- Many high-tech solutions theme parks implemented during Covid to enable operations are here to stay and are proving popular with both guests and park operators.
- Smartphone apps allow for preordering meals, joining virtual queues and avoiding large crowds.
- Generational cohorts differ in their affinity for theme park tech, with Gen Z viewing it favorably and baby boomers preferring more face-to-face interactions.
Theme parks are set for a big rebound this summer as much of the country starts to exit Covid restrictions.
And many of the high-tech, low-touch solutions parks implemented during the pandemic to enable limited reopenings are here to stay and, in fact, are proving popular with both guests and park operators.
That's according to a new study by technology developer Oracle Food and Beverage and Merlin Entertainments, operator of nine Legoland parks worldwide, including California, Florida and, after a year's delay, upstate New York. (Originally set to open in spring 2020, Legoland New York debuted this July 9 an hour north of New York City in the town of Goshen as the state's first major new park in four decades.)
Eighty-one percent of respondents in the firms' Theme Parks Trends 2021 survey are optimistic they'll soon be able to spend quality time with loved ones at their favorite leisure spots, and 68% said they'll head back to theme parks, specifically, as soon as they are able.
"The data we have says that people are eager to do this," said Simon de Montfort Walker, general manager at Oracle Food and Beverage. "The surge of human energy is just remarkable."
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For his part, Rex Jackson, general manager of Legoland Florida Resort, said his Orlando-area property experienced a tremendous response from a pent-up market.
"It's the desire of families to make up for the lost time they had in summer 2020, and the return of leisure travel has probably exceeded most expectations," he added. "We've seen it here, and I expect to see across many other leisure travel business sectors in the U.S."
Legoland Florida reopened June 1, 2020 and while initially nuclear families — mom, dad and kids — comprised the bulk of initial guests, now multi-generational groups are returning.
"It's grandparents meeting with their kids and grandkids for the first time again," Jackson said.
As those families visit Legoland Florida this summer, they'll find some pandemic-era precautions still in place, such as social distancing markers and a request the unvaccinated voluntarily mask up.
Those will, in time, likely be dropped, but what will remain in place are mobile food-and-beverage ordering, self-service check-in kiosks at the resort's hotels, interactive smartphone park maps and other technology solutions introduced or enhanced during Covid to allow for safe operations.
"The technology capabilities for which we've partnered with Oracle and others, have enabled a better overall guest experience," Jackson said. "While they may have been initiated and accelerated due to Covid from a health and safety perspective, we're seeing they're improvements to the guest experience that we intend to keep moving forward."
The survey revealed that 67% of respondents, for all their eagerness to travel, do still want some sort of distancing measures to remain in place. Smartphone theme park maps displaying attractions wait times and virtual queues — whereby guests ask for attraction or restaurant access on an app or at a kiosk and are given a return time for a shorter wait — can help space out visitors and reduce time standing in lines.
"The more time we can reduce your ... waiting for something — be it a ride or a food-and-beverage offering — that leaves you more time to experience all the attractions we have in the resort, your day is going to be that much better," said Jackson, noting Legoland Florida has gotten initial positive response from guests about, for example, virtual queues.
The park will evaluate future opportunities with the functionality, he said. And not for nothing: 52% of those surveyed in the U.S. (and 60% of millennials) said they'd likely buy more refreshments if pre-ordering for pickup was available, while 47% said long waits are the worst thing about theme parks.
To be sure, Legoland — along with Merlin Entertainments' other theme park brands worldwide and competitors such as Disney Parks, Experiences & Products; Universal Parks & Resorts; and Cedar Fair Entertainment Co. — still offer face-to-face interaction with a human employee possible for those who prefer it.
That's especially important with older customers; the survey found that staffed concession stands are still the favored way to buy snacks for baby boomers, at 28%.
So, Legoland Florida still offers walk-up ordering at food-and-beverage outlets and, while the Legoland Hotel offers advance online and kiosk self-service, "we have a lobby attendant who's there to help you check in and answer any questions you have."
"It's about giving the guest choices," he noted.
Younger parkgoers are all in when it comes to tech, according to de Montfort Walker.
"The younger you are, the less interested you're going to be in human interaction," he said.
That said, guests of all ages are using the simpler tools.
"With the simple stuff, the uptake is huge and we're seeing increases day by day with even the older age groups; younger users just got there first," de Montfort Walker said.
Tech also helps things flow smoother for both operators and visitors, making it a win-win, de Montfort Walker added. "A lot of the work we're doing is increasing effective utilization so we're able to get more throughput through food-and-beverage outlets, attractions and so forth by managing the flow much better."
For example, on the customer side, 54% of respondents told the firms they'd love to plan their theme park itineraries in advance so they can "beat the queues," and 58% would love to see busy park "hotspots" labeled so they could plan accordingly.
For Oracle Food and Beverage's clients, it's all business. "How do you use apps and notifications to really move people through the park to balance and maximize their experience and — let's be honest — to get them by the retail outlets and move them in a way that will maximize the business opportunity?" de Montfort Walker said.
In the end, implementation of tech solutions proven on the ground amid the pandemic may turn out to be the silver lining for the industry to an otherwise devastating Covid era.
"These guest experience enhancements are going to improve the experience for those who've been coming and will continue to but also will help attract new guests and families to resorts, as well," Jackson said.
(Disclosure: CNBC and Universal Parks & Resorts are both subsidiaries of NBCUniversal, owned by parent Comcast.)