Which American cities that don't have theme parks should get one?

December 3, 2018, 5:53 PM · 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
Houston: None
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
Phoenix: None
Seattle: None
Detroit: None
Minneapolis: Valleyfair, Nickelodeon Universe in the Mall of America
Miami: None
Denver: Elitch Gardens, Lakeside
Orlando: Too many to list*
Cleveland: Cedar Point
Sacramento: None
St Louis: Six Flags St. Louis
Portland: None
Charlotte: Carowinds
Pittsburgh: Kennywood
Raleigh: None
Baltimore: Six Flags America
Nashville: None
Indianapolis: None
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:

Houston
Phoenix
Seattle
Miami
Detroit
Sacramento
Portland
Raleigh
Nashville
Indianapolis

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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Replies (16)

December 3, 2018 at 7:32 PM

Not exactly a city - but there is no major theme park in India - despite soon to become the third biggest economy in the world, a huge population, and a massively growing middle class.

December 3, 2018 at 7:54 PM

Well, there was a Garfield Theme Park planned for Indianapolis in the 90s, that went nowhere...https://www.google.com/amp/s/amp.indystar.com/amp/545999002

December 3, 2018 at 8:31 PM

Miami will soon have one. American Dream Mall.

December 4, 2018 at 3:47 PM

Cedar Point's largest market is Southeastern Michigan. Nobody ever wanted to try and compete with Cedar Point, that's why no theme park was ever built in Metro Detroit.

December 4, 2018 at 1:02 AM

I would argue that Six Flags Discovery Kingdom is close enough to Sacramento, as Vallejo is about an hour from Sacramento, which is closer than it is to the south bay anyways.

December 4, 2018 at 2:13 AM

Isn't Sony (or some similar movie studio) doing a mini theme park in Times Square?

December 4, 2018 at 7:03 AM

Being from the Indianapolis area I can't wait to hear your idea! You also neglected to mention Kentucky Kingdom which is also within a few hours drive of Indy...

December 4, 2018 at 7:14 AM

I don't see Raleigh ever getting one as it was only a 3 hour drive to the closed Hard Rock/Freestyle Park that was in Myrtle Beach. I do agree though with Nashville as a great choice.

December 4, 2018 at 8:25 AM

A lot of people in Sacramento see Discovery Kingdom as their park; it's less than an hour away.

December 4, 2018 at 8:41 AM

"to feast on the bones of SeaWorld Orlando"...morbidly descriptive yet spot on! I loved that statement!

December 4, 2018 at 8:54 AM

Houston is one of the fastest growing cities in the US. Traffic in the region makes traveling to Dallas or San Antonio more than a simple day trip, so that would be my choice. AstroWorld wasn't the greatest park, and when Snyder took over SF, it was an easy choice (along with New Orleans) to trim the fat. It closed partially based on proximity to SFFT and SFoT (both over 3 hours away these days with traffic), but mostly because it was neglected by the owners and was essentially built in a parking lot with little to no theming. However, there's more than enough demand in the region for a park, and Houston (unlike most other cities on this list) has a climate that can support year-round operations. The only tricky part would be finding a location that's easy to get to for most residents, and with enough space to allow for room to grow. Disney or Universal (and even LegoLand) would be attracted to the location with its major international airport and the fact that it's nearly equidistant from their east and west coast resorts. Not only that, but labor is cheaper due to Texas' lack of personal income tax that would allow for lower wages to achieve similar take-home pay to those working in Florida or California. Disney already launches cruises from nearby Galveston, so it would even make for some synergy for them like San Diego and Port Canaveral provide for their Anaheim and Orlando parks.

December 4, 2018 at 12:45 PM

I'll be a bit of a homer here and plead the case for my hometown El Paso, Texas. We have the best weather in the country here- No rain which doesn't bring ride closures or in more unfortunate circumstances flooding. Since it's dry, summer's are a lot more bearable than in the South with its humidity and although we are in far West Texas, our higher elevation means it never gets near as hot as Phoenix or Vegas. Our Autumn/Winter's are rather pleasant with a snow day or two a year only.

Our metro population area is in the 800-900 thousand range and that does not include the 2 million people in the Northern Mexican cities of Ciudad Juarez and Chihuahua city. Obviously a lot of those people can't legally cross or have the means to afford a theme park but a significant population of those 2 million are middle class travelers that are looking and very willing to spend money in the United States. Our local economy thrives off their business. Mid-size cities like Tucson, Albuquerque, and Lubbock are also a stone's throw away.

Anyway it hasn't happened for a reason but just saying it would have a chance. Awesome article and I agree with Robert that Nashville is the best option!

December 4, 2018 at 1:27 PM

I'd actually say Houston is a prime candidate for a major new theme park. The city is part of the one of the largest metro areas in the US, is centrally located in the country with a suitable climate for year-round operation, and the nearest theme parks are over a three hour drive away. It's not a perfect location (then again, no location is), but from the places on the list it seems like the best fit.

Among the other cities on the list, I agree that Nashville is a good candidate even though Holiday World isn't excessively far away (about two and a half hours). I'd also say Phoenix is an excellent choice for an indoor theme park, as the population is there to support one but the climate isn't great for it. Nothing else on the list really strikes me as a likely candidate, as all have some sort of park within easy day trip distance and aren't really capable of supporting a larger one. I'd also disagree on the New York front, especially after Legoland New York and Nickelodeon Universe open in the next couple years.

December 4, 2018 at 4:36 PM

Nashville I could see for sure

December 5, 2018 at 8:49 AM

I always say I live in the “amusement park wasteland” of the Notthwest. We have nothing but dinky regional parks that are full of height restrictions and off the shelf carnival rides.
Years ago, our Seattle Center (where the Space Needle is) was working with Disney to create a whole new themed attraction footprint, but that never came to light.
I do think Seattle now has the economic power to support a park - but our weather (although our summers are fabulous) and the land footprint would be a challenge. I have a friend who has been shopping a theme park here in the Seattle area for years - and he almost had a deal with a local Native American tribe to build a park on their reservation - but I think we missed that 60’s and 70’s boom and instead we hop on Alaska and Delta airlines for their frequent Disney travel package deals.

December 5, 2018 at 3:02 PM

We are working on an indoor snow theme park in Houston as probably the best location in the country for this

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