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Millennials Are Spending More Time at an Unexpected Location: Theme Parks

Millennials: always drawn to the next big thing — and that includes theme parks re-invented with their exact generation in mind.

Written by Jeff Glueck on Jul 22, 2016 - Read time: 7 min - Read Later

This group (ages 18 to 34, now the world's largest demographic) is enormously influential, and Universal Parks & Resorts has proven that building relevant products for Millennials can pay off dramatically.

The Comcast-owned company has managed to grow the size of the amusement park market by drawing more attendance from millennials, in the process stealing share from other theme parks (mainly the second-tier players, as Disney remains the clear and steady leader). We expect Universal theme park attendance to continue its share gains as the year continues. More broadly, Universal represents a case study for many companies hoping to reach this critical demographic: Universal tapped into the characters and stories that Millennials love, from Harry Potter to the zombies of the Walking Dead to the Simpsons, and more.

In the US, theme parks are an $18 billion mature industry. The category is growing in the low single digits (+3% overall attendance so far this year in Foursquare's US data). However, Universal is growing far faster than the industry, thanks to their new attractions and innovations.

We took a look at our data set, which covers both explicit “check-ins" and passive location trails from users who have opted-in to background location use. Our panel is always leveraged strictly in an anonymous and aggregate way, based on a sample of the 50 million people globally who use our apps, Foursquare and Swarm, and websites monthly.

We wanted to understand which theme parks have been popular lately, and how things are trending by demographic slice. We've accurately analyzed foot traffic trends before, predicting iPhone 6s sales, a hit Q4 for McDonald's all-day breakfast, and a tough Q1 for Chipotle, and our predictions turned out to be on target when the companies announced their numbers. Now that we were “3 for 3" on these predictions, it's time for another. Given that July is the peak month of the year for visiting amusement and theme parks, let's turn our attention to these beloved summertime destinations.

Let's start at the beginning…

The American theme park market tends to ride the roller-coaster momentum of the economy. If we look back, we see that 2012 to 2014 were years with moderate growth in attendance for the four main parks that drive the most significant portion of the market: Disney World, Orlando; Disneyland, Anaheim; Universal Orlando Resort; and Universal Studios Hollywood. 2015 saw a spring forward in recovery following the recession, and we expect 2016 to be even bigger. (As a check on our numbers, we confirmed our Foursquare foot traffic data matches well to the figures in the Global Attractions Attendance Report for 2015 published by the Themed Entertainment Association.)

chart showing visit share of major theme park chains

The business is highly seasonal each year, with summer peaks for “other parks" as a host of smaller regional destinations and water parks open up, which is shown on the chart above as a dip in Disney's market share, but is actually just the rest of the sector waking up for the summer.

For the industry as a whole, we saw an uptick in the domestic market beginning in 2015, primarily driven by the success of the four big parks. But it's Universal's steady increase in market share from 2014 to 2016, which outpaces the market and has continued to grow this year, that captures our attention. Universal grew its visit share from 11% in 2014, to what we expect to be 15–16% in 2016, which is remarkable.

The magic spell

Millennials are the key to Universal's share gains, thanks in large part to Universal's investment in this generation's beloved characters and franchises. From 2014 through 2016, almost half of Universal's entire attendance has been made up by Millennials. Additionally, Universal parks successfully draw a higher percentage of men than many of its competitors. Universal is succeeding by luring non-traditional theme park guests — a trend that started when the company began capitalizing on a special, four-eyed aspiring wizard.

When the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Diagon Alley at Universal Orlando opened in July 2014, the immediate lift of Millennial visits was up 25% compared to prior weeks. That lift was sustained for months broadly speaking, proving that Harry Potter lures this group quite effectively (other demos returned to normal visit rates after just three weeks).

chart showing visit lift from opening of Universal Hollywood's Wizarding World of Harry Potter

Universal Studios Hollywood introduced its own Wizarding World of Harry Potter on April 7, 2016, and Millennial visit growth for opening week was up 63%, settling down the following week to 58% higher than a representative week before Potter arrived. Those are big numbers.

Zombies are killing it

But it's not just about Harry Potter. Universal Studios Hollywood, in particular, has introduced a spate of other big, thrilling attractions aimed at Millennials. These include Fast & Furious: Supercharged 3D (2015) and the fictional town of Springfield, adjacent to The Simpsons Ride (2015). And just two weeks ago, the Walking Dead attraction launched on July 4th. The Zombies helped drive a 35% surge in Millennials when compared with the week prior.

chart showing visit lift from opening of The Walking Dead at Universal Hollywood

When we compare how successfully these promotions attract a domestic versus an international audience, we can see that these attractions are attracting the domestic market more than global tourists. International visits tend to surge during the classic vacation periods and holidays, and are up but not as dramatically. These hot new attractions are drawing a domestic market to make extra visits to the parks, especially drawing U.S. Millennials off their Netflix couches and out and about. Below, you can see that Universal Hollywood grew its share of attendance for US residents to north of 3.75%, up from 1.25% in early 2015 (as a portion of all monthly visits to parks in the US). The international tourist share rose, but remained below 1.25%.

chart showing Universal Studios Hollywood theme park visit share

Predicting a strong 2016

We expect to see an incredibly strong year for Universal Studios Hollywood through December 2016. The past quarter was the park's most successful in terms of market share for the past 52 weeks, and now the park is enjoying the popular summertime period. We can predict at least a 10% growth for the SoCal park this year.

chart showing Universal Studios Hollywood theme park visit share

Yea, it's going to be busy, but you still want to go, right?

As a side note, because we are armed with a deep understanding of location intelligence, we're also able to look at theme parks' dynamic pricing structure aligned with visit data, and pinpoint the best days of the year to visit various parks. In the case of Universal Studios Hollywood, December will be optimal for anyone looking for the fewest crowds and cheapest pricing throughout the remainder of 2016 (the single best date will be December 8, 2016). For those pining for summer thrills, weekdays in early August are expected to be the best days to visit.

Location Intelligence Takeaways

From this study, we see that Millennials, now the largest living generation, have untapped resources to spend on theme parks and entertainment. This group responds well to concepts directed specifically at their demographic: from current pop culture (The Walking Dead) to nostalgia (PokemonGo, anyone?). There's a vast opportunity for other theme parks and entertainment brands to further capitalize on familiar and relevant new characters to get people off the couch and into theme parks, theaters and the like.

To best take advantage of this untapped market, Foursquare has some tools that we recommend that entertainment companies leverage:

  • Place Insights: For deeper ability to understand competitive trends and market share, Foursquare offers our Place Insights tool, which allows enterprise subscribers to dig into data trends like above with greater depth. Place Insights can help benchmark leading indicators and make marketing and strategic planning smarter.
  • Pinpoint by Foursquare: Foursquare offers marketers ways to reach the right set of Millennials for the right products. For instance, theme park brands can build segments around consumers who have visited your own or rival theme parks, or alternative leisure attractions like movie theaters. Pinpoint reaches a scaled audience based on profiles of over 150 million devices in the US. Pinpoint can also leverage insights about the specific tastes of Millennial theme park visitors (we noticed a high correlation for speakeasies and rooftop bars). Pinpoint can then reach this audience across video, mobile and desktop.
  • Attribution by Foursquare: This neutral measurement tool lets marketers evaluate all digital marketing campaigns to see which ones are driving visit lift (measured vs. a non-exposed control group). This lets brands double down on what's working.

It's been said time and time again: longstanding brands need to be nimble and innovative to win. Universal seems to have tapped that magic, and cast a nice growth spell upon the industry. Alohomora!


Notes on Methodology

  • How foot traffic data is gathered: To analyze foot traffic patterns to Disney, Universal and the approximately 10,000 other smaller theme parks included in this report, Foursquare looked at explicit check-ins and implicit visits from Foursquare, Swarm and Marsbot app users who enable background location and visit these locations in the U.S. Like pollsters and data scientists have been doing for decades, we normalize our data against U.S. census data, ensuring that our panel of millions accurately matches the U.S. population. Foursquare's proprietary understanding of Place Shapes and how mobile phones see the world is the foundation of Place Insights, our product for analysts and marketers. Foursquare data is always anonymous and reviewed in the aggregate.


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Millennials Are Spending More Time at an Unexpected Location: Theme Parks

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