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Business Observer Friday, Apr. 8, 2011 11 years ago

David and Goliath

Competing against a well-known brand is a challenge for small businesses. Three small theme park operators share how they have found success in Disney's backyard.
by: Dan Ping Editor/Central Florida

Issue. Competing against a market leader
Industry. Tourism
Key. Small theme parks find success competing against well-known brands.

Disney World, Universal Studios and Sea World dominate the Central Florida tourist market, but they're not the only attractions in town.

In fact, Central Florida is home to a number of successful smaller theme parks.

The Business Review talked with executives from three of those attractions — Mark McHugh, president and CEO of Gatorland; Kim Long, general manager of Fantasy of Flight; and Joe Montisano, CEO of the Central Florida Zoo & Botanical Gardens — to find out how they compete against industry giants and what advice they might have for business owners who face larger companies.

All three executives worked at one of the larger attractions companies early in their career, and each considers the internationally known theme parks as an asset.

“I love the big theme parks,” McHugh says. “We wouldn't be here if not for them.”

However, McHugh and his colleagues aren't waiting idly by for Disney's customers to wander into their park.

Define your niche

McHugh says competing in a crowded market or against a well-known brand requires a company to set itself apart in the marketplace.

“Big companies have the resources to try to be a lot of things to a lot of people,” McHugh says. “As a small business with a limited budget, you have to carve a niche where you can succeed.”

For Gatorland, that means lots of alligators and plenty of cornball humor that is on display throughout the park. Even the voicemail system at Gatorland gets in on the act, reminding callers that the park is open from “9 a.m. until the chickens come home,” and that admission for “gator-bait young-uns” under 3 years old is free.

Maintaining that niche takes discipline, especially when others suggest broadening your mission.

“You have to be comfortable with the fact that not everyone is going to get it,” says Long, who spent eight years at Universal before joining Fantasy of Flight. “It's OK, that's what a niche market is.”

In fact, McHugh thinks developing a niche against a well-known brand is an opportunity.

“We capitalize on picking up the crumbs that the big guys drop,” McHugh says.

While it's natural to compare your success with your larger competitors, Montisano cautions against placing too much emphasis on such comparisons.

He says each business must establish its own set of goals and benchmarks. For example, the zoo recently hosted a “Brews Around the Zoo” event that brought in 1,600 people.

“Universal wouldn't be happy with 1,600 folks, but we've doubled our attendance in three years. That's a success for us,” Montisano says.

Long agrees, and stresses that companies should stay focused on their business plan. “Don't create competitors in your own mind,” says Long.

Zig when others Zag

When competing against larger companies in the same industry, it's tempting to use their template for success.

But Long says companies should be willing to go their own way.

“Sometimes the biggest obstacles you face aren't your competitors, it's your unwillingness to break out from the pack and take chances,” Long says.

Case in point: December 2008 was a stark time at Gatorland. Attendance and revenues were sharply declining as the economy went into a tailspin.

“Our business was dying,” McHugh says.

His turn-around strategy was counter-intuitive. Rather than cut spending and hunkering down, “We slashed prices and spent more money on advertising,” says McHugh.

He started a promotional campaign, dropping ticket prices for Florida residents to $9.99 from $22.99, and Gatorland heavily marketed that price decrease. Gatorland is a family-owned business, and McHugh says family members were skeptical. But it paid off.

Attendance jumped by 15% in 2009 over 2008. More importantly, revenues rose as well. McHugh says lower ticket prices allowed families to spend more on snacks, souvenirs and food that visitors toss to the alligators.

“The $10 million (in annual revenues) threshold had been a goal at Gatorland for a long time. We passed that number in both 2009 and 2010,” says McHugh, who spent 12 years at Sea World before taking over Gatorland.

As for the zoo, Montiasano says his competitive advantage comes from giving visitors the old Florida feel and allowing them to get closer to the animals. Rather than the manicured perfection Disney touts, the zoo capitalizes on letting visitors see the more natural side of Florida.

Learn from the big guys

Although the smaller theme parks stay true to their niche, the operators say it doesn't hurt to have the biggest and best in the industry nearby.

Long sees Fantasy of Flight's proximity to Disney as an opportunity to view the company's best practices in action.

“In our situation we're a smaller attraction that is close to international brands that are known for their attention to detail,” Long says. “That means we have to raise our game in everything we do.”

Following Disney's lead of creating a unique experience for customers that takes them to a different world, instead of a snack bar, Fantasy of Flights has a 1940s-style airport diner complete with terrazzo floors and Art Deco features.

And while you won't find high-speed roller coasters at Fantasy of Flight, the absence of thrills is what allows the park to capitalize on what it does best: interact with visitors.

Aside from just displaying airplanes, the park has special children's sections, interactive exhibits and an active restoration area where visitors can watch technicians restore vintage aircraft.

Adopting the best practices of the well-known brands, such as cleanliness, friendliness, customer service and convenience, helps Long and her staff ensure they are delivering the best experience possible for their guests.

“Our mission is to inspire people with the stories and the history of aviation,” Long says.

Often times those stories are told by visitors themselves. Interacting with the exhibits, like the walk-through of the B-17 Flying Fortress, prompts some to share stories about their military service.

“Sometimes these are stories their relatives have never heard,” Long says. “We offer a personal experience that's wrapped up in an entertainment package.”

With nearly 50 million people visiting Orlando each year, it would seem that tourists would be the prime market for Gatorland, Fantasy of Flight and the Central Florida Zoo. But all three executives say a big part of their business comes from nearby Central Florida residents.

“It's easy to overlook the locals and say we're going to get the tourists to come because Disney and Universal are so good at bringing them in,” says Montisano.

He notes, however, that the metro Orlando area has about 2 million residents. With 80% of the zoo's visitors local, Montisano and his staff spend a lot of time developing features like the ZOOm Air ropes course that appeals to residents in their area.

Furthermore, Long advises that it's important to let your customers help you spread the word. “Make their experience so great that they become your ambassadors.”

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