Experiential Marketing: SeaWorld vs. Legoland

I need to get out more. After a day at SeaWorld and a day at Legoland, I’ve gained an entirely new perspective on marketing. I know. Some of you will say, “wow, you need to let go”, but I can’t help it. The only vacation where I can really tune out is backpacking, where there’s little sign of human intervention. Put me in a resort or an amusement park, and to me it’s like swimming in a Petri dish of marketing. I constantly absorb all the packaging and spin and reverse engineer the intended segmentation and positioning. It’s fun. My son’s getting good at it too. “Daddy,” he said to me in line for Shamu, “SeaWorld must be targeting the NASCAR demographic.” Okay, maybe that was the voice in my head.

So for all you parents making a trip to San Diego this summer, let me put it in terms your kids will understand. SeaWorld kind of sucks. Legoland rocks. Only now I’ve ruined it. Because the reason SeaWorld sucks and Legoland rocks, is because the experience is entirely the reverse of their reputations. I came to SeaWorld expecting Disney World in a giant fish tank, and although you can’t help but be impressed by a whale doing a back flip, the small moments of awe are like diamonds strung on a necklace made of cheap string. The expectation of a world class amusement park simply doesn’t match up with reality.

Legoland, on the other hand, has a reputation of being an amusement park for third-graders, an impression that grows when you first enter the park. My son was giddy with excitement at every sight of a Lego dinosaur or giraffe. And after a kiddy coaster and a storybook boat ride, I steeled myself for an entire day in It’s A Small World™ hell. But I turned out to be wrong. Legoland is like a bird trying to break out of a thick shell. The vestiges of a 1960s kiddy park are everywhere, but there also a lot of really cool hands-on activities, and some new rides diabolical enough to attract adrenaline junkies—including a row of huge manufacturing robots that twist and spin their hapless victims like parts on an assembly line. While the riders are flipped and dangled over a pond, spectators control small cannons that shoot water at the riders. Time it just right, and someone being flipped at three Gs over the pond gets a blast of water in the face before they’re whipped back around and flipped over the next cannon. Oh, and riders choose their own ride intensity. Can you handle Extreme?

As a marketer, seeing these two parks back to back—huge revenue generators stoked with millions of dollars in targeted packaging and spin—was its own amusement experience. They’ve both been around so long that you can clearly see how they’ve dealt over time with a changing culture and with the growing challenge of a massively over-stimulated video generation. And in this, they’re polar opposites. As two prime examples, let’s take their respective approaches to environmental consciousness and audience engagement.

At SeaWorld, you’re constantly reminded of their dedication to conservation and environmental protection. By big signs co-branded with corporate sponsor Anheuser Busch. But they seem to miss every opportunity to make it part of the experience. In the long meandering walkway that threads through the very cool Shark Experience, there is an endless opportunity to educate visitors with interactive displays and video—the kind of thing you’d expect at a real aquarium. The kind of thing that says, “this is what we’re all about”. Instead, the walls are completely empty, reminding you that you’re just waiting line, until you get to the big sign trumpeting SeaWorld’s conservation partnership with Anheuser Busch, reminding you that beer and funnel cakes are waiting for you just outside.

You get the same sense of window dressing with the performances. The animals are beautiful, but the trainers seem like Richard Simmons devotees on steroids, clapping and dancing with 1000-watt smiles. No one comes to SeaWorld to see synchronized wetsuit dancing, but that’s what you get. I suspect animal rights regulations have eliminated the triple-back-flip-gainer-through-a-ring-of-fire performances. Now you get a couple of high jumps and a lot of audience splashing, as if they went to the Gallagher school of comedic performance. Oh, and the constant sound tracks with syrupy voices. They sound like they were written by a real estate ad writer dabbling in new age religion. “…where those that swim the oceans touch those that walk on land…” It’s worse than getting seasick.

Legoland faces the same challenges in a completely different way. The park makes up for a lack of issue-driven window dressing, with creative ways to engage and interest the same audience. Instead of spouting off about environmentalism at every turn, Legoland engages socially conscious visitors by offering healthy food. When you walk into one of their markets, along with the cappuccinos and lattes, they have fresh fruit, yoghurt and cereal. They have salad bars and pasta. They have juices and lots of plain old water. Yes, they still have burgers and coke, but the alternative is equally available, and that realization carries a much more effective message than a self-congratulatory billboard.

The same ethic holds true in their approach to engaging visitors. They don’t have a ton of new rides, but the ones they have are exciting, and they’re doing some interesting things by making the rides interactive—a number of rides have features where spectators can shoot water at the riders. It’s subtle, but you get the sense that they’re starting to let the same excitement for engineering and imagination that drives their product innovation seep into their park. It’s not broadcast from overhead speakers while you’re waiting in line, but the impression comes through loud and clear.

In all, the back to back experience of Legoland and SeaWorld seems like a metaphor for companies dealing with the big changes in consumer expectations. Some companies throw a lot more money at plastering messages and packaging over their problems, while other companies focus on digging down to find and explore the real value they can offer that will engage their market. The experience speaks for itself.

Today we’re heading back north and stopping at the LeBrea Tar Pits. You know. Dinosaurs. Stuck in tar. Wonder what else we’ll find.

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