A Data-Driven Approach to Maximizing Thrills

June 30, 2016

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Valravn roller coaster at Cedar Point, Sandusky, Ohio. Photo by Tim Lemke, U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation.

Takeaways

Theme parks are increasingly using data to optimize the experience for guests and improve their bottom lines.

My wife and I love roller coasters, so we recently headed to the banks of Lake Erie to experience some of the fastest, tallest, and wildest rides in America.

Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio is hailed as the “roller coaster capital of the world,” and does not disappoint, with 17 coasters—the most of any park—and some other great thrill rides.

We had a great time, and quickly learned that we don’t have the roller coaster stamina we once did. But we also got a good lesson in how the use of data can help theme park operators improve the experience for guests.

 

The App of Fun

There are two big things that can damper an amusement park visit: long lines and rides that are temporarily closed. Waiting two hours to go on a 90-second ride is a bummer, and so is racing across a park only to find a roller coaster isn’t operational.

Cedar Point has addressed these two concerns through a smartphone app that gives park guests real-time information on ride wait times and temporary closures.

During our recent visit, we used the app—and free Wi-Fi—to map our “plan of attack,” avoiding rides with long wait times and staying away from rides that weren’t operating. The app included a park map with interactive walking directions, plus information on food options and the locations of restrooms. All of this meant less time wasted and more time having fun.

It’s easy to see how the app is a benefit to guests, but it’s also clearly a benefit to Cedar Point. At a crowded amusement park, operators ideally want to see people spread out evenly throughout the park, as opposed to congregating in specific sections.

 

Ride Design and Procedures

At Cedar Point, I observed another phenomenon, which is that there is clearly a data-driven approach to maximizing the number of guests who get to ride. Rides themselves appeared to be engineered to carry more riders in a shorter time frame. Consider a relatively new ride like MaxAir, one of my favorites, which carries 50 riders at a time and lasts as long as a typical roller coaster. Or Top Thrill Dragster, one of the fastest and tallest coasters in the world, but with a ride time of just 17 seconds. 

Moreover, employees cycled riders into and out of roller coaster seats with rapid precision—there was barely time to brace yourself before the coast was heading up the lift hill. Additionally, Cedar Point shaved a few seconds off of loads times by dispensing with bins for personal belongings, insisting instead that guests place items in lockers before they ever get in line. All of this has an impact on the experience of theme park guests and, ultimately, the company's bottom line. 

 

The Mouse Leads the Way

Cedar Point is not alone in using data to make things better. Disney has been a pioneer in this space, investing a reported $1 billion in data-driven enhancements, that include an app, access cards with RFID chips, and bracelets known as “SmartBands” that allow you to access both your hotel room and park attractions.

Disney has also been known to keep a sharp eye on crowd behavior at parks, going so far as to dispatch characters to one area to draw people away from an area that is getting too packed.

“What if Fantasyland is swamped with people but adjacent Tomorrowland has plenty of elbow room?” the New York Times reported in 2010. “The operations center can route a miniparade called ‘Move it! Shake it! Celebrate It!’ into the less-populated pocket to siphon guests in that direction.”

One wonders what data-driven advancements will come to theme parks in the future. Will wait times be a thing of the past? Will data continue to revolutionize how parks and rides will be designed?

We’ll surely be making another trip to Cedar Point in a few years, and will be excited to see what the park comes up with—assuming our aging bodies can still handle the rides.