add a pedestrian bridge to its new parking structure, to make it easier for more visitors to walk between their cars and the theme parks. With two parks, three hotels, and a shopping district on a compact 500 acres, the Disneyland Resort already is one of the more walkable multi-gate theme park resorts in the world. But it is the best?The Disneyland Resort announced last week that it would
By my count, there are eight multi-gate theme park resorts in the world now. I am not counting water parks here — just resorts that include two or more separately gated theme parks on the same property. The world's first multi-gate resort remains its largest — the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida, with four theme parks, two water parks and dozens of hotels across nearly 25,000 acres.
Asking people to rank the world's theme park resorts leads to endless debate. (Which is great!) But for today's post, I am limiting the discussion to one criterion — walkability. How easy is it to ditch your car — and even the resort's provided transportation — and navigate everything the resort has to offer, exclusively on foot?
Compact design is essential for walkability. Huge surface parking lots, water elements, massive wooded or landscaped easements, and sprawling facility designs can leave destinations positioned so far apart that cars, buses, and other transportation systems become necessary to get from any point to another in a resort that will include multiple theme parks, hotels, and other attractions. But a compact design by itself does not create a walkable experience. Designers must provide convenient walkways to connect points within the resort, considering both the environment and grading to ensure that walking becomes an attractive alternative to mechanical transportation.
Why does this matter? Because walking is the cheapest and greenest way to people from one point to another. Walkability has become the Holy Grail for urban planners around the world, as communities look for ways to free themselves from the pollution and expense of car-centric design. Theme parks can be master classes in urban planning, with the opportunity to create ideal communities from scratch. Designing a community of tomorrow was the inspiration for Walt Disney World, after all. So how well are today's theme park resorts doing in creating walkable communities?
I have had the good fortune to visit seven of the world's eight multi-gate theme park resorts. So here is my ranking, from most walkable to least.
1. Universal Orlando Resort — Universal wins my top spot for creating a dense, walkable site plan that nevertheless feels more like a natural resort than a urban city center. Universal Orlando's Garden Walk is an attraction unto itself, a beautifully landscape pathway that connects the resort's two theme parks, CityWalk shopping district, and five of its six hotels. (The sixth, the new Aventura, is just steps away from the Garden Walk.) Universal even managed to include a water element within the resort without sacrificing its walkability. The water taxi canal also provides a relaxing and atypical alternative to walking, should you decide to ride back from the parks to a hotel.
My only knock against Universal is that it does not connect well with the surrounding community. Given the unwalkable suburban sprawl that defines almost all of the Orlando area, however, there's not really a walkable surrounding community to connect with here, anyway.
2. Disneyland Resort — On the other hand, California's Disneyland blends relatively well into urban grid of surrounding Anaheim, as least on its Harbor Boulevard side. But Disneyland drops to second on my list as the remoteness of its parking areas dissuades many from walking. Surface parking lots also separate the Paradise Pier Hotel from Downtown Disney, leaving the southwestern chunk of the resort feeling like an afterthought. Disney has done very well with its original theme park, but it's clear that this is not a resort that was planned from scratch to be walkable and efficient, but one that was shoe-horned into whatever spaces Disney had to work with over the years. Frankly, I am amazed sometimes that this resort is as charming outside the parks as it is.
Now there's a bit of a drop to third place.
3. Dubai Parks & Resorts — For three or four months of the year, Dubai Parks & Resorts is a perfect walkable resort, with three theme parks positioned at the vertices of its Riverland shopping district and the tropical-themed Lapita Hotel along one edge. So if you're visiting between November and February, enjoy!
What if you're visiting the other months of the year? Well, then, the United Arab Emirates' desert heat makes this outdoor resort a brutal environment in which to walk. That's likely a large part of the reason why this resort has struggled since its late 2016 opening, only this year passing three million annual visitors. It's a seasonal resort in a year-round resort's body.
4. Disneyland Paris — If you are taking the TGV or RER trains from points beyond in the Paris area, Disneyland Paris could not be more convenient. The train station lies in the middle of the Disney Village plaza connecting Disneyland Paris and Walt Disney Studios Park. But those big rail lines bisecting the resort create an issue for guests staying on site. Disney's Hotel New York, Sequoia Lodge, and Newport Bay Club are close enough along the Lake Buena Vista walkway, and the Disneyland Hotel is Disney's most convenient anywhere, built atop Main Street itself. But the Cheyenne and Santa Fe are a bit of a hike, isolated by a massive surface parking lot. And Val d'Europe is strictly a bus, car, or train ride away.
Now, another big jump to number five.
5. Tokyo Disney Resort — Imagine if California's Disneyland did not place its two parks' entrances facing one another, but instead placed them back-to-back, with back-of-house facilities in between, and their entrances on opposite sides of the resort. That's Tokyo Disney. The resort itself is relatively compact, built on an amazing site on the edge of Tokyo Bay. But the site plan is horrendous, with surface parking lots separating the parks from most of the hotels, necessitating the use of the resort's (paid, not free) monorail system to get around.
6. Yas Island — If Dubai Parks & Resorts is designed for the winter months, Yas Island is designed for the rest of the year and the UAE's typical heat and humidity. With two indoor theme parks — Ferrari World and Warner Bros. World — and a huge indoor shopping mall, Abu Dhabi's biggest resort is designed to get you out of the elements, rather than enabling you to walk around in them. Yet the resort's attractions are all located within what would be easy walking distance, if only anyone had designed a way for you to do that. Heck, the resort's hotel plaza lies within a couple of miles of the new Abu Dhabi International Airport terminal, now under construction. If there were a walkway and it weren't 115F outside for much of the year, you could walk from your hotel here to the airport in less time that it usually takes Disney's Magical Express to get me from a Disney World hotel to MCO.
But there isn't, and it is, so cars, Ubers, and shuttle buses it is on Yas Island. Given that the resort's two most popular attractions are a Formula 1 race track and a shrine to the world's most famous automobile brand, I suppose that valuing walking over driving would break the theme here. But ultimately, it's the heat and humidity for most of the year that makes walking around Yas Island less than ideal.
And now, let's board the Tower of Terror for the big drop.
7. Walt Disney World Resort — At 50 times the size of Disneyland, there's no practical way to make Disney World a walkable destination. The only people who visit all four parks on foot are runners in the annual Walt Disney World Marathon. And yet... the Boardwalk area within the resort is a walkable resort-within-the-resort, with two theme parks (Epcot and Disney's Hollywood Studios) and several hotels connected by a nice walking path, as well as a boat system. (Well, when the whole thing isn't down due to skyway construction, anyway.) That would place this scaled-down WDW farther up this list, if it weren't for all those other far-flung destinations around the resort dragging it back to the bottom.
Disney World is a product of another era in design — a modernist time when walking to get around was discounted as a relic of the previous era. That's the trouble with designing for tomorrow. Because eventually, it becomes yesterday.
Not rated: PortAventura World — With the recent opening of its Ferrari Land park, PortAventura has expanded to a multi-gate resort, but I haven't been there yet, so I could not include it in my ranking. But from the looks of it (from Google Maps, at least), this appears to be a compact destination that's easily walkable, though that appears to be as much due to a relative lack of attractions as efficient design. I'd love to hear from visitors' thoughts on this one.
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