Lance Hart was kind enough to answer a few questions about what it’s like to run the definitive theme park news and rumor website, Screamscape.
Joel: Can you speak to the origins of Screamscape? Describe the early days of the site and what originally inspired you to launch it?
Lance: While Screamscape.com officially launched in December 1998, I had been running the site for about three years on various free web host sites under the name “Ultimate Guide To Theme Parks”. The origin of the site goes back to late 1994 along with the growth and public adoption of “the world wide web”. I’ve always been into computers and technology and I know that the “web” was going to be huge and I wanted to learn how to make my own website, so I needed a subject to write about.
At the time, I decided to make my own movie review website, so it really started as a the Ultimate Guide To Movies, but before long the focus shifted a bit to include another pet project, an online guide book to Disneyland. At the time Disneyland was building the Indiana Jones Adventure ride and I followed the construction of this as part of the guide. Once it was finished the readers all wanted to know about what was coming next (New Tomorrowland), and I started to follow the construction of that as well. Before long I was fielding questions about what was being built at Universal Studios Hollywood, Knott’s Berry Farm and Six Flags Magic Mountain… which began to expand into other parks in other areas, other states and eventually other countries. It really kind of took on a life of it’s own.
Joel: Give us an idea of what it’s like to run such a popular news site. How many hours do you think you spend going through emails on a weekly or daily basis?
Lance: How many hours? As my wife would say, “Too many”. Despite the fact that for most locations, theme parks are a seasonal attraction, the work load to cover the news, rumors and construction about them is fairly heavy all year long. I strive to update the site 4 – 5 times a week, and while I try to scan through my e-mail as best I can throughout the day, I probably spend about 3 straight hours at the computer writing up and posting the updates. But that doesn’t count all the extra hours spent dealing with e-mail and Twitter throughout the week.
Running a popular site is a little weird at times as I usually keep more of a low profile in real life, and I don’t hit up big park enthusiast events and such. But when I am out and about and someone does recognize me, its unexpected, so I’m usually surprised. Though it’s always fun to go to IAAPA in November, and see just how many of the different companies do recognize Screamscape when I come to check out their booths. It’s kind of a nice feeling to know your work is appreciated and read by so many people.
Joel: I’d imagine that you’re contacted by a wide variety of people in the theme park spectrum from rumors over heard by a park’s Dip N’ Dots guy to official announcements from parks and everything in between. Is that accurate?
When you receive information from all of these sources it seems like you’re in the position where you can aggregate it all and be a sort of detective piecing together the clues. Do you think you’d make a good detective?
Lance: Part of my reputation over the years has been that anyone can contact me and know that their identify will be kept a secret and their submission is always anonymous. As such, I’ve been fortunate enough to come into contact with a wide variety of sources on all ends of the spectrum ranging from company presidents all the way down to the proverbial Dippin Dots guy.
As such, sometimes not all the pieces of information I get make sense on their own, but my position also allows me to link together different clues from different sources to try and pull back the curtain on the bigger picture. I also try to keep in mind the big picture about what kind of actions an entire chain has been doing, and how they are making moves compared to what their competition is doing and so forth. At times it’s almost like watching a giant game of chess more than being a detective.
Joel: Have you ever regretted breaking a story?
Lance: Only once or twice… typically when I take someone’s word for granted and the story ended up being bogus.
Joel: Have parks ever proactively asked you to not let the cat out of the bag about something? And when news has leaked out, how often are you asked to remove something? How do you handle it?
Lance: Once in awhile this kind of thing happens, but it’s not always from a park. Sometime a good source has the goods, but feels that the number of people who know the truth about what is going on is still too small for it to become public knowledge. In those cases, they may share the information with me, but ask for me to keep it to myself. I always agree, but let them know that once the information comes to me again from another source, I’ll report the news from the second source.[quote-float]I thought the person was drunk. 120mph… up a 420 foot tower… it just sounded so out of this world.[/quote-float]Joel: Over the years what has been the most surprising news that came to be, that you initially heard as a rumor and were sure that it couldn’t be true?
Lance: Sure, there have been a few stories along the way that just sounded so outrageous or crazy that I didn’t think there was any chance of it being true. While I was the one to break the story about the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, it caught me by surprise. I simply did not believe the first few rumors at all until more pieces of the puzzle started to bring it into focus. On a more technical side of things, I know the first time I heard about Top Thrill Dragster, I thought the person was drunk. 120mph… up a 420 foot tower… it just sounded so out of this world.
Joel: What are some of you favorite developing stories right now? What are some of the most recent stories that you’re starting to hear rumblings about that interest you most?
Lance: While it’s always fun to hear the news about new roller coasters and thrill rides first, I think the stories I really enjoy more often deal more with the heavy duty themed rides and attractions that you will find at Disney, Universal, Busch Gardens and SeaWorld parks. These attractions often come with far more than a list of specs, but themed environments, special effects and a story line. Plus sometimes it’s just as fascinating to find out all about an attraction proposal… even if it never get approved to be built in the end. The Western River Expedition ride, once proposed as Walt Disney World’s answer to Pirates of the Caribbean, is a perfect example of this. When it comes to Disney, for every ride that gets built, there are several more that were designed and filed away never to see the light of day.
Joel: Are there any accomplishments or particular Screamscape milestones that you are the most proud of or the most excited about?
Lance: Two things come to mind… both took place in the past 18 months. I’d have to say that two of my proudest accomplishments were to be at the grand opening events for the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando in 2010 and to be at the opening of Star Tours 2 at Disneyland a few months ago. In the case of Star Tours, finally seeing that ride open to the public marked the end to the single longest rumor I’ve had on Screamscape, going back to the very start of the site.
Joel: Why do you enjoy doing Screamscape? What’s the most fun part about running the site?
Lance: Like anything, there are days when I start to not enjoy it at times, simply because the work load gets to be too much. At the same time, I do enjoy what I do, because even if I wasn’t doing Screamscape, I would still have a personal need to find out what’s being built at the various parks. I just love the amusement and theme park industry, and I think it shows.
Joel: Having said that, do you wish that your site was more interactive? For example, I can see reactions to my blog posts immediately in the comments that readers write. Do you think you’d like to interact with readers more and/or get a sense of what’s popular and what they’re thinking about the news you’re breaking? You’ve got one of the most popular theme park-related Facebook pages, so maybe that’s where you get to ‘touch the people’, but I was wondering about the interactivity of the site.
Lance: I would like to have a little bit of interactivity, but in the end it often comes down to just how much more time do I have to spend on Screamscape. I do still have a regular full time “day job” and mixed with the daily commute to work and back, that eats up most of my daytime hours. Then I have a wife and three kids, all with very active schedules, so that eats up the rest of my day, and it’s hard to fit in time for Screamscape into it all and still try to have something of a life left over.
While I am on Facebook, I honestly don’t spend a lot of time there. If you really want to interact with me though, Twitter is my social media of choice. I find it great that I can communicate real time to everyone, answer questions, post odd thoughts, jokes and just about anything throughout the day, no matter where I am, all through my phone. And before you ask… it’s an Android. Sorry iFolks…
Plus through Twitter… you get to see a little bit more of the real me, as not everything that comes through will be about theme parks.
Joel: I’d imagine that you don’t have a lot of time to just surf the Web, but what sites do you frequent both theme park and non-theme park related?
Lance: I’m a big gadget head… I love to learn about all the latest technology as it comes out, so I’ll read websites about that kind of stuff. I’m also into video games, though not as much as I’d like to be, as I just don’t have the time anymore. I’ve got a ton of games I’ve bought and still never played. I also enjoy going to the movies… but sadly, I don’t have as much time for that either as I’d like.
Joel: What’s your favorite thing to do outside of visiting and writing about theme parks?
Lance: Good question… and I’m not sure. Even when I go on vacation, I usually end up visiting one or more theme parks along the way. I go to Las Vegas, I find the coasters. I think the only trip I went on in the last few years that didn’t have a park involved was when my wife and I went on a 5 day cruise to Grand Cayman and Cozumel.
Joel: I’m going to finish all of my interviews for Theme Park Geekly with this question, but it’s a particularly appropriate one for you. You’ve shared that the name Screamscape refers to the name that you’d give your ideal or dream park. Let’s say you win a $1 billion lottery and you can build that dream park. Describe it. What would it look like? What types of rides would it have?
Lance: That’s a hard one to say, as my idea of the perfect park changes. It wouldn’t be a plain steel rides, Six Flags style park, but probably something more like Islands of Adventure. My ideal park would be a mixture of big steel rides and coasters, blended with heavily themed environments, flume rides and dark rides… lots of dark rides.