Alton Towers... University Degree?

Discussion in 'General Discussion' started by OilyWater, 20th Nov 2018.

  1. OilyWater

    OilyWater TowersStreet Member

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    This has been popping up so much recently that I thought would be interesting discussion and see what others make of it. Staffordshire University have been running a 'Visitor Attraction & Resort Management' course for a while now.

    Some people interested in joining the theme park industry when they reach that time in their life often don't know what to do, because it's quite an obscure industry to get into, so this course could seem an attractive route for them. Like any course, you're always going to get some who are in it because it 'sounds good' and others who genuinly have talent, but setting that aside, what actually is this degree?

    It appears geared towards the most degree-appropriate aspect of the theme park industry – leisure management, which includes a load of legal responsibility, complex strategy, etc. So far so good – not just a pointless 'Theme Park degree' adding to the long list of useless degrees on offer today then. All other aspects of theme park industry, in my opinion, are much better learnt with practical experience and skill (either that, or they aren't unique to theme parks anyway, eg marketing).

    The course includes weeks placement in different areas of nearby Alton Towers. Any practical experience in a degree is very valuable in my experience. While Alton Towers I'm sure is an amazing operation to learn experience in, is the park's current operation the standard that future leisure managers should learn from?

    Then something seems odd about this whole arrangement. The ties with Alton Towers are very close, but does the course give other points of view? Alton Towers is just one theme park – to get a wider experience of leisure management you'd have to explore outside Merlin for sure.

    "This unique course is taught in partnership with Alton Towers Resort, part of the World renowned Merlin Group."

    Yeah, not exactly renowned in a good way. Who are the guest lecturers, are they all from Merlin, or other organisations as well?

    Are students being challenged on the subject of leisure management, or is this just Alton Towers' way of funneling in staff through a degree programme with its local uni?

    Let's not forget this all began with Nick Varney getting an honorary degree for services to the leisure industry. I don't think this even needs a comment from me.



    Merlin already do a rather questionable internal 'Merlin degree', where they put staff in temp management positions between their midways and parks. Rather than actually become talented leisure managers, it seems like a lengthy adventure into the 'Merlin way', so that Merlin ensures they get the kind of managers they want running their parks, thinking the way they want. It would seem that, once you've done this course, all it does is fastrack you to being a manager without the necessary life-learnt experience and encourage you to never leave for the competition.

    So is this degree going to be different and do what a degree should do, to challenge perceptions, grow talent – qualify its students to be great leisure managers, or to just be Merlin leisure managers?

    Either way, I think what's important is that there are people running the industry with passion, guts, management talent and who see the bigger picture. Make good business out of good entertainment, not cut entertainment to its minimum to inflate profits and then plaster the wound with marketing hyperbole.
     
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    Posted 20th Nov 2018
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  2. Robert.W

    Robert.W TowersStreet Member

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    I mean, they’ll learn what not to do, right? :p

    In seriousness, this is actually very interesting. I would hope that the Alton Towers / Merlin ties end at the weeks work experience so that students can get a feel for more different types of leisure attractions, not just Merlin ones.

    Something that Merlin seems to do is kill any and all passion / ambition that their managers have for their attractions through their almost non existent budgets and overly formulaic approach to the industry. That’s not something I’d want being taught right from the very beginning to the people who will be running our attractions in the future...
     
    Posted 20th Nov 2018
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  3. OilyWater

    OilyWater TowersStreet Member

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    Yeah I think you've summed it up much better, it could be a great opportunity if it really got to the hardcore of the subject, but not if it's just a backdoor into Merlin or attracts only enthusiasts who think Merlin is an attractive career path.

    Leisure management can also extend to any kind of visitor attraction too, not just theme parks, hopefully that is being taught as well?

    I've worked with people sometimes who have glossy sounding degrees and know the theory, but have no actual talent or application, and it seems kind of sad when things turn out that way. That's not necessarily their own fault, just the way that everybody gets encouraged to google-a-degree when they leave college and things are sold to you that sound too good to be true.

    I suppose the test will be when these students actually get jobs in the industry, wherever that may be, and best of luck to them whatever they do.
     
    Posted 20th Nov 2018
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  4. DiogoJ42

    DiogoJ42 TowersStreet Member

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    I know someone who has a doctorate in coffee. True story. By comparrison, this seems perfectly sensible.
     
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    Posted 20th Nov 2018
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  5. Funcone

    Funcone TowersStreet Member

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    This is a very interesting topic for a debate. The amount of literature on theme park management has absolutely exploded over the last twenty years, largely due to the Internet. I’m not just talking about online forums, but all the books written by managers with illustrious careers in the industry. These books are generally too niche to be sold in a bookshop, but with the Internet they can find their audience. There are also several websites that cover management well including the Season Pass Podcast and the Attraction Pros podcast.

    However, a very significant proportion of the literature on theme park management is written about Disney by Disney veterans or at least ex cast members. I don’t think anyone has ever written a book about Merlin’s management. I’m not saying that Merlin doesn’t deserve a book, and if someone like Nick Varney were to write one, I’d love to read it, but you can’t read or study something that hasn’t been written. Given that so little of the literature on theme park management is about Merlin, I’d have thought that you’d have to focus heavily on other attractions even if Alton Towers is where the placements are.

    I actually think a degree in theme park management has some real merit. At least it could be very practical. I suspect a big chunk of graduates never use the things they studied at uni. You will inevitably get people calling it a Mickey Mouse degree, but actually it takes a lot of skill and expertise to manage a theme park.

    One issue is how lowly paid a lot of theme park management jobs are. For example, the Westmidland Safari Park is currently advertising for a full-time supervisor with a salary ranging from £12,698 to £16,371.
    https://www.wmsp.co.uk/careers/#prettyPhoto[permanent2]/0/

    Butlins pay their lowest tier of management the absolute minimum wage and Flamingo Land certainly were paying their lower management the absolute minimum wage a few years ago. At some Merlin theme parks the bottom five tiers of staff all earn under £20,000 and at some of the medium sized theme parks the heads of department earn under £20,000. It’s not much of an incentive to get a degree, although I expect quite a few of the people in these roles do have degrees anyway.

    I think another problem, and perhaps a bigger one, is that most theme parks aren’t really interested in ‘quality management’, even if they’re willing to do it for a pittance. I don’t work at Alton Towers or know anyone who does, but I do know that there’s a grand total of 11 people who manage the whole rides department. That’s a very low ratio of management to frontline staff. Regardless of their skill, they presumably don’t have a lot of time to spend on mentoring and developing their team members, and doing the things that will craft an amazing culture. If someone went in having spent years studying management theories I don’t now how much chance there’d be to use them. Not to mention that so much is centralized and ‘cookie cutter’. The parks can have people who are experts on management science, but I expect they’d still have to do things pretty much the way head office told them to.

    Most people would agree that overall the British theme park industry is in a bad place right now. Could people with degrees in theme park management help to solve that? I think they could help, but I don’t know how many theme parks want their help or would know how to use them.

    BTW, what’s Merlin’s internal degree? Is that different to their graduate scheme?

    I do think a lot of the people taking the course will end up being theme park enthusiast who somewhere along the line end up wondering what they spent £40,000 for. I think that’s a problem with the British education system in general. It’s difficult to get impartial advice. People get funneled through, and when you’re 16 and thinking about university courses you often aren’t in the best position to make a decision. I was certainly naïve at the time. When I went to uni open days and was told I was making a fantastic choice I took that as validation, I didn’t think about the fact that lecturers are effectively there to flog their courses.
     
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    Posted 20th Nov 2018
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  6. DiogoJ42

    DiogoJ42 TowersStreet Member

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    There's a big problem with our education system that can be summed up by one name... Tony Blair. It was under his rule that this ridiculous idea that everyone MUST get a degree regardless of their intended carreer came about.

    I ignored that and dropped out of education post A levels. At the time, there was only place in the UK that offered any courses remotely related to lighting, and I'd had enough of school.
    Admittedly, I then got very lucky and fell in to a job that may not have been quite what I thought I wanted, but was still close enough to be fine by me. Turns out it was exactly the job I needed.

    Now I know I was lucky and not everyone else will be, but there are some jobs that just DO. NOT. NEED. DEGREES. Arguably, most jobs are in that catagory. Theory is great, but until you have the on-job experience in your chosed field, you don't know what you are doing. This old classic sums it up nicely:
    [​IMG]

    Learn all you can in the class room by all means, but until you spend a few years actually DOING the job, you don't actually know what you are doing. When I am you overlord, it will be law that to get a management roll, you must have at least five years experience doing the work of those who will be under you.
     
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    Posted 20th Nov 2018
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  7. Funcone

    Funcone TowersStreet Member

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    It is unfortunate that most people choose what they want to study at uni when they're 16 and all they know is education. People who study theme park management probably will do mainly because they like going to theme parks, without necessarily knowing much about it, but that's true for a lot of degrees. If someone was already a team leader in a theme park and then they decided they wanted to study theme park management to take their skills to the next level, it'd make more sense, but that doesn't seem to be how our education system normally works.

    It is true that a lot of the people at the top of their fields don't have degrees in what they're doing. A lot of top authors don't have creative writing degrees. A lot of top musicians don't have music degrees. A lot of top entrepreneurs don't have business degrees. Walt Disney certainly didn't have a degree in theme park management. Or any degree at all for that matter.

    I'm sure we've all met people who've studied the theory, but can't actually do the job. However, you also get the self taught cowboys who've learnt everything from the 'university of life'. I think this is particularly true in certain fields. Whilst you get these Silicon tech entrepreneurs who dropped out of college, there seem to be a lot of cowboys in computing who set up computer shops because they're good at messing around with computers, even though they've never formally studied it.

    There are a lot of managers who think that the secret to getting things done is to shout at people, to string them along with false promises, or to put people in their place by making pointless shows of power. If you think of any bad manager you've had, I doubt they're doing the things that are taught in 95% of management books. There are plenty of inept managers out there in the theme park industry who don't seem to be following any kind of basic principal of management science.

    I think the best chance of finding a good manager is someone's who's got a mix of actual experience as well as someone who's done some studying on the field. However I'm sure there are much cheaper ways to study theme park management without getting a degree. Even in terms of having a qualification that will increase your employability within the theme park industry, there might be better ones out there for a lower price tag, such as certain safety qualifications.
     
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    Posted 20th Nov 2018
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  8. MakoMania

    MakoMania TowersStreet Member

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    Unless you want to do something pretty specific (medicine, veterinary science etc), for most employers requesting a degree from a good university as part of a job application is just a way of ensuring that you have a brain and can think.

    My friend has a degree in Spanish, he works as a financial manager in a bank. The two are completely unrelated, but the degree is what got him the job as it shows he has a brain in there somewhere :p
     
    Posted 21st Nov 2018
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  9. Stevie

    Stevie TowersStreet Member

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    Tell that to Merlin/Alton Towers, because in my experience of the place, they give Team Leader positions to 17 year olds.
     
    Last edited: 21st Nov 2018
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    Posted 21st Nov 2018
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  10. OilyWater

    OilyWater TowersStreet Member

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    This is true but it's very flawed way of employing people. I know plenty of people my age with no brain but a good sounding degree. Or people who went to university with me with absolutely no interest in the subject and no skill, but blagged their way through because they knew how to blitz revise.

    And I know quite a few people with amazing talent and no degree, who never got anywhere because they didn't find the right path at the right time and didn't get a degree.

    I think a qualification in attraction management of any kind is pretty justified, but the lean suggested by this uni towards Alton Towers and "developed in conjunction with Alton Towers" seems pretty dodgy if this degree is going to be the best exposure on the subject.

    I've seen degrees in the US on "Theme Park Design", which just seems a way to quantify and suck the fun out of the subject. You could learn design and entertainment better if you had talent and enthusiasm, you could experiment with ideas yourself and get a job creating small time attractions and get bigger. A US 'theme park design' degree just seems like it would be geared towards worshipping Disney and Universal 'theory'. Maybe not, but I still believe passion and talent is far better than formally studying that kind of thing.
     
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  11. DiogoJ42

    DiogoJ42 TowersStreet Member

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    How this will pan out if you apply for a job at any non-Merlin attraction on the planet:

    Michael Mack: Now then Roland, we need to go through these applications for our new manager.
    Roland: OK, let's see. First CV from the pile... Hmm, says here they have a degree in Alton Towers and learnt everything they know from Nick Var-
    Michael: NEXT!
     
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  12. jon81uk

    jon81uk TowersStreet Member

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    and that's mainly because they won't pay a decent wage. As @Funcone said above the pay being offered for supervisor roles is poor. and this is the same across most leisure and retail jobs.
     
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  13. Benzin

    Benzin TowersStreet Member

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    Maybe this is part of their long term plans to improve the parks and management structure?

     
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  14. Sauron97

    Sauron97 TowersStreet Member

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    And what's wrong with that? They have a style and a trade, and that style produces high quality themed experiences at the end of the day. Maybe they take themselves very seriously, and as Wardley has said, their formula wouldn't work here, but the creativity involved in being an 'Imagineer' still exists, and with a Disney or Universal budget thrown at you, you'll have a lot more stuff to work with. The issue with the American industry IMO is the complete contrast between the quality of offering at high priced studios parks like Disney and the cheaper alternatives at Six Flags and Cedar Fair parks, which have great rides, but don't offer any theme park experiences. Ideally you want more high quality theme parks that offer competition at the Disney and Universal level.

    If a Russell group university like the UoB, or Uni of Nottingham, or Oxford were offering this, it would be a rather extraordinary offer and definitely would be prestigious. It wouldn't be a 'mickey mouse degree' though. It would probably be an economics course with an internship or a fine arts course. I can't see anyone getting an education that would provide the sort of 'creative' director job that Wardley had, because Merlin don't operate that way and don't give much creative freedom to their employees or contacts, and all the other theme parks in the UK are managed by families.

    I agree with everyone skeptical on this though. It seems like it's nothing more than a cheaply organized foundation course that is made to look flowery to try and boost employment at Alton Towers.
     
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  15. OilyWater

    OilyWater TowersStreet Member

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    Should every theme park designer or enthusiast believe that the Disney / Universal way is the broadest and 'best' way to create entertainment though?

    They are amazing quality yes, but they're done in their particular way. My point was just about teaching diversity, like any degree should. Often the less self indulgent design of European parks entertain just as much as a bigger, more expensive US parks.

    Disney and Universal are certainly very good at what they do, although I feel Disney parks are losing their charm as they try more and more to emulate Universal and play the IP game. Not every park needs to do things the Disney/Universal way, and shouldnt try to.


    John Wardley wasnt necessarily a creative director, there were other creative designers/directors to do that job on the projects he produced (from about Nemesis onwards). I mean, John was certainly a creative person and had to be creative to influence the development of the Tussauds parks the way he did. But I don't think you can teach someone to see the bigger picture like John and be down to earth in your ideas, from a university degree in theme park design.
     
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  16. Sauron97

    Sauron97 TowersStreet Member

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    No of course not, and I agree that European parks have, on the whole, more creative freedom; and are less bound to the practice of branding and commercializing their attractions. My point was simply that they have a tried and tested formula that works for them and they are free to advertise and stick to those ideas; it's not like Merlin who have a formula that (almost) never works and is still repeated on and on despite the need for change. Even the broader creative process at Disney coined as 'Imagineering' is something which is a unique trademark of them and them only. I think the assumption that Disney is somehow preaching to enthusiasts about what a theme park should be overlooks the fact that they are simply very successful at what they do, and this gives them a significant perceived presence within the industry. Responsibility for the over use of the Disney formula outside of their own parks lies with the non-Disney parks who are too lazy to come up with their own original ideas!

    Yes and I do give credit to Tussauds studios as I think they are a little underappreciated by enthusiasts who assume that it was all a one man band, as great as John was at what he did there were other figures there too! The point is that this degree course doesn't provide the student with the backdoor in to the kind of roles that existed back in the days of Nemesis and Haunted House, least of all being a director of the company; mainly because Merlin as I'm sure you'll agree, are far more limiting and bureaucratic.
     
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  17. OilyWater

    OilyWater TowersStreet Member

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    Yeah, I wasn't criticising those parks, I was criticising the idea of a 'theme park design' course that focusses on the most academic way to design.

    People interested in theme parks shouldnt feel they have to pursue it academically in a course that is inevitably more Disney focussed (because it's those parks that have all the textbook style literature written about them). Ive only ever seen these course in the US and they are closely tied to Disney or Universal.

    I don't feel like you can really get much out of theme park design through textbooks, it's much better to get involved in any way that you can, see a lot of different parks, have ideas and keep an open mind. Unless it's specifically Disney or Universal where you want to be.

    I think many attraction designers today (who've come from an enthusiast background) do look to Universal when it comes to "theming" as being the only way it should be done, but that just doesnt really reap the best results for other parks. Designers too focussed on imitating 'serious' Universal often forget to be entertaining.

    Whenever a ride is erring on that style now, the fan response on opening is always "It's like Universal!!!" (I seem to remember this was said about Derren Brown and Walking Dead at Thorpe Park strangely, look how long it took for that to die off).
     
    Last edited: 22nd Nov 2018
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  18. Benzin

    Benzin TowersStreet Member

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    The best parks learn from others... When I met someone who worked at Nigloland, he had worked in the UK at the likes of Madame Tussauds and Pleasurewood Hills when younger, to build up a knowledge of presumably a similar sized park and a busy as hell place of death...

    I believe he worked in Dubai as well... And given that Nigloland is a pretty solid middle tier park it seems to work...
     
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  19. Towerslover

    Towerslover TowersStreet Member

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    I’d love to have a career in the industry and as I’m starting to look at degrees and further education, this one has caught my eye. Just can’t decide if it’d be worth it.
     
  20. Benzin

    Benzin TowersStreet Member

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    Unless you were to go into an engineering role, I would probably just recommend you work for a park first and work your way up... Too many people with too many daft degrees that they never use and just doss around on...
     
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