Quarterly Publications

Traveling Teenagers

The Heart of Generation Z

The Transformed Teen: Today’s Trendsetters

Just a couple months ago, you may have gotten to spend some quality time with the faces of the future, interviewing today’s teenagers seeking summer jobs. These attraction-side chats may have drawn up warm feelings of nostalgia, reminding you of your first summer job in high school: tearing tickets at your local one-screen movie theater, waiting tables at the diner around the corner, or calling park guests over to try their luck at toppling those milk bottles. But today’s teens are far less likely to be summer job hunting than you or I were; in fact, today’s teens are a lot different than us.

San Diego State University psychologist Jean Twenge recently completed a four-decade study of more than eight million teenagers, and published her surprising findings in the journal Child Development. In short, today’s teenagers are significantly less likely to work for pay, have a driver’s license, have sex, drink alcohol, date, and go out with their parents than all previous generations. Wasn’t the whole point of working that summer job to pay for our first car!?

According to Twenge, working for pay is down 21% points, alcohol consumption is down 26% points, drivers license ownership is down 15% points, dating is down 23% points, and sex is down 6% points among high school seniors from their older siblings and parents. Oddly enough, there are no statistically-significant correlations connecting the demands of homework or extra-curriculars to these declines, which have actually stayed relatively stable over the decades. Today’s teenagers are coming of age in an environment vastly different, for worse and better, than our own. The ever-present internet, and micro-managing “helicopter parents” – the researchers surmise – are at the core of these differences. Average American families have fewer kids these days, able to focus their resources on fewer mouths to feed – which means teens don’t have to grow up as quickly as before, and are choosing to delay some traditionally adult behavior.

Looking around your attraction in the height of summer, you may be seeing clusters of teenagers taking selfies for Instagram and whispering drama-infused hearsay; but what you should be seeing are your future members, volunteers, donors, board members, and vice presidents. Our own teenage experiences can no longer inform us of what today’s teens need to grow and thrive; and in this issue of Destinology, we explore these developments to better equip you for the face of your destination’s future.

The Value of Risks

Recent studies in neuroscience and behavioral psychology are demonstrating that the origin of the “reckless” and “overly-emotional” teenager is far more complex – and important – than we once thought.

Early childhood development specialists once explained that the human brain had reached full growth by the time of puberty; however, the latest work by U. Penn. Neurology Department Chair Frances Jensen demonstrates that this growth doesn’t actually complete until our mid-20’s. The prefrontal cortex – the region associated in decision-making, planning, and self-control – is the last part to solidify its neural connections in “myelination.”

While this leads to risky behavior, Jensen’s colleague, Daniel Romer, research director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, thinks it’s more of a choice, not an impulse. “The reason teens are doing all of this exploring and novelty-seeking is to build experience so that they can do a better job in making the difficult and risky decisions in later life – decisions like ‘Should I take this job?’ or ‘Should I marry this person?,” says Romer.

The Max Planck Institute recently published insights that demonstrated teens don’t even want to know the risks involved in their activities; they are far more comfortable operating in ambiguous environments than previous generations. If they’re told the risks, it’s often “in one ear, and out the other.”

These researchers have numerous suggestions which attractions can leverage to support this period of rapid growth and reduce the risks of risk-taking.

So What Can We Do?

Romer notes risk-taking is essential in understanding the world and one’s place in it; so creating exhibits and environments that may give the adrenaline rush of risk, without the actual threat, can support neurological development.

What Can We Learn?

Jensen shares that today’s teenagers are far more interested in understanding themselves and their development than previous generations; so teaching about teenage neuroscience and development through exhibits and programs could greatly appeal to the demographics.

Your Next Steps

The Max Plank Institute suggested, “A promising [opportunity] would be to give adolescents the opportunity to experience the consequences of their risky behavior in virtual environments,” or using video games – interactive exhibits – to demonstrate, rather than tell, consequences.

The No-Go of the Digital Glow

A 2016 study published in the Journal Pediatrics notes teenage depression was up 37% by 2014 from 2005. Los Angeles United began tracking teenage suicidal behavior in 2010, when they reported 225 incidents. The number grew to 5,000 in 2015. There’s one overarching contributing factor that’s certainly not helping the situation:


A decade-long rise in teenage life satisfaction and happiness came to an abrupt end in 2012, beginning a steep four-year decline, and psychologists from San Diego State University and the University of Georgia endeavored to find out why. Surveying more than 1.1 million American teenagers, their results pointed to smartphone usage. By 2016, 73% of American teenagers owned a smartphone; and between 1991 and 2016, teens who spent more time on their phones in social media, texting, gaming, and browsing the internet were less happy, less satisfied with their lives, and had lower self-esteem. Conversely, teenagers who spent more time with non-screen activities, like spending in-person time with friends, reading print media, or playing sports and exercising, tended to have higher psychological well-being, happiness, self-esteem, and life satisfaction.

Phone usage itself isn’t to blame: the internet empowers teens to raise awareness, connect with people across the world, and share moments of beauty and learning. However, social media greatly accelerates and amplifies the drama typical of teenage life: where we may have passed a note in first period, it reached its audience by third period, and we got an answer by eighth period, today’s teenagers are posting those messages hundreds of times daily, with layers of added complexity.

There is a magic number: less than an hour. Teenagers who had mature, collaborative boundary-setting discussions with their parents and limited their smartphone time to less than an hour a day had the happiest and strongest mental health. As attractions, there’s a lot we can do to support this healthier lifestyle and self-value.

What Can You Do?

  1. We might consider encouraging our guests to “Like, Follow, Subscribe, and Share” a little less, and promote shared, live experiences on our property over augmenting them with smartphones, like scanning QR codes or attraction-specific apps.
  2. As previously noted, teens are eager to learn about themselves and grow. Developing exhibits and programs that encourage a dialogue about managing instant digital communication and the emotions and self-valuation that accompany it could be quite appealing – and impactful – for today’s youth.
  3. Combined with a rise in sleep deprivation, depression and stress are immense emotional and psychological burdens. Instead of striving to dream up the next adrenaline-pounding attraction, destinations may consider developing opportunities for teenagers to relax, de-stress, and hit the reset button.

Teenage Mason Bees

The Mason Bee, Osmia avosetta, is a fantastic little insect that builds a vase-shaped nest out of flower petals. You can tell a lot about a Mason Bee and its environment, simply by looking at the color, size, and species of the flowers with which it adorns its home. The same can be said for today’s teenagers; so what does their leisure time and purchases say about them?

Recent research by Barna details what teens are doing with their time in their few free, after-school hours. The most common activity is homework, closely followed by 64% watching television or movies, 42% playing video games, 27% on social media or texting friends, and 25% browsing the non-social internet.

Although they’re employed at a lower rate than previous generations, about 39% of Americanteens are holding down part-time work, and how they spend their money matters. YouGov recently asked 1,000 American Teenagers to rank 122 brands on awareness and perceived coolness, and YouTube and Netflix topped the charts. In order, Google, Xbox, Oreos, GoPro, Playstation, Doritos, Nike, and Chrome were the following top brands, with Chickfil-A as the “coolest” fast-food chain and Coke being more popular than Pepsi. “Taking Stock with Teens” goes on to reveal that 41% of teens identify an athletic apparel brand as their preferred clothing brand, Nike being the number one. For teenage boys, food is the largest expenditure, followed by clothing and video games. For girls, clothing comes in on top, followed by food and personal care items. Online retailers like Amazon, Nike, and American Eagle continue their growth in online capture of teen shoppers, as specialty brick-and mortar stores are reducing their footprints.

For attractions, it’s a great time to investigate what these brands are doing – the approach of their marketing and communications, their products, and the lifestyle they promise/enable – and explore which aspects you can authentically integrate into your destination. If you’re looking to capture more teenage wallet-share, explore athletic apparel partnership opportunities in your gift shop, ensure you dedicate a significant portion of your budget to making your online retail space as engaging and well-operating as Amazon, Nike, and American Eagle, and make sure your food is delicious and Instagram-worthy in presentation. Teenagers are deeply committed to sharing their experiences near-instantly on social media, and cultivating their digital brand and relationships; so if they’re spending a good deal of their money on food and beverage at your attraction, it better be earning them significant “social points” online.

Working Side-by-Side with Gen. Z

In just a few short years, three of the most-studied generations in history – Gen. Z, Millennials, and Baby Boomers – will join forces in the workplace. Researchers and business managers are hurriedly working to understand how this will vastly transform the professional environment, and destinations should be just as prepared. Harvard Business Review (HBR) recently surveyed 18,000 students and professionals across 19 countries from these three cohorts to better understand how they may collaborate – or not – in the future workforce. While Millennials are attracted to the coaching and mentoring that comes with leadership roles, today’s teenagers are more looking forward to the higher level of responsibility and freedom that come with leadership. That advancement is important to Gen. Z; but for them, it’s not about making tenure or putting in your decades at an organization to secure leadership: advancement should be based on performance. “They want to know what the rules are, that they’re fair,” confirms The Society for Human Resource Management. “They are competitive, independent, and want to be judged on their own merits and showcase their individual talents.”

Although they feel virtual reality will be the most revolutionizing technology in the workplace, teenagers aren’t too keen on office technology overall. According to HBR, teenagers in Germany, Japan, and Mexico found workplace technology useful, while Chinese, American, and Canadian teens found it a hindrance to their work. 69% of Gen. Z favor in-person training programs over online courses (13%), whereas Gen. X was far more interested in online training (25%). 70% of all respondents in all generations noted that flexible working arrangements were very important to their work lives over the next decade.

Lastly, today’s teenagers are accustomed to instantaneous, constant feedback – through the Likes and Shares of social media and constant in-school testing, so the days of “annual reviews” are quickly coming to an end. Gen. Z is seeking company culture that loudly celebrates individual contributions and achievements, in an environment of mentoring and frequent feedback where they can experience honesty and transparency with their leaders.

With these priorities in mind, teenagers are on course to vastly alter the professional workplace. Destinations have the foresight and opportunity to collaborate between HR and managers, plus speak with their future coworkers, to begin preparing for more constant feedback, rapid and merit-based (not “years experience”) advancement, in person (and less “hit play”) training, and the right balance of technology to empower these future business leaders to thrive.

The Expertise of the Destinologist

With more than 120 attraction designers and strategists, PGAV’s Destinologists run the gamut of generations – our team is comprised of this year’s college graduates, grandparents, and everything in between. Being that we spend our careers honing our expertise in innovating destinations, intimately studying guest behavior, and choreographing leisure experiences, we’ve come to know a thing or two about family travel. But sometimes studies and statistics are no match for good, anecdotal life experience. Some of PGAV’s parents were brave enough to share some “lessons from the road” of traveling with their own teenagers.

Just as our 2012 Destinology, The Art of the Family Vacation, confirmed, it’s essential to make teens part of the planning process.

“There’s nothing worse than getting on the road and discovering that they don’t actually want to be vacationing in the place you’re headed,” says Senior Creative Designer Dave Cooperstein.

As a mother of two, Senior Director of Branding and Marketing Karen Baker strives to co-plan trips that have elements that appeal to everyone.

“I first pick a destination region and mention a few interesting options, knowing their primary interests, and then encourage them to research the area themselves and offer other suggestions. Following up with a TripAdvisor link they can scroll through has been really helpful.”

Once on vacation, teens want to keep connected to their network; so before you depart, make sure you have enough phone data to go around for the week.

“Teens suck up a ton of data, even when they’re not streaming movies,” says Architectural Designer Joe Poelzl, traveling with three teen boys. “Snapchat, Instagram, YouTube, and more will drain all the data on your shared plan. Make sure your accommodations have excellent WiFi as well.”

Vice President Diane Lochner, mother of two teen boys, also notes,

“Having a portable speaker to play their music is a great mood lightener, and the boys love to post to social media directly after an event – preferably about thrilling, funny, and unique vistas.”

PGAV parents suggested that during the waking hours, teens will want lots of high-fidelity activities that keep their brains engaged and their social media feeds lit: interactive exhibits and experiences, hiking, climbing, running, swimming, “really anything they can do to challenge themselves and push the limits of their nerves and bodies,” says Poelzl. But once the adrenaline stops pumping and stomachs are full, it’s time to rest. Lochner’s boys covet the luxury of sleeping in, and enjoy having down time – away from their parents. “Allowing for downtime with teenagers is important – they don’t like to cram too much activity into a day or be too programmed,” says Baker. “Some quiet time to read or catch up with friends is a necessity.”

Share Button
Read the Digital Magazine Edition