The Super Bowl, theme parks and the lessons of Indianapolis
Published: February 6, 2012 at 3:07 PM
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: