So what then of this idea that Colonial Williamsburg will reimagine itself as a gated attraction?
From the earliest days of our business when an intrepid young girl from Denmark, ca. 1583 famously wandered into the forest looking for magic on the eve of the Summer Solstice, until today, the keepers of attraction kingdoms have sought to limit access to the treasures that lie within. After all, scarcity drives value and the essence and equity of a place is in large measure simply the place itself, (especially so for Colonial Williamsburg), so why not begin the transaction with a simple permission: you may enter.
Our young heroine found the magic she sought: a clear, cool spring with restorative powers that begat pilgrimages in the thousands for centuries to come. And with those "guests" came the inevitable hucksters, buskers and merchants, mechanical contraptions, entertainers and legions of seedy characters accompanied by questionable sanitation practices and the usual host of operational issues until one day .... the King built a fence.
For nearly 100 years the fence kept the deer in and the people out, inspiring visions of an enchanted land filled with magical fountains, whimsical creatures and an endless supply of entertainment and hygge.
In other words, something for which people might be willing to pay.
The cynic might say that Colonial Williamsburg is considering a similar move: hiding the magic away from the people in return for tribute to the King. I think nothing could be farther from the truth.
To the contrary I think that carefully controlled access, critically designed and thoughtful executed would allow Colonial Williamsburg to endure and flourish for generations to come, which is after all, their goal. As the world has changed attractions have to change and the experiences they offer, most especially those at site based historical attractions have to change with it. Or they too will be history.
Controlled access enhances the guest experience in many ways. It allows for better story telling, brings a unified consistency and quality to the experience and enables types of cross platform, integrated and immersive learning that is impossible otherwise. Storytelling is a temporal business and in three dimensions it's an especially complexbusiness.
To move hearts and minds, sometimes first, you have to move bodies.
There's an old saw in our business that "the gate pays the bills"; the margins come from retail and premium experiences. Without admissions as the foundation of an operating budget it's difficult to imagine a successful, enduring attraction in today's market.
Is there a downside? Of course but it can be managed. The jeopardy is this:
At a time when living history seems ever more archaic to younger generations and an increasingly diverse population, this might seem to create yet one more barrier but in fact it does the opposite: it opens the gates for whole new generations of technically savvy, curious citizens who are waiting and ready to step through a portal to a whole new kind of contemporary, living history.
It's time to be open minded about thoughtful options for the future of one of the world's great treasures; the cradle of the radical idea that maybe, just maybe people can self govern but only if they are educated, informed and engaged. That is what Colonial Williamsburg is all about.
Doug Minerd has provided creative development and operational expertise for themed attractions across the nation including Cedar Point, Busch Gardens Sesame Place and SeaWorld. He developed and teaches "The Business of Fun" (OLLI/ University of Virginia) a survey course that chronicles the history of attractions, world's fairs and amusements.