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Robert Niles
Editor

What would you do? Where's the best site in America for a new theme park?

Published: April 29, 2010 at 11:59 AM

A few weeks ago, we looked at the challenge of finding a site for a new attraction within an existing theme park. Today, I'd like to challenge you with a larger task:

Where would you build a new theme park?

While dozens of parks add new attractions each year, a new park comes along in the United States only a handful of times each decade, if that. Choose the wrong site, and your multi-million-dollar capital investment may be doomed. And at the very best, you're drawing fewer visitors and making less money than you would have with a better site.

But what is a good site for a theme park? Answering that question is the challenge I present today.

I've been reading Chad Emerson's Project Future: The Inside Story Behind the Creation of Disney World, which tells in a clear and focused narrative the story of the Disney Company's decision in the 1960s to build in the Orlando area. I've also long been a fan of Harrison 'Buzz' Price's Walt's Revolution!: By the Numbers (hard to find), which digs deeper into the numbers and economics behind selecting attraction sites. Both books examine the factors that influence decisions on where to build a theme park - population, transportation, weather and existing tourist infrastructure (roads, airports, hotels, competition).

But a decision often rests on how you weigh those various factors.

Population: A large local population offers a large potential market for your park. But placing your park in a big city creates risk, as well. Advertising will be more expensive to buy. There likely will be other major entertainment options already for people in the area, against which you'll have to compete. Labor costs might be higher. And land almost certainly will be more expensive to purchase.

Transportation: Having a lot of people around is of no help if they can't get to your park. Disney put Disney World near Orlando because it was conveniently located near the junction of Interstate 4 and the Florida's Turnpike. Plus, Orlando had an airport (though it later would be rebuilt to accommodate Disney-driven crowds). You'll want to consider the location of Interstate highways and airports in deciding where to put your dream theme park. But easy access can overwhelm parks that aren't built up to handle large crowds.

Weather: Few people want to visit a theme park in the snow. Or on a cold or rainy day. Temperatures in the 70s and 80s (F), plus sunny skies, equal high theme park attendance. Unless you're going to build a very expensive dome over your park, a location with poor weather most of the year won't allow you to recoup your investment.

Tourism infrastructure: You'll make more money at your park if it is part of a multi-day vacation than if it's simply a day trip. But for people to make a visit part of a longer visit, they'll need places to stay - hotels, vacation rentals and campgrounds. You'll need to locate near restaurants, gas stations and other attractions (man-made or natural) that might entice people to stay for longer. But you don't want to be lost among the competition, either.

What's the right call? Move into a big metro area with temperate (not cold, but not too hot or humid) climate? Sure, but in the United States that means Southern California, and it already has seven theme parks competing for locals' business. Or Hawaii, but high air transportation costs make that a tough sell for many potential visitors.

So how much are you willing to trade off ideal weather for other factors? The Seattle area is large, growing and without a major theme park. But frequent rain makes visiting outdoor attractions such as roller coasters and shows less than appealing. It's dry in Phoenix, but the summer heat is oppressive. Miami? Similar weather to Orlando, but has Central Florida taken all potential theme park visitors away?

What about smaller, more out-of-the-way locations? There are plenty of Interstate junctions with decent tourist infrastructure, and no major themed park attractions. What about something near Albuquerque, New Mexico? Or Memphis, Tennessee?

Or do you build close to the Southern California or Central Florida clusters, and hope to divert some business from those parks? After all, the most likely visitors to a theme park are people who already enjoy and frequent parks. Why not go where they are already?

Again - everything's a trade-off. But developers who find the right mix, who do as Buzz Price and his team did a generation ago and weigh the various factors appropriately to determine which site would make the most money, can enjoy solid returns in this business.

So what would you do? Where do you think is the best site in America for a theme park?

Replies (38)

170.35.224.64

Published: April 29, 2010 at 12:14 PM

I think just outside of Dallas Fort Worth would work because there is plenty of land, and plenty of workers. Also its in the middle of the country
171.161.160.10

Published: April 29, 2010 at 12:17 PM

North Texas would be a perfect spot for theme park. There is still lots of available land within an hour of the DFW area. There is no state income tax, the temp is mild year round (2011 being the exception as it snowed 3x's), and it is in the center of the nation accessable to both costs. I love disney, but can only visit every 2 to 3 years mainly due to the expense of the airfare, not the parks, themselfs. When you have to drop a grand just to get there, not much money left to spend in the parks.
Mike Bianucci

Published: April 29, 2010 at 12:43 PM

I'll offer two options:

Nashville, TN- lacking since Opryland closed.

or

Phoenix, AZ.- large population, water rides in the summer and could almost open year round.

Adam Dodds

Published: April 29, 2010 at 1:19 PM

Houston would be perfect...and that is why it is getting Earth Adventures...massive theme park, waterpark conference center, hotel and shopping district. Roughly the size of the Disneyland resort, it will feature themed rides that was described in press releases "of Disney quality" and E ticket rides. There are new interstate roads, Two major airports, cruise line ports in Port of Houston and nearby Galvetson. Perfect weather, central location and 4 million residence in Houston alone.

Some people will point out that astroworld failed. Well that was when Six Flags was having serious financial problems and Astroworld was an outdated micro park. Land locked in the middle of the city, there was no coherent theming, no room for new coasters, the coaster it did have were not much fun and nothing else going for it.

Since Astroworld, Kemah Boardwalk has opened many rides including an amazing one of a kind wooden coaster. The Boardwalk Bullet is built on less than an acre of land, and because of so, it crosses over it self more than any other coaster. And being right on the edge of the water makes it amazing. Business for Kemah has sky rocketed since there are millions of thrill deprived Houstonians.

Also, the city of Houston is well away from being in debt and has hte money and resources to make a new massive park work.

But I think Earhtquest Adventures is a testament to how prime the location is.

Here's the link to the world's first Green Eco-friendly park

http://www.earthquestadventures.com/

64.219.130.88

Published: April 29, 2010 at 1:34 PM

If I had to build a new theme park I would locate it at Columbia Missouri. One of the main reason I think this is a good spot for a new theme park is cause it would be in the middle of two theme parks, Worlds of Fun at Kansas City MO and Six Flags St. Louis. And the town could handle the tourism since they have MIZZOU football games and other major sporting events there.
70.118.44.204

Published: April 29, 2010 at 2:17 PM

1: Houston, TX. 3rd larges city in America, lacking a major theme park.

2: Phoneix, AZ. A growing population center, waterparks just starting to expand, roller coasters will be next.

3. Nashville, TN. Another growing city. Has options that are in the area (Dollywood, SFOG 4 hours or so away).

4. Las Vegas, NV. A city that gets 30 million visiotrs a year, and is constantly trying to turn its image into a family park. Competition from Disneyland and other California parks.

Tyler Bell

Published: April 29, 2010 at 2:26 PM

I would put one in south florida because there are no parks located there
24.46.56.193

Published: April 29, 2010 at 2:29 PM

Eastern Long Island. If you're looking for a theme park to visit near New York City there's a few you could consider: Great Adventure, Hershey, Dorney. Yet all of these are pretty far away and all require you to travel by car or bus. I'm thinking specifically of attracting visitors from one of the biggest cities in the world, most of whom do not own cars.

Problem with building a large park near NYC is finding sufficient, reasonably priced, land to do so. Eastern LI is probably the best place to look for it at this point, and it could also benefit from the existing Long Island Railroad to bring visitors from NYC. There are other attractions there that already attract visitors which it could build upon: the Hamptons in general, Splish Splash, Tanger Shopping Outlets...

Ideally you'd want to be closer to the city, but that's going to be very expensive and I can only think of one place that would have enough space to hold a theme park, the site of the New York World's Fair in Flushing Meadows. That site was built to be accessed: it's literally surrounded by major highways, has rail and subway access, water. It's already been a "theme park" of sorts when the world's fair was held there in '39 and '64, but it was also a huge undertaking was not profitable either time, but there's so much potential. Then again, as your recent entry stated, a world's fair is very different from a permanent theme park.

Anthony Murphy
Writer

Published: April 29, 2010 at 3:35 PM

I would say Arizona as well due to the pretty nice weather, plenty of land, and enough of a clientelle.

Personally, I would like to see one in the midwest even if its a seasonal park. There is very little competition in this area with Cedar Point being the big boy in the area.

In other words, I would stay as far away from California and, especially, FL

72.208.126.240

Published: April 29, 2010 at 3:49 PM

Uh.. how about Phoenix, AZ? It's the greatest city in the world! Temperatures range from 75 degrees to 121 degrees. Perfect for the traveling theme park enthusiast! It also helps that it never rains... We have low wages in Phoenix so less money is spent on our staff! Phoenix also happens to be the 5th most populated city in America (I did not research this fact so don't press me).
Robert Niles
Editor

Published: April 29, 2010 at 4:10 PM

It would help Phoenix's prospects if the state's elected leaders would not do things that cause the state to be the subject of international boycotts every decade or so.

Not to be political, but whether you agree with the boycotts or not, the fact remains that these boycotts create enormous problems for tourism in the state, and make the state less attractive for substantial capital investment.

Does that rule out Phoenix? No. But, trust me, this kind of stuff shows up in a thorough analysis of a site.

Robert Niles
Editor

Published: April 29, 2010 at 4:23 PM

My most intriguing possibility would be...

St. George, UT (It's cooler than Vegas and warmer than Salt Lake; it's a large family market in Utah and the second-fastest-growing metro area in the U.S.)

No idea what specific theme would work best there, but a family-oriented seasonal park could flourish in that location, I'm sure. If I could pick a place to put a park like a "Holiday World West," it'd be in St. George.

69.120.22.254

Published: April 29, 2010 at 4:31 PM

I live right over the border from New York City in Connecticut, and the only easy option is the little, classic Rye Playland. The next closest is Lake Compounce, an hour away. And both Six Flags, (NE and GA,) are over an hour and a half away. It would have been really great if a theme park (Disneyland East?) had gone in where the 64/65 Worlds' Fair was.
Mike Gallagher

Published: April 29, 2010 at 5:04 PM

My backyard.
Derek Potter

Published: April 29, 2010 at 5:20 PM

One of the top prospects on my list would be Nashville. I would put the park just south of town around Franklin, south of where Opryland used to be. Nashville has three major interstates (I40,I24,I65) intersecting right outside it's city limits. There's a lot of money in that town, a good deal of tourism already, and a fairly isolated market that only has Dollywood a couple of hours to the east as major competition. Most other major parks are 4-5 hours in any given direction. Given that the city economy is anchored by health care and the music industry as well as other healthy companies, it didn't take a terribly large financial hit from the economic downturn. It wouldn't have to be country themed at all, contrary to what some may think.

I think that Texas could support another theme park. Park fans in Houston got the shaft when Six Flags sold out to capitalize on high land values. I get why Six Flags did what they did, but a lot of money and potential got left behind. If the right person/company comes along, they could tap into that potential.

A lot of it depends on who is building this park. If it's a theme park company that can handle its business and its willing to spend some real money and let things grow, then the location doesn't necessarily have to be so close to a large city because they can become a destination. It does help to have that immediate pool of customers though, hence the reason why most parks open close to a metro area. Most experts would call someone crazy if they opened a park too far from a somewhat mature metro area, and that all parks need that market to survive. There are always exceptions to that rule though. Cedar Point thrives in a little seasonal town 90 minutes west of Cleveland and 2 hours north of Columbus. Disney World practically built the city of Orlando, which was a small blip on the radar before Walt put his shovel in the dirt. Even Holiday World, which has been growing by leaps and bounds out of the corn and wheat fields in a small southern Indiana town, resides an hour from the nearest city. All of the successful operations that lie outside of those metro areas have one thing in common. They have a reputation for good management and being really really good at something, be it thrill rides, value, customer service...etc.

Andrew Holden

Published: April 29, 2010 at 6:44 PM

I think San Antonio Texas. While there are theme parks already in the area, they are not so all encompassing that another park/resort area could survive here. This area has a proven tourist basis and I think another park could thrive here, especially if it is well themed, built, and managed.
24.90.249.214

Published: April 29, 2010 at 7:02 PM

How about to solve all those eather issues you enclose the park in a building
Jason Read

Published: April 29, 2010 at 8:01 PM

A family-oriented park, a la Legoland, could do very well in the San Francisco Bay area. The current offerings leave a lot to be desired, the weather is temperate, and there's a gigantic population base.

Another option would be a Lotte World-style dome park in southern New England. It's population dense, and has shown to be a huge theme park audience in their Orlando attendance. There are current summer offerings, but nothing formidable.

I worry that Phoenix is too short and cheap a flight away from the SoCal theme park megaplex to support something more than a medium iron park.

76.122.58.19

Published: April 29, 2010 at 8:38 PM

Outside of Charleston SC.........A History Theme Park , something different that would appeal and attract while learning about our past.........close to the most appealing Southern City in our country .........
Manny Barron

Published: April 29, 2010 at 8:54 PM

Phoenix is just too brutally hot in the Summer. You can have a theme park but people won't enjoy it as much since its REALLY hot from May-August. It's a shame since its a huge metro area but its temps don't help. I like the previous suggestions of Albuquerque and St.George,Utah. I vote for Roswell,New Mexico. The weather is good and the city is growing. Not to far from Albuquerque, Lubbock,DFW,Ok City,Denver,Amarillo,Northern Mexico, and El Paso. Roswell won't happen but it would be pretty cool to have a theme park with rides and shows based off of UFO and extra-terrestrial theming.
166.204.45.124

Published: April 29, 2010 at 9:13 PM

I think Austin Texas would be a great new themepark location.
68.53.163.73

Published: April 29, 2010 at 9:20 PM

Nashville, for many of the reasons people have already stated plus.........

Location: Nashville is within a day’s drive of 80% of the nation’s population. That’s a stat I couldn't believe myself the first time I heard it.

Weather: with the exception of a few cold wet months Jan Feb, the rest of the year is ideal for theme park operations.

Population: Nashville is a medium size City with a number of other medium size cities within 40 min to an hour away. Murfreesboro and Clarksville.

Transportation: While there is no Mass Transit in place at this time we do have 3 major interstates that intersect in Nashville not to mention a rail infrastructure already in place. We also have a large airport that could more than accommodate visiting guest.

Tourism: Nashville has always had a thriving tourism industry, we are the Music City after all. Converting the guest that are here for the country music hall of fame and the grand ole opry won't be a stretch getting them to spend a few extra days at theme park.

Wok Creative

Published: April 29, 2010 at 10:12 PM

I'd like to see a small, family style park someplace in Hawaii, probably on Oahu or Maui. It would have to stay true to the culture and not be too exploitative. It would be great weather, has a very established tourist/resort base, would bring many needed jobs... It would be nice to have one themed to the culture specifically.

Maybe with Disney's new resort going in...

Stephen Tuday

Published: April 29, 2010 at 10:39 PM

Atlanta, GA (metro area) could support another park as long as the developers create a different experience than that of SFOG. There was a failed attempt to develop a theme park and shopping complex on the opposite side of town from Six Flags, somewhere near Lithonia/Conyers; it failed due to lack of funding. There were also rumors many years ago that Busch Gardens might build a park in the Cartersville area (30-mi north of Atlanta) if the proposed Outer Perimeter (later Northern Arc) Highway were built. Anheiser-Busch owns a great deal of land there near its brewery. Unforunately the Northern Arc project was tabled years ago - and Busch Gardens has since changed hands as well. But given the overwhelming crowds at SFOG, clearly the Atlanta Metro-plex could support another theme park option - maybe a Sea World-type attraction?

Other good options IMHO:
Nashville, TN - they have been void of theme parks since Opryland left. Also consider Six Flags Kentucky Kingdom is now closed and that leaves many thrill seekers with few other options.

Phoenix, AZ - Yes, it gets hot, but look at all the retirement communities elsewhere in the state.

Trapper Creek, AK (just kidding :-)

Scott B

Published: April 30, 2010 at 5:20 AM

Someone mentioned San Antonio, TX above. I second that. First it already has Sea World and Six Flags Fiesta, so it has some proven themepark traffic. It has lots of empty land in the outskirts just waiting to be developed. It isn't as opressively humid during the summer months like Houston and the other gulf cities and during the winter months it is at the worst sweater weather. It is already a major tourist draw thanks to the Alamo and the river walk.

My brother lives there, so I like the idea of stopping by and walking around a themepark while I'm there to visit with my two girls.

I wouldn't put a themepark near me because I live outside of Boston. I wouldn't recommend putting anything like that here. I mean, it was 40 degrees with a mix of snow a couples of days ago and it is almost May!!

79.65.250.64

Published: April 30, 2010 at 6:10 AM

The U.S. is such a great place, so many locations would obviously be suitable, but New Orleans would get my vote
the city could do with some serious good cheer and new jobs.
TH Creative
Writer

Published: April 30, 2010 at 8:00 AM

I know the EXACT SPOT I would build. At the old Mercado property on International Drive. Mercado was demolished a couple of years ago -- to make way for a project consisting of two hotels and a retail center. The project couldn't find financing and so the land (like 50 acres) sits empty.

With the coming Orlando Tourism Renaissance, that location is the ideal spot to build a parking garage and a moderate sized attraction that operates in the evening.

I'd call it 'Family Lights' theme it as a beautiful city with a Time Square-like city center, a park. feature a couple of dark rides some small coasters and a nightly show.

But most important, I would have live music where people of all ages can dance. They don't have ANYPLACE in Orlando where families with teens and younger kids can dance.

SMACK IN THE MIDDLE of International Drive with thousands of hotel rooms in walking distance.

mister johnson

Published: April 30, 2010 at 9:56 AM

Mercado is a lousy location! How many good projects have gone there to die? Guiness Book of World Records. Hard Rock Vault. Is Titanic even there anymore?
TH Creative
Writer

Published: April 30, 2010 at 2:16 PM

I'm sorry but "Mercado is a lousy location?" Sitting in the middle of I-Drive within walking distance of thousands of hotel rooms is a "lousy location?"

How about 'Hard Rock Vault' and 'Guiness Book of Records' were lousy IDEAS. They were roadside attractions and not theme parks (as the thread's topic calls out).

SC Todbear

Published: April 30, 2010 at 2:20 PM

OK, call me crazy but The Coast of South Carolina would be incredible. Not too cold so you could run a longer season than some. Also for example if you build near Myrtle Beach possibly off the By-Pass there is easy access, beautiful landscape, and the tourists spend several days at a time in that area and would be happy to celebrate in a well developed park that marketed itself correctly. Heck if you put a Hyper there you could even see the ocean while riding but still be protected from the worst weather events. I know other amusement projects have failed, but like I said a porperly developed location would be incredible. Shucks you could even work out bussing from the grand strand and guests would never have to drive to the park.

Just my wildest wishes :)

Derek Potter

Published: April 30, 2010 at 5:13 PM

I still think that the Grand Strand of South Carolina is a money location too. The debacle of Hard Rock/Freestyle park is due to money, management, and planning, not location. Specific location? maybe but 15 million tourists a year and nice weather almost year round begs for a good theme park. Myrtle Beach is way too popular to not have a theme park, and there is a lot of empty low country land around the area.
Ron A

Published: April 30, 2010 at 5:46 PM

Being that I live in Houston, TX, my first choice would naturally be here. However, I don't really believe here is the best spot. Sure, there's an absence of a major theme park since Six Flags pulled out. (BTW: The land still sits empty where the park was) Regardless, I just don't think this is the best location. Not that it doesn't meet the criteria of decent weather for most of the year, and plenty of land, but I just don't think of Houston as a tourist kind of town. However, I am looking forward to the Earthquest Adventures, if it ever gets off the ground. They were supposed to break ground last year, but I think they're still hurting for investors.

While Houston might not be the most logical place, I do think San Antonio might be a good choice, or even Dallas. San Antonio is already a big tourist destination, and even though they have Sea World, Six Flags and the Riverwalk, plus the original Schitterbahn is less than an hour away. I think another major player could boost the town up to a similar status as Southern California, and maybe even Las Vegas as a major destination. I think there's still some decent land there for a good-size park, although it might not be as cheap as suburban Houston.

Dallas might also be a good choice, simply because of its central location in the U.S. and weather there isn't too bad, most of the time. However, there's not any other major players there, so it's status is similar to Houston, except, there's a bigger population here.

76.255.187.250

Published: April 30, 2010 at 9:48 PM

As a Dallas-ite, I would say San Antonio, TX. 7th largest city in the U.S., so it could support a theme park. There is a Sea World there, Fiesta Texas, Schlitterbahn is not far away... and the Alamo and the Riverwalk. Excellent hotel infrastructure. And far enough away from the Gulf to avoid hurricane issues that might plague Houston or Galveston. The tradeoffs- heat, but not any worse than FL. It's actually pretty temperate. There might be too much local competition for a new park.

I would also argue the Dallas/Ft. Worth Metroplex would be a good spot. It's the largest metropolitan area in the state of Texas and the 4th largest in the country. So it could definitely support a new theme park. Plenty to do here and only 1 major theme park- Six Flags Over Texas. There is also a water park- Six Flags Hurricane Harbor across the street. And they are both down the street from the new Cowboys Stadium and the Ballpark at Arlington. The trade-offs... land price is surprisingly not one for a metro area. There is so much land that real estate prices stay low (people from other states are always surprised at how low!)... the HEAT in summer can be oppressive. Just like Central FL and sometimes worse. We go to Orlando to get away from the heat, but run smack into Central Florida's humidity!

I once wrote a paper for Economics on why North Texas should be the place Disney builds that elusive (and never gonna happen) 3rd theme park resort.

76.255.187.250

Published: April 30, 2010 at 10:28 PM

Someone mentioned Austin... totally forgot about it, but it would be an excellent location too... I'd rank them:
1. Dallas/Ft. Worth Metro
2. San Antonio
3. Austin
4. Nashville
5. St. George
Adam Nodjomian

Published: May 1, 2010 at 11:16 AM

I've though about West Florida (the Panhandle) as well as anywhere in Louisiana, Alabama, or Georgia. Fair weather year-round, lots of workers, established interstates, and little competiton from other amusments
J. Dana

Published: May 2, 2010 at 11:24 PM

Let's think like a theme-park company:

First, let's eliminate the bad choices:
1. Phoenix: Might be great weather, but it has three things going against it. First, see Robert's comment about boycotts -- even though I don't believe the boycott will hurt Arizona at all, the bad publicity isn't something theme park companies want. Secondly, with the astronomical rise of drug cartel violence spilling across the border from Mexico, Phoenix is now recognized as one of the cities with the highest rates of kidnapping and homicide (percentage-wise) in the country. Until something is done to stem the violence down there, ain't no one traveling that direction. Thirdly, there's really no theme park infrastructure to speak of.

2. Los Angeles: As an LA resident, I'd love to see Southern California be the site of the next big theme park (we're keeping our fingers crossed for Disney's strawberry field site in Anaheim -- and I don't think this is too big of a stretch)...but as far as new investment, don't count on it. Because of such a hostile business climate and the country's highest tax rate (Los Angeles Business Journal), large corporations and companies are looking to leave this state, not come in. Also, high-wage, high-tech workers are moving eastward, mainly to states like Texas, which offer high-wage jobs, low cost of living, and next-to-nothing taxes. Although I think SoCal has the best weather in the country, the traffic and hostile business climate make it unlikely.

3. Anywhere cold. I know you cold-weather theme park lovers (WHY NOT JUST MOVE???? Why stay in miserable weather???) are jonesin for a midwest park, it just won't be sustainable.

POSSIBLE LOCATIONS

1. Orlando area (of course). Although it might be oversaturated already, but I like TH Creative's idea....a night-time theme park (NOT a shopping center). There's TONS of available land. Very low taxes. Plenty of theme park infrastructure.

2. Texas. Austin, San Antonio. Interesting. Since all the workers and companies are fleeing to Texas, and the state is actively assisting companies to set up shop, and the cities are growing, it might just work. The weather ain't half bad, either. And the income-level of the state is pretty high, so the higher-end theme parks could probably be sustained.

3. Maaaaaaybe Myrtle Beach -- although the income level of the normal visitor would need to be increased. I know that sounds elitist, but it's just plain theme park economics. Disney, Universal and SeaWorld flourish while Six Flags and Hard Rock Park go bankrupt. Why? Because of the income level of the average guest -- and the spending associated with that average guest.

That's it. I personally wouldn't go out of my way to visit a theme park in any other part of the country -- except maybe New Orleans. But Katrina probably scared the bejeesus out of any investor. Sad.

Joshua Counsil

Published: May 3, 2010 at 10:04 PM

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Will Chilcote

Published: May 4, 2010 at 12:25 AM

Phoenix, AZ needs a theme park. It is already a major tourist destination. Tons of people visit for the Grand Canyon and Spring Training.

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