'Paw Patrol,' 'Disney Junior Dance Party' & More: Family-Friendly Franchises Are Touring's New Cash Cows

Disney/Matt Petit
Disney Junior Dance Party On Tour

Cirque du Soleil Entertainment Group's recent acquisition of VStar Entertainment Group and its ancillary Cirque Dreams highlighted the enormous value of a silly-sounding franchise: Paw Patrol.

As the multibillion-dollar children's entertainment market grows, one need look no further for proof of its success than VStar's massively popular Paw Patrol Live "Race to the Rescue." In 2017, the production toured 250 cities across four continents, while a recent nine show run held inside Madison Square Garden's Hulu Theater this past March brought in a $1.7 million gross. A second Paw Patrol production, "The Great Pirate Adventure," was launched this past October with plans to hit at least 135 cities by the end of 2018. 

VStar's history of success in producing live shows based on existing properties has made them a leader in the field, with nearly 40,000 performances worldwide accounting for over 2 million tickets sold. At the time of the acquisition, Cirque du Soleil's CEO Daniel Lamarre told Twin Cities Business magazine that once VStar's ticket sales are added to the total already sold by its new parent company -- which had already acquired an additional 2 million tickets sold in 2017 with its purchase of Blue Man Productions -- his company now currently ranks only behind Live Nation Entertainment Inc. and Anschutz Entertainment Group Inc. among event promoters in worldwide tickets sold.   

The Canadian circus company isn't the only one getting in on the children's action. Jonathan Shank, a senior management executive and tour producer for Red Light Management, jumped into the live family entertainment industry after noticing a void in family events held in theater-sized venues, while many of his management clients such as Victoria Justice, star of the Nickelodeon shows Zoey 101 and Victorious, hailed from the world already. Shank has helped turn Red Light into a leader in kids' tours, having produced runs for properties from Power Rangers to his most recent production, Disney Junior Dance Party on Tour. 

Since 2012, Shank's tours have sold more than 1.5 million tickets and grossed more than $60 million in box office sales, with the Dance Party -- starring characters from such Disney Junior properties as Elena of Avalor and Sofia the First -- having grossed $8 million in 2018 already. On Monday (Aug. 6) it was announced that the fall leg of Disney Junior Dance Party's tour will feature stops in 52 markets, kicking off Sept. 14 at the Hershey Theatre in Hershey, Pennsylvania. The new production will feature the debut onstage of the cable network's newest star property, Fancy Nancy, as well as live appearances by the stars of the animated Puppy Dog Pals. The popularity of these properties and their swift integration into the tour are what fuels the fire at the box office.

"There are going to be more and more people interested in partnering, or purchasing, family entertainment divisions," Shank told Billboard during a break in the Disney tour. "Intellectual property is something that has a tremendous amount of value and these brands we're talking about -- Disney Junior Dance Party, Peppa Pig, Paw Patrol -- these are all massive brands that companies want to align themselves with; they generate a tremendous amount at the box office and in ancillaries. We often say that we'd be happy to put this model against many others out there in the live entertainment field, because it does tremendously well."

The boom in family shows is a stark contrast to a couple decades ago, when there were few offerings outside of yearly visits from the Harlem Globetrotters and Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, which were restricted to cities with arenas. Now, today's marketplace is crowded with productions -- starring characters ranging from the cast of characters from the Disney animated film Frozen (currently touring as the featured stars of Disney on Ice) to the nearly 30 comic book characters that create the action in Marvel Universe LIVE! Age of Heroes. For Red Light, family tours that are produced alongside networks or brands are structured more like a partnership or joint venture, since the performing artists are in costume and aren't generally stars in their own right. Pop artists' tours, on the other hand, are generally structured as commission-based deals, with the artist typically getting 85 percent and promoter taking 15 percent. While artists charge higher ticket prices, family tours tend to play for more dates and bigger crowds, sometimes generating a higher gross.

"This year, we're looking at performing between 200 and 300 shows, with [2019] being looked at as potentially north of 400 shows," says Shank. "I'm not worried about a bubble bursting, because we have established ourselves as not only competitive, but a leader in the space. We just need to make sure we're careful in who we decide to develop shows with and what we put our resources into." 

He continues, "The main thing is really just keeping ticket prices realistic and understanding who your market is; that's ultimately it. We'd love to see more live action shows developed on the [children's television] networks and it would certainly be easier in some ways to translate onto the stage. We were fortunate enough to work with the Fresh Beat Band, which was a huge show on Nickelodeon [in the earlier half of this decade], and that [tour] took everyone by surprise when it ended up selling out hundreds of shows. With the nearly 700,000 tickets sold for that tour and with [Nick Jr.'s property] Yo Gabba Gabba touring during that same time, those two shows were dominating the family entertainment space. Nickelodeon and Disney have both leaned toward animation over the last handful of years, but I've actually been preaching to everyone that the next live action family [television] show is going to be a huge hit, whatever and whenever that may be."

But as established kids networks have found their footing in family-friendly tours, streaming services still have a ways to go. Shank believes the problem lies in the fact that their original content characters aren't very well known.

"Part of the reason why I feel that [streaming services'] programming has failed to really break through into the world of family entertainment [touring] is because there's not enough repetition in content and they haven't yet found their Spongebob Squarepants, Dora the Explorer or Mickey Mouse," says Shank. "Once one of those services find their Dora or Mickey, they too can enter into that space."