The Brand Radar: Gangsta Granny, Alton Towers and the appeal of licensed attractions

Start Licensing’s Ian Downes looks at how brands give theme parks a great chance to deliver fresh experiences that are original, individual and creatively lead.

There has been a long tradition of theme parks creating attractions based on well-known IP. Recent examples include Blackpool Pleasure Beach’s use of Wallace & Gromit to create a Thrill-o-Matic ride and the same venue’s development of a Nickelodeon-themed area.

Many years ago, I worked on a Beano-themed area at Chessington World of Adventures. The appeal of brands for theme parks is that a well-chosen IP can deliver an original design theme and identity, coupled with access to a ready-made audience. Plus, there’s potential for ongoing promotions. Having something on site that your competitors don’t have is a big motivator in this sector. It gives consumers a new reason to visit and also helps the operator deliver more value to consumers.

This kind of licensing is very different from the mainstream of licensing. The vision for the partnership has to be much longer term as the cost of installation and set-up is high. There has to be a lot of discussion around the terms of a deal in regard to the commercial aspects, exclusivities associated with it and the mechanics of the partnership. Leisure operators do not enter into these kinds of agreements lightly and they have to take a lot into consideration when choosing new licenses to work with.

One key consideration is the longevity of the license – given the cost of set-up, they have to be confident that the IP has staying power. In my experience of Beano at Chessington, the initial deal was a 10 year one and the Beano area stayed at Chessington for over 10 years.

The operators also have to look at the appeal of the IP and how it fits into their overall offer in regard to their target audience. An operator like Merlin, who has a broad portfolio of attractions, will take a wider view and judge things on a site-by-site basis as the role and potential of licensing for them will vary site-by-site. Thorpe Park has different IP needs to Alton Towers for example. There will also be competitive concerns as well. Operators will want to have access to IP rights that their competitors don’t and will be looking for IP that has a distinct character to it.

Licensed content also has to deliver something above and beyond the generic; this is an interesting challenge for the brand owners. They will need to push the leisure operator to ensure their IP is represented in an ‘on brand’ fashion and that they don’t get funnelled into a creative execution that is effectively a re-skinning of a generic design.

The consumer experience has to be a positive one and one that represents the brand experience well. It is literally a hands-on brand experience, so attention to detail is important. The Thrill-o-Matic ride at Blackpool allows consumers to ride in one of Wallace’s slippers and features key scenes from the Wallace & Gromit films which have been developed as moving animatronics. It represents the Wallace & Gromit brand well and provides a positive brand experience for consumers.

Ian Downes, The Brand Radar

Theme park operators are always looking for new opportunities and when they find them, are prepared to invest in them. Alton Towers have recently launched Gangsta Granny: The Ride, based on the Gangsta Granny novel by David Walliams. Walliams is now firmly established as a highly successful author and his book characters have been developed into TV shows, films, stage plays and licensed products.

On a recent visit to Waterstones, I noticed a number of World of David Walliams licensed products including notebooks, a board game, stationery items and gift lines. These were merchandised together and adjacent to Walliams’ books. Licensing-wise, I am sure there are more things that could be developed but my sense is that the approach being taken is less is more.

The licensing programme also relies heavily on the illustrations from the book series, and I’m guessing there isn’t an endless supply of these. The level of David Walliams’ popularity in book terms cannot be underestimated. According to industry figures, two of Walliams’ titles were in the top ten bestsellers list for 2020, while his total book sales are well over 37 million copies sold.

Given the books are written for children but often bought by adults, the Walliams brand and characters strongly appeal to companies targeting families. In this context, it’s no surprise that David Walliams and Gangsta Granny popped up on Alton Towers’ radar. It is quite a compelling proposition, not least because David Walliams remains a high profile personality and one that seems fully engaged with the development of his characters.

Ian Downes, The Brand Radar

The Gangsta Granny ride opened on May 17th – the day that theme parks and other leisure operators were allowed to re-open. Given current circumstances a new ride like this one is arguably more important than ever in driving visitor numbers up. I imagine it will also create interest amongst the media and deliver a lot of PR value for Alton Towers. Indeed, David Walliams helped launch the ride with a visit early in May and was seen experiencing the ride first-hand – a very authentic brand endorsement and one that generated great publicity.

Alton Towers have clearly spent time thinking about the ride and the detail around it… It is reported that it was two years in development. The ride sits within a themed World of David Walliams area that includes a road called Wallibums Way. Small details like this make a difference in brand engagement terms. One can imagine most visitors having a selfie next to the Wallibums Way road sign, creating further publicity and social media engagement.

Ian Downes, The Brand Radar

This attention to detail was a theme picked up by the Birmingham Mail when reporting on the ride following a press preview at Alton Towers: “The level of theming was simply stunning. Wallpapers and flooring had been designed from scratch, illustrations had been hand painted and the Tony Ross illustration style is prevalent throughout the waiting areas and the ride itself.”

This attention to detail in theming terms has been extended to include Raj’s Shop, which will act as the giftshop for the area but also features other bespoke content that ties everything back to the book series and characters well.

Ian Downes, The Brand Radar

Seemingly Gangsta Granny was chosen for the ride as its storyline lends itself to the genre well. The book’s storyline centres on a character Ben who realises his Granny is secretly a jewel thief. In the state-of-the-art 4D ride, visitors join Ben and his Granny as they try to steal the Crown Jewels. To add to the visitor experience, the carriages that visitors ride in features voices of the book characters and other sound effects.

The ride was created for Alton Towers by specialist manufacturer Garmendale Engineering. Kelvin Elsnor, the firm’s sales director, was quoted as saying: “Families can expect something that is totally unique to ride systems with the level of complexity that is involved in this ride.”

Consumer experience is key and with the ride lasting five minutes, Alton Towers are trying to balance a good individual experience with managing demand and keeping the wait time manageable for other guests. Crucially, the ride and the themed area also has to deliver for the IP owner.

Given David Walliams publicly signed off on things, it seems the ultimate brand owner was happy. He was also involved in the development process, which would have added to the authenticity of the ride – I also imagine Alton Towers would have welcomed the chance to get his direct creative input into the process. You get a bit of insight into this in the short video below:

A 4D ride allows David Walliams to bring the characters and storylines alive in a new way and to help build further equity in them. It is a creative platform that provides new design opportunities and helps build a suite of brand activity that should help build further longevity in the IP.

Alton Towers’ have also extended the relationship to feature four themed rooms in the Alton Towers Hotel. This allows guests who choose to stay overnight to add another element to their stay. Alton Towers have recognised that they are in the business of creating experiences for their visitors and a licensing partnership with an IP like the World of David Walliams allows them to deliver this in depth and across their estate.

Ian Downes, The Brand Radar

This year is Alton Towers’ 40th anniversary and having a new launch of this magnitude is a great way for them to mark the anniversary. The theme park’s use of the David Walliams brand is another example of how a licensed property can be stretched beyond its core area and indeed beyond traditional licensing categories.

Live experiences, attractions and events offer licensing some fantastic opportunities to bring an IP alive, but licensing also offers leisure operators a great chance to deliver fresh experiences for consumers that are original, individual and creatively lead. I can’t wait to experience the Gangsta Granny Ride in person.

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