The Brand Radar: Exploring the creative thinking behind licensed theme park attractions

Inspired by this year’s Theme Park of the Year finalists, Start Licensing’s Ian Downes looks at how brands are collaborating with park sites to create impactful, authentic attractions.

There’s no doubt been an increase in the use of licensing in the live events, experiential, theatre and theme park sectors.

Recently we have seen immersive versions of Peaky Blinders and Doctor Who launch successfully, while companies like Electric Gamebox are using character brands like Shaun the Sheep to add to their offer. Location attractions like Land’s End also recognise the value of brand licensing. In their case, they have created an Aardman attraction featuring the likes of Wallace & Gromit and Morph.

A licensed brand can bring ready to use content, an audience and also a strong brand identity that can be used in consumer marketing. Furthermore, in what is a very competitive market, a licensed brand – which is most often used exclusively – can give an operator a competitive edge.

Ian Downes, Brand Radar

Against this backdrop, it’s interesting to review the nominations in the UK Theme Park Awards 2022. These awards are run by the website Theme Parks UK. The site provides updates, news and information on the UK’s most popular theme parks. This is the third year of the awards, which are open to a public vote. A review of the categories and nominations confirm how significant licensing is to the theme park industry.

The Awards cover 22 categories including Theme Park of the Year. The shortlist, which the public vote on, have been compiled using public nominations and with input from an expert panel of judges from the industry.

Some names within the nominations are leading sites including Alton Towers, Drayton Manor, LEGOLAND Windsor, Blackpool Pleasure Beach, Chessington World of Adventures and Thorpe Park. The nominations and awards can be seen here: Voting is open now and closes on September 2nd.

Licensing highlights in the nominations include Sooty Land at Crealy, which opened in May.This is nominated in the Best New Attraction category. The feature area includes branded rides such as Sooty’s Magic Bus, Sweep’s Flying Circus and Soo’s Sweet Balloon Ride.

Ian Downes, Brand Radar

It also includes an exhibition of memorabilia and props from the over 70 years history of the Sooty Show. There are also themed dining areas, a range of indoor attractions and live daily theatre shows featuring the characters.

This is a great example of a classic brand being leveraged to create a strong themed offer and it’s an IP that Crealy can use in multiple ways. It represents good value for them and gives the Sooty brand a strong anchor point in the market. With its 70-year history, Sooty is established as a classic brand and in the context of theme parks, it boasts multi-generational appeal – itself a useful marketing asset.

Within the categories of Best Theme Park (Large and Small) for Families there are a number of theme parks included that lean heavily on licensing. There is also a category for Best Theme Park for Toddlers. This is a category where licensing is a core component, with nominations for CBeebies Land at Alton Towers, Nickelodeon Land at Blackpool Pleasure Beach, Sooty Land at Crealy, Thomas Land at Drayton Manor, DUPLO Valley at LEGOLAND Windsor and Peppa Pig World at Paultons Park.

Ian Downes, Brand Radar

This clearly shows how important licensing is to theme parks in this age category. Brands such as Thomas and Peppa Pig drive consumer interest, but also bring some rich content. For the IP owners, it’s a great way to bring their characters alive and extend the consumer experience around them.

It also provides retail opportunities as the parks have themed retail outlets. These activations also help as links in the licensing chain encouraging other partnerships and creating promotional opportunities for existing partners.

Ian Downes, Brand Radar

Licensing also features in the Best Steel and Wooden Coaster categories with Thorpe Park’s SAW – The Ride being nominated in Best Steel Coaster category. Alton Towers’ Wicker Man and Blackpool’s Nickelodeon Streak feature in the Best Wooden Coaster category.

Rides like these require significant investment from the park operators, so they choose carefully ­–both in terms of theming, longevity of the brand they are using and the nature of the commercial deal they strike with the IP owner.

Ian Downes, Brand Radar

Interestingly some of the coasters nominated, such as Nemesis and Oblivion at Alton Towers, are well known and well-established brands in their own right, albeit within the theme park universe. Bearing in mind their longevity in the market and the visitor numbers they attract, it may be that there is scope for brands like these to move across into the licensing sector, especially in categories like toys, games and interactive.

Other licensed brands that feature in the nominations include Derren Brown’s Ghost Train at Thorpe Park, Gangsta Granny: The Ride at Alton Towers, The Gruffalo River Ride Adventure at Chessington and Wallace & Gromit’s Thrill-O-Matic at Blackpool Pleasure Beach. These are all nominations in the Best Dark Ride category.

These nominations reveal the diversity of IP at play in the theme park sector but also the creative thinking and development within it. The development with Derren Brown also demonstrates that creative ideas can come from less obvious sources.

There is also a great attention to detail in these developments. For example, the Wallace & Gromit ride features key moments from the films, which are presented in a 3D format throughout the ride. It’s a great experience for fans but also works well for a more general audience as it uses the humour from the Wallace & Gromit films well and delivers a really entertaining experience.

Ian Downes, Brand Radar

Blackpool knew that by working with Aardman and Wallace & Gromit they could access a brand that was already established but also one that had well developed characters and storylines. This gives them a way of short circuiting the development process but also having a proof of concept before launch.

Reviewing the nominations across other categories in the awards further reinforces the strong links between licensing and theme parks. Other characters and brands that are nominated include Angry Birds, Boj, Hey Duggee, Peter Rabbit and LEGO Friends.

Interestingly the Awards don’t just celebrate rides; they also recognise activities such as Best Halloween Event and Best Christmas Event. This confirms that theme parks are increasingly all year round businesses and are looking at ways of promoting themselves at key times like Christmas. Within this context, there is probably further opportunities for licensed brands.

It will be interesting to see how the licensed brands perform in the awards themselves. Based on the nominations, it’s clear to see that licensing is important to theme park operators and provides them with an opportunity to differentiate themselves and stand out in a competitive market.

Licensing also brings them new creative ideas and themes coupled with access to ready-made audiences. For brand owners, it is an increasingly important part of their business and this is shown by how many brand owners now have specialist teams marketing their brands to the sector.

It also opens up global opportunities for brand owners – concepts can travel and of course many successful brands can be activated in a range of territories. Working in this category opens up retailing opportunities which are increasingly attractive in a retail market that has become tougher in recent years.

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