Old Tucson is more than a theme park or attraction. It’s a movie studio and theme park – not dissimilar to Universal Studios in Los Angeles, although on a smaller scale. But it’s also living history in the heart of Arizona. According to Old Tucson’s director of marking and communications, Mary Davis, it was originally built as an 1800s-era town by Columbia Pictures in 1939 as a set for the movie Arizona.
The set thrived with filmmakers in the 40s and 50s, languished in the 60s until film preservationist Bob Shelton came to town and worked to revitalize the location’s spot in the film industry. But in 1995, an arson took out half the park.
“No one thought it could come back. But it reopened 18 months later,” Davis reports. “Over the years, just as we rose from the ashes, we’ve had to reinvent ourselves as the movie industry became more digital and tourism became a focus. Filmmakers still shoot here – in fact we are having a film made at the park right now,” she relates. “Since 1939 we’ve have over 400 projects shot here.” Those include music videos, television shows, and popular films like Tombstone and Three Amigos.
Today, Old Tucson is about an integrated experience for guests at the park. The park includes a wide mix of live entertainment in various venues, children’s rides such as the C.P. Huntington train ride, antique cars, a stage coach, and the lush Wild West carousel. Visitors can also rent horses and go on a trail ride. “We also have attractions such as shooting galleries, panning for gold, and a haunted mine, The Iron Door that you can walk through,” Davis says.
“Our shows have evolved over time to include more guests’ interaction from our street actors, cowboys, cowgirls, and can-can girls. We’ve added lots of special events throughout the year, as we find our local market is growing as well as our international visitors. We do special events for Mother’s and Father’s Days, and our Spirit of the West Festival that usually begins around Presidents Day that celebrates all things about the west.”
In general, the live shows at the park are themed around the film industry. “Right now, we have our Silver Screen Spirit of the West show, and stunt shows. They are probably the most popular show at the park. They’re very interactive, the cowboys are hysterical, and people just get a kick out of how they are done.”
Shows change seasonally with a holiday show in December, Valentine’s acts in February, St. Patrick’s themes in March. “They’re always based around Western themes and the film industry,” she notes.
Then there’s Nightfall, the park’s signature Halloween event. “It broke attendance records last year. In 18 days, we saw 45,000 people. The New York Times listed it as one of the top ten must-travel-to haunted attractions in 2016,” Davis relates. “The whole town essentially becomes haunted. We bring in lots of extra talent, we have a comedy/musical show and a big arena show where things blow up and lots of mayhem ensues around a scary theme. The event has just taken on a life of its own; it’s almost its own brand,” Davis explains.
Another popular signature event at the park began this past year. “We are the only Pima county attraction that allows dogs in the park. We are pet friendly and a lot of people love that. So, over Labor Day Weekend, we started Say Goodbye to the Dog Days of Summer,” Davis relates. “We brought in the Dock Dogs diving competition, a professional sanctioning company for pro dog diving competitions around the world. They also have an amateur category, so locals can come register their dog and see how they do. We bring in pet adoptions that weekend, we work with local shelters and we discount adoption fees. We have given half a dozen dogs forever homes.” This year’s event will also feature rattlesnake training, and a new Dancing Dogs program in the park’s Grand Palace venue. Throughout the year, the park’s dog-friendly ways are renowned, with dog biscuits proffered at the entrance gate and water bowls throughout the park.
Other events and promotions offered by Old Tucson include Easter events, Memorial Weekend events, and Kid’s Dollar Days in January. Upcoming is a presentation written especially for the park and performed at the Grand Palace dinner show, Sun Records, A Million Dollar Story, featuring the story of Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis, and Johnny Cash performing together; an Everly Event is another original program.
As far as marketing goes, Davis uses a robust mix of traditional TV and Radio as well as lots of digital media. “We will also partner with other companies on events if it makes sense, for example in the summer, we’ve been building in dinner shows with tribute bands, and we will work with Green Valley Parks and Recreation for that one.”
Overall, Davis says of the park’s attractions and events “We just try to reach different touch points for our different demographics: we have our film fans, we have our tourists who don’t know what to expect - we get lots of reviews where people thought this would be just a quick visit and they send up spending out with the shows and attractions. We have rides and attractions for the kids. There is something going on in a very full schedule from the minute you walk in the gate until closing time.”
Attendance is up over 6%, continuing a trend. Davis believes that rise shows that “Things are working for us: the marketing mix and different programming additions are working; our annual pass program is working.”
The venue completely revised the pass program last year, creating different tiers for singles, couples, and families. “That resulted in an 80% increase in adult pass- holders this year. We created family friendly options such as guest passes and additional passes for families with more than two children for just $15 per additional child. We like that our pass-holders come back year after year.”