Regional theme parks are having a renaissance

Regional theme parks are having a renaissance

If you ever begged your parents for a trip to Disneyland but instead found yourself shooting out of a waterslide two hours from home, then you’ve probably visited a regional theme park.

And much to the dismay of Disney-loving kids everywhere, they’re becoming increasingly common as consumers look to travel more and pay less, per The Wall Street Journal.

But these parks are working hard to make the trip worthwhile:

  • Six Flags Entertainment and Cedar Fair had an $8B merger in 2023, joining their combined 27 amusement parks, 15 water parks, and nine resorts. In the 12 months leading up to Q3 of 2023, the companies saw 48m guests.
  • British theme park operator Merlin Entertainments opened a Legoland park in New York in 2021 and is working on a Peppa Pig park in Dallas-Fort Worth after opening one in Florida in 2022.
  • Great Wolf Lodge has 20 indoor water park locations across the US and Canada with more planned. By 2025, ~90% of the US population will be within a four-hour drive of a park. The chain has ~8.7k rooms, up from 4.3k in 2014, and the average occupancy rate is ~80% annually, up from 65% 10 years ago.

Some of the success might be due to deep-pocketed backers: The Blackstone Group acquired a 65% stake in parent company Great Wolf Resorts in 2019 and holds a majority stake in Merlin Entertainments.

Along for the ride

The demand seems to be gaining momentum — the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions estimates a 2% increase in theme park attendance this summer, totaling 300m+ annual visits.

Smaller players are also trying to ride the trend. Silverwood Theme Park in Idaho opened the “longest dueling water coaster” in the US this month, and Maine’s Funtown Splashtown USA added its first new ride in 20 years last summer.

And, of course, the major players are on it, too. Universal broke ground on a kids’ resort outside of Dallas, and Mattel is opening Adventure Parks in Arizona and Kansas.

The biggest potential obstacle? “We’re going to our nearest regional theme park!” just won’t hit the same at the Super Bowl.

Mcdonald’s fires its AI drive-thru cashiers

Mcdonald’s fires its AI drive-thru cashiers

AI drive-thrus are getting sent to the same dingy dungeon where Ronald McDonald has been confined for the past few years. McDonald’s will ax the AI voice ordering system it’s been testing at over 100 drive-thru locations through a partnership with IBM established in 2021, Restaurant Business reported.

The decision could be related to some AI-powered incompetence: TikTok is flooded with videos of McD’s drive-thru AI messing up in ways that a human would never. For example, one customer got nine sweet teas added to her order despite requesting just one after the AI picked up on audio from a neighboring drive-thru station.

Making fast food faster

Despite AI’s recent epic fails and product rollbacks by Big Tech, many fast-food brands are embracing the nascent tech to boost efficiency.

  • Wendy’s is looking to expand its AI partnership with Google Cloud after robot cashiers shaved 22 seconds off average order times at one of the locations where they were piloted.
  • McDonald’s is teaming up with Google to implement the AI chatbot Ask Pickles to guide employees through tasks, according to Bloomberg.

Looking ahead…McD’s won’t promise that you’ll never have to order from a robot again: It plans to continue exploring voice-activated AI technology.—SK

Surgeon general: Social media needs cig-like warning

Surgeon general: Social media needs cig-like warning

The top health official in the US is urging Congress to pass legislation that would stamp social media apps with a surgeon general’s warning “stating that social media is associated with significant mental health harms for adolescents,” he wrote in an op-ed for the New York Times yesterday.

Upping the pressure: Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy’s push for a warning label follows years of alarm-sounding with his strongest appeal to lawmakers yet.

  • In his statement, Murthy referenced a 2019 study that found risks of depression doubled among teens who scroll for more than three hours per day, and a 2023 Gallup poll showing that US teens log a daily average of 4.8 hours on social media.
  • “Why is it that we have failed to respond to the harms of social media when they are no less urgent or widespread than those posed by unsafe cars, planes or food?” Murthy wrote, alluding to driverless car permits getting rescinded, Boeing groundings and listeria-related dairy recalls this year.

Adding a warning label is likely to make some parents think twice about unsupervised scrolling, according to a recent Brookings study. Still, Murthy acknowledged that it wouldn’t be enough to make social media a kid-friendly space. So, he also asked Congress to pass measures that would:

  • Protect minors from online abuse and exposure to inappropriate content, bar social media platforms from gathering sensitive data from child users, and set limits on features including push notifications, autoplay, and infinite scrolling.
  • Require social media companies to be publicly transparent about their platform’s mental health effects and undergo independent safety audits.

Some states are already grinding. Laws enacted in Florida and Utah since March 2023 have raised the minimum age for social media account ownership. A recently passed New York bill that would ban companies from sharing children’s data and using algorithms in their feeds is awaiting the governor’s signature. More than 40 states have also sued Meta, alleging that it intentionally tries to get kids addicted to its platforms.—ML

AI is coming for your online freelance jobs

AI is coming for your online freelance jobs

Here’s something depressing: AI may be replacing jobs typically done by certain freelancers.

In 2023, academic ghostwriters in Kenya — i.e., people who write US and UK students’ essays for them — said they’d seen demand plummet as students began having ChatGPT do it for free.

That led to a report from Harvard Business School, the Imperial College Business School, and the German Institute of Economic Research, in which they examined ~2m online job listings across 61 countries from July 2021 to July 2023.

And what did the report find?

That since ChatGPT debuted in November 2022, demand for online freelancers has dropped by:

  • 30% for writers
  • 20% for coders
  • 17% for image creation work, like graphic design
  • 13% for social media post production and data entry

It’s unclear whether this work is mostly good, or if it’s turning out like the infamous Glasgow Willy Wonka disaster.

Yet here’s something interesting: pay rates increased minimally, leading Xinrong Zhu, one of the study’s authors, to speculate that AI is primarily after shorter-term, simpler jobs.

And sometimes, the tables turn

Clients can undercut human freelancers all they want, but there’s also nothing stopping human freelancers from using AI.

A business consultant who uploaded two jobs to Upwork told Forbes that of the 300 applications he received, he believed ChatGPT wrote 200+ of them. He also once hired a writer who submitted work with no knowledge past 2021 — a limit ChatGPT once had.

This has led to disputes on platforms like Upwork and Fiverr, where clients accuse writers of passing off work to AI. Meanwhile, other freelancers are offering cheaper rates to use ChatGPT; one even started a new gig cleaning up sloppy AI-generated content.

This sure seems like a lot of extra steps when we could just pay people a fair wage to create quality work, but what do we know?