One of the games that theme park fans will always cherish is Roller Coaster Tycoon 3. It’s been a game that has stood the test of time despite its terrible sequel follow up. Any theme park fan has designed the ideal theme park in this game at least once.
What I like the most about this game is how it has taught me a lot about theme park management, understanding the decisions that theme parks make in order to stay in business. This could be small decisions, others not so much.
Some of the things I’ve learned about theme park management may seem obvious, but once taken into account you see how many decisions are made in Disney parks.
Long Term Investments
When you have a theme park, attractions are needed to keep the guest flow going. In order for this to happen, you need attractions to make profit. And even though you might not have too much money, three attractions that you build could make an important difference.
In RCT3, you need to pay in order to ride each attraction. You can have an entrance fee, but the game isn’t designed to only get money this way. So the only sure way is to build attractions really fast and start getting peeps in line. For roller coasters that cost much more money, having multiple vehicles is vital to keep the guests flowing. Because the more guest access the ride, the more money you’ll get.
Eventually after 3 or 4 investments, money starts coming back and you can get rid of loans or have more employees in your payroll. With this taken into consideration, let’s go deep into the theme parks.
In order for parks to start getting some profit, they need to build new attractions. Sometimes the budget isn’t there, so they need to build rides that aren’t E Tickets but they give a fun experience to families. Maybe most of these attractions aren’t even designed to stay in the long run, but they keep the turnstiles moving. Over time, the return of investment is enough to build better experiences.
Take Disney California Adventure for example. This park has had its problems during all these years, especially in developing better attractions. Over time, the park has slowly improved in such a way that some attractions are being upgraded. These upgrades are vital to keep people interested in the park. Now that they have more attractions and the park has experienced a significant boost in guest attendance, they could move forward for new themed lands and future attractions in existent places.
It is difficult to remember that Disneyland started with a mule ride, some off the shelf attractions and some dark rides, all of them without too many enhancements to begin with. It was with time that attractions were upgraded and improved.
Justify Your Rides
Attractions are the pinnacle of a good theme park, but they also add some functionality when you need to. Too many people in the pathways? Develop a high capacity ride that chews up those guests. No kiddie rides? A simple carousel or Ferris Wheel does the trick. Need an E-Ticket attraction that keeps guests coming? Make special food offerings and smaller attractions to reduce the time it takes to complete the ROI.
Even though these strategies are used in RCT3, they are very similar to what we see with many theme parks. Want to build Pirates Of The Caribbean? Create a whole new land with different offerings. Need more hourly capacity for kid rides? Develop Toy Story Land and keep it simple. Each of these attractions have a specific functionality or they at least end up with some sort of idea that keeps the business on track. Remember that the investment behind attractions is huge, so the managers need to handle the budget and think of different possibilities to reduce the span it takes to get that ROI.
In the end, attractions have very particular ways of existing, filling a need that the guests want or filling an operations necessity that managers find important.
One of the most complicated things to do when having a theme park is taking care of the traffic of guests moving from one attraction to the next. It might seem silly, but it involves a lot of thought and planning. Not only on the paths themselves, but in having attractions that can be able to chew as much guests as possible.
In Roller Coaster Tycoon 3, this is a matter that is just as important. The more guests are in the attractions, better guest flow and overall satisfaction. Sometimes it isn’t a matter of too many attractions, but a matter of adding the attractions with the right hourly capacity.
Take for example a roller coaster. If you have enough stations, you could have 4 trains at the time, allowing for more guests to ride the attraction and more money in your bank. Sometimes reducing the amount of trains helps keep guests in line instead of in the paths, allowing to have less traffic. Other times I’ve closed attractions and later opened them when there is a huge amount of guests through the turnstiles.
What RCT3 has taught me is that guest flow is hard, complicated, and a lesser known aspect of park management that has a significant chance of changing the overall experience. Guest flow can make or break a day full of guests. Also, cost reducing measures like having less vehicles in an attraction allows to keep the attraction running and have a buffer zone of people that aren’t on the regular guest paths. This is a really silly turnaround, but it makes a significant change for the guests.
Merchandise and Food
Having financial problems? Raise your food and merchandise prices a couple cents and it will run like a well oiled machine. If you need some funding for an attraction, better start building more food and merchandise stands for you park. People will always be hungry, as well as curious about shiny souvenirs to bring home.
Food and drinks are a surefire investment because people are always hungry and thirsty; it satisfies a human need. This allows you to keep prices higher than the average, but allowing people to pay as much as they can. What you’ll do is that people who aren’t riding attractions will eventually try out one of the drinks and foods.
Is it raining? Make sure you are selling umbrellas at a hefty price. The reason? People will buy them no matter the price because they prefer buying it rather than staying wet for the whole day. These are the sort of unexpected opportunities your park has to gain some money.
And merchandise? Well, that is the crown jewel of moneymaking. Merch can help you as much as food because margins are always pretty steep. If you don’t have money to make an attraction, try selling as much merchandise as you can. It will keep you using the investment, making more money so that you’ll eventually have the independence of building your own attraction.
In real life, things are that way. The fact that Disney parks focus so much on food is that they know the margins that they have. Ticket prices are just a point of entry that allow them to make the ROI of keeping the park running as much as they can, while food and merchandise are those surefire things that will give you the money that you can later invest. That is the truth about these huge investments in this area. Main Street U.S.A. could make half a million dollars each day. Imagine what happens during peak season, or the days when they have some extra revenue due to bad weather (umbrellas and ponchos).
Staff are the single most important resource a theme park has. They can make or break the experience completely. A well trained and highly motivated cast member could be the difference between an amazing attraction and a broken ride. They keep the paths clean, they help other guests, they entertain, and make the place a secure environment.
In RCT3, the staff is divided in Mechanics, Janitors, Security, Animal Keepers, and Entertainers. Each of these cast members needs to be properly trained in order to have a significant difference in the park experience. Once each member is properly trained, magic starts to happen. Rides never break down, pathways are always squeaky clean, there’s no signs of robbery, and everyone is happy. If your objective is to raise the park rating, well trained cast members are the cheapest way to do it. Make sure you can pay them and that your numbers aren’t on the red.
Staff are added as your park becomes more popular and sustainable. Sometimes you’ll need to hire more staff due to the increasing guests. Other times you’ll want to hire more staff like Security or Janitors for a special occasion, like the special appearance of a celebrity. what you can’t say is that you will run a park without staff. This is the pillar of guest experience. The more trained they are, the more efficient it’ll run.
For this well oiled machine to keep on going, the manager should be able to make micro decisions in favor of the guest experience and still turn a profit. Sometimes they lean in too much on one side. Some managers raise prices up to a point that people stop visiting the park. Others expand the park up to a point that it isn’t sustainable. Management styles have important changes in the parks. It is better to have a balancing act between guest experience and a focus on profit.
Let’s have an example with park expansions. Usually these kind of projects involve attractions and scenery that cost much more to the park. How do you keep it a healthy investment? Add merchandise and food, add two attractions with different prices, or have the project opened in phases. Each of these strategies have been used by Disney theme parks. With a new attraction, it is common to hear about new food and merchandise. Adding several attractions to a project proved great for New Fantasyland, which also opened in phases. These are small decisions that can make or break a theme park expansion.
Even though Roller Coaster Tycoon 3 is just a simulation game, it rings true on many aspects of theme park management. Other details are slightly changed or omitted because of the complexity, but it hits many target that are on point. I started the experiment of seeing how much it compares to the real theme parks and it has even helped me to better understand the decisions that parks make to keep the business running.
Many of these aspects appear to be logical, but in trying them and using them to actually run a theme park within RCT3 has changed my perspective. Maybe RCT3 doesn’t make you an MBA capable of managing a theme park, but it helps make a thought experiment that could be worth it to many theme park enthusiasts.