The financial problems at Space Center Houston don't indicate a lack of public interest in space, but they do give us some strong clues about how not to run a space theme park.
While Spaceport USA at the Kennedy Space Center and the U.S. Space & Rocket center in Huntsville, Alabama, are doing fine, Space Center Houston continues to have economic woes. The primary complaint around here (near the Johnson Space Center in Houston) is that Space Center Houston charges too much money for a disappointing product.
It's mostly a matter of improper planning and design, coupled with a series of unfortunate business decisions made after Space Center Houston was built.
They contracted with Disney Imageering to design the complex, so what they got was a system set up to be run and maintained like one of the big Disney theme parks. Apparently the philosophy behind the design was that, like the Magic Kingdom, it would be a place where people would arrive early and spend the entire day.
Designing an all-day attraction led them to design a facility that requires an enormous staff to run it. If you tour the place, you'll see most of the staff standing idle nearly all the time, but you'll also notice that it would be difficult to eliminate any of those staff positions without redesigning the function.
Unfortunately, the facility does not provide an environment where people want to spend a whole day. It's at most a four-hour Saturday stop. There isn't sufficient variety of entertainment to keep them interested. Instead of offering a large selection of vistas and adventures, Space Center Houston shuffles its audience repeatedly through the huge atrium where exhibits get worn out without ever being visited.
If we want people to spend an entire day at our facility, we must provide a variety of environments and lots of entertaining places to rest between adventures.
People need to be comfortable, too. Bathrooms should be obvious, clean, and plentiful; never a long hike away. Although only 25% of the U.S. adult population smokes tobacco, each of those smokers is a member of a family. Space Center Houston is a huge facility all under one roof, where there is a long walk through the crowded, cluttered food service facility if someone wants to step outside and enrich the atmosphere; so by making smokers uncomfortable they lose repeat business from entire families.
Food service is not adequate for an all-day stay, either. Originally they had a nice up-scale restaurant, but it was too up-scale for the audience. Several smaller versions, like the Blue Bayou at Disneyland, would have worked; but the Silver Moon Cafe didn't make it. The food and environment didn't match the price, and despite having a large staff, service was often slow.
Nevertheless, closing the Silver Moon Cafe was probably a fatally bad decision because it was the only thing that would attract repeated visits from the local audience. Now the only food service available at Space Center Houston is the rather severely over-priced fast-food service counters.
Houston is not a tourist town. Perhaps a dozen days a year the weather is pleasant enough to spend some time outdoors, but the rest of the time it's only marginally able to support human life. Although Houston is the fourth largest city in the United States (behind New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, in that order), there are few tourist attractions. Few people would travel from afar just to spend four hours at Space Center Houston, so they should have built the facility with the local audience in mind or they should have planned the facility to be a huge theme park like the Magic Kingdom or the Six Flags theme parks.
They do offer a couple of tours of the Johnson Space Center -- the facilities tour and the mission control tour -- where open trams drive around the site and make a few interesting stops. However, since most of the local population work at JSC, these tours are primarily populated by school children from the Houston elementary schools.
Inside the building, you can stand in line for hours waiting your turn at a little Space Shuttle landing simulator. These are kind of fun, but more entertaining Shuttle simulators are available for home computers; and the software cost is about equal to what you'd pay for a single visit to Space Center Houston.
The star of the show at Space Center Houston is the museum of real spacecraft, all of which are national treasures owned by the U.S. government. Unfortunately, to visit these you have to pay to get in and then wait in line to watch a 10-minute movie. After the movie, you are herded through a guantlet of poorly lit corridors to view from afar the poorly lit displays. The presentation throughout echoes a theme of how great the U.S. space program used to be, with a little bit of how wonderful it would have been.
For a couple decades, those same national treasures were exhibited for free at the Building 2 Visitors Center at the Johnson Space Center. Engineers would cruise by on their lunch hour to gawk at them close up, perhaps to learn a bit and to pick up inspiration about what we could do in the future. Moving them to an environment where people have to pay an exhorbitant fee has raised a lot of resentment toward Space Center Houston which, of course, drives the audience away.
A few live shows are conducted in the open-sided space station module, where the audience is forced to sit on uncomfortable bleachers and wonder what the actors are saying. The poor sound system is just as well because the script is mostly pop-culture social engineering, with not much to be learned about space flight and none of the sense of wonder inherent in the subject matter.
This is probably a reflection on the quality of space-related merchandise available, but the souvenir shop at Space Center Houston offers a limited selection of junk at incredible prices. The souvenir shops in Huntsville and Spaceport USA, as well as the souvenirs shops at most every planetarium in the country, knock its socks off. Besides reducing their overall revenues by having so many walk-away customers, the souvenir shop alienates the audience by reinforcing the facility's image as a tacky, greedy, money-grubbing bureaucracy.
When you add it all up, a visit to Space Center Houston costs about $100 for a family of three. For the same investment of entertainment dollars, one can take one's son to the park, buy him some fun toys, go to a movie, eat in a nice restaurant, raid the local bookstore, do a tour through Discovery Zone (where he has lots more fun without the stress of all those waiting lines), and rent a movie from Blockbuster Video. We haven't been back to Space Center Houston since they started charging for parking.
They've priced the experience well past the peak of the supply-and-demand curve. Over the few years since it was built, managers at Space Center Houston have responded to small audiences by raising the price, and then raising it again. This of course drives away even more customers, so their audience and revenues are even smaller.
If they want to earn a profit from Space Center Houston, they should do a bit of redesign, lay off 75% of the staff (or use their talents to improve the place), and drop the price to about $4.00 per person. And for pity's sake, don't charge for parking. They might even just open the doors, ask for a volunteer staff like most of the museums do, and put a donation bucket out front; at least they'd get their costs and revenues closer to the break-even point.
The only logic behind raising the price when your price is already so high that you're driving away your audience only fits if your facility is saturated, and if you have no competition. However, even those of us who'd like to enjoy space flight and want our children to learn about it avoid the place. Despite their hope that people would come from all over the world for a unique experience, Space Center Houston has lots of competition for everything they offer.
Every child will learn more about space flight from watching television, reading books, and playing video games. These alternative sources deliver the education without the stress of crowds and waiting lines, and without a barrage of social engineering propoganda.
Space Center Houston's advertising is its own worst enemy. By promising more than they deliver, they create a growing audience of disappointed visitors. Those visitors will never be back, but even worse for the revenue picture, they tell their friends about it. No facility with a popular impression of being "over-priced and disappointing" has a chance to survive as a business enterprise.
We've talked about doing theme parks and theme park attractions for the Artemis Project. The experience from Space Center Houston makes it obvious how not to do it. Now we have to figure out the right way to do it.
The keystones to a space-related theme park are variety and adventure, especially adventure, delivered at a reasonable price. That means ridefilms, restaurants, hands-on museum attractions, and a dedication to quality education reinforcing the entire experience.
And above all, we have to make sure the audience realizes that just by enjoying themselves at our theme park, they are contributing to the program that will allow each of them to travel in space and experience it for real.