PASADENA, CALIFORNIA — Since Disneyland opened in 1955, Americans and pleasure-seekers the world over have flocked to the variety of theme parks that now occupy mega-park epicenters like Orlando, Florida. and Anaheim, California. With options ranging from Universal Studios to Disney World to Busch Gardens, the vacation planning process can at times seem daunting. Pasadena-based Theme Park Insider aims to take the edge off this potentially complicated process, appealing to theme park novices and enthusiasts alike.
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Founder Robert Niles, also a blogger for Online Journalism Review, explains that the site has a large audience base despite the niche subject matter. “We’re in the space in between,” he says. “[We’re] for people who might be fans of theme parks, but are not specifically wedded to just going to Disney theme parks, or are not specifically roller coaster thrill fans. So we’re a little more broad based, which is nice for us.”
Niles created the site in his spare time while working as the web editor for the Rocky Mountain News (at that time the Rocky’s site was called InsideDenver.com). “We used user generated content on several sections of InsideDenver.com, including restaurant and movie reviews, birth and wedding announcements, as well as a hiking database for trails in the Rocky Mountains”, Niles explains. He launched Theme Park Insider in 1999 and thought of it in part as an extension of the Rocky’s experiment in user generated content. An ardent theme park fan, Niles had worked at Disney World while attending college at Northwestern and graduate school at the University of Indiana, and believed that there was a “robust community of theme park fans” to which the site could appeal. Thus, the first iteration of Theme Park Insider simply involved user ratings and comments about attractions at major theme parks.
Over time, the site has evolved into what it has become today, adding discussion boards, hotel reviews, travel tips, news of theme park goings-on and thorough reviews of theme park attractions both new and old.
User generated content still remains a hallmark of the site, as Niles explains: “Any reader can contribute content to the website–including blog comments, location ratings, and poll votes. Registered readers can also ask and answer questions on the discussion board.” While Niles remains the sole custodian of the site and supplies much of the site’s content, he also enlists the help of a core group of volunteers, a group he refers to as “Team Theme Park Insider.” According to Niles, “team members are readers who’ve distinguished themselves with consistently informative comments, and who’ve agreed to post regularly to the site.” Team members often live close to parks and have a passionate interest in the latest theme park developments. They’ll report on new rides, write reviews, and stay abreast of general happenings within the theme parks they report on.
Breaking theme park news has become an increasingly important part of the site, making it more than just a handy tool in negotiating the vacation planning process. When nationwide theme park giant Six Flags was having significant financial problems in 2002, Theme Park Insider broke an important development in that story with insider information provided by one of the site’s readers, who had contacts within the Six Flags organization. Niles wrote that the company had decided to cut annual capital expenditures from “$340 million last year to $125 million a year.” Translation: “That amount would buy you just over one Spider-Man ride, and six Xcelerators.”
To stay ahead of the curve on theme park news, Niles often checks the Federal Trademark Database, which provides an “early heads-up on rides and shows theme parks are developing…by looking through public documents like that, or whether or not they’re filing for zoning permits, we can find information about new developments at parks as well.”
Theme Park Insider’s revenue comes solely from Google Ads, but Niles explains that the site has been able to forge a relatively strong relationship with advertisers despite this limitation. “Individual advertisers who place campaigns through Google can target [specific] sites upon which their ads will appear, and several theme parks and chains have targeted their ads to [our site]…We’ve been around long enough and we’re big enough that companies like Disney and Universal are site targeting us through Google…so you’re typically on the site seeing really nicely designed flash ads from major companies as opposed to just a collection of semi-related text ads.”
The site’s niche in covering a multi-billion dollar a year industry doesn’t hurt, either. As Niles notes, “these are people coming online to make a decision about a significant purchase. They’re planning vacations that are going to be at least in the low thousands of dollars, and for some people in five figures.” By relying on Google ads and not having to sell ads directly, Niles can focus more on content and less on the business side of running the site, which boasts roughly 250,000 unique visitors per month.
When discussing the success of Theme Park Insider, Niles mentions luck as a factor, listing its appeal to advertisers and popularity among readers as benefits that he had hardly anticipated. Yet, as Niles notes, the site’s success can also be attributed to trial and error. As he says, “it’s not like this was the one thing I was doing and it happened to hit; I was doing several things and this one happened to hit. So in terms of advice for people: don’t get to beholden to a single idea. Try several things and see what elements are working from each of them, and then try something that hits on all of those elements.”
Theme Park Insider Data
Name: Theme Park Insider