China Insights

How to measure a theme park’s chance of success?

Ray Xu

Associate Director

Shoppers 22.06.2016 / 11:40

Disney open queue 2 col

Market researchers have a set of sophisticated tools to understand if a theme park will be able to win in this increasingly competitive sector.

Shanghai Disneyland officially opened at noon of June 16, 2016. It means since that moment, visitors will no longer be family members and friends of its employees and partners, they will be consumers paying out from their wallets. Shanghai Disneyland’s future is now in the hands of the consumers.

Even the world’s most famous fairy tale theme park has to face reality. Besides large volume of positive comments, Disneyland was also criticized for too high ticket and food prices as well as too long queues everywhere during the trial operation which began on May 7. Wang Jianlin, Asia’s richest man and owner of China’s Dalian Wanda Group, has been challenging Disneyland’s investment of US$5.5 billion and claiming that Shanghai Disneyland will be defeated by Wanda’s upcoming theme resorts in China and will be losing money in the next 10 to 20 years.

Is there a Magic Mirror which can tell the fortune of Shanghai Disneyland?

Market researchers have no spirits imprisoned in mirrors, but have plenty of sophisticated research models in the toolbox to measure the possibility of a theme park’s success.

We can measure the likelihood of a theme park’s success from the following aspects: 1. How to measure consumer’s satisfaction of experiences? 2. How much impact does word of mouth have on Disneyland’s popularity? 3. Facing negative comments on social media, what will be Disneyland’s best move? 4. Can Disney’s animation characters justify its ticket premium? If so, to what extent? 5. Now Shanghai Disneyland has opened, is there still room for other theme parks in China, regardless of home-grown or foreign franchise?

Wow triggers WoM (Word of Mouth)

Brands live in a highly competitive era in China, because consumers face explosions in information and options. If a new product/service launch cannot exceed consumers’ expectations in at least at one aspect, its chance of survival, let alone success, will be very slim.

Take FMCG market for example. Kantar Worldpanel China data showed that in 2014, more than 200,000 new products were launched, which means every 2.7 minutes there will be a new SDK hit the shelf. However, the rate of success (new product launch which brings high volume incremental sales for the brand) was only 4%.

TNS has undertaken 75,000 new product concept tests in 76 countries. Our data showed that key attributes affecting a new concept’s success mainly include uniqueness, clarity, believability, price value, relevance, appeal and excitement. For theme parks, excitement is one of the key elements of “what good looks like”.

Professional media reports and grassroots social media buzz all reflected the exciting experiences that visitors have enjoyed during Shanghai Disneyland’s soft opening, especially the rides, such as Soaring Over the Horizon, Pirates of the Caribbean – Battle for the Sunken Treasure, TRON Lightcycle Power Run, and Star Wars Launch Bay. As a result people have been queueing up for hours in front of them just for several minutes’ fun.

TNS data showed that there is a clear link between new product ideas which create excitement and positive word of mouth.

Excitement And WoM

Word of Mouth = Make or Break

Social media buzz can determine a brand’s fortune. This is even more true in China where at least 76% of online population were using some format of social media frequently, according to Kantar Social Media Impact Report 2016. Bad news travels fast, bad social comment travels even faster. Chinese people are influenced by their friends on social media, and many of them are also key opinion leaders for their followers/fans on WeChat and Weibo.

The importance of word of mouth for theme parks is even higher because according to CTR’s CNRS-TGI data, 32% Chinese urban consumers said the “word of mouth” (recommendation from friends or Weibo, WeChat) is the most influential channel for making travel/vacation product purchasing decisions. This puts travel/vacation category the fourth heaviest influenced by “word of mouth”, behind restaurant and bars (36.2%) and equal to clothes and accessories (33.13%) and daily food (32.35%).

Social media word of mouth for a new product/service is also one of the quickest indicators to gauge if a launch is successful.

Globally, 40% of consumers will search advices for new products on social media, ahead of 36% for official information. If we narrow the range to younger consumers between 16 – 30 years old, the gap widens to 48% vs 30%.

Advice Sought For New Products

In fact people who talk on social media also contribute to actual sales. Compared to average consumers, they’re 3.6 times more likely to purchase a product they say they would buy, 2 times more likely to be early adopters, 1.8 times more likely to be influencers, and 2/3 of them will tell friends about brands they love.

Comment And Buy


How to deal with negative social comments?

Not every comment about Shanghai Disneyland is positive, and many negative comments had gone viral. They’re about these following aspects:

* High costs: Beside the tickets (499 yuan for adult and 375 yuan for child and elderly in  peak days, while 25% off in non-peak days), the foods are also expensive: a cheese beef burger for 80 yuan, a large popcorn for 65 yuan, one shrimp dumpling for 10 yuan, and 250 yuan set meal for only two people;

* Limited food options: There are mostly western style food choices and not many options for Chinese food. It is also very difficult for find food suitable for small kids;

* Lack of infrastructure: Not enough shades to shelter people from rain or sunshine. People have to endure the long queuing time under pouring rain or scorching sun;

* Queuing issue: Visitors have to queue up to five hours for a ride, which could last for only five minutes. People queue for rides, fast passes, food and toilet. To make things worse, the queuing experience was very boring. The time they spent on queuing might have well squeezed their time for shopping;

* Misbehaving visitors: They were jumping queues, littering and letting kids urinate in public. They have become the subject of the most viral social blogs.

A list of negative blogs that went viral on WeChat: 

Negative Blogs

Facing so many negative comments, what should Shanghai Disneyland do? Where should they focus resources to deliver the optimal customer experience?

We distinguish between two dimensions:

- If improvements in attribute performance were achieved – how strongly would it positively impact relationship strength?

- If performance was reduced – how would it negatively affect relationship strength?

Thus, all attributes can be categorised into four areas:

Invest: Improvements in this area are most critical for a brand as improved performance could contribute strongly to improving relationship strength – whereas weaker performance would threaten the relationship. Attributes in this area should therefore be given the highest priority.

Build: This area includes aspects which have the potential to increase relationship strength if performance is improved – but reduced performance is unlikely to have a strong negative effect. Our research shows these are often aspects which go beyond the “basics”, e.g. additional consultancy for a service provider.

Maintain: Reduced performance could potentially have a negative effect on relationship strength. It is therefore vital that the current performance level should be maintained. Very often we find the typical hygiene factors here: network related aspects for mobile operators, or quality of products.

Consider: Attributes in this area do not have a strong impact on the overall customer relationship. Neither improving nor worsening performance is likely to have much impact on the overall satisfaction.

It is virtually impossible for a company to be best in all those moments of truth, but brands have to aim for excellence where it matters. 

Prioritize Attributes


So Shanghai Disneyland, or any service provider, should study their consumers’ experience to prioritize which aspects to fix first to maximize the return on the time and money that they’re going to invest to change things around.

How much is Mickey Mouse worth?

The moment that Shanghai Disneyland opens it enters a fierce competition to win visitors in an increasingly crowded market. It faces challenges from home-grown theme parks, such as Happy Valley Shanghai, China Dinosaurs Park in Changzhou City, Jiangsu Province, at lower ticket prices (Happy Valley Shanghai and China Dinosaurs Park both 230 yuan per adult) with much shorter queues. The abovementioned Wang Jianlin is busy unveiling Wanda resorts across China, aiming to open 15 in China and five overseas by 2020. Foreign theme parks have also jumped onto the bandwagon: DreamWorks is building The Dream Center Theme Park in Shanghai and Universal Studio has broken ground for a Universal park in Beijing.

What can make Shanghai Disneyland stand out of the crowd?

In my opinion, the onerous task falls on the shoulders of Mickey Mouse, Snow White, Cowboy Woody, Luke Skywalker and other animation or film characters that Disney has created or purchased over the years.

They have been, or will be, the main reasons for people to pay high premium for the tickets, foods and souvenir, queue for hours after hours and even buy airplane tickets to fly to Shanghai. These characters have deep-rooted bonds with many Chinese consumers, being an indispensable part of their memories at different stages of life.

This connection gives Disneyland a huge advantage over its competitors, because it appeals to people’s deepest need that they’re not aware of.

TNS’ NeedScope applies a brand relationship model that pulls apart three different layers of needs and brand image.

Emotion is at the heart – emotive needs are the driving force behind brand choices but consumers are rarely conscious of them. They are satisfied by the symbology of the brand, which encompasses the feelings it generates and the personality it projects.

The next layer is social identity needs – these exist because we’re social animals and we need to identify ourselves with groups in our society, to affirm where we fit in. A brand satisfies these needs with its social values, which are communicated by the sort of people used in communications, where you buy the brand, the price, who uses it etc.

Finally the functional needs, which consumers are conscious of – these are satisfied by product delivery.

Consumer Brand Relationship

From this perspective, we can say that Shanghai Disneyland is not built on ground, it is built in consumers’ memory. It explains why so many people, old and young, will be so happy when they meet Mickey Mouse, will cry when they hug a Stitch, and will continue to queue for half an hour just to take a picture with Captain America.

There is no way that Chinese theme parks can compete against Disneyland in this area. Maybe they can catch up in hardware aspects, but this gap is so wide that they cannot easily close it.

Through consumer research, we can measure the strength of the emotive bond of Disney characters in consumers’ minds, and competitive advantage over their competitors’ core elements, such as DreamWorks’ Po the Panda, Shrek and dinosaurs in China Dinosaurs Park’s case. By quantifying Disney’s lead, we can tell if it has been fully converted into sales.

On the other hand, Disneyland’s competitors can identify itself clearly in a competitive map and draft a strategy to differentiate its positioning, formulate brand messages, segment its targeted audiences, set the right price and maximize its marketing effects.

Such a study will also produce a map to identify who are the major competitors of Shanghai Disneyland, to which park will Disneyland lose how many visitors and from which ones will it win how many visitors over, who will be the net winner.

This study can also be carried out regularly to track the shift in this competition.

Theme Park Competition 

* For illustration purposes, not real data.

To conclude, Magic Mirror exists in only fairy tales, but market research methodologies have been working effectively in real life. To know more real cases or to solve actual challenges that your business is facing, please contact us.

Source: Kantar TNS, Kantar, CTR, Kantar Worldpanel

Editor's notes

* Daniel Guo, Senior Research Manager of TNS Sinotrust, also contributed to this article;

* To reach the author, or to know more information, data and analysis of China's travellers or shopper research, please contact us.

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