With theme parks now regarded as accurate indicators of consumer confidence, and rides reaching new technological heights, coverage is on the up. David Ward reports.
Hurtling down tubular steel rails at 100mph and doing loops until your stomach turns is not everyone's idea of a good time. But there's no doubt theme parks and their rides are part of the American summer tradition.
According to the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA), each year theme parks pump $10 billion into the economy. But visits to Disney World and other parks have evolved into far more than just money - the media now considers a family's willingness to spend the day eating cotton candy and hanging upside down in a roller coaster as one of the unofficial indicators of consumer confidence - not only in the safety of travel, but also in the economy.
"We have seen an upward trend in calls regarding the economic side of the business, says Joel Cliff, IAAPA communications director. "Part of it is the role theme parks play in the overall travel and tourism business. There are also some major corporations involved: Universal Vivendi, Disney, and Viacom subsidiary Paramount."
"When I first started, you hardly ever read anything in the consumer press, adds Tim O'Brien, who has covered the industry for the past 16 years, and is now senior editor with trade outlet Amusement Business.
"Now it's an industry getting all kinds of coverage."
Tweaking the pitch
In addition to travel, leisure, parenting, children, and family publications, theme parks and their rides and executives have been covered by everyone from Popular Mechanics to Playboy to Cosmopolitan. But with the exception of trade outlets, there are now reporters whose sole beat is theme parks.
For most, it's a sub-beat of either the travel reporter or the business desk, so PR professionals often have to tweak their pitches.
"We talk to a myriad of reporters, says Courtney Simmons, Legoland's manager of media relations and government affairs. "We talk to business reporters and entertainment writers, we talk to the calendar editors, and we also talk to travel writers.
"You need to know who you're talking to, Simmons continues. "The entertainment writer doesn't want to know last year's attendance numbers, and the business writer doesn't want to know about all the attractions in our park."
There are some journalists who have become well known in the field. They include O'Brien of Amusement Business, Sean Wood of The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, USA Today's Gene Sloan, and the LA Times' Bonnie Harris. There is also a handful of self-proclaimed theme-park "experts, such as Paul Ruben, whose knowledge of - and passion for - roller coasters has put him in demand as a feature writer and editor, despite his lack of formal journalism training.
Emphasis on local outreach
With the exception of major tourist destinations like Disneyland, Walt Disney World, and Universal Studios Orlando, most theme parks make their living on day visitors. Therefore, the lion's share of media outreach is done locally. Lisa Bigazzi-Tilt, account supervisor with Atlanta-based firm The Headline Group, which represents Six Flags over Georgia and Marineland of Florida, says, "Six Flags over Georgia, for example, is very in tune to its demographics. About 90% of its business is in about a 100-mile radius."
Primarily because many of the parks around the country operate only from Memorial Day through Labor Day, coverage tends to be seasonal. Bigazzi-Tilt says The Headline Group begins work with Six Flags over Georgia every spring, and can usually count on at least one story from virtually every major news outlet in the Atlanta area every May.
But she also says that theme parks lend themselves to good coverage in part because more operations do a lot of marketing, and are well aware of the need for good PR.
"The thrill of representing a theme park is that there are so many stories available, says Bigazzi-Tilt, "everything from teen summer jobs to new rides to the employees. Six Flags over Georgia recently celebrated its 35th anniversary, and some of the workers have been there since day one, so that's a compelling story."
Most PR pros say they try to pitch the fun of a theme-park visit. "We use lots of b-roll, 3D invitations for media days, and bold colors. It's really the whole package, says Bigazzi-Tilt.
But theme parks can't always count on positive coverage. A recent LA Times article focused on lawsuits filed by visitors who suffered injuries while riding roller coasters.
"Reporters do so many stories in a week, that sometimes it ends up being just another story to them, Simmons says, adding, "There are reporters who feel it's their duty to uncover the mysteries of the theme-park business. I tell them there are no mysteries at Legoland, and what you see is what you get."
Despite being spread out to all 50 states, theme parks end up competing with each other to provide the best rides. The Discovery Channel and other media outlets put together annual lists of Top 10 Most Thrilling Rides, and placement on that list can mean national exposure for a park. "It's become a hi-tech, high-pressure business, explains O'Brien. "Every year, a park has to spend $8 million-$12 million to get a new coaster to stay ahead of the competition."
O'Brien says the need to be better than the theme park down the road or in the next state has made many parks very secretive about their technology and strategies. "It's become harder to get financial data, because the industry has become so competitive. A lot of the time, an operator will tell me, 'Why should I let other parks know what I'm up to?'"
But Simmons says that competition, especially among parks grouped together in a single geographic area, is only surface deep, and in some circumstances, parks work together on stories. "When you're dealing with an outer market, or the travel and tourism media, sometimes it behooves you to partner with another destination in your area, she says. "If Legoland goes into a meeting with reporters, it's compelling. But if we go into a meeting with all the other attractions in San Diego, that's much more compelling."
WHERE TO GO
Newspapers: The Miami Herald; The San Diego Union-Tribune; The Orange County Register; The Orlando Sentinal; The Cincinnati Enquirer; major dailies
Magazines: Parenting; Parents; Arthur Fromer's Budget Travel; Boy's Life; Disney; E Ticket; Redbook; McCall's; Time for Kids; Theme Park Adventure; Southwest Living; Southern Comfort; city and national weeklies
Trade Publications: Travel Week; Amusement Business; Travel Agent; Funworld; Amusement Today; Splash; Park World
TV: CNN; Travel Channel; Discovery Channel; Good Morning America; Today; local and regional morning and early evening news shows
Websites: Themeparkadventure.com; Leisure World Online; Themeparks.com.