A reader recently asked what probably should be considered an FAQ at this point: "Why didn't certain big cities, such as Phoenix, Seattle and Denver, ever get theme parks of their own?"
Answering this question properly requires a deep dive into population trends, economic growth, demographics and tourism data. It requires getting out the Ouija board and channeling the spirit of Harrison "Buzz" Price to ask why the numbers worked for some cities to get major theme parks and not for others.
In lieu of doing that, though, I will try to provide a more simplistic answer — one that I hope at least gets at the gist of why some cities have big theme parks and others do not. Let's start by listing the top 25 media markets in the United States, along with the theme or amusement parks that are either present within those markets, or at least somewhat adjacent to them. Parks with an asterisk (*) are listed on the most recent TEA/AECOM Theme Index report as among the top 20 most-visited parks in North America.
New York: Six Flags Great Adventure*, Coney Island, Legoland New York (opening 2020)
Los Angeles/Orange County/Riverside: Disneyland*, Disney California Adventure*, Universal Studios Hollywood*, Knott's Berry Farm*, Six Flags Magic Mountain*
Chicago: Six Flags Great America
Philadelphia: Six Flags Great Adventure*
Dallas: Six Flags Over Texas
Washington, DC: Six Flags America
San Francisco/San Jose: California's Great America, Six Flags Discovery Kingdom
Boston: Six Flags New England
Atlanta: Six Flags Over Georgia
Tampa/St. Petersburg: Busch Gardens Tampa*, Legoland Florida
Minneapolis: Valleyfair, Nickelodeon Universe in the Mall of America
Denver: Elitch Gardens, Lakeside
Orlando: Too many to list*
Cleveland: Cedar Point
St Louis: Six Flags St. Louis
Baltimore: Six Flags America
San Diego: SeaWorld San Diego
Salt Lake City: Lagoon
I've counted New Jersey's Six Flags Great Adventure for both New York and Philadelphia, as it lies halfway between those metro areas. And Top-20 Hersheypark draws heavily from Philadelphia and Baltimore as well. Now, several listed cities have parks, but they aren't major ones, including Denver, Pittsburgh, and Salt Lake City. But let's keep our focus on the cities with none, for now. That gives us the top 10 cities in America without a theme or amusement park:
Why didn't these cities get parks? The top three cities on this list — Houston, Phoenix, and Seattle — weren't yet top cities when the American theme park industry enjoyed its post-Disneyland boom in the 1960s and early 70s. Houston emerged first among those cities, and did get Six Flags AstroWorld, which lasted from 1968 until 2005. Miami's development likely was stunted by Disney's decision to build in Orlando, drawing potential theme park developers to build within a short drive of the Walt Disney World resort.
Detroit, like many major cities in the 20th century, supported a series of amusement parks, but none survived the Darwinistic winnowing in the industry as successful parks reinvented themselves along Disneyland's model. Cedar Point's success in doing that just south of the Detroit metro area no doubt influenced Detroit's failure to sustain a park of its own.
Sacramento, Portland, Raleigh also are recently booming cities that didn't have the market power to sustain successful park development during the industry's golden era of expansion. Nashville's Opryland USA succeeded as a popular theme park in the 1970s and 80s, before changes in ownership and a lousy site in a floodplain with no room for expansion doomed the park in the 1990s.
Indianapolis almost got a bunch of parks, most notably Old Indiana Fun Park, which obtained many of Opryland's old rides but ended up on Premier Parks' cutting room floor when that company took over Six Flags. The city's White River State Park was floated as a potential site for one of Disney's mini-Magic Kingdoms before Michael Eisner took control of Disney and scuttled those plans in the 1980s. Knott's later came on as a potential developer, but ultimately chose to work on the Camp Snoopy project in Minneapolis' Mall of America instead, since it could operate year round.
So why aren't other developers trying to build parks in these communities today? As we covered in October, the United States these days simply is not demonstrating the economic growth needed to support the development of additional theme park resorts. Any new park in the United States that succeeded likely could only do so at the expense of a competitor's market share. So while Universal Orlando, backed by Comcast's deep pockets, can develop a new park to feast on the bones of SeaWorld Orlando, most other chains in this business find it much easier to license their brands and concepts to developers abroad when they look for ways to expand.
Okay, but what if you hit the Powerball and wanted to build a new park in the United States anyway? Which city should you target?
I think a developer could make a strong argument that the New York City area is underserved by the theme park industry. An outdoor thrill park in the area likely wouldn't do any better than Coney Island, but as America's leading tourist destination, New York easily could support a world-class indoor theme park that operated year-round. Trouble is, an indoor park can't rely on thrill rides and needs an IP partner to support enticing attractions. Where could a New York park find one?
Let's assume Disney and Universal are out. A New York version of Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi would be amazing, but Six Flags owns most of those character rights in the United States and likely lacks the capital to build its own version of the Abu Dhabi park. Fox is owned by Disney now, so it looks to be pulling out of the theme park licensing business. Paramount already bailed on the industry, so that leaves Sony... or else getting very creative with another source.
Even then, where do you find enough developable land in the New York area to build the park?
Land availability sinks most park proposals, as obtaining sufficient developable land in the United States often requires moving so far from a city center that you lose some of the advantages of being in the market, including proximity to roads, transportation, and hotels. No one is going to build a billion-dollar indoor theme park in the U.S., even though an indoor park is a must in markets where the weather is hostile to outdoor operation the majority of the year. So you can say goodbye to Phoenix, Seattle, Portland, and probably Detroit right there.
No one in their right mind is going to build a theme park in a city that's going to be submerged by rising sea levels due to global climate change in the next century, either, so strike Miami from the list. And ding Houston pretty hard there, too. Sacramento, believe it or not, is also at risk, but that city's close enough to the Bay Area's parks that it can't make a great case for new theme park development anyway.
Raleigh and Indianapolis also have enough parks within a short drive that it would be tough to build a solid economic case for building in those cities. Raleigh is too near Carowinds, Kings Dominion, and Busch Gardens Williamsburg, while the development of Holiday World likely means the end to any hopes of a park in Indianapolis, where fans also could drive to Kings Island or Cedar Point or Six Flags Great America. (But I do have an idea for Indianapolis that I will write about later this week.)
That leaves us with Nashville, which like Miami, already enjoys a strong tourism market despite not having a theme park. Its weather isn't good enough to support 12 months of outdoor operation, but it could support a extended season of eight months or longer. Dollywood is the nearest park, but if a competitor wanted to take it on from the Nashville market, that might be the best chance for a new outdoor park in the United States to find success.
After all, Opryland USA closed not because it was a flawed concept, or it lacked consumer demand. It failed because an owner who had little experience in the theme park business thought its troubled site offered more low-risk growth potential as a shopping mall. If I won the Powerball and decided that I needed to build a new theme park anywhere in the United States... I'm heading to Nashville.
But everywhere else? Those cities missed their chance when the window was open for major new theme park resort development in the United States. And that window, alas, is now closed.
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