The city of Waterloo and the state of Iowa have so much to offer in terms of quality of life, including quality of activities. One of the most recent additions to the outstanding choices for entertainment here is the new Lost Island Theme Park.
The Theme Park is an extension to the very successful (and deservedly so) Lost Island Water Park, which has grown in size, efficiency and fun for over 20 years. While its admission price has steadily risen over the years, the value is well established and locals, as well as out of town visitors, know that their families will extract every ounce of fun they have come to expect. The price is a nearly invisible barrier.
But price is relevant for anything new. The culture of Iowa, and particularly the attitude of this community, is dollar-conscious. As a former restaurant owner in Cedar Falls I became very aware of the budget-mindedness of our citizens. If I raised the price of a sirloin by 50 cents, we would see a 50% drop off in sales.
The Cedar Valley (and Iowa…and maybe it’s a bit Midwestern overall) has a “prove your value first, then we will give you a try ONCE to determine if we will come back.”
This perspective has kept the attendance at the new theme park to likely only a 10th of what is needed.
Without becoming too long winded out of the gate, here are five things that, in my opinion, can fix the attendance issue.
I was not involved in any way in the development or marketing and so this is filled with conjecture. It is possible that the things I suggest here were discussed by the developers at length prior to opening, but my personal experience in marketing, my knowledge of entertainment and the audience experience, as well as a better than average connection to nationally recognized theme parks, make some things clear.
1) Reality. You are what you are, not what you pretend to be or want to convince people that you are. Be what you are and market your reality. Lost Island is not an alternative to Disney World. Disney can charge three times the admission and will still get millions of visitors a year. In fact, families pay thousands (I know a family that paid $10,000) for a Disney World experience. Travel to and from, staying at their hotels, dining at their restaurants and experiencing their iconic and huge theme parks. It isn’t easy for families to pay that much, but often they save for years because the value and the nearly guaranteed experience is magical and beyond a lot of monetary considerations.
Therefore, to say that Lost Island has attractions, a theme, and rides to rival a behemoth like Disney (or Universal or Six Flags) is nonsense. What Lost Island IS, is a unique, clever, and new experience that is thoughtful, well designed, family friendly with many options for every park goer. Lost Island should market itself as if Disney or any other park didn’t even exist.
Lost Island shouldn’t even look at Adventureland in Des Moines as its competition. Adventureland is an established value (is larger, and although its water park is not as good as Lost Island, it is a one stop, walkable, experience) and will continue to draw the numbers it currently gets. Lost Island will cut into their crowd and draw new crowds by offering its own unique value.
2) Reality II. The park is not complete. Even though most of the rides are open, 3 headliners are not. One rollercoaster is not going to get the thrill crowd. It doesn’t matter if they can ride the one 8 times, that is not the experience they are looking for.
One great dark ride is not enough of an alternative to the other roller coaster yet to be opened and the flume ride. The reasons for this are not the fault of the owners or builders (supply chain shortcomings and a fire) but they are not the fault of the guests either.
The park should reduce the gate price by 30% as an incentive to guests to come in and see how beautiful and fun the park is and as a thank you before everything is up and running. Prices will rise as every other park raises prices each season, but only after the vision and realization of the park has come to fruition.
When I attended the park several rides were down because of early maintenance issues, but if the admission was $36, all would be forgiven. There is even a value add because of the gesture from the park.
I would suggest a significant student discount and children 5 and under free (if not 7 and under).
It is also undeniable that in the Summer of 2022, America is experiencing inflation and high prices at the pump and people’s pocketbooks are reeling. A new theme park is probably near the bottom of the “new expenses” list. The park needed to consider that and make a marketing statement” “We know that America is experiencing some tough times and as a way of making things a little easier we are offering an escape into a fantasy land and are also giving customers this opening Summer a tremendous discount.”
3) Transportation. There should have been from Day One a themed bus (or two) going between the water park and the theme park all day. At the water park there should be an announcement every half hour that the Lost Island Expedition Bus is leaving in 10 minutes for adventure. It should be mentioned each time that Park Hopper upgrades are immediately available to do this.
On the bus, outfitted like something from Jumanji, the driver will play a role as an adventurer and describe highlights of the park. Even a 3 minute bus ride across the street becomes a free attraction. Guests do not like to get in the car, drive even across the street and park again. A huge opportunity to remedy that obstacle and to get kids at the water park, after hearing the announcement, say “We want to go the theme park!” is being missed.
It is probably too late to do that this year (and maybe that is already on the docket) but such a relatively small addition would immediately add hundreds of cross over guests. The key to such sales: the enthusiasm of kids to expand their fun. This way the Park Hopper becomes a real value.
The ”discount” the park is currently offering with a $65 Park Hopper pass good over two days, was not the solution. All that does is make the price higher for a plan most people didn’t go to Lost Island for (certainly not locally); to go to the park(s) for two days. My family loves Lost Island water park, but we have never wanted to block off two days for the experience between two parks. And even though the option is attractive to out of towners who would make this their vacation destination, the current hours of the parks, and the known fact that the theme park is not fully operational, will keep those people from making the trip this Summer.
4) Total Experience. I took my son to the theme park and we were surprised that some of the park employees were still using a script to describe the ride. At the volcano dark ride the very friendly woman who guided us onto the ride was reading her lines from a note card. Several people said to me that they thought that was “charming” but the cold, hard, fact is that it compromises the experience. The employee was professional and gracious but clearly was not satisfied themselves that they had the card. I don’t blame this employee or any other, nor do I blame the park administration, but that is a compromised standard. In reality even the forgiving guests feel, on a base level, that the experience wasn’t quite up to standards yet.
There are techniques to get staff up to those standards in 30 minutes. Techniques of memorization and personalization that overcome that hurdle and would immediately upgrade the magic of the experience. Perhaps that has been solved but it never should have been dismissed.
5) Cross Marketing. Lastly, the park(s) need to get more aggressive with marketing packages with all of the hotels (not just the Isle of Capri), restaurants and other local attractions. The Five Sullivan Brothers Museum, the Grout, the baseball park, UNI concerts, Main Street events, etc., and create an immersive Cedar Valley vacation experience. Savings applied to each that participates.
I’ve seen some of this but creating a mindset that this community is worth several nights is important. Even if visitors don’t take advantage of cross marketing offers, a vacation experience can be imagined that will benefit over time.
For the local patron who wants to cool off on a hot day, the water park is enough. For a local family who wants some thrills, the theme park could be enough. But if we want to (and we do) create a vacation destination experience out of all we have to offer, then we need to put those packages together; we need to do the planning work ourselves and make the Cedar Valley (and Iowa) a vacation that is already in place.
Our businesses shouldn’t look at each other as competition, but as part of a whole that exemplifies the Quality of Life (and fun) that we have to offer.
There. That’s it. Take it or leave it. My goal is to see Lost Island, the Cedar Valley, and Iowa thrive. Call this tough love, or even nonsense, if you wish, but I do know a thing or two about entertainment.