Vote of the week: Is it possible to have too much land?
Written by Robert NilesA recent comment from a Theme Park Insider reader got me thinking about the optimum size for a theme park resort. This reader was responding to a discussion about new attractions at the Universal Orlando Resort by saying that Universal will always lack one of Walt Disney World's assets - abundant land for expansion.
Published: June 22, 2012 at 11:36 AM
I started to nod my head in agreement, then caught myself. Why? I don't think that Disney World's 30,000+ acres are an asset. The wide open spaces outside Lake Buena Vista have allowed Disney to create a sprawling, late 20th-Century exurban development, where guests waste hours and hours during the visit traveling between theme parks, hotels and other attractions on property. Who wants to commute on vacation?
Certainly, Disney would love to have another hundred acres or so at the Disneyland Resort, positioned in just the proper location to make a third park easier to develop at the resort. But not having tens of thousands of acres to work with in Anaheim eventually forced Disney to create a theme park resort on a much more human scale.
Forget the new land in California Adventure. Walt Disney World is the real "cars land," because you can't get around the resort without one. Okay, maybe you'll take a bus - and wait for it - but you've no hope of getting anywhere at the Walt Disney World Resort without motorized road transport.
That's not the case at every other multi-park theme park resort in the world. Once you arrive on property at the 510-acre Disneyland Resort or the 840-acre Universal Orlando Resort, everything's accessible in walking distance. At Universal Orlando, if you don't care to walk to the nearby on-property resorts, you can choose to take a short boat ride over to them, instead.
At Tokyo Disneyland, the two theme parks stand within walking distance of one another, separated by a long shopping area. If you're staying at one of the non-Disney hotels on site, a monorail awaits to whisk you to those hotels, if you're not up for a longish walk. I've not yet been to Disneyland Paris, but it also clusters its two theme parks, shopping district and many hotels around a walkable hub. And at both Tokyo Disney and Disneyland Paris, commuter rail stations connect the resorts to the regional mass-transit system, meaning that you don't even need a car to get to the resort!
So the question is - at what point does additional acreage become a liability, instead of an asset, for a theme park resort? I understand that many theme park fans in the United States have become acclimated to exurbia. They've gotten use to seeing acres of empty space around every grocery store, school, restaurant, and shopping mall in their communities and expect to have to drive to every destination outside their home. So, for them, there's no problem with the long distances between hotels and theme parks at the Walt Disney World Resort. That extra space simply provides Disney with nearly limitless options for future expansion, and less need to consider siting issues than would exist in a more densely developed resort.
But I don't live in a far-flung suburb, nor do millions of other Americans. I live in a city, where I can walk a block to a pharmacy, three blocks to a full-service grocery store, and least a dozen restaurants stand within four blocks of my home. While I love taking long roadtrips with my family, once we get someplace, we like to get out of the car and enjoy being there. That's why we're such big fans of Disneyland and Universal Orlando, and our favorite spot at Walt Disney World is perhaps the most walkable section of the resort - the "Boardwalk" area between the Swan and Dolphin and Epcot's World Showcase.
So, for me, acreage becomes a liability when it tempts planners to start designing for cars, instead of for people. Once you've placed your theme parks and hotels miles away from one another, there's no going back. Even creating a workable mass-transit system to connect them becomes nearly impossible. (Witness Disney's inability to develop any other transit solution at WDW save for buses, and a few boats.)
Of course, having extra space for expansion's a huge asset for a theme park. But I think that experience with Walt Disney World, Disneyland and other multi-park resorts should suggest that the appropriate size for a theme park resort is measured in hundreds of acres - not tens of thousands. While I hope that Disneyland finds a way to expand its attractions, perhaps even adding a third park to the resort, I also hope that no developer ever makes the mistake of creating another spread-out, far-flung, car-dependent, unwalkable tourist destination like Disney World turned out to be. There's a better way to pack a ton of entertainment into a livable, well-themed and visually isolated space. Lots of extra acres aren't always an asset to a vacation destination.
Of course, you might think I'm full of it. :^) So let's put this up for a vote:
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