In March of 1995 I opened a caricature art concession operation at Six Flags St. Louis in Eureka, Mo. We started out with a single location, eventually expanded to two locations, added airbrush T-Shirts (which I eventually sold my stake in to my airbrush business partner Kent Lind), and spent the next 20 seasons drawing Six Flags customers.
After returning from Dallas from the North Texas Comic Con, I got right back on a plane and went to St. Louis. After arriving, I picked up a rental truck, rolled out to Six Flags, packed up all the equipment and stuff from my two caricature locations there and rolled out of town, never to return. This was the first time I have closed a major theme park operation. I watched the specialty retail (tourist mall kiosk) business roll up and die while I closed or sold locations at Underground Atlanta, Riverwalk in New Orleans, Mall of America, and Union Station in St. Louis. Those kinds of operations tend to have short lives, and the longevity my stands enjoyed in most of those locations was very unusual. However I used to think the theme park business was bulletproof… recessions, an up and down economy, unemployment levels… none of these things seemed to dramatically affect our business in theme parks. We did a very steady and reliable per-cap sales level ($ per person through the gate, a telling stat for success in theme parks) year in and year out. There was a balance in splitting the pie between the parks, the artists and me that kept everyone satisfied and created a solid business relationship.
That’s all changed now, and the reason it’s changed is 100% the result of how the theme park companies have handled their businesses over the last decade. Local theme parks, meaning ones that are located in areas that rely on drawing from a clientele with a “driving radius” of say 500-600 miles as opposed to destination locations like Orlando and California which draw in visitors from all over the world, used to have a mix of about 30% season pass holders and 70% out of town visitors who make their trip to the theme park a once a year (or every few years) vacation. They would bring discretionary money to spend on things like souvenirs to remember their day, of which caricatures was a very popular choice. Season pass holders, locals who would come several times a year, were not our demographic since they didn’t often buy souvenirs to commemorate any of their multiple visits to the park.
If the CEOs of theme park companies got together and decided to put together a game plan to destroy lessee businesses like mine in their parks, they could not have come up with a better blueprint than what they have been doing for the last ten years. Essentially they changed their target customers from out of town, single visit families and vacationers to locals that live within 10-20 miles of the park. They have been catering to those locals and season pass holders in almost every meaningful way they can. How? By making it less expensive to buy a season pass than to buy two individual tickets to the park, making it cheaper to get a season pass than to go to the theme park twice in a single year. They offer season pass perks and discounts all over the place. They have spent millions and millions of dollars and park real estate on elaborate waterparks within the theme park which is an invitation to lounge around in a bathing suit all day rather than walk around spending money, and lately they even have started offering meal plans so customers that come in don’t even need to bring money along for their food. In a short term effort to increase their gate attendance they have increased their season pass holder percentages to upwards of 60-65%. Most of these customers are kids and teenagers who get dropped off by their parents at the front gate to spend the day in the water park, ride a few rides and then get picked up again. Out of whatever figure the park cites as their entire attendance for the summer one of these kids probably counts for 8 or 10 of those people. If the park claims to do a million people in attendance for the season, in reality they probably got about 400,000 unique people through the gate, the other 600,000 are the same people who come multiple times. In reality the number of actual, unique customers that pass by our locations in such a scenario has dropped from 700,000 to about 400,000… coming close to half the number of potential customers. Worse, their efforts have not increased their overall attendance. In fact, attendance is down in most of the parks I have operations in, and significantly down compared to what it was in the 2000s. Less attendance and a dramatically worse demographic is a lethal combination.
Is it any wonder we have been struggling to do the kind of sales we used to do? We’ve been limping along in several theme parks. I have done everything I possibly can to keep the formula we used for decades to be successful: pay my artists the most I can afford to pay them, work hard to find and train high end talent to keep the quality of the work high, treat the artists right to entice them to stick around for several seasons, and create a highly creative and fun environment for my crews to be a part of. For example, even after the theme parks raised their percentage of revenues to a level that borders on ridiculous, I refused to lower the percentage I paid the artists. I just accepted a lower profit level so I could keep good artists happy longer, reasoning that resulted in better sales and an easier time of running things. In an effort to squeeze whatever sales I could from those hundreds of thousands of season pass holders, I offered deep season pass discounts, and even tried to offer a cheap $5 profile caricature for a while. None of that made a significant impact.
Unfortunately things have finally reached critical mass, and the severe reduction of legitimate customers have reduced our sales so much I cannot keep artists interested in sticking around for multiple seasons (or in some cases even to the end of one season) no matter what percentage they get paid. That has finally resulted in the quality of our product going down, difficulty in finding and keeping a good crew, and is contributing to even more dismal sales.
Six Flags St. Louis reached the point this year where the amount of money I was actually seeing at the end of the season was not worth the time and effort of owning and running the operation, and I closed up shop. If there are any caricaturists drawing at Six Flags St. Louis next year, they won’t be my artists. Good luck to them. Theme park managers don’t seem to think our free falling sales are their fault, preferring rather to point to things like that fact that our artists aren’t doing jumping jacks outside the booth barking at passers by to try and squeeze blood out of a turnip, or that we don’t have enough artists in our booths to maximize the sales on high attendance days, choosing to ignore that the few artists we have are not even very busy.
I still have operations at Six Flags New England, where the denser population and higher income levels keep the crowds better in terms of spending, and at Valleyfair and Nick Universe in in Minnesota, where we have down scaled and are just staying afloat. It’s a shame that what was a healthy business that made money for all involved has become a yearly struggle, but there is little I can do to fix it on my end. The theme parks have become exactly what they have been aiming to become, and this is what we have to work with.
So long St. Louis. It’s been a fun two decades.
674 My cover art for the next issue of MAD, exclusive sneak peek from @entertainmentweekly website
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