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A Cranky Journal of Themed Design and Development

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Theme Park Ballyhoo!
Turning Midway Dross into Theme Park Gold
for Just Pennies a Day!

By Dr. Elliot Forbes,
VP of Marketing for the Bluster Fund, Ltd.
(with Ashmont Braintree of Chunder, Ralph, Earle, and Buick Consultant Partners)

Note: the following was adapted from Mr. Forbes' rousing presentation during the December meeting of Themed Entertainment Anonymous held at the Great Wide Way Holiday Inn, Toledo, Texas. It has been adapted for DeScope with the near cooperation of Dr. Forbes.

-- E. Eddy" Edwards

Throughout the 1930's and 40's, the Production Code Administration (AKA: the Hay's Office) was established to make sure that the content of American motion pictures didn't lead to the corruption, downfall, and complete moral decay of movie goers across this great land. In 1934, Mr. Hays wrote:

". . . It was occasionally a strain . . . to deal with those pseudosophisticates [movie makers] in our midst. Had they been allowed to dominate the [movie] industry's thinking, they would have put the movies right back into the peep-show class, something fit only for Skid Row theatres and amusement parks." (Italics ours)

The original intention of the Hays Office was to set strict guidelines as to what could and could not included in movies and how certain subjects were to be portrayed. Of course, what this did was to drive a certain breed of filmmaker into the underground, to create an entire system (if, indeed, "system" can be applied to such an unsystematic business) of exploitation films. Low, tawdry, cheaply made, they featured lurid tales of sin! Degradation! Drug abuse! Fast cars! And strip poker! Working outside of the studio system, these exploitation filmmakers relied on drumming up huge business for these cheap-jack flix of theirs by titillating the public, by hooking into their imaginations with promises of Things That The Public Knows Is Dangerous and Shameful!

So, what's all this movie history got to do with me and my theme park, amusement park, or family fun center? It can be described in just three simple little words...

Theme Park Ballyhoo!

"Something fit only for . . .amusement parks." Well, darn right Mr. Hays. Now, I hear you saying to yourself, "But Dr. Forbes! I run a respectable business. Since July 17th, 1955, we of the out of home/themed entertainment business have striven mightily to shake off the image of those ratty, World War II-era parks." True, true, all-too true. Over the last nearly half a century, the Mouse has done much to bring a truly heartwarming sense of play to the amusement centers of the world.

But now that everyone and their dog has themed this and name tagged that and guest experienced everything, what is there left for the independent operator to do to really stand out? Out-spend the Mouse? Yeah, sure...go ahead and try. The Mouse spends more on Chinese Chicken Salad and bottles of peach-flavored Snapple every month than the average so-called regional theme park spends in a year on salaries for it's employees, including pay-off money to hush up those dreadful "rubber head walk-around" character incidents.

Nope, what you need is something that you already have right under your many and varied noses: your collections of ancient, "seen it, done it, been there, carved my name in the seat" iron rides.

Here's the deal. What you need isn't the biggest, the fastest, the newest, the most expensive. What you need is the . . .


What do I mean by "forbidden?" Smut? Violence? Drugs? Souvenirs at wholesale prices? No, no, nothing so dreadfully drastic as that. What I mean is this: go with "anti-theme" to get new excitement from old and moldy attractions.

Let's face it, what you are selling, more than rides and attractions, is thrills, right? Well, we can't change the laws of physics, nor the effect that spinning a guest around in circles does to their inner ears. But that's the mere physicality of it all. 95% of the effectiveness of an attraction is anticipation and expectation. So, sell 'em on what they don't expect in this day and age of slick, safe, and cutting edge: sell 'em the illusion of dirty, cheesy, dangerous, and held together with gaffer's tape and bent wire clothes hangers.

In this "rush ahead" world of "what in the heck is gonna be my big, new attraction this season?" why not turn some of your ratty, "off the shelf" iron rides into the most exciting, corn dog-hurling experiences your jaded audience has ever survived?

OK, fine. You caught me: that's a load of crap. But your guests won't know that it is until the ride is over and it's a good bet that they'll either get right back in line for another ride or tell their friends to give it as look: "yeah, it was kinda bogus, but it was really cool, too, kinda." From a nonchalant 14-year-old veteran of the savage fields of thrill rides, that's quite a compliment indeed.

Here's all you gots'ta do:

Dedicate a section of your park as a dumping ground for some of your older, war-horse attractions. Great location isn't important. In fact, stuck in the back behind a chain link fence next to the trash compactors might not be such a bad place. Not just chain link, but old, rusty chain link. And barbed wire, too.

What you don't want to say is "Step right up, folks! Conventional amusement park attraction thrills and fun!" Rather, you need to communicate something more Dantè-esque, such as "Abandon any hope, who ride here!" Instead of having a nice, cheery, overly lighted marquee gateway to this area, take one of the park trucks and drive it through the flimsy metal fence gates then string up some of those Day-Glo orange work lights (so often associated with mining disasters) all along the twisted remains of the fence.

Area development? Well, you need some place to get rid of trees and bushes that have breathed their last in your park. Don't run 'em through the chipper, plant the dead things back here. Nothing says "dread" like a row of brown boxwoods and planters filled with smashed marigolds.

Say you have a classic ride like a Trabant, those big, rotating wheels with cars on the outside that spin and dip and help increase the number of funnel cakes that get sold 'cuz the first batches often end up getting spewed into the bushes around the queue. Sure, you're spending a minor fortune to maintain this beast, but I'm willing to bet that you spend as much of your dough keeping it looking good as you do keeping it running safely. Safety? Sure, but cosmetic surgery? Let it start to look haggard and dangerous, help it along, even. Tawdry: that's the point.

Speaking of haggard and dangerous, here's where the real artistry comes in: selection of the crew. Spend the money you would have dumped on area development on your attraction operators. Casting is essential. Sure, you spends oodles of time looking for just the right perfectly respectable men and women, perpetually smiling and happy, eager to be the attraction operators, assisting your guests in their pursuit of having a good time and all the while serving as the star ambassadors to the branded theme that your park as taken years to establish.

Well, forget about it! Find the tallest, skinniest, shortest, widest geeks you've go to the payroll. You've probably got them bussing tables in the pizza restaurant or stocking shelves in your money pit T-shirt emporium. Well, here is their time to shine! And shine they will, as you will be giving them their place in the limelight!

Forget those polyester jumpsuits that you're making the rest of the operators wear, for the "forbidden" area I'd head first to the local thrift shop for some proper threads for these "forbidden" operators. Be on the look out for evening clothes and prom dresses, "active wear" and band uniforms, if you can find 'em, 1972 through 1987 should do it. Next stop: the local "outlaw biker emporium" for those accessories that will ad just the right touch of incongruous studded leather danger. Think "slick and sleazy" for the men and just plain sleazy for the women.

Go out and get some of the tackier temporary tattoos and let your operators apply them liberally, in places where the riders are sure to see, especially in socially unacceptable places on the body. Get an acting coach to work with this chosen forbidden few to help them develop a jaded, disinterested look and attitude and to fake a good, juicy rasping cough every now and again. This will maintain the image that when the lights go out, these wretched employees then curl up in these wretched rides, cuddling a fifth of plain wrap bourbon . . . or worse.

OK, the stage is set, the rides are in place, wheezing, grinding, spinning madly, and looking dangerous and the operators are making you kinda want to keep out of their way your own darned self.

To really set the scene for this "forbidden" place, you'll need the right music. Forget the usual soft-rock-y kinds of stuff you'd play in the "thrill ride" section of your park, played to attract a general mass audience. To really set the desperate, disjointed, brain-fevered nature of this theme park wasteland, crank up the volume and set the dump on fire with "Ecstasy-fueled desert rave" techno dance music, space-age bachelor pad tunes, country-western Tuvan throat singing, industrial noise and slaughter house sound effects, and, just to throw the fear of God into 'em, every now and again blare out "O Fortuna" by Carl Orff. If that don't get 'em, they can't be got.

The result: an entertainment hub of Hell, a themed, immersive journey into the hidden heart of the socially desperate, a "Come one! Come all! Step this way to meet your doom, suckers!" pit of iron ride despair!

And then, when the guests leave this illicit thrill ride inferno, staggering back out into your "acceptable" park, and resume the remainder of their lives, they will be secure in the knowledge that they have seen the darkest side of life, lived it, rode it, and now are purer, wiser, and more frightened people for their experience. And ready to return for more after they've re-filled on funnel cakes.

Thank you.