After practicing law for nearly a decade, Lou Mongello moved his family from New Jersey to Florida to launch WDWradio.com, a website for Disney devotees that covers everything from Disney fairytale weddings to in-depth chats with Imagineers. These days his site averages 103,000 page views and 700,000 radio show listens a month.
Now bad for a one-man-band website that deals with just one issue. But it comes as no surprise. Fans dig content that is created by people like themselves – and sites like Mongello’s have increasing influence.
“Brands, especially large ones like Disney, need to realize that they are no longer solely in control of their marketing message,” Mongello says. “So much content that we as consumers enjoy is created by other consumers, such as bloggers, podcasters and broadcasters.”
There are thousands of theme park fan sites out there. Some are for casual park-goers, but most are geared toward theme park fanatics who want to know the latest about every new ride, character happening and merchandise offering. Often, these bloggers get insider news or break stories, such as the recent flap over the new “Frozen” ride at Disney World. Disneyhipster.com created a stir when diehard fans complained that Disney was neglecting its core values, replacing rides that deal with dreams and memories with trendy animated rides.
In fact, “There are enough of these (fan sites) that USA Today took the time to rate them,” said Duncan Dickson, who teaches theme-park management at the University of Central Florida. Experts selected 20 nominees and the winners – including orlandoinformer.com, allears.net, screamscape.com, theme parkreview.com and insidethemagic.net – were chosen by popular vote.
“What influence they have is probably like TripAdvisor,” Dickson said. “Consumers go to these sites to gather information but know that these sites have their own bias.”
“I believe the smart consumer knows to take anything on these sites with a grain of salt,” he added. “However, they are a great place to gather information and find out what the latest offers are.”
What differentiates one site from another is the relationship each has with the parks.
Mongello, for example, is not affiliated with Disney and is not compensated for his content. “Other than the event invitations, etc. (which I fully disclose), I pay full price for my tickets, rooms, meals, souvenirs, travel, etc.,” he told FoxNews.com.
The same goes for Ricky Brigante, whose insidethemagic.net covers the major theme parks, including Disney, Universal, SeaWorld and Busch Gardens.
“Having a good relationship with the parks certainly helps in covering them, especially when we are given early access to the latest, greatest attractions,” said Brigante, who writes for FoxNews.com.
“However, we do not rely on these relationships or freebies to do what we do. We regularly cover theme park happenings on our own via tickets we have purchased just like every other guest.
“We do have exclusive opportunities from time to time," he continued. “The parks see tremendous value in directly reaching their fans that follow our site, podcast and YouTube channel.”
Many theme parks are very supportive of the fan sites. After all, the main purpose of the sites is to get people excited about theme parks.
“These sites are an important channel in the online community, especially for those who are great fans of the parks,” said Becca Bides, corporate communications director at SeaWorld Parks. “They provide a resource and gathering place for those who want frequent news and updates. They also can be a valuable resource for consumers planning a theme park vacation, as the editors – and often the readers – have great in-depth knowledge of what’s new or changed at the parks and can offer insider tips that the average consumer may not be aware of.”
Tom Schroder, vice president of corporate communications at Universal Orlando Resort, agrees. “We know that some of our fans have created websites where people can share their Universal Orlando experiences or use as a resource to plan their time here,” he said. “Some of these sites have worked hard to create a high-quality, ethical and objective site, and we appreciate their efforts."
But it’s a love-hate relationship. “The theme park leaders hate leaks,” Dickson said. “They would prefer to control the information provided to the public. With the boom of social media, this is virtually impossible.”
And this begs the question: How do the fan sites get their information?
“The bloggers seem to be made up of former line level employees or individuals with close ties to this group,” Dickson said. “These employees have great insight and are in on many of the tests and see and listen to the ‘suits’ as they discuss changes.”
To sum it up, whether you are a theme park fanatic or a casual fan, these websites can certainly be helpful. The content is produced by people who live and breathe theme parks. It’s genuine, educational and will likely come in handy at some point.
“Though we do explore topics in exhaustive detail, our articles are written in such a way that the average Joe can understand them as well,” Brigante said. “The goal is to reach the widest audience possible while also delivering the details that the hardcore fans expect.”