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The Super Bowl, theme parks and the lessons of Indianapolis

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Published: February 6, 2012 at 3:07 PM

Something big happened in Indianapolis over the past week. And it wasn't just the football game between the New York Giants and New England Patriots. What Indianapolis did during its Super Bowl week will be getting the attention of many sharp thinkers in the travel and tourism industry, including those running theme parks. Theme park fans who care about the business side of the parks will want to pay attention to the lessons of Indianapolis, too.

Indianapolis Indianapolis is earning raves for its hosting of the Super Bowl, from network commentators, pro athletes, celebrities and newspaper columnists. Let's put that in perspective for a moment. Indy offers no natural advantages over cities that have hosted the National Football League's championship game in the past - it has no beaches, no ocean views, no 70-degree-plus average winter temperatures. There are no mountains or ski slopes that make other cities desirable winter destinations.

So what made last week so special? Indy nailed this Super Bowl because of infrastructure. No, its football stadium isn't the biggest. Its hotels aren't the fanciest nor are its restaurants world-renown. But they are packed together within walking distance of each other in Indianapolis' pedestrian-friendly downtown. Take a 20-minute cab ride from the city's new airport, and you don't have to get in a car again all week. The high density of attractions gave the city a critical mass, turning downtown into a multi-day street party.

Granted, Indy also relied on a strong local organizing committee and thousands of friendly volunteers to make the week come together. But if you're in the tourism business and you're looking for a edge that can help make your destination a preferred choice for conventions and vacationers, believe me, you're paying attention to how Indy won raves for a game played in a city that's never been considered an A-list tourism destination. (FWIW, I went to high school in Indianapolis and love the city. But facts are facts. This ain't Miami, New Orleans or San Diego - the top cities in the Super Bowl rotation.)

It's all about convenience and walkability. People don't want to have spend a big chunk of their vacation in taxis or rental cars, as they did in Dallas at last year's Super Bowl. If you can offer people a destination where hotels, restaurants and attractions are all within easy walking distance, you're going to have an advantage over an alternative that requires people to get into their cars and drive for 10, 20, 30 minutes or more between where they stay, where they eat and where they play.

Walkability's been an emerging issue in urban and attraction development for years. (We talked about this issue with Sam Gennawey in our interview last year.) But Indianapolis just illustrated the value of walkability to everyone in the tourism business, and at the same time. People involved in planning tourism attractions now have to ask themselves: Can I afford to give up the advantage of walkability to my competitors by building an old-fashioned, car-dependent, exurban-style development? Is my attraction really so alluring that I can get away with sticking people with the inconvenience of having to drive everywhere during their visit?

That's why I believe that the future of major theme park developments is something like Universal Studios Singapore. You've got a theme park, one of the world's largest casinos, five luxury hotels and dining and shopping all in one "integrated resort," where people walk from destination to destination. Here in the United States, the Universal Orlando and Disneyland Resorts are establishing an American template for what a walkable multi-attraction vacation destination can be.

I love walking between Disneyland and California Adventure, instead of what I have to go through to move between parks at Walt Disney World - take a tram to my car, get in and drive to another parking lot, where I'll wait for another tram to bring me to the next park's entrance plaza. (And as much of a pain as that it, the driving route is often faster than waiting for Disney World's buses.)

Walt Disney World's theme parks and hotels are good enough that they can overcome the inconvenience of Disney World's car-dependent transportation infrastructure. But looking 20, 30 or 40 years into the future, Disney's going to face a challenge in keeping its quality so far above the competition that it can continue to overcome its transportation disadvantages. Or, it's going to have to shell out the bucks to create a real mass-transit system linking the various Disney World parks and hotels.

Not everyone wants to spend a vacation in an integrated resort, of course. So people will continue to want to the extra space between them and others - to "get away" from everyone else. But theme parks are ultimately a social experience, and far-flung, car-dependent developments are anti-social at their heart.

The model of building a theme park, or a stadium or any other major social attraction and marooning it within a sea of surface parking spaces is dead. Indy just applied the final blow. That creates a design challenge for theme parks, as they'll have to find ways to keep the outside world from intruding upon the themed experiences within their parks. But successful parks won't be able to rely on distance and acres of trees to do that any longer. Walkability is becoming too important an asset for resort destinations.

Update: On the topic of the Super Bowl, here's MVP Eli Manning's visit today to Walt Disney World:

And here's that Universal Studios Hollywood commercial for Transformer 3D The Ride, from the pregame show:

Readers' Opinions

From Rob Pastor on February 6, 2012 at 4:06 PM
Simplicity... That's why we enjoy Universal Orlando so very much. A short walk or a beautifully landscaped water taxi ride to your every destination. No waiting in lines. A vacation that combines the ultimate in entertainment & relaxation. It's a major reason we increased our Universal stay at Lowe's Portofino Resort from 7 days last year to 12 days this coming May. We'll be onsite at Disney for eleven days prior to Universal but we reserved the more relaxing portion(Universal) of the vacation for last.We love Disney, but the one stop aspect of Universal is more satisfying....Mr. Niles: That was an excellent article. You summed up the situation very well.
From 81.202.50.41 on February 6, 2012 at 4:08 PM
I really hope to see that walkability may be coming an objective to achieve for USA tourism-friendly cities. Not only for tourists but for citizens itself: I'm from Spain and when I arrived to L.A. I was astonished about how car-dependent their inhabitants were. It was near impossible to arrive anywhere just strolling, which is something very usual in european cities. Also you have a nice example of pedestrian-friendly town in Las Vegas, if we talk about the Strip.
From Wok Creative on February 6, 2012 at 4:17 PM
Friends that just got back from working there on the game, half-time show, and awards show went on and on complaining about the major gouging that they were doing - 20 dollar martini's, adding 4 dollars to every item on a menu, 10 dollar cover charge just to get into one of these places (arguments with management and servers)...
These guys weren't there as tourists, but to work, and enjoy a night out while they were there. Also, most of them have worked there on other things, like the kick-off game... and not had these huge add-on prices. Doesn't seem right at all.
It is nice to save on driving/parking. Las Vegas seems to be okay, but Milwaukee and Boston stand out to me. Disney World has a great transportation system, with multiple options making it even better. Park hopping is probably the easiest in Anaheim (and, I agree, Universal Orlando).
The world expo sites have been good examples, too.
From Melanie Howe on February 6, 2012 at 5:12 PM
I absolutely agree with Robert and Rob above. Being able to walk between the hotels and parks at Universal Orlando makes the whole experience so relaxing and enjoyable.

The WDW monorail and bus system seemed to work great when I was kid (and the resort only had a handful of hotels....), but now I feel like I'm being herded on a cattle truck whenever I use Disney transportation. I agree with Robert that it's actually more pleasant to drive between the parks than to depend on the buses.

It will be interesting to see how WDW handles this in the future. In a way it's sort of representative of Florida itself....big and sprawling with questionable transportation infrastructure and no concept of walkability.

From Neil Trama on February 6, 2012 at 5:17 PM
Very interesting.

It brings Las Vegas to mind. When I visited I was so amazed by how large all of the casino/resorts were, yet they were so easy to maneuver between when you wanted. The MGM Grand is "caddy corner" to the Excalibur, New York New York, and Tropicana. A monorail connects them to Caesars, Ballys, Bellagio, Paris, and Planet Hollywood...all an easy walk to one another. And it makes sense for Vegas because, let's face it, most people go there for activities after which driving is a terrible idea.

From Neil Trama on February 6, 2012 at 5:20 PM
Melanie: Boy is that ever true. We have a family condo in Clearwater. I love it, it's close to everything...except it's impossible to walk ANYWHERE. Seriously, it's gated with one road in and out that leads to a street with no sidewalk. And this seems to be the norm in the area.
From Daniel Etcheberry on February 6, 2012 at 6:13 PM
Walt Disney World's solution to commuting is to extend the monorail throughout the resort; the monorail route should include the Disney hotels, Downtown Disney, Animal Kingdom and Disney Hollywood Studios.
From 65.203.150.126 on February 6, 2012 at 6:27 PM
To Daniel, I agree 110%. I'm surprised that Disney never did that.
It must be a cost/benefit problem. I suspect that the cost to extend the monorail far exceeds the cost to run their other transporation options.
From Eric G on February 6, 2012 at 8:20 PM
This article is a little odd because we already have "theme parks" like Six Flags Magic Mountain for example and then we have "theme park resorts" like Walt Disney World, Disneyland Resort and Universal Resort. My point is not all "theme parks" can add the resort to their title. The demand isn't there in many cases and thus the business model won't work.

I too like Universal Orlando and Disneyland Resort, though I would be willing to bet that if Disney could start from scratch they wouldn't put the entrance to California Adventure directly across from Disneyland again. I believe the facing entrances is one of the major problems in getting the public to view California Adventure as a truly separate theme park. I think the distance or you could say inconvenience of park hopping in WDW works to Disney's advantage. No one calls parks like Animal Kingdom or Hollywood Studios, which to this day are severely short of attractions, just an extension of Magic Kingdom like they do California Adventure.

Getting back to the topic though the transportation system at Walt Disney World (bus network) would be a "real mass-transit system" by most definitions. What are you expecting Robert? Walking paths through the woods, a train system or an underground subway network?

Disney in my opinion has made it pretty clear that they don't intend to expand the monorail system or link any additional resorts. It doesn't make financial sense to so and it isn't an efficient transportation model. The monorail is cool, but the cool factor is way overridden by the fact that it has a single point of failure. Even if Disney were to link additional resorts they would still need a bus or other transportation system to serve as a backup. That makes the monorail proposition very expensive.

I firmly believe that Disney really likes their bus network for its redundancy. If one bus fails it inconveniences a few, but there is another bus that can be quickly dispatched to replace the one that is out of commission. It also scales to demand. During busier weeks additional buses can be put on the road, during slower weeks fewer need to be used.

Unfortunately, I don't think the lessons learned from the Super Bowl really apply to the theme park world. They certainly apply to city development, but not so much for theme parks as I doubt we will see many parks, especially theme park resorts built in the US in the next decade or two.

From 99.138.94.15 on February 6, 2012 at 10:22 PM
The monorail is not affordable for Disney and does not add the value as when it was cool and innovative. It is also inefficient to deal with. However, Walt loved his rail and we should to. It would be relatively straightforward to design a light rail system for Disney and theme the cars appropriately.

The trains would result in fewer vehicle, substituting electricity for diesel, reduced workforce over the hundreds of busses, reduced bus accident risk, and more opportunities to market to the guests. I would expect a reasonable payback period.

A hub point get tremendous traffic with potential to be highly profitable. Ease of access to the hotels could make the hotels their own profitable mini-attractions.

GPS

From Skipper Adam on February 7, 2012 at 10:26 AM
Actually there are monorail expansion plans under review. The plan would be to combine the Epcot line with the MK Express so that is one continuous line without transfer. There would be a new TTC like hub built at Epcot with a new line connecting the studios and DAK. If they had their dream budget, Peoplemover like lines would connect the resorts to the monorail stations, or smaller additional lines might be added, but the more lines the more complicated and expensive. So Disney is realistically looking at an MK/Epcot line and a DHS/DAK line. The idea then would be to bus people from their hotel to the nearest Themepark, and from there they would take the monorail. This would reduce the need of the aging bus fleet to about 1/10 of the size, clearing up traffic and making the bus system short and efficient.

Right now it is the cost of fuel, bus repair, bus union and accidents versus a brand new monorail fleet and monorail lines and a new matainence building. The current monorails are too old to go on for another ten years, so about 20 new monorails would be required. The cost to build a beam has come down since the 1980's.

From Eric G on February 11, 2012 at 11:30 AM
I'm sorry, the cost of construction has gone up since the 80s. There is no way that Disney can build the monorail beams for less than it would have paid in the 80s.

Combining the Magic Kingdom express with the EPCOT line makes almost no sense. Cycling trains through EPCOT when it closes at 9:00 pm and Magic Kingdom closes at 1:00 am would be a wasted effort. I figure the station changes (Ticket & Transportation) center could be done with minimal changes to the existing since a stop going to and coming from Magic Kingdom at this spot would still be necessary, but sending every train on to EPCOT doesn't make sense.

Now combining the MK resort line with EPCOT, kind of would make sense.

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