Black and White photo of a roller coaster

While theme parks have always dotted the American landscape, branded parks have become a worldwide trend. Image courtesy of Boston Public Library, via Flickr.

Theme parks are big business. In 2007, 341 million people visited amusement parks in the U.S., creating $12 billion in revenue – nearly double what these parks brought in 20 years ago.

While companies like North America’s Six Flags Entertainment Corp. are all about entertainment, an international crop of branded theme parks put a whole new spin on the idea of branded entertainment.

World of Coca-Cola is a popular Attraction in Atlanta, VA. Image via World of Coca-Cola’s Facebook Page.

Take, for example, World of Coca-Cola. This “permanent exhibition” opened in Atlanta in August 1990, expanded to a new location in 2007, and welcomed its 5 millionth guest this year.

But if the company’s bread and butter comes from the sale of consumer packaged goods, why take the time and considerable financial effort to run a theme park?

It turns out the Coca-Cola Company doesn’t view World of Coca-Cola as a new business frontier, but as a $15 million public relations investment.

Coke is not alone in this calculation. Disney World, Angry Birds Land and Ferrari World Abu Dhabi all share something in common: Each brand extension is designed to offer an unforgettable experience that cultivates brand ambassadors and strengthens the mother brand.

Peter Pan never has to grow up

Peter Pan Fantasyland Poster

Peter Pan’s Flight is one of the last remaining operational attractions that date back to Disneyland’s opening day in 1955. Image courtesy of retro-dad, via Flickr.

You wouldn’t be blamed if you mistook Disney’s films as brand extensions of the company’s 14 theme parks. Launched more than half a century ago, Walt Disney Parks and Resorts remains the most popular theme park franchise on the planet.

For Walt Disney, creating a theme park based on his films’ characters and stories was an obvious – albeit inventive – marketing tactic. It’s simple: The parks give Disney the opportunity to extend the life of its many brands and products. Even the youngest kid today knows who Peter Pan is, and the film dates back to 1953!

Meanwhile, the Peter Pan-themed attractions reanimate the memories of parents and grandparents who grew up with the character. These memories might motivate nostalgic parents to buy a reissue of the movie or purchase related merchandise, like dolls or dress-up clothes for their kids, which in turn exposes younger audiences to the film.

Angry Birds soar into the real world

An Angry Birds ride at Särkänniemi amusement park in FInland. Image via www.sarkanniemi.fi.

This summer Angry Birds opened in Finland, an extension of the internationally popular mobile video game. The park has 12 attractions, multiple food stands and, of course, games. The park lets fans experience the Angry Birds universe in real life and attendees who haven’t already played the game could be triggered to download it.

But more importantly, the joy they experience at the park could translate to shareable memories on social media networks, which in turn, might prompt their friends and contacts to download the game.

Ferrari World puts kids in the driver’s seat

In 2010 Ferrari World Abu Dhabi opened its doors. At first glance, the move seems counterintuitive. Ferrari, after all, is a quintessentially adult male luxury brand while theme parks are associated with children and young families.

Thing is, you need to have a lot of money if you want to own a Ferrari. For legions of Ferrari enthusiasts that magical experience is far out of reach. The Ferrari World indoor theme park satisfies this desire to engage with the brand without breaking the brand or sacrificing the brand’s exclusive reputation.

As the brand’s licensing and retail director Massimiliano Ferrari explains, “The core values of Ferrari are competition, passion and, if you go more in the exclusive part, you have the uniqueness of the style, the Italian style, the dolce vita…. It’s a magic brand. It’s performance and technical but it’s a warm and emotional brand.”

So, how are these brand values instilled by the theme park and what’s the added value? Let’s take a look at the TV ad for the park:

Ferrari World is the biggest indoor theme park in the world. The logo on the roof is the largest of its kind and it houses the world’s fastest rollercoaster. In short, the park’s design conveys each of the brand values mentioned with the addition of family values and the excitement of a real-time Ferrari-experience.

Finally, building an attraction that caters to children makes it possible for Ferrari to cultivate future brand ambassadors who will love the brand, maybe even more than their dads do.

A theme park for every brand?

Theme parks don’t work for every brand. Every theme park is also a stand-alone brand that needs its own business plan and marketing strategy.

There’s also the risk factor. If something bad happens at the park (like an accident or food poisoning), the negative publicity can reflect poorly on the mother brand’s image.

Nevertheless, today’s customers aren’t just looking to brands for products; they’re looking to them for experiences, for stories, for emotional connections.

And for a growing number of high-profile brands, theme parks are just the ticket.