Outsourcing Entertainment

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Disclaimer: The thoughts and opinions expressed in this editorial do not necessarily represent those of the site or its leadership. This piece caused a lot of controversy internally but it was decided that it should be posted regardless to test the waters and see what you, the site’s readers, thought of this style of content. This piece will be controversial. At the end of the editorial, there will be a link to a thread made just for this post where you can discuss it. Please, for the love of all that is good, stay civil. This post contains a very unique way of looking at the recent Entertainment issues that we’ve seen at the park and it would be a true shame to have a good, interesting discussion about the content of this piece drowned out by nonsense. Anyway, without further ado, I give you this fantastic article written for the site by Brandon Scott, or, as you may know him on the forums, Doc Dollars. Thanks for all the hard work you put into it Brandon, it really shows!

Outsourcing Entertainment: The Presidential Politics of the Park’s Entertainment Woes

This may come as a shock to you, but there’s a Presidential election going on. If you have yet to notice the tell-tale signs of our quadrennial exercise in popular democracy, don’t worry — it will soon become virtually impossible to miss them. Just try to avoid the barrage of local advertisements lauding the great achievements of one candidate and exposing the deep character flaws of the other over the next few months (especially in so-called “swing states,” like Virginia), and you’ll find it more difficult than getting a consensus on the thematic relevance of sundials in this website’s own discussion forums. While hundreds of different advertisements will air, there is one topic that will almost certainly become a recurring theme that should also be of particular interest to fans of Busch Gardens Williamsburg. No, I’m not talking about unemployment stats or foreign wars (although both of those could be said to have a significant impact on the park, given its proximity to Norfolk) but a particular line of attack that will be used against Republican Mitt Romney. His sin (or so it will be alleged in the attack-ads), is making struggling American companies profitable for their owners, at the expense of the workers they employed, through the controversial practice of outsourcing.

Of course, by now, we’re all very familiar with the most commonly demonized form of outsourcing. An American company looking to improve the bottom line for CEOs and shareholders fields out part of it’s operations to low-wage workers in another country, like Bangladesh, and politicians make speeches condemning it (they probably still buy the products produced in these low-wage factories, but that’s another story). But what you may not know is that the term “outsourcing” has another, less sinister meaning; it can also describe the practice of fielding out part of a company’s work to another domestic firm, either to lighten a heavy workload or to provide a quality finished product when the original company simply cannot. Of course, the type of foreign outsourcing that Romney has been accused of has little relevance to Busch Gardens, as I’m highly doubtful that the park experience could be improved by transferring ride operations to a remote video site in Kuala Lumpur. But, outsourcing in that other sense — having traditionally in-house projects completed by outside companies — may be highly relevant as a method to improve the park’s declining entertainment fortunes.

By most accounts, the last few years have been something of a small disaster for the park’s entertainment department. While reactions range from slight disappointment all the way to complete depression, the general consensus has been that, with a few notable exceptions, BGW’s entertainment team has simply done a poor job upholding the high standards set by the park’s past offerings. Some point the finger at Scott Gasparich, head of the park’s entertainment department. Others place the blame on higher sets of shoulders, accusing Sea World Parks and Entertainment of placing unimaginative bookkeepers in charge of the various creative departments. While there can be little doubt that the people with whom the buck stops have ultimately been the ones to let things get out of hand, I don’t feel that the issue is entirely a matter of personnel. Rather, it seems to me to be a matter of poor production policy.

Take for example the crown jewels of the park’s attractions line-up: her five world-class roller coasters. Can you tell me, off the top of your head (or by using Google…because I know you’re going to), which Busch Gardens employees designed them? How about the park’s critically acclaimed “Curse of DarKastle” ride? Any idea which park employee put that one together? If you’re having a hard time coming up with answers, let me save you any further trouble: these people don’t exist, because these rides weren’t made by Busch Gardens. The complicated and specialized work of designing roller coasters was outsourced to engineering firms like Zierer and Bolliger & Mabillard. The in-depth creative process of developing DarKastle was handled by a Florida-based firm called Falcon’s Treehouse. Why then, when the park seeks to create quality live entertainment attractions, do they seem content only to look inward?

As it turns out, this hasn’t always been the case. Some of the most popular stage shows in the park’s history have been, at least in part, produced by outside companies. Killarney’s “Secrets of Castle O’Sullivan” was produced by California’s Landmark Entertainment Group, the same people responsible for T2 3D at Universal Studios. The Abbey Stone classics “Irish Thunder” and “Emerald Beat” were products of O’Shea’s School of Irish Dance, a Dublin-based troupe that has produced numerous world champions in Celtic dance. The largest (and arguably, most popular) live production in the park’s history, “Imaginique”, was produced by Neil Goldberg’s Cirque Productions, which exhibits award-winning original entertainment to audiences around the world. Even the park’s most popular current stage show, “Celtic Fyre” (which is largely an in-house production) got an assist from a world-famous outsider when Colm O’Fouglu, the composer of River Dance, co-wrote the show’s popular score.

In recent years, however, the park seems to have shifted away from hiring outsiders to produce their live entertainment offerings. In 2006, Goldberg’s Imaginique was replaced in the Royal Palace Theatre by another, less expensive (but still outsourced) offering called “Kinetix”. Today, the theatre sits empty. In 2008, Landmark’s Castle O’Sullivan show was replaced with something that wasn’t a show at all. Two years ago, Busch’s own Celtic Fyre replaced O’Shea’s Emerald Beat. And just this season, the poorly reviewed “Entwined” (a Busch Gardens original disaster) took over for the aging “This is Oktoberfest.” While not an outside production itself, This is Oktoberfest can also not really be considered a BGW invention either (it mainly featured traditional Bavarian content who’s creators’ identities are mostly lost to history). The end result is that, as of today, there is not a single live show in the park that was wholly produced by an outside firm. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that there is also not a single live show in the park that is considered to be a complete and genuine hit.

Am I suggesting that the park’s entertainment department is completely incapable of producing quality attractions? Well, yes and no. While I have no doubt that the professionals that run BGW’s creative departments are highly talented individuals, I also know that Williamsburg is no mecca of the entertainment world. It follows, then, to assume that very best and brightest minds in the industry probably work for the California- and Florida-based firms that produce these kinds of attractions independently. My suggestion is simply that Busch could improve its own declining entertainment portfolio by following the same process for stage shows that it already follows for it’s roller coasters and other rides. Let the entertainment department decide when a new show is needed in a certain area of the park, have them set their thematic and stylistic parameters based on its proposed location and target demographic, and then call in the professionals. Let the park’s own people come back into the process once the shows are ready, and have them oversee daily operations (such as minor choreography changes, costume issues, etc.); just don’t let them try and design the shows from square one.

In our case, I think outsourcing can be a great thing. Contracting the design of rides and shows to outside firms while handling routine operation in-house can give us a great result by allowing each company to focus on what it does best. His political opponents would tell you that Governor Romney believes this is the American way. If that is in fact true, then maybe it can also work for a miniature, make-believe Europe in the “swing state” of Virginia.

As promised, here’s a link to the thread dedicated to the discussion of this editorial: Link

Also, if you’d take a second to leave a comment below about whether or not you’d like to see more opinion based articles like this one in the future, that’d be great.

Lastly, but certainly not least, thanks again to Brandon Scott for putting this amazing editorial together. I thought it was truly, absolutely fantastic.