Business Resources - Public Relations - November 2018

AMERICAN COASTER ENTHUSIASTS

Well-known roller coaster designer Ron Toomer was present at the dedication of Six Flags Over Texas’ “Runaway Mine Train” as an ACE Roller Coaster Landmark. (Credit: American Coaster Enthusiasts)

Parks Enthused Over Enthusiasts

by Arthur Levine

To call Don Helbig a roller coaster enthusiast is an understatement. He has clocked more than 12,000 rides and counting on “The Racer” at Kings Island in Mason, Ohio, and proclaims, “It never gets old. I’ve loved every minute of it.”

When he began marathoning the ride and establishing his coaster cred in the early 1980s, Kings Island capitalized on his feat and started touting him to the media. In 2007, Kings Island hired Helbig onto its public relations (PR) team. Now that he’s on the other side of the safety restraint, he is in a unique position to understand and appreciate how parks can leverage fervent fans and marshal their passion.

“I know how valuable coaster enthusiasts can be,” Helbig says about his kindred spirits. “They are your greatest advocates.”

The PR landscape has evolved considerably since Helbig first began riding “The Racer.” Social media and user-generated content now play critical roles in getting the word out. That’s why many parks establish relationships with enthusiast groups and provide post-worthy opportunities for them, such as going behind the scenes, offering first looks at new attractions, and attending exclusive events.

Taking Stock of Special Events

Kings Island, for example, presents its “Coasterstock” event each May. The park invites groups such as the Great Ohio Coaster Club, the Roller Coaster Club of Great Britain, and the Coaster Crew to experience attractions during exclusive ride time (ERT) sessions, participate in contests, hear guest speakers, go on tours, and enjoy other special activities. To help channel the promotional efforts of “Coasterstock’s” more than 500 attendees, Kings Island developed a “Social Media Rock Star” contest. It encouraged enthusiasts to cover the event, the park, and its rides not just from their personal perspective, but more as a reporter might.

“At the end of our two-day event, we had over 1 million impressions from social media posts,” Helbig says. The results illustrate the cascading effect of the posts and how their reach extends far beyond the enthusiast organizations’ members. It also demonstrates how, with just a bit of direction, parks can get uber-fans to promote their brand for the sheer joy of doing it. “Enthusiasts want to be involved with parks they love,” adds Helbig. “They will produce genuine, authentic content for you.”

Paula Werne, director of communications for Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari in Santa Claus, Indiana, agrees. “They are our original influencers,” she says, equating enthusiasts who have long supported the park with the social media hotshots who have recently gained currency. “They absolutely love riding roller coasters and then love talking about it.”

Every spring, Holiday World opens its park to CoasterBuzz, the European Coaster Club, and other groups for “HoliWood Nights.” The event includes ERT, lights-out rides after dark, and a charity auction to bid on special opportunities in the park. Through its affiliation with enthusiasts, Holiday World was featured on the CBS News program, “48 Hours,” for a segment about riding roller coasters.

ACE-at-SDC---Courtesy-of-American-Coaster-Enthusiasts

Well-known roller coaster designer Ron Toomer was present at the dedication of Six Flags Over Texas’ “Runaway Mine Train” as an ACE Roller Coaster Landmark. (Credit: American Coaster Enthusiasts)

ACE in the (Media) Hole

Around the time he started regularly riding the rails, Helbig discovered and joined American Coaster Enthusiasts (ACE), the world’s largest coaster fan organization with more than 5,500 members. “I learned I wasn’t alone,” he says. “There were a lot of other people with the same kind of passion.”

ACE’s communications director Tim Baldwin acknowledges the tremendous social media impact the organization makes for the industry. But he says there are other ways it can also lend a PR hand. “Our main mission is to promote and be champions of roller coasters and amusement parks,” Baldwin notes.

Through its bimonthly newsletter, “RollerCoaster!” quarterly magazine, and AceOnline.org website, ACE generates its own media coverage of the industry. Since 2002, the organization has acknowledged rides of historical significance by designating them as “ACE Roller Coaster Landmarks” and providing the parks with plaques to mark the honor. It is a way for parks to generate publicity, as well as let their guests know about the rides’ significance.

Journalists often consider ACE members to be ride experts and will interview them at coaster openings and other park events. Also, ACE members frequently ride shotgun with reporters to provide background and color commentary for on-board coaster video segments.

“Who is best to talk about the ride experience than someone who has ridden hundreds of coasters?” asks Jeffrey Siebert, park president of Six Flags Fiesta Texas in San Antonio. “ACE has become an advocate for us to help spread the word. They are a fun partner, friend, and cheerleader.”

Siebert says Six Flags has developed another way to engage superfans—and even monetize their zeal. In August 2018, the park chain launched a membership rewards program that takes season passes to the next level. Depending on the category, members receive special benefits such as invitations to VIP events. At Fiesta Texas, for example, the park’s Diamond and Diamond Elite members had exclusive access to ride the new “Wonder Woman: Golden Lasso Coaster” before it opened to the general public.

When Silver Dollar City in Branson, Missouri, debuted “Time Traveler” in March, it reached out to enthusiasts to help promote the coaster. In the summer, the park also hosted a nontraditional group, CoasterRadio.com, for a listener meetup. The self-proclaimed “original theme park podcast” has amassed a huge audience since its debut in 2005.

Co-host Eric “E.B.” Bolstridge says the show “bridges the gap between the enthusiast community and the general public.” The 100 listeners who attended the event, many of whom traveled great distances, “became evangelists for the park,” adds the podcast’s other host, Mike Collins. Unlike other enthusiast groups, however, CoasterRadio provides the added benefit of a professionally produced, highly trafficked show that is heard around the world. The podcast highlighted Silver Dollar City on a number of episodes, including an entire show that was recorded live at the park.

Lisa Rau, director of publicity and public relations for Silver Dollar City Attractions, says she’s pleased to welcome groups like CoasterRadio and help them have fun at the park. “But we are businesspeople, too,” she notes. “We get a great return for being good hosts to enthusiasts.”


Arthur Levine covers the attractions industry for USA Today and authors Funworld’s “The Art of Attractions” column each month.