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SELECTED ISSUE
Attractions Management
2023 issue 4

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Leisure Management - Making memories

Research

Making memories


Emotions play a key role in how visitors remember an experience. Wim Strijbosch shares the findings from his research

Disney creates memorable experiences in a variety of ways Photo: Disney
Emotion and memory are linked, but more emotion is not always better Photo: Shutterstock/Mia2you
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter engages all of the senses Photo: Shutterstock/Paula Montenegro Stock
Sesame Street: Street Mission balances intense and tranquil moments Photo: PortAventura World
Attractions designers need to consider the role of visitors’ emotions Photo: PortAventura World

I’ll never forget my first visit to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando. Although it was more than a decade ago, I distinctly remember how I experienced it and how I felt when I was there.

Understanding how visitors remember their experiences is key in the world of attractions. Visitors can’t recommend attractions to others or decide to visit again if they can’t remember them.

The question, then, is how to ensure experiences are as memorable as possible.

In my PhD research (Strijbosch, 2022), built on the work of many others, I explored the factors that determine how an experience is remembered. Using questionnaires and state-of-the-art electrophysiological equipment, I studied how emotions wax and wane during leisure experiences, and how these emotions relate to the way people remember their experiences.

The world of experience
Experience is a complex concept. On the one hand, experience can be understood as a verb, referring to the continuous sensing and feeling in the here-and-now. When awake, we continuously attend to stimuli both from the world around us and from within ourselves, resulting in a flux of experiencing.

On the other hand, experience can be understood as a noun, referring to experiences that transcend the here-and-now and are stored into memory.

The flux of experiencing is incredibly complex. In order to manage this, our brain uses mental models to cut this flux into smaller pieces – so-called experiential episodes.

Mental models are a type of reference frame based on earlier experiences, so that the brain knows what experiences generally start and end with – an experienced theme park visitor will know what to expect, allowing the brain to view a visit as a separate experiential episode from whatever happened before or after.

In turn, our brain can subdivide such episodes into sub-episodes that form experientially coherent units in time, such as attractions in a theme park or exhibits in a museum.

The role of emotion
Most experiential episodes are so ordinary that they won’t make the shift towards a remembered experience. However, sometimes there’s an ingredient in our experiential episodes that makes them relevant enough to be stored into memory.

That ingredient is emotion. And that’s why arriving at Disneyland Paris from the freeway with the Disneyland Hotel in the distance is more memorable than a standard freeway exit, why Moaning Myrtle’s sound effects make The Wizarding World of Harry Potter’s toilets stand out and why the queue line at Efteling’s Flying Dutchman is probably the most memorable section of the entire attraction.

Emotions determine not just if we will remember an experience, but how we remember it. Emotions aren’t static during an experiential episode. Instead, they wax and wane as experiential episodes unfold. For example, the sense of tension that you feel on a rollercoaster has different levels on the chain lift compared to the various inversions or the final brake section.

More emotion is not always better
In experience design, we tend to believe that we have to blow people’s minds – the more emotion the better.

This turns out not necessarily to be the case. In one of the studies in my dissertation which involved measuring emotions in visitors watching a musical theatre show, we indeed found positive relationships between the emotionally stronger scenes and overall evaluations of the audience members: the stronger the emotional engagement, the better the evaluation.

However, for some scenes we also found negative relationships: the less strong the emotional engagement, the better the evaluation. Perhaps, this suggests that to have emotional highs, you also need emotionally less intense moments.

A good example might be PortAventura’s Sesame Street: Street Mission, which combines game-driven moments putting riders on the edge of their seats together with tranquil moments in-between where beautiful animatronics calmly tell the story of the ride.

Another study in our lab found that museum visitors on a guided tour were more inclined to recommend the tour if they felt less emotionally engaged (Mitas et al, 2020). This seems to suggest that the relation between emotional engagement and overall evaluation might be highly context dependent.

Attraction designers therefore need to get a good sense of which emotions work best in the context of their attraction and to consciously consider which emotions they want to evoke at which points in the attraction.

The bigger picture
Attraction designers shouldn’t think of their attraction as happening in a vacuum, where nothing happens before or after. They should remember that how they want visitors to feel is not necessarily how visitors truly feel, and that this may be influenced by events outside of their control.

In the same musical theatre show study, we made a comparison between the emotion profile as intended by the designers and the lived emotion profile of the visitors. To some extent, the lived emotion profile could be predicted from the emotion profile as intended by the designers.

However, this prediction became gradually stronger towards the end of the show. We observed a lot of variation between visitor emotions at the beginning of the show, arguably because of carry-over effects from experiences directly preceding the show. Some audience members might have been in a traffic jam, some might have stood in a long queue for the wardrobe, some might have had higher expectations than others.

When aiming for visitors to get in line with designers’ intentions, designers should consider that it takes time for visitors to get attuned to an experience.

The takeaways
Emotions form the key to making experiences memorable and to determining how they are remembered.

When steering towards memorability, as an attractions manager, you consciously need to think about what emotions will be effective in the context of your attraction and what emotions you want to evoke when. Then, study whether those emotions are actually evoked at the desired level and examine how the emotions at the various points in your attraction are related to its overall evaluations.

Managing memorability is difficult – in the end, it’s a process that takes place within the visitor. But while the process itself might be difficult to unlock, using the best-fitting key will be the best shot towards turning it to your advantage.

Photo: Breda University of Applied Sciences

Wim Strijbosch published his doctoral thesis, Experience unpacked: On the temporal dynamics of emotions in tourism and leisure experiences in October 2022.

“The research was concerned with the study of how emotions wax and wane over the course of tourism and leisure experiences, and how these ‘temporal emotion profiles’ relate to how people remember their experiences,” said Strijbosch. “I used both a newly-developed questionnaire method and state-of-the-art electrophysiological equipment to measure bodily properties of emotion.”

The research involved studying emotions over time during the viewing of a 15 minute virtual reality movie, studying emotions for the duration of a 90 minute musical theatre show and studying the brain processes related to being emotionally moved by engaging with artworks.


Originally published in Attractions Management 2023 issue 4

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