Bringing back the families
Soon after Mark Shapiro assumed the role of chief executive officer of Six Flags in December of 2005, he told Park World he planned to bring in rides and attractions that would appeal to all ages. “We’re going to get back to bread and butter, which is investing in the experience of Six Flags, the great service of Six Flags, a get-away in a clean, safe, friendly environment with a host of offerings, not just 200-foot drops.” It sounded like heresy.
Six Flags had been attracting thrill-seekers for years with an assortment of cutting-edge high-energy rides. Now, two years later, Six Flags parks are again buzzing with families, and the thrill-seekers haven’t abandoned them either. Larry Litton (pictured), president of Six Flags New England, explains how his park has managed the shift in demographics.
I wouldn’t so much say we have changed our target audience as we have expanded it. We certainly continue to be the leader in the amusement park industry in thrill rides, but now we want to broaden our appeal and make our parks a leader in family entertainment as well.
In order to accomplish this we need to do two things: First, we need to better educate our guests as to the tremendous amount of rides and attractions for kids that we already have, and second, we will continue to add kid-friendly areas like Wiggles World and Thomas Town to more Six Flags parks.
Obviously, an important part of our long-term strategy is to get moms and dads into the park to see the changes we’ve made in the last couple of years. They have more money, and they are also more likely to spend it. But more than that, it’s about the positive word of mouth that results when moms and dads come to Six Flags New England – we want to be viewed as a Disney type family-friendly destination, and having that word passed along from parent to parent is an incredibly effective marketing tool.
Our future then becomes the generational attendance. Toddlers begin coming to the park with mom and dad, continue to come through their pre-teen and teen years and right through their early adulthood, and finally come in with their own young families and create their own family traditions and memories.
In an effort to attract families, in 2005 we put in Six Flags’ first family spinning coaster, Pandemonium, which continues to be one of the park’s most popular rides. In 2006 we added the family water ride, Splash Water Falls, and in 2007 we added two new family areas that have been extremely popular. First, Six Flags partnered with The Wiggles, the number one children’s entertainers in the world, to bring Wiggles World to the park. Wiggles World features eight family rides in the centre of the park, and The Wiggles themselves actually did a concert in our picnic grove this past Memorial Day weekend – I can’t begin to describe the excitement and buzz it generated in our area. Then, at the entrance to the park, we opened a Thomas Town, featuring a Thomas the Tank Engine train ride as well as other rides based on Thomas’ friends.
Other key objectives we have focused on, both here at Six Flags New England and throughout the entire company, are guest service and cleanliness. We use a third-party independent research company to measure our results, and I’m proud to be able to tell you that as a company we are receiving the highest scores ever in both those areas – areas that are clearly very important to the families visiting the park.
We have also made a concentrated effort this year to improve both the quality and variety of the food we offer in the park. While people are always going to be big fans of traditional theme park fare like fried dough or cotton candy when they visit us, there is also a demand for more healthy offerings such as fresh tossed salads and fruit, and we offer them now as well.
As a result of all our initiatives, the demographic of our guests has clearly changed. I can’t give you a number or percentage increase, but we have so many strollers in the park now that we’ve had to designate stroller parking areas in the Wiggles and Thomas areas. On top of adding kids’ rides, shows and attractions, we also implemented a Guest Code of Conduct this year which means we have zero tolerance for guests smoking outside of our designated smoking areas, line-jumping, loud or offensive talk and other inappropriate behaviour – and we strictly enforce this to insure a family friendly environment for all our guests.
As for attendance, the New England park is up 16 per cent over last year. I think that number speaks for itself. We are bringing in the teens and young adults who are here to ride the coasters and enjoy themselves, and we are now getting their parents, grandparents and younger siblings to come with them. We have had a huge number of first-time visitors this year and many of them upgraded to season passes before they left the property. We fully expect many more of them to become season pass holders in future years as we continue to improve.
The response from both our family and teen guests has been overwhelmingly positive. The only people who seem to be unhappy with the overall direction we have taken are the ones breaking our Code of Conduct – people we don’t want in the park anyway. Anyone who is looking for a place to cause mischief or trouble needs to find a new place to go, because Six Flags will no longer put up with it.
Looking ahead, I have already presented our long range plan for the park to the people at our corporate office, and it very much revolves around continuing enhancements for our family visitors. In 2008, we’re planning on adding two more family-friendly options as well, and I think people will really respond to them. The first is a ride that I can’t get into specifics on yet, but I can tell you that it will appeal to everyone – families, ‘tweens and teens. We’re also launching a new kids’ area in the waterpark, and plan on expanding the cabana programme that we started this year in Hurricane Harbor, and which has proved to be very popular, selling out nearly every day.
I want to be clear – we’re still focused on thrills, and Six Flags has the best thrill rides in the world. What we’re doing now is re-setting the balance and adding some “family thrills” to the mix. This is clearly the right direction to go, not just for Six Flags New England but for the entire company. Mark Shapiro’s strategy and vision for the company is the right one, and I’m confident that any family which has visited our park this season would testify to that. The reality is that we already have the best hardware in the business. Our job now is to continue to bring in families, and all the amenities and incredible guest service that we have to offer will continue to move us along that road.