Hollywood's Next IP-Building Frontier: Theme Parks

An increase in planned park visits means studios should collaborate more with theme parks to develop brand-new attractions, writes media & entertainment analyst Kevin Tran
Graphic conveying theme park attendance
Unsplash / Morning Consult artwork by Sara Wickersham
May 22, 2023 at 5:00 am UTC

Key Takeaways

  • Theme park travel plans are up: 38% of U.S. adults said in April that they plan on visiting one in the next year, up 7 percentage points year over year.

  • Meanwhile, studios are racing to build out their original franchise efforts and lock down new revenue streams to boost profits.

  • It makes sense, then, that we’ll soon see an uptick in the number of theme parks — particularly regional brands — that commission new attractions based on intellectual property that they previously didn’t have access to. 

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The pandemic decimated theme park attendance through most of 2021, but the sector is once again humming now that COVID-19 concerns are in the rear view. In the first quarter of 2023, Comcast’s theme park revenue eclipsed its comparable 2019 result, as did Disney’s operating income for domestic parks.  

Still, there’s greater opportunity for those companies — and even nontraditional studios like Netflix — to capitalize on reinvigorated theme park interest, as streaming mostly remains a money-losing business. The percentage of U.S. adults who plan to visit a theme park is up from 2022, and studios could lean more heavily into licensing IP for new attractions or theme park events. As Hollywood studios eagerly seek new ways to boost profitability and build out franchises, an imminent acceleration of content migrating from screens to real-world attractions is likely, particularly in regional theme parks that are competing less directly with destinations like Disneyland.  

New attractions could boost theme park attendance

With the exception of Gen Z adults, every generation saw a year-over-year increase in the share of adults planning a theme park visit within 12 months. Parents overindex in general on theme park travel plans, but even they were 9 points more likely to say they plan to visit a theme park this year. Among adults without kids, the upped theme park travel plans likely reflect an eagerness to keep up with new high-profile attractions like Super Nintendo World at Universal Studios.

More Consumers Are Planning Trips to Theme Parks

Shares who said they’re planning on traveling to a theme park in the next 12 months
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Surveys conducted April 20-21, 2022, and March 31-April 3, 2023, each among at least 1,523 U.S. adults with leisure travel plans in the next 12 months, with unweighted margins of error of +/-2 percentage points.

Increased theme park attendance also coincides with decreasing COVID-19 concerns. Destinations like Disney World and Universal Studios should monetize their existing park assets, but higher park attendance also points to a future where parks, particularly those not tied to entertainment conglomerates, start to look beyond their own IP stables to ratchet up admissions even further. 

There’s a strong case for media companies to ensure this happens: Wall Street is increasingly pressuring all streaming businesses to boost profitability, while the race to build out original franchises is heating up — and theme park attractions can help legitimize newer IP as bona fide franchises worth consumers’ investment. At the same time, major regional park operators like Six Flags and Cedar Fair have unique needs that could be addressed by streamer IP. Six Flags has a strategic goal of adding more seasonal events to its parks, while Cedar Fair wants to drive attendance back to pre-pandemic levels. 

It may seem odd for a company like Disney or NBCUniversal to arm a regional competitor park with IP rights. But companies are already becoming less strict about keeping their IP for their video streaming services amid macroeconomic pressures. And it stands to reason they would be increasingly willing to license content in areas beyond video streaming to competitors for the sake of new profit avenues.

Additionally, Six Flags already has rides based on DC characters like Batman and could explore other IP assets that Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav has deemed nonessential to keep exclusively. That would be similar to Roku’s deal to bring shows that weren’t generating meaningful views on HBO Max, like “Westworld,” to its free ad-supported streaming channel.  

How nontraditional studios can get in the theme park game

But it’s not just the traditional media giants that should look to have their IP personified. In 2018, then-CEO Reed Hastings said it would be “amazing” to see Netflix IP in theme parks, though he warned it wouldn’t happen in “the next five or 10 years.”

Now armed with much more recognizable original franchises, Netflix would generate a new revenue stream by licensing the rights to a show like “Stranger Things” to a company like Cedar Fair, which could use the show to bolster Knott’s Scary Farm or anchor a permanent attraction. Cedar Fair would gain a significant differentiator and enhance its ability to attract younger parkgoers (not just kids with their parents), who are more likely to use video streaming services than older ones. 

This approach is more economical for nontraditional studios like Netflix, Amazon and Apple than developing or buying their own theme parks. The land alone that California’s Great America sits on was sold for $310 million — an amount too high for Netflix, given the streamer plans on cutting its expenses by virtually that much this year. While Apple and Amazon are much more capable of making such a purchase, it doesn’t make sense for either company to spend on theme parks when entertainment isn’t even their main business. 

New attractions based on well-known originals like “Stranger Things” or “The Rings of Power” could help consumers justify continuing to make theme park trips as prices increase. Moreover, the travel industry needs more people on the move in general — this spring, plans to travel within the United States in the next 12 months were down slightly compared with the same period in 2022.

Meanwhile, content creators — those who make at least some of their income by generating online content — could act as natural marketing partners for streaming franchises that migrate to theme parks. The share of content creators who said in April that they’re interested in paying for theme park tickets was 24 points higher than the share of all adults who said the same and also eclipsed the shares of all other generations, Morning Consult data shows. 

Parents, Content Creators Will Help Sustain Theme Park Resurgence

Shares of U.S. adults who said whether they are interested in paying to visit a theme park
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Survey conducted April 19-22, 2023, among a representative sample of 2,212 U.S. adults, with an unweighted margin of error of +/-2 percentage points. “Don’t know/No opinion” responses not shown.

For theme park operators, this means more aggressively pursuing franchise rights from both nontraditional studios and those that don’t have their own theme parks domestically (Sony, Warner Bros. Discovery) to create new attractions based on original franchises. These partnerships would help usher in additional revenue and potentially even new customer bases for both studios and parks.

A headshot photograph of Kevin Tran
Kevin Tran
Senior Media & Entertainment Analyst

Kevin Tran previously worked at Morning Consult as the senior media & entertainment analyst.

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