Road Cases: Family First -Beloved Characters, Toys, TV Shows Fuel Sector Strength

WARM GLOW: “Hot Wheels Monster Trucks Live Glow Party” arena tour adds a luminous new twist to a tried and true touring attraction. Courtesy Family Entertainment Holdings

The post-pandemic period finds the family entertainment segment of the live industry in a robust state with strong demand, soaring merchandise sales and a sense among parents that it’s increasingly safe to bring loved ones back to venues, according to several key players operating in the space.

“Most of our business this time of year is outside the U.S.,” said Kenneth Feld, CEO of Feld Entertainment. “We’re in South America, Mexico, Japan, Australia, and it’s just been off the charts. The business has been great. That bodes well for everyone. I look at the fall business. We usually can see three months ahead. Everything in life is trends, and the trends are really good now.”

Ken Hudgens is a Feld alumnus and now CEO of Family Entertainment Holdings, producers of Hot Wheels Monster Trucks Live and the Magic of Lights holiday drive-through attractions. He says business has been robust with the company reporting year-over-year growth in the number of domestic and international bookings.

DISNEY DATES: Wasserman Music agent Emily Yoon has partnered with Disney Concerts in the development of more than 30 concert packages in various formats. Photo courtesy Wasserman Music

Hudgens said Hot Wheels Monster Trucks Live had to prove itself when first launched but is now an established show that’s in demand with at least 30 dates anticipated domestically for 2023.

The Magic of Lights attractions, of which there will be 21 this year, bring business to facilities, especially in colder climes, at a time of year they would likely be hibernating otherwise, he said.

“For a lot of people, it fills a gap,” Hudgens said. “We’re in seven Live Nation amphitheaters. In those cases, we’re giving them product at a time when the amphitheater would be dark. We’re putting their staff to work, and they are active and actively using their assets and resources at a time they wouldn’t. The same is true at some of the racetracks and other places we play.”

Three of the Magic of Lights locations put through more than 100,000 vehicles in 2021, Hudgens said.

Round Room Live, which produces touring family entertainment based on known intellectual property like Peppa Pig and the ubiquitous preschooler anthem “Baby Shark,” is having its best year ever.

Co-founder Stephen Shaw says during the pandemic, he, fellow founder Jonathan Linden and the rest of the company deeply examined the business, acquired new IP and mapped out a strategy for continued growth.

“We solidified our relationships with all the promoters and the venues, our IP owners and licensors,” Shaw said. “We spent a lot of time creating great shows and so when it got to the point where the world felt ready for us to reenter we were able to do with a lot of great product; Peppa Pig Live opened in March, Baby Shark Live opened in March. We did 120 shows for Blippi Live which sold over 200,000 tickets. We had a lot of business over Q1 and Q2 of 2022 and we’re sort of just getting started. We’ve got Baby Shark and Peppa Pig this fall. We’re launching Blues Clues Live with Viacom Paramount on Sept. 24.”

RoundRoom images uploads gallery Round Room Live
DOOT DA DOOT: Round Room Live co-presidents Stephen Shaw and Jonathan Linden, whose company is behind the Baby Shark Live touring production, among others. Photo by Taylor Hill

Shaw said attendance for Round Room content is tracking with where it was in February of 2020.

“The one thing we’re seeing that we wonder if it’s going to come back to reality is merch sales,” he said. “We’re seeing incredibly strong merch sales, retail, e-comm. All of that has been higher than it was pre-pandemic and that’s across the board, throughout our kids division and exhibitions and experiences division.”

On the state of the live family entertainment sector and the possibility of a glut of content or cannibalization of audience, Shaw said at least with Round Room’s shows, care is taken to strategically route “so that there is not too much crossover or saturation.”

When a whole family is in tow, pricing is a key concern, Feld and others say.

“That’s a core tenet of what we do,” Hudgens said. “I would say Hot Wheels Monster Trucks Live is in the mid-$20s for an average ticket price. We have a kids price available at every show, all kinds of discounts.”

Jonathan Shank is the founder and CEO of Terrapin Station Entertainment and producer of Disney Jr. Live On Tour: Costume Palooza, among other touring attractions, including last year’s L.O.L. Surprise! hologram concert tour based on the MGA Entertainment property.

He said costs are up, but ticket prices remain the same as in 2019.

“It’s a balance for us to understand these are not single ticket buyers,” Shank said. “There’s a balance between understanding that notion and also that family entertainment is one of the few areas in the economy that hasn’t scaled their prices up.”

Affordability is key, agrees Stephen Grybowski, senior director of the Rock and Roll Playhouse family concert series developed by Brooklyn Bowl and Capitol Theatre owner/Dayglo Presents founder Peter Shapiro.

The Rock and Roll Playhouse was launched at Brooklyn Bowl in 2014 by Shapiro and educator Amy Striem, with Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh performing at the very first one.

“Our ground rule is we do not charge for babies,” Grybowski said. “If you have a child that is 1 or under, they are completely free. Then, the average ticket price to come to a Rock and Roll Playhouse show is $15. We like to think it’s more affordable for a family to come out to one of our rock shows than going to the movies or a children’s museum.”

As for the state of play in the segment, Shank said 2022 has seen a lot of touring product hit the road after the deprivations of 2020 and 2021, “but, generally speaking, it ebbs and flows between not enough family entertainment and just enough.”

Grybowski doesn’t see a glut of product, believing instead that the family entertainment market is an expanding universe.

“You see some coming out of it with pent-up demand and certain other markets where people are still wary. It’s definitely a mixed bag, but what we’re seeing overall going into fall and winter is great demand in every market.”

Feld has some ambitious offerings planned for 2023 with the launch of a reimagined Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus and a fall Supercross-Motocross championship that will debut at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum next October.

Hudgens said Family Entertainment Holdings won’t be standing pat either.

“We’re not done. These two properties are now up, established and successful and we’re always out looking for what’s next, what’s the next touring property. That’s what I do every day,” Hudgens said.

Shank says the ideal rooms for Disney Jr. Live Costume Palooza, which puts Mickey and Minnie Mouse on the same stage with a pint-sized friendly neighborhood Spider-Man and friends, are anywhere from 2,000-to 6,000-capacity theaters or small arenas.

“We are doing 90-plus shows this fall and what we look for in a good partner is somebody who understands how to reach the family audience in their market,” Shank said. “Powerful properties combined with powerhouse marketing resources make for a potent mix.”

“That’s what separates these touring experiences and also elevates and makes it more accessible for families,” Shank said. “All of these tours are driven by a rareness and there is a lot of content that is in each market at this time due to such a crowded marketplace and pipeline of shows, so you really need to have a differentiator.”

There are some essential elements when it comes to bringing iconic brands and characters to life, authenticity being one the most important, he said.

“Authenticity, interactivity and larger-than-life spectacle I would say are the key ingredients,” Shank said. “Trying to always be thinking about things from the perspective of, you’re creating not just a show with iconic characters, but showcasing this potentially to people who are at their first concert, their first live experience. Trying to see it through that lens is really important.”

Emily Yoon, an agent with Wasserman Music, has partnered with Disney Concerts in the development of more than 30 concert packages in various formats. She was a key partner in developing shows including Beauty and the Beast in Concert, Black Panther in Concert, Disney PRIDE in Concert, Disney: PRINCESS The Concert, Encanto: The Sing-Along Film Concert, Hocus Pocus in Concert, The Little Mermaid in Concert, and many others.

She is cautiously optimistic about the prospects for live family entertainment.

“For the most part across the board we’ve seen strong sales for family entertainment product I’ve been working on,” Yoon said.

Producing shows that are pleasing to children and adults alike was something that drove the development of Rock and Roll Playhouse, Grybowski said, and Yoon agreed that cross-generational appeal can resonate well.

“For the longevity of a project or an artist in this space it’s wonderful to appeal to adults,” Yoon said. “Parents often want to take their children to shows because they have a love for an IP.”

Exposing children to things like orchestral music, a specialty of Yoon’s, also can help build future audiences for that genre, she said.

The family entertainment market was as hard hit by the pandemic as any sector and concerns about safety were predictably acute, but with the worst apparently past, demand is strong.

Still, the sector is coping with the same “2022 problems” Shank sees affecting most everyone in live entertainment, things like staff shortages, scarce resource availability and compromised supply timelines.

“I don’t think family entertainment is facing any unique problems other than the fact that it did take longer to regain consumer confidence in families bringing their children back to facilities,” he said.

“Waiting for the right time was the key to that but also all the protocols and procedures put in place to ensure safety.”