An immersive ride: The tough decisions, brand vision, digital innovation, technology spend and heritage tapped to turn Sydney’s Luna Park into an experience destination – and the money the CEO is saying no to
What you need to know:
- Luna Park is six weeks into launching its immersive entertainment experience, Dream Circus, the culmination of a $15m investment into innovative digital and spatial technologies plus creative storytelling. It’s the first example of a bold plan to bring multi-sensory entertainment into the 89-year-old iconic amusement park and diversity and build new visitation to the site.
- CEO, John Hughes, and GM of strategy and experience, Lucy Keeler, are no strangers to high-quality film and creative production, with significant credentials and connections into these spaces they’re now harnessing to bring this next generation of creative incubation and capability to Luna Park Sydney. Talks are underway with a major US studio, for example, as well as local artists to explore new residences in the immersive space.
- Building an immersive Big Top is just one step in a strategic plan Hughes is orchestrating to transform Luna Park Sydney into one of the country’s top experience destinations. It’s a plan that’s seen him recalibrating the business in order to focus on elevating and complementing the amusement park offering, which attracts more than 1 million visitors each year.
One of the biggest challenges we knew was going to be there, but perhaps didn’t realise how hard it was going to be, was trying to market an immersive experience in a market where there is no other immersive experience
Outlaying $15 million on technology and creative to kickstart an immersive attraction environment that can rival the likes of ABBA Voyage or London’s Outernet district is the first tent pole planted by Hughes as he works to transform the park into the best experience destination in the country.
Launched in December, the Dream Circus experience has been built with the help of the Australian team behind the breakthrough and highly lucrative ABBA Voyage virtual concert in London, Auditoria, resides in Luna Park’s Big Top. It’s a 50-minute narrative-based, technology-fuelled immersive experience taking attendees through a fantasy world of song, theatre and high-impact visuals using 3500 square metres of activated walls, floor and roof.
It’s Luna Park’s big leap into the immersive attraction sector, which Vision Research estimates was worth US$96.9 billion in 2023 and will exceed US$809bn by 2033.
In its first six weeks, results and feedback to the Dream Circus have been mixed. That’s what you get when you set out to market and deliver something “no one has ever seen before”, Hughes admits.
“One of the biggest challenges we knew was going to be there, but perhaps didn’t realise how hard it was going to be, was trying to market an immersive experience in a market where there is no other immersive experience,” Hughes tells Mi3.
The cast of vintage circus trope characters in the Dream Circus and visuals also weren’t enough to meet pre-conceived notions held by some early audiences as to what a circus should be.
“All of our marketing materials suggested what it was from our point of view. But the customer was 100 per cent right: It’s not a circus as the traditional circus is assumed to be. That was probably the biggest curve ball we were thrown in the early couple of weeks of launching,” Hughes says. “We went through a few different micro-campaigns in our original launch plan, which was responding to that customer feedback.”
Yet such early hurdles haven’t fazed Hughes or his GM of strategy and experiences, Lucy Keeler, nor dampened their enthusiasm for the possibilities the Immersive Big Top represents. What both argue is more important is what the capability signifies. Luna Park’s grey theatre space is decked out with a wealth of next-gen technology, from LEDs to 30 projectors, holographic screens, spatially mapped 10.1 surround sound using 100-plus speakers, and more.
This provides a blank canvas and incubation space for all manner of creative industries, who Keeler says have been knocking at the door. The pair flag conversations with a major US studio underway to bring a set build across as an example.
“If you want to tell a story in there, there are so many ways you can do it. It’s essentially a magic box,” Keeler says. She should know – Keeler was previously light festival curator for Vivid Sydney and former artist for The Electric Artist.
Secondly, having an onsite immersive theatre creates a much-needed second offering at the amusement park, which can extend visitation as well as bring new customers to the site. Hughes points to a “non-customer customer” group of up to 700,000 people that could be won over if the park diversifies.
“What’s been a wonderful, uplifting thing is we’ve given visitors to Luna Park who’d not normally have something here for them an experience for them,” Keeler says. “We’re finding this [Dream Circus] really engaging with a much older plus multi-generational audience – family groups are coming together. We’re also seeing large visitation from disability and accessibility groups. That’s been very interesting to see – rollercoasters are not available to this group. Now, they can come to Luna Park and have a really interesting experience and also go on the Dream Circus VR rollercoaster.”
Thirdly, Hughes has learnt the value of targeting and says the Immersive Big Top’s future experiences will align to demographic groups and reflect “more what it says on the tin”.
“It’ll be a digital immersive about the subject or thing you already know,” he says. “Subsequent shows will be very focused on core groups. Whether that’s toddlers, teenagers, 18+, adults, grandparents. We’re not going to do something as broad as this again.”
Turning away the wrong revenue sources
Hughes’ grand, ambitious plans for Luna Park don’t stop with sophisticated digital capability. Having come in 18 months ago with a transformation remit and wealth of experience in the film and production industries, including 14 years at Fox Studios, he’s taking a bold, brave brush to the 89-year-old iconic Sydney amusement park.
Knowing when to say no comes with his newly set North Star. While not revealing specific figures, Hughes has reset the business, culled staff and torn down silos to find the agility to pivot. It’s also meant actively turning down existing revenue sources.
The Luna Park Hughes walked into 18 months ago had five distinct silos: Amusement park; a functions business running 300 events annually; a Big Top supporting 40-50 concerts annually; a catering business; and a three-level restaurant and bar.
“We weren’t doing any of them really well. If there was one thing we should have been experts in, it would have been the amusement park. But a lot of focus was on everything but the amusement park,” he says. “We decided to focus on what mattered most and be good at one thing as our foundation. That was the park. In order to do that well, we determined through a strategic planning process we needed more things to do here. It was very important our park offering as we knew it was elevated and complemented.”
Hughes uses a vivid example of stepping out of his office on a Friday night to find punk rock band, Turnstile, playing in the Big Top.
“We had families going on rides and playing sideshow games, alongside punk rockers with mohawks and chains. Neither wanted the other person to be there,” he recalls. “Turnstile didn’t complement the park – most of the Big Top concerts didn’t complement the park. Doing a conference for the agricultural sector or pharmaceutical sector in its own right is great business we would work hard to obtain and service, but it didn’t complement Luna Park.
“No one was attracted to come to Luna Park itself except those coming for the amusement park.”
Turning down such business is equally a prosaic case of analysing highest and best use of buildings.
“Is running 40 concerts the highest and best use of the Big Top? If you had to rebuild this, it’s a $50m building. Is that the highest and best use of a $50m building at Luna Park, which gets 1 million through the gates every year? Is it the highest and best use when for the entire summer period of school holidays, there’s no concerts or functions, and we have 6000 square metres of buildings sitting there empty when we have hundreds of thousands of people in the park? The answer is no,” Hughes says.
“We made a decision very early on to free up the pipeline and stop selling. It was a decision we didn’t make lightly and went with a lot of analysis. We worked closely with the board and business units servicing them to make a decision that’s now enabled our ability to transform these incredible assets into ticketed attractions for Sydney-siders and visitors to Sydney complementing this park.”
We had families going on rides and playing sideshow games, alongside punk rockers with mohawks and chains. Neither wanted the other person to be there… No one was attracted to come to Luna Park itself except those coming for the amusement park.
Working on what Luna Park stands for
Some investment had already been made – nine new rides were unveiled with the reopening of Luna Park in October 2021, part of $30 million in investment to ensure its place as one of the major attractions in Sydney contributing to the NSW visitor economy. But how to reshape the business was largely unknown when Hughes first stepped through that toothy gate. A deep dive into the past to understand the DNA of this site was one information source.
Recognising Luna Park is owned by all Sydney-siders and people living in NSW is another. “What do we do to make it the best park possible today? That’s the custodian mindset we have adopted,” Hughes says.
The third element is understanding modern customer needs, values and attitudes. Hughes knows the days of trying to get kids on a rollercoaster alone are gone.
“Millennials, gen Z and Alpha are craving highly social experiences, Instagrammable moments, and want to share experience and moments with their friends and families. They’re digital natives and looking for more,” Hughes says. “They want connection into a brand, site and idea.”
That meant Luna Park needed more things to do onsite. Historically, there’s been one product: An unlimited rides pass. In the last six weeks, there’s been two: Unlimited rides pass plus immersive attraction.
“This year and even more certainly the year after, we want to extend that depth of offering to be five, six or seven products we’re selling customers,” Hughes says. “We think if we do them really well, with great creative minds, great brands and great products, we can turn from amusement park to being the best experience destination in the country.”
We are currently having discussions with a range of potential clients around curating their own content,” he says. “If you have a product or company and want to be beam your global CEO in on a life-size LED screen, there’s only one place you can do that in Australia – and it’s right here.
Rethinking the value exchange
That doesn’t mean edgy musicians – or brands – are banned from Luna Park. Instead, Hughes believes the tech and digital investment lead to a different type of experience that’s heavily curated and AV-led.
“This is a product that hasn’t existed before, or is only in certain parts of the world. There’s no suggestion this is happening here, but ABBA Voyage, a digital experience anchored around ABBA legacy and history, and that depth of content – there’s no reason why something like that couldn’t happen here,” Hughes says.
ABBA Voyage contributed £322.6 million (A$624m) to the London economy in its first year of operation, according to consultancies Sound Diplomacy and RealWorth. Tickets have been sold out for months.
Hughes flags “exciting” conversations with a major US studio about a particular set build they can bring over and put into the Big Top.
“Then you start to go into the world of Vegas, where you have residences. Once you have this foundation layer of a great show for 2000 people with a curated visual to it, they can come back every few months, it’s all plug-and-play,” Hughes continues. “Or in some cases like ABBA you don’t need the artist; you just need the content.”
Keeler cites meeting after meeting with music artists and film teams expressing desire to engage with this space as a new way of pushing their own genre.
“The sky’s the limit as far as concerts are concerned, but it won’t be a concert as anyone knows it,” she says. “We have basically built an incubation space for our creative industries.
“We hire live performers, we have musicians onsite, and we have a full-time resident artist; one of the only such jobs in the country. We should be a wonderful exploration place for creatives in this city and this is an absolute cracking example of how we do it.”
As for conferences and events, Luna Park can’t do the volume, but Hughes is bullish about servicing event states and bookings “unlike anywhere else in Sydney”.
“We are currently having discussions with a range of potential clients around curating their own content,” he says. “If you have a product or company and want to be beam your global CEO in on a life-size LED screen, there’s only one place you can do that in Australia – and it’s right here.
“Now we’re venue-led, we’ll naturally do a lot less – but it will have a higher production value.”
It’s important we don’t just turn the entire site into this tech mecca. It needs to have this beautiful balance between the best of the old and best of the new.
The long and short of it
Luna Park’s strategic plan positions this as investment into the core asset. Get those 1 million visitors to stay 30 or 60 minutes longer, and there’s carpark margin improvement, the chance they’ll buy an ice cream, or move into the next meal cycle. Then there’s the extra $35-$45 per head the Dream Circus represents as a standalone offering, or $20 add-on to an unlimited rides pass.
Embedded in the goal of increasing depth of offering is varying price points and a dynamic pricing model – a nod to economic considerations and cost-of-living considerations.
“There’s nothing to gain from having five products all costing $50 or $60. It’s about how you have a wide range of things,” Hughes says. “Our strategy is a very broad price point.”
Seasonal celebrations like Vivid Festival, Halloween and New Year’s Eve also continue. Then there’s the brand activations and travelling exhibitions on their way once final Crystal Palace bookings wind up. Hughes sees these as proof-of-concept tests on how best to use the iconic space before investing.
“But our ultimate end goal for that space is to have an immersive attraction in one of the most recognisable buildings in Sydney Harbour, a 1935 palace, without equal in this country,” he says. “Our business needs to be dynamic and focus on doing interesting work, attracting the right markets. What we want customers to say is ‘I’m going to go to Luna Park because there is something interesting there’.”
It doesn’t all cost $15m either. Dropping in a VR experience doesn’t cost that much, Hughes says. Training up performers in juggling and sword swallowing doesn’t cost the earth, and honours Luna Park’s 1930s heritage.
“Having a partnership with a well-known US studio doesn’t cost that much. Being nimble and having creators work in this space and concepts we have coming to us … it’s not big chunks of CapEx, it’s getting the right minds in here.”
Then there’s the marketing. Keeler cites a journey to understand Luna Park’s brand identity and where to locate it. “We know Luna Park is anchored back in the 1930s now but also celebrates the future,” she says.
“Think about buildings like Coney Island or the Wild Mouse, a 1963 timber rollercoaster currently going through a major restoration. It’s important we don’t just turn the entire site into this tech mecca. It needs to have this beautiful balance between the best of the old and best of the new.”
And don’t forget those other customer cohorts Luna Park hopes to attract. “There’s dating after dark, twilight groups missing. There’s an older audience missing. It’s about bringing all those people so we have a much broader visitation demographic,” Keeler adds.