how design initiatives are helping to reinvigorate Britain’s ailing theme parks

Sophistication and glamour are not synonymous with the typical UK amusement park. More reminiscent are themed restaurants, talking animals and long queues for a ride that lasts seconds.

Recently, a report published by Which? magazine showed that at some of the most popular theme parks, excessive queues, expensive tickets, poor quality food and dirty toilets are making the experience fairly unpleasant for visitors.

However, they must be doing something right, with reports of tens of millions of visitors each year. Each park has a different market and a unique appeal to visitors, whether it is the rollercoasters at Alton Towers, which can be brands in their own right, the animals at Chessington World of Adventures, or the location, such as countryside or seaside.

Despite the lack of a clear need to reinvent themselves as classy venues, it is still necessary for theme parks to rebrand and modernise their look and feel, to stamp out visitor resignation to poor quality.

There are rumblings of change. There will soon be new blood with the launch this year of Dickens World in Kent. Designed by Gerry O’Sullivan and Pinewood Studios-based consultancy RMA, this park aims to combine the overall theme of Charles Dickens’s era with rides, water features and multimedia attractions. Also due to open is Bewilderwood, an adventure park in Norfolk with branding by Purple Circle Brand Consultants in Nottingham.

Last summer, Blackpool Pleasure Beach launched an overhaul its corporate identity to combine the 100-year-old heritage of the park with a modern twist, designed by Johnson Banks.

‘We thought we could help Blackpool Pleasure Beach come away from any negative perceptions and give it a clear identity, signage and typography’, says Michael Johnson, creative director of Johnson Banks.

‘Most theme parks mean to look similar. We were appalled at how some of them view themselves, it is an identity desert, an untouched area. At Blackpool, we tried to get a balance between where my grandma brought me and where I would take my children. Theme parks need to look at the way they market themselves. They have not moved on yet, but need to look at what works for them, the helicopter view of how do you brand a theme park? They need to differentiate themselves.’

At present, Merlin Entertainments Group is in the process of joining forces with The Tussauds Group to combine attractions such as Legoland, Alton Towers, Thorpe Park and Chessington World of Adventures.

According to The Tussauds Group sales and marketing director Andy Edge, having a strong brand identity is crucial for theme parks, especially because they are the retailer as well as the brand. ‘There is an identity for the attraction as well as for a second level within the attraction, such as the rides, which are brands themselves,’ he says.

Edge points out that at Tussaud’s, they have a very clear view of each brand. Alton Towers is an ‘extraordinary world’, at Thorpe Park it is ‘come alive’ and is about energy and thrills, while Chessington is focused on family.

‘We are obsessed almost with the complete clarity of each. We try to refresh and keep the brand identity consistent across each channel. We have done a lot of research on people’s perceptions of theme parks and for the vast majority of people, they are just looking for a brilliant day out, for the younger end of the market they are always looking for new stuff. The identity has to fully reflect the experience the customer gets, and once that stops being the case we would review it. This is Great Britain. If you look at theme parks they are a bit of fun and that is what we are trying to get across,’ says Edge.

In the past couple of weeks, the county of Staffordshire – which houses Alton Towers and Drayton Manor – has unveiled a new positioning and identity by Dragon. It aims to highlight the county as a ‘world of possibilities’ and appeal to the visitor’s mood and behaviour, giving them the option to try out a number of different attractions throughout the day.

Keshi Bouri, design director at Dragon, believes that in the modern day, visitor attractions are more about mood and behaviour and working out how to integrate with children. ‘Kids these days are influenced by so many different things. Branding can only do so much. Perception does the rest. It is about how people feel from one minute to the next. It is massively complex, one minute they may want to visit an adventure place, the next a cultural place. Some theme parks haven’t moved with the times. They used to be magical for children, but that has changed radically. They have to diversify and bring things together. It’s about packaging things up in bundles as we become more sophisticated,’ he says.

• Merlin Entertainments Group and The Tussauds Group are to join forces, combining brands such as Madame Tussauds, Legoland, Alton Towers, Thorpe Park and Chessington
• Combined, these two groups welcomed more than 30 million visitors to their 50 attractions and four hotels in 2006, according to their reports
• Other popular amusement parks in the UK include Drayton Manor, Staffordshire; Blackpool Pleasure Beach, Lancashire; Lightwater Valley Theme Park, Yorkshire; Tales of Robin Hood, Nottingham; Flamingoland, North Yorkshire; and Diggerland
• Dickens World in Kent and Bewilderwood in Norfolk are due to open in the next couple of months

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