What would you do? Where's the best site in America for a new theme park?
Published: April 29, 2010 at 11:59 AM
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?