Warrior’s Code - June 2017

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Parkour-style attractions typically feature obstacle-course elements. (CREDIT: CircusTrix)
Growing in popularity, ninja and parkour courses give FECs an edge

by Mike Bederka

MUCH LIKE THE ATHLETES on the television show “American Ninja Warrior” climbing to the heavens on gravity-defying obstacles, the popularity of ninja-inspired and parkour courses at family entertainment centers (FECs) continues to soar.

“This is a tsunami,” says Case Lawrence, CEO of CircusTrix, an FEC founded on a combination of physically challenging obstacles, sometimes arranged as a course, that guests climb, jump, and run their way through. “People think of it as just a TV show, but really, it’s a whole new sport spawning and a culture being created. The market wants more physical, high-adrenaline activities.”

Lawrence founded his Provo, Utah-based company in 2011, just as the TV show based on the Japanese blockbuster “Sasuke” began to take off. Calling it “extreme recreation,” he says his 31 parks across Asia, the United States, and Europe all feature a variation of slacklines, parkour, trampolines, and ninja courses. Guests run up walls; climb up, over, and through obstacles; and jump across objects of varying size.

“Those people on TV make it look super easy,” says Lawrence, whose FEC brands include Above All, Ryze, and Gravitopia, among others. “The fun challenge we have is giving guests the attractions they’re used to seeing [on TV], but take it down to a degree so the average person can do them.”

1706_biz_warrior_3Four Tips to Hone Your Ninja (Attraction) Skills

1. Keep it social. By their dynamic nature, parkour and ninja courses lend themselves to creating short videos for social media. “Look at your FEC and see how many postable, sharable experiences you have within your four walls,” urges Case Lawrence of CircusTrix. “Teenagers today plan their outings based on what they’re going to post. It’s superficial but absolutely true.” For instance, ninja courses can get creative by including surprising elements for the obstacle holds, such as toilet seats or garbage cans, and CircusTrix made its parkour zones highly visual by adding graffiti-inspired pop art to the boxes and cement impediments.

2. Mix things up. Nicole Flores will regularly change around her courses at De Leon Dynamics so guests don’t get too comfortable and must challenge themselves with new activities and obstacles. Lawrence also sees the im-portance of keeping a venue fresh, as he recently signed a lease for an airy 80,000-square-foot building. “You need the space for the demand and to add new attractions,” he notes.

3. Party on. De Leon Dynamics is experiencing a blossoming party business, hosting about 10 birthdays a month, Flores says. The parties start with basic instruction on equipment like vaults and swings, followed by an obstacle course designed for beginners. A highlight usually comes when her highly trained staff puts on a show, showing off their skills for the young enthusiastic guests. For Lawrence, he has seen a spike in themed parties that focus on the ninja culture, from costumes to cakes.

4. Forge partnerships. When Lawrence opened a new facility in New Orleans, Louisiana, he initially wanted to hire an NBA player for the celebration. However, once he saw the sky-high $100,000 asking price for the appearance, he knew he needed something more economical. Lawrence smartly turned to an endorsement deal with “American Ninja Warrior” star Kevin Bull at a fraction of the cost that still produced impressive results. “We had a line out the door and three blocks down the road of kids waiting to meet him,” he says. “These athletes are completely undervalued.”

Safety First

As a result, Lawrence mitigated many of the “wipeout possibilities,” an admitted draw to the show. Instead of guests precariously swinging from ring to ring over a pool of water, they attempt a similar challenge with foam bricks below. Lawrence also redesigned well-known and notoriously tough “Ninja Warrior” obstacles, such as the Salmon Ladder and Cliffhanger, to lower in height and shorter in duration, which makes them more manageable for participants and, likely, less scary for parents nervously looking on.

In addition to netting, padding, and foam at potential drop points, people watch a safety video prior to participating, and employees keep a close eye on guests—mostly ages 14 to 25—for risky behaviors, Lawrence says.

‘A Measurable Win’

At De Leon Dynamics, with two 5,000-square-foot Southern California locations, the staff members receive certification through the World Freerunning Parkour Federation, says co-owner Nicole Flores. That level of expertise and supervision often comforts parents, who, prior to coming in, frequently watch their kids recklessly hurl themselves from rock to rock at the park or dive between couches at home.

De Leon Dynamics’ urban ninja program and parkour program (which is more freestyle and focused on gymnastics) feature a bars course, fingerhold ledges, incline and peg walls, “hanging bombs” (swinging between balls attached to chains), vault boxes, and more.

Flores opened her facilities three years ago, but the idea percolated for some time. Like Lawrence, she saw the growing interest in “American Ninja Warrior” and its international spinoffs, as well as the TV shows “Wipeout” and MTV’s “Ultimate Parkour Challenge.” Plus, CrossFit’s growth brought a new wave of fitness to the masses, and YouTube’s explosion made viewing amateur ninja and parkour tricks more commonplace. (Read the sidebar for more on how to maximize viral opportunities.)

She sees guests from age 3 to adults, with the majority hovering around 8 to 10 years old. The core demographic particularly enjoys her facilities because they can balance entertainment with competition, says Flores, describing it as “a measurable win” when guests go faster, farther, or higher from one visit to the next.

“Kids are participating less and less in organized sports,” Lawrence adds. “Young people instead want physical pursuits they can improve upon and conquer.”

As for the adults, he believes they look for a narrative to their fitness—an experience that creates a story. For example, Lawrence points to the growth of strength and endurance events like Tough Mudder, Spartan Race, and Warrior Dash.

“Ninja and parkour courses are part of that,” he says. “People don’t just want to go to the gym anymore, and we’re capitalizing on it.” 

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CREDIT: CIRCUS TRIX

Ninja’ Glossary of Terms

Ninja: In the case of extreme recreation activities, “ninja” is used to describe challenges inspired by ninjas, the elite athletes who attempt obstacles that test their strength and gymnastics skills.

Slacklining: Similar to tightrope walking, this exercise pushes people to walk across a suspended length of flat webbing tensioned between two anchors.

Parkour: In this activity, participants move quickly through an area, negotiating obstacles by running, jumping, and climbing.

Wipeout Possibilities: During these times on shows like “American Ninja Warrior,” athletes attempt to navigate an obstacle without falling and, subsequently, being eliminated.

Bars Course: Used in ninja and parkour courses, these pieces of gymnastics equipment of various heights can be manipulated for a greater challenge and to change the experience.

Finger-Hold Ledges: In this obstacle, people must climb across a wall using only their hand strength.

Vault Boxes: Often shaped like a simple wooden box, this common piece of parkour equipment is used for jumping over and doing tricks.

CrossFit: A popular high-intensity fitness program that incorpo-rates elements from several sports and types of exercise, including gymnastics, weightlifting, running, and rowing.

Tough Mudder, Spartan Race, and Warrior Dash: Races that involve a mix of running, mud, and extreme challenges (for example, in Tough Mudder’s Electroshock Therapy obstacle, brave participants get zapped with 10,000 volts if they hit a dangling wire).