As summer draws to a close, for many consumers, it also marks the end of theme park season: those carefree days spent riding roller coasters, posing the family for photos with complete strangers dressed in enormous foam heads and — of course — shopping.
And that’s not just purchases limited to theme park memorabilia, mind you. We’re talking the full-on retail experience of stores and brands that have no affiliation with the park itself other than the fact that it’s (one of the places) where they’re located. Over the years, and with increasing frequency, the line between some of the world’s busiest theme parks and its busiest shopping centers has been blurred.
Theme parks like Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida; Disneyland in Anaheim, California; and Universal Studios in both Orlando and Hollywood are consistently expanding their proprietary “shopping districts” that recreate a condensed commerce experience for its guests. It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement for the parks and the retailers, as the former gets to expand its offerings and real estate — keeping visitors on the property for longer periods of time — and the latter gets additional high-traffic locations at which to sell their wares.
Now that the school year is getting underway, though, and families are less likely to get to the theme park to do their shopping, the brand behind it — if it has enough juice — can bring the theme park experience to the local shopping mall. Here, Disney is a leader among entertainment companies that power standalone retail offerings with consumer familiarity with their brands.
While Disney stores have enjoyed long-term growth since the first location opened in 1987, the chain made a decided shift toward more experiential shopping in the current century. In 2009, a major redesign of the stores worldwide — beginning with the flagship property in Los Angeles — sacrificed traditional shelf space in the name of interactive multimedia experiences to draw in potential shoppers.
“The world does not need another place to sell Disney merchandise,” Jim Fielding, president of Disney Stores Worldwide, told The New York Times at the time the retail plans were announced. “This only works if it’s an experience.”
With Disney having successfully pulled off, if not a rebrand, an “upbrand,” the company has effectively doubled down on its own image. Shoppers at the retail locations can now watch videos on demand, sing along to their favorite soundtrack, host a birthday party or interact with their favorite characters live — much like a hallmark of any trip to one of Disney’s actual theme parks — before making their final purchase.
And purchase they have. 2014 marked a banner year in toy sales for Disney, with revenue specifically generated from “Frozen” items leading not only the retail charge but boosting sales growth for the entire toy industry. According to a report released by research firm NPD Group, “Frozen” generated $531 million in toy sales in the U.S. alone last year, landing the property on a short list, with Tickle Me Elmo and Furby, as one of the greatest holiday hits of all time.
Disney’s ability to connect with consumers and drive that kind of growth for an entire industry hinges on reaching its audience far beyond its own theme park and retail environments. In recent years, partnerships with major retailers have driven demand for film and gaming-based toys, and the family-friendly monolith has developed exclusive lines for Walmart, Target and Amazon.
Beyond scoring with consumers with traditional toys spun off from its own entertainment products, Disney has also been smart in its expansion into new technologies. A new line of wearables called Playmation allows kids to engage with their favorite game in physical space, in real time. Designed around the Marvel property, this offering has been in development for several years and is set to launch this October, according to Fortune. The Avengers Playmation line will mark Disney retail’s first foray into augmented reality but is a natural progression in its grand tradition of creating imaginative experiences for its audience.
As Kareem Daniel, senior vice president of strategy and business development at Disney Consumer Products, notes in the aforementioned Fortune story, “Parents believe technology is becoming a natural part of kids’ lives, but at the same time most parents are nostalgic about how active they were when they played growing up. Kids love to play make-believe and become superheroes, and Playmation offers lots of different ways to play.”
Disney — much like Universal, and even Warner Bros., whose licensed characters are represented (and sold in toy form) at Six Flags theme parks — is a classic brand with many positive associations for multiple generations. The successful marketing of its identity has opened up and maintained numerous revenue streams, spanning from entertainment to theme parks and — most recently — into retail.
And that latest one is key. Because even though consumers are saying goodbye to summer and will be visiting theme parks in fewer numbers until next year, in the time between, they can always get their brand-experience fix by going shopping.