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Winterfest at Great America Gives a Shimmering Debut

It is rare in the amusement industry to meet expectations, especially for hardcore park fans. It is an even rarer event to exceed those expectations.

After I experienced Winterfest at California’s Great America this past Friday, I am happy to report that my expectations for this park have been forever shattered, in the most wonderful of ways.

Star Tower has been magically transformed into the North Pole, complete with decorations and a new ob-board spiel.

Star Tower has been magically transformed into the North Pole, complete with decorations and a new on-board spiel.

With a little help from local figure skating Olympian Polina Edmunds and Snoopy, the park lit it’s impressive 60 foot tall tree:

Winterfest Main Tree

Now, if you live in Santa Clara and find it difficult to get a Christmas Tree in Santa Clara – blame this park – as hundreds of Douglas Firs are spread throughout it. They’re used both as ambiance as well as effective barriers to closed-off sections of the park. The result is quite striking: not only does it look like Christmas, it SMELLS like it, too.

 

Snowflake Lake:

Arguably the most striking feature of Winterfest, this honest-to-goodness ice rink is in the middle of Carousel Columbia’s reflection pond.

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If you intend on going skating, check-in first at the Stroller Rental. That’s where you’ll have to fill out the waiver (thanks, California) and if you’re under 18, you’ll need a parental signature to hit the rink. When we first arrived, it was unclear where we had to go to first, so we lost skating time as a result.

Also, you CAN bring your own skates, but the additional fee to skate still applies (I.E. no discount). Just be prepared to get a locker to keep them safe, unless you want to lug them around the park the rest of the evening.

Finally, if you happen to be late for your scheduled ice skating time (it’s given in blocks of 30 minutes) you’ll be given the final skate of the night by default.

Santa’s Reindeer:

Winterfest Reindeer

Sitting on the site of the much-beloved “Triple Play” Huss Troika, the reindeer paddock saw consistent crowds all evening long. If you’ve never seen a real one up-close, it’s quite a treat. Listen for the snapping from their hoof tendons as they prance around. The site also provides unique (albeit dark) photo opportunities for the Patriot coaster (nee Vortex) due to open in 2017.

 

Entertainment / Shows:

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Under the brilliant management of Entertainment Director, Clayton Lawrence, the quality of shows in the park and overall experiences available to guests during Winterfest has met or exceeded those of the Marriott-era.

Yes, I said it. Because it’s true.

As during “Taste of Orleans” – there were characters everywhere – happy to interact with you and your family. There was always a show you could go and see, all with high production value and jaw-dropping visuals. The decorations and lighting around the park brought it to life in a away none of us have seen before. When Santa appeared at the end of the show, the kids in the audience legitimately GEEKED OUT. It was fully immersive entertainment – my God it was a THEME park again.

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Be sure to get to the shows you wish to see early, as the best seats go fast. Both theatres saw STANDING ROOM ONLY crowds – and that was on a Friday night. Just imagine how packed it could be once the word gets out!

“It’s Christmas, Snoopy” was so good – after Linus’ famous speech on the true meaning of Christmas…people applauded. That tells you a LOT. And to ensure complete inclusion in this holiday event – in addition to a nativity scene, there’s a Hanukkah menorah and Kwanzaa kinara in the park itself.

 

Merchandise:

I have made it no secret my disdain for the merchandise offerings from corporate parks (The 8-car Demon shirt, the California’s Great Adventure Gold Striker shirts) but, I’m willing to forgive my home park for ALL OF THAT, when I saw this:

 

THIS is what fans want to see in their local amusement park!

THIS is what fans want to see in their local amusement park!

 

And this…

CGA Winterfest Merch 2

 

And finally, this:

CGA Winterfest Merch 3

Ladies and gentlemen, that is park-specific merchandise (which is increasingly rare in the corporate park world). It took effort to create and it can only be sold in one park in the chain.

I bought the ornament immediately and look forward to it gracing my tree for decades to come.

Want to make a park fan happy? Just keep making merchandise like this. Don’t keep pushing generic “I ride with Him / Her” shirts. I’ll never buy one of those. But I sure as hell will grab unique pieces like this – and happily hand over my credit card.

 

Coal in the Stocking:

But, much like Christmas morning, sometimes you don’t always get everything you want. For instance, with all the glitz and lighting around it, Carousel Columbia wasn’t very well lit or distinguishable once the sun set. Just leaving the regular white up-lights with those blue highlights would vastly improve everyone’s front entrance photos and ice-selfies.

Jaw dropping from Star Tower, but remarkably touch to spot from the ground, Carousel Columbia could use some more lights on the front to stand out better.

Speaking of Columbia, all of the park maps (paper, online and in-park poster) have three errors on them, including the misspelling of the iconic carousel (it’s misspelled “COLOMBIA,” like the country). It’s hard for die-hard park fans to ignore when someone misspells your signature attraction:

Insert head-slap here.

Insert head-slap here.

Gold Striker and Flight Deck are both on single train operation – which is understandable – given the three and-a-half weeks the park’s maintenance staff has had to do a complete winter rehabilitation (it’s usually several months). But, if you choose to go to Winterfest just to ride either of these e-tickets, expect longer than average wait times (you really shouldn’t be going for the rides, anyway).

Lines for food also seemed to be longer than usual. I’m chalking it up to having the main food service area (County Fair’s Food Festival) not open as part of the festivities. Also, because that and half of Planet Snoopy aren’t open for Winterfest (you’ll walk along a decorated part of the service road instead), the park can feel more crowded than usual, so just be sure to bring plenty of Christmas cheer on crowded nights.

Food lines CGA

Final Thoughts:

Despite these bits of coal, Winterfest isn’t just worth your time or money – it should be mandatory that every family in the greater Bay Area check it out sometime this holiday season. Winterfest combines everything that other holiday events do in the area (plus coasters and rides) in just one location. It’s worthy of “tradition” status and did I mention there’s a 100% chance of snow?

Winterfest Snow

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Kings Dominion has the Worst Day Ever on Social Media After Allegedly “Trolling” Coaster Fans

On Saturday, Kings Dominion finally revealed their 2017 attraction that it had been building up on social media for several weeks – an expanded Planet Snoopy, along with a season-long photo service and in-park wi-fi.

And the reaction online was both swift and ugly:

KD Twitter Ouch 2

KD Ouch Twitter

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About 98% of the posts responding to the park’s announcements were negative. Park “fans” are incensed because they felt Kings Dominion staff purposely lied, teasing them into thinking something larger (and in their opinion, better) was coming (specifically, a Rocky Mountain conversion of their Hurler wooden coaster).

Here’s their reasoning – exhibit A is a tweet similar to this (which has been subsequently deleted). It features Snoopy looking at the Hurler roller coaster:

14030619_10154267595696023_1081570843_n Exhibit B (they say) is this video, in which their PR Manager read fan mail:

Chad Video

The first question asks if green colored roller coaster track in an Ohio foundry is destined for Kings Dominion. He responds, “Green? No. It’s red.”

Apparently his sarcasm didn’t translate to everyone – as “fans” immediately assumed he was hinting at the familiar red track from Rocky Mountain Construction. Some fans got the joke:

Chad Positive

But apparently, many did not – and therein lies the problem.

Exhibit C (they say) is the fact that the park announced the expansion as part of a big event, inviting pass holders and bloggers to come and hear the news first – two days after the rest of the chain announced their attractions. This led park “fans” to THINK the timing indicated it would be a major announcement.

The simple fact is this: coaster “fans” created their own narrative and reality, due in part to the echo chamber of social media and the constant searching for the latest rumors on ride additions. They had convinced themselves not only was a roller coaster coming to Kings Dominion – but that they the fans DESERVED one.

How can I say this with confidence? Because others did some research – yet were drowned out by all the fervor:

Not Near Hurler

Now – should the park have used photos of Snoopy looking at a closed Hurler? In hindsight, probably not. Is it worth getting so worked up about, that you threaten the park, sharpen your pitchforks and hope the PR guy is fired? Hell no! (I’m looking at you, Instagrammers)

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I want “ansers” too…like how you think your eight followers on Instagram constitutes a personal phone call from the park, apologizing for not putting in a ride that you wanted.

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“Hype” that was driven more by coaster “fans” online who wanted a narrative, and didn’t get it.

In the end, this tease campaign made perfect sense – Snoopy is looking around the park, “snoopin’ around” as they say for his Planet Snoopy expansion. But the scale of the announcement vs. the attraction, coupled with the “echo chamber” and “need to know” community that is the online coaster “fan” made this the perfect storm for full-blown virality – in the worst way possible.

Welcome to the tightrope that is social media. Hope you’ve got a net set up below.

And as for the coaster “fans” posting all the hate and vitriol against the park to social media or demanding the park add a coaster to satisfy you – good luck ever being invited to a media day or special event…


California’s Great America announces The Patriot for 2017

With no fanfare or any buildup, California’s Great America announced a long-standing rumor that it will convert it’s Vortex roller coaster into a floorless model, dubbed The Patriot.

Now, I’m all for improving the ride experience for any coaster – and certainly Vortex fits the bill for that. But considering that a longer, faster, taller (and better) floorless coaster is an hour’s drive north from Santa Clara – why would they try to market the world’s shortest floorless coaster in the same media market? (An ultra-competitive media market at that).

The Patriot at CGA 1

The Patriot will convert Vortex into a floorless coaster, with new trains and paint. Graphic courtesy of California’s Great America.

The press release sent out by the park also erroneously claimed that Vortex is the oldest stand-up coaster in the United States (“Apocalypse,” formerly “Iron Wolf” is the oldest at Six Flags America). It also said the ride’s name was inspired by the “All American Corners” section of the park – even though the ride shares no entrance or exit to the area (It’s officially located in Hometown Square).

Vortex Oldest

Not quite, California’s Great America…

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Don’t get me wrong – this is still a good move by the park. But it’s no slam dunk. Six Flags Discovery Kingdom has the upper edge on this ride type with Medusa, so Great America must come with a really good angle to get their message heard.

Looking at the park’s social media feeds, members of the general public aren’t really sold on the idea:

Confusion

Park fans on CGA’s Facebook feed are a bit confused on the Vortex / Patriot conversion and sadly the park isn’t answering their questions…

For me, the park would have been better off converting the ride into a sit down coaster, such as Kumba, Wildfire or the Incredible Hulk. At least then it would have been unique to the area. But, it’s still a major improvement to a ride that desperately needed it.

Let’s hope the station is also improved, with actual shade and you know – a roof.

The Patriot 2

The Patriot will be one of the shortest floorless coasters when it opens in 2017. Graphic courtesy of California’s Great America.

But the one thing I can’t shake from all this is HOW it was announced. At least when Cedar Point converted Mantis into Rougarou – there was a fun teaser campaign (Squash the bug). You felt like you were a part of the park.

But the way The Patriot was announced this morning came off like a doctor giving you a bad prognosis: “This is coming. You’ve got two weeks. Buy a season pass.”

There’s no emotional connection to an announcement this big when it’s done via press release only. Honestly, I don’t feel compelled to buy a season pass at all. The two errors in the release certainly don’t help, either:

CGA Patriot Release Error

What lies “beneath their fee”? Isn’t that your admission? 😉

Overall though, the general public will welcome this change if it’s marketed well – and my hope is that it will be successful. But it will also be increasingly difficult to get the right message across – an emotional one – if the park does not connect better with the fans in the future.

What do you think of The Patriot? Leave a comment below with your thoughts!


Social Media Strategies and Best Practices for Amusement Parks

Social media use has exploded over the past decade. Its presence is so big, many companies are hiring people solely based on their experience with these new, direct marketing channels.

But while a “like” can be earned quickly, those bonds can also be lost just as fast if the user has a poor experience with it.

So, if you follow these simple tips, you’ll be well on your way to having a superior social media experience for your guests, which will lead to more of those turnstiles rotating:

STEP ONE: KEEP IT UPDATED!

I can’t tell you the number of parks that leave their social media without updated content for weeks, even months on end. Common errors here can include outdated cover photos, profile photos and information. While one of the easiest to fix, this is also one of the most common mistakes many parks and FEC’s make on social media.

RMC Before and After Comparison

Keeping your content fresh on the landing page will encourage visitors to return to see what’s new and stay engaged with your company or property.

 

STEP TWO: STOP POSTING CRAP UPDATES!

Treating social media like a direct billboard or commercial to the fans of your park is instant poison for your social media. Consider a park with 400,000 fans, yet only receives 100 likes on average on their posts. Something’s wrong there – and it’s the content.

Mask the ad for your park or event in great content – make a cool video or post a beautiful photo that’s sure to be shared. Direct calls to action will turn off park visitors faster than an hour long wait in an un-shaded queue.

And don’t forget about video – it’s the best way to tell a story – and one of the most underutilized mediums on social media.

CGA Capture

Video is good – but when you can see the cell phone being used to capture said video in a reflection – that’s not good enough anymore for social audiences.

STEP THREE: INTERACT WITH YOUR FANS!

It should go without saying, but many parks neglect the “social” part of social media – that is, they post something to their account – and simply leave it there. That’s akin in the digital age of throwing crap on a wall and seeing if it sticks.

Social media allows guests to experience things they may have missed on their last trip, post about how much fun they had – or in some cases – complain about a negative experience they had while at your facility.

Not responding or interacting with guests on social media is no longer an acceptable practice. It never was acceptable, period. One can easily gain back a potential repeat customer simply by interacting with them, acknowledging their concerns or eventually resolving them.

Dollywood No Show

Dollywood was notably absent from social media; not answering questions of people who were led to believe their latest ride was going to open on time. It was not well received.

Yes, it IS a lot of work and yes, it CAN be frustrating at times with a never-ending deluge of comments – but that’s the world we live in. Consider it “job security.”

Plus, when a park or facility responds to a guest, they guest feels important – because they ARE! Remember who pays for the bills, folks…

By answering questions on social media, you’re also contributing to a higher engagement rating on many of the mathematical algorithms which dictate who sees what. Translation: responding on social media means more people see your post FOR FREE.

So, if you follow these simple steps, your amusement park or family entertainment center should see a nice bump in social media metrics – which should lead to more butts through those gates.

Got any other good suggestions? Leave a comment below or post on our social media channels. Don’t worry, we’ll actually interact with you!


Kings Island Unveils Mystic Timbers and Teases with #WhatsInTheShed

There are four things every public relations person at an amusement /theme park should do in preparation for a big ride announcement:

1.) Think to yourself, “What would Jeffrey Siebert at Six Flags Fiesta Texas do?”

2.) Release computer animated point of view video (POV)

3.) Tease a unique, mystery element in the ride

4.) Have ride merchandise hidden and ready to be purchased, just moments after the official announcement is made.

Kings Island 2017 Teaser What's In The Shed

Kings Island in Ohio hit all of those on Thursday evening, even with major online streaming issues, when they officially announced Mystic Timbers – their record-setting 5th wooden coaster.

Not only did the park release the official animated POV (which has already been stolen and monetized by multiple “coaster media outlets” – the park also teases at something else…

You see, the POV wasn’t complete – there’s a little section at the end that they purposely omitted – only to show yet another hashtag: #WhatsInTheShed.

The coaster community online LOST IT’S DAMN MIND – and loved every bit of it:

Capture 1 Capture 2 Capture 3

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how you keep the coaster enthusiasts satisfied, curious and talking up a ride that isn’t even built for another 10 months on this project. We’ll all find out what’s in that shed come the 2017 season.

But for now, this is truly one of the best times of the year for park fans!

Are YOU excited for the 2017 season? What’s your most anticipated coaster or park announcement?


Instagram Coaster Accounts Are Not Real Media

I’m going to say something here that’s bound to tick off some of my readers – but it warrants being told:

IF YOU RUN A ROLLER COASTER OR AMUSEMENT PARK INSTAGRAM ACCOUNT…

YOU ARE NOT ACTUAL MEDIA.

There, I said it.

The same goes with just having a social media presence, whether it’s just a Twitter account or Tumblr that’s focused on parks or rides. None of that qualifies you to be invited to nor demand to be invited to a park media event.

This just about sums up most of Instagram...

This just about sums up most of Instagram…

Why? Well I’ll tell ya…

Credentialed media (such as myself) are invited to events because we earn it. We write proper news stories, we create content that’s more than just a photo and a caption. We provide insight for people who may be fans of the industry or the general public who might do a Google search.

Demanding that you’re invited to media events based solely on the fact that run an Instagram account dedicated to rides is laughable.

You have to have impact – you have to actually DO something besides snap photos with your phone and upload them.

Media events at parks – by their very nature – are supposed to be fun. But, that does not mean they are there for you and your “hundreds” of followers to HAVE fun.

Make sense?

Coaster Expert Kris Rowberry gets his thrill on

Getting my thrill on with the lap bar only “Superman: Ultimate Flight” at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom

People like myself are there to work; to cover a story. When you shove your way to the front of the press line, or bolt in front of others to get on the ride – that’s counterproductive to our whole industry of covering parks. And it’s why more and more parks are second-guessing bringing in “online, coaster media” in the first place.

When the enthusiasm over a new ride or attraction blinds you – that’s not good. I’m not saying what you do is dumb or pointless – I just want you to realize there are more steps to be taken to get up the ladder.

This problem is so prevalent, that at one media event I attended this year, a member of the Instagram Mafia DEMANDED that they receive the park provided ride POV first from their PR Manager.

Really?

Think about that. It’s not about covering the park anymore, is it? It’s about…YOU…being first. That’s the wrong attitude to have.

Simply put, if you don’t create meaningful content or respect the parks you cover (and the people who cover them) then I hope you enjoy the latest attractions when they open to the general public – because that’s when you should be riding them, first.

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Am I way off base? (It’s happened before). Let me know in the comments section below or on my social media links!


Dorney Park’s flag stolen and the massive social media backlash over special needs employee not rehired

Dorney Park in Altoona, PA learned the hard way this week that when it rains, it pours. (or maybe when it snows, it blizzards). A member of the Cedar Fair chain, the park saw not one but two major media events – and neither one was positive.

Last Sunday, after the park had closed – four teenagers were able to enter the park, and somehow scaled the 200 foot tall “Dominator” free fall ride to steal one of the large flags at the top. “Dominator” is a triple S&S tower.

Not a great start to the week, admittedly. But then it got worse. Much worse.

Christopher Emery, a special-needs individual had worked at the park for 12 consecutive years, cleaning bathrooms. When he went in for his annual interview with managers, he apparently didn’t do well. So much so, they decided not to rehire him.

When his friend – who also works at Dorney Park found out – he jumped onto social media to vent his frustration. Outside of having a bad interview, there wasn’t apparently any other reason for not rehiring him.

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Within a matter of minutes, both #ShameOnYouDorney and #ShameOnYouDorneyPark were trending locally in the Philadelphia area as well as in the online amusement community.

It took until the next day for Dorney to issue a statement to the press, as well as try to quell fervor online. It was textbook, “too little / too late.”

Social media is a double edged sword. You can rise and fall very quickly and you’re always under a microscope. Parks can’t afford to not have a social media person ready to go at any time and not monitor their feeds constantly. No engagement is walking tightrope without a net.

Dorney eventually responded - but only issuing one statement and not responding to individuals only incited more anger towards the park.

Dorney eventually responded – but only issuing one statement and not responding to individuals only incited more anger towards the park.

One of the best examples of handling a crisis of late came from overseas. Alton Towers not only immediately issued statements on an incident on the Smiler via their social media channels – they responded to their guests’ questions and complaints – ALL OF THEM. And it wasn’t a canned response either – it was custom for each one.

It just goes to show the power of social media in this new era – and that trying to avoid it is only inviting trouble. As for Dorney Park, let’s hope this week is a bit more calm on the media front, for their sake.