My conversation began innocently enough. The kind of conversation you start during the stifling wait at the airport gate. He told me of his role as a design engineer and was on his way to Paris. He’d be working on a next generation theme park ride at Disneyland Paris.

“They do these projects a couple of years in advance, timed with the movie releases,” he shared.

I put that dialog on a low simmer; what drew me in was not only the colossal engineering feats behind a tech-savvy Mickey Mouse, but what lurked behind the growing multitudes lining up to pay for it all.

The design engineer will be content to receive his tiny morsel of the $2.3 billion expansion at Disneyland Paris – and that in turn is a relatively small fraction of the $24 billion investment that Disney is making to its theme parks and hotels over the next 5 years.

“It can’t just be special – it has to be spectacular,” according to Disney theme park chairman, Bob Chapek, “you really have to tug somebody within their soul.”

Fair enough, Bob … but if, at the same time, you can get Mom and Dad to tug a bit more on their credit card – all the better, huh? Use of the word “spectacular” may be a useful clue as to the means of extraction.

The amped-up nature of these grandiose theme parks and casinos (we’ll get to this in a moment) speaks to “spectacle” – one that is an entirely “immersive experience.” Not to be confused with the mere amusement of a puppet show at the local library.

Spectacles, as such, are nothing new though. Throngs of Romans would line up for the promised spectacle of gladiator blood-letting at the coliseum. Coincidentally, the coliseum would seat 50,000 – approximately the same number of daily visitors to Disneyland Park in Anaheim, California. Those 50,000, by the way, fork out $135 per ticket. You can do the math to figure their daily haul.

Industry-wide, theme park attendance was 1.1 billion in 2017 and is expected to see a compound growth rate of 3.8 percent through 2022.

From the struggling middle-class consumer perspective, these are costly family spectacles. (Roman citizens and their slaves had gotten free admission). Yet they’ve become – unthinkingly – mandatory expenses, much like the obligatory car and house payment.

Why?

Because our new mantra is “I’m bored.” Because that last hit of dopamine didn’t quite do it. Because I’m the only one in my social circle that hasn’t posted a selfie from the Millennium Falcon ride!

And that brings us to Hollywood, Fla., just 30 minutes north of Miami, where a 435-foot glass Seminole Hard Rock hotel in the shape of a Gibson Les Paul guitar is nearing completion. Aside from all the hoopla surrounding the 1,000 construction jobs and the 2,000 casino jobs, economics gains from the 14 restaurants, 1,274 hotel rooms, and a 7,000-seat concert hall … there will be 3,000 slot machines.

Whereas Disney’s appeal is to the family, let us think of casinos as sanctioned adult amusement parks.

They are an integral part of our “experience economy.” And you absolutely must be there to get a selfie with the 4.5-acre heated pool and glass guitar as backdrop! Hard Rock’s investment – and they are not using debt mind you – is $1.5 billion.

Hard Rock won’t recoup that investment through sales of slow gin fizzes and t-shirts. They are banking on the tried and true cash cow of the industry: the lumbering hordes of slot machine addicts. “Our best customers are not interested in entertainment,” says IGT, the world’s largest slot machine manufacturer, “they want to be totally absorbed, get in a rhythm.”

After all, isn’t that what Mickey wants as well: lots of smiles, moving and grooving – while tugging on our credit card?

After years of globetrotting, Todd J. Broadman finds himself writing from his perch on the Palouse and loving the view.

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