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Should Theme Parks License Known Characters For Theming Purposes?

By on 12/28/2010

Six Flags Entertainment Corporation recently announced that it is dropping several licensing deals that provided the rights to use the names of famous people and characters throughout its parks. These include The Wiggles, Tony Hawk, Evel Knievel, Thomas the Tank Engine, and the popular Terminator movie franchise. Six Flags has spent considerable time and money over the years to not only secure these rights, but also to theme the rides, produce merchandise, and advertise the partnership. The Wiggles, signed back in late 2006, were the foundation for the popular Wiggles’ World. Tony Hawk, also signed in 2006, was the namesake of the Tony Hawk’s Big Spin coasters. In 2007, Evel Knievel lent his name to the Evel Knievel Roller Coaster at Six Flags St. Louis and Thomas the Tank Engine became the basis for a series of Thomas Towns placed in multiple parks. The wood coaster built at Six Flags Magic Mountain in 2009 was themed after the popular Terminator movie franchise and called Terminator Salvation: The Ride.

Still trying to regain its footing after emerging from bankruptcy earlier this year, Six Flags made the decision to not renew these licensing deals. Instead, it opted to rebrand all of these to something more generic. Tony Hawk’s Big Spin coasters will simply be called Big Spin, Evel Knievel Roller Coaster will now be known as American Thunder, Thomas Town will be called Whistle Stop Depot, and Terminator Salvation will become Apocalypse. Most of the Six Flags parks with a Wiggles’ World have renamed the area to Kidzopolis.

These licensing deals can be expensive, running into the millions of dollars. On top of that, millions more can be spent on associated costs. For example, Six Flags Magic Mountain spent roughly an extra million dollars above and beyond the cost of building the Terminator Salvation coaster just to add Terminator-themed elements in the ride queue and a custom pre-ride video using a couple of the actors from the movie. Are these extra costs really worth the money? I say not. Six Flags made a prudent financial decision in terminating these agreements.

Six Flags made the following statement in their 2009 annual report:

Our licenses include the right to sell merchandise featuring the characters at the parks, and to use the characters in our advertising, as walk−around characters and in theming for rides, attractions and retail outlets. We believe using these characters promotes increased attendance, supports higher ticket prices, increases lengths−of−stay and enhances in−park spending.

I’m not sure that I buy into the notion that they increase park attendance, support higher ticket prices, or increase length of stay. I think those are all directly related to the quality of the rides, the cleanliness of the park, and the friendliness of the staff. I will concede that it likely increases in-park spending, at least with regards to themed merchandise. Kids love buying things with their favorite superhero or cartoon character on them. However, there is nothing preventing Six Flags from creating its own superheros or characters that can only be found in a Six Flags theme park. I am curious to read what they say in the 2010 annual report with regards to these licensing deals.

I don’t believe that naming a coaster after a known character is what makes that ride successful. When Tatsu launched in 2006, there was no connection to a licensing deal and the ride has been a huge success. X2 has never been tied to a licensing deal either and it also does quite well. Kingda Ka, Texas Giant, Goliath – the list of successful coasters that aren’t tied to a third-party goes on and on. My belief is that if a coaster is unique and fun, people will want to ride it regardless of what it’s called. Now, you might get quite a bit of scoffing if you name a hypercoaster The Pink Bunny, but people will still line up to ride it. Paint it black with red flames and call it The Flaming Arrow and you’ll get rid of the scoffing. I will not wait in a long line to ride a crappy coaster just because it’s named after my favorite superhero, however I’ll wait up to two hours to ride a custom named coaster if it’s considered one of the hottest coasters ever to be built, even if it’s called The Pink Bunny. Coming up with unique themes that don’t require a royalty fee isn’t that difficult. I mentioned in an earlier post (here) that giving the exact same name to completely different coasters in different parks is a bad idea. Using custom names generated in-house not only makes it easier to build a unique identity for each individual park, but it also helps to eliminate the confusion of having multiple coasters across multiple parks with the exact same name.

In closing, I applaud Six Flags for making this decision. I think that it not only makes financial sense, but it gives them the opportunity to start building their own brand identity going forward. Once they find the right theme that really takes off, who is to say that merchandise from that theme won’t outsell what they’re making from their licensing deals today? Instead of selling Superman capes, perhaps the must have item will be a Flaming Arrow spear. You just never know.

4 Comments

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  2. Zac

    08/10/2011 at 11:32 am

    you make a really great point. I loved the ride terminator salvation: the ride, more recently know as apocalypse. But to be honest i never saw the movie. even though they changed the name i still wait an hour to go on it, and one day i rode it 5 times in a row because its just a great ride. But I do have to disagree with the dc universe and looney tunes characters license agreements. I feel that those character have been with magic mountain for such a long time that you expect them to be at the park. If they left the park I think it could affect the attendance. Those agreements make magic mountain a family park, and families are a huge part of attendance.

  3. Alex

    10/24/2011 at 2:07 pm

    Six Flags made the right choice in dumping all the licensed characters other than the quintessential D.C. Comics and Looney Tunes.
    Besides the other things that Six Flags “genericized” than Apocalypse (Terminator Salvation: The Ride) and Whistle Stop Park (Thomas Town) are Pandemonium (Tony Hawk’s Big Spin), American Thunder (Evel Knievel Roller Coaster), and Kidzopolis (Wiggles World).

  4. steve austin

    11/27/2014 at 1:40 am

    Personally? i Cant stand that they use DC Comics and Warner Brothers characters. i love both of those things…but not for a theme park in any way…Before Six Flags bought the park….Magic Mountain had its own Characters….they were fun and cute and original..i am speaking of course about the trolls and the wizard……and the rides and coasters dont need super hero names before the ride name…. But thats just my opinion.

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