The theme park industry's "new normal" means sharply reduced capacities, as parks look to promote safe social distancing in the middle of a pandemic. But is that new normal permanent?
For now, it's not a matter of turning people away at either the front gates or advance reservation websites, as most fans either are choosing to stay away from the parks at this time, or must stay away due to travel restrictions. But what if more people wanted to come back to the parks? How big would a theme park have to be to promote safe social distancing while also welcoming pre-pandemic crowd levels?
Brad Kissling of Thinkwell Group did that math, in a white paper that the California themed entertainment design firm published last week: Designing a Physically Distanced Theme Park.
To skip to the answer, a Disney or Universal-class theme park (one attracting at least 10 million visitors a year), would need to double in size - from about 110 acres to nearly 220 acres - in order to support safe physical distancing throughout. That's based upon data that suggests major parks currently support about 500 to 650 people per acre. To support safe social distancing, personal space around people visiting a theme park needs to grow from the traditional 10-15 square feet per person to somewhere in the neighborhood of 140 square feet per person.
Now, most people don't visit parks by themselves, and safe physical distancing rules apply by household, so you can bring down those numbers a bit. The Thinkwell paper uses 200 square feet of safe "personal" space for a party of three people as a basis for its calculations. And enforcement of one-way traffic on certain streets and in aisles can help reduce those numbers further.
Running the numbers, the Thinkwell report suggests that the size of theme park retail facilities would need to grow by 180 percent and food locations would need to grow by 150 percent to support safe physical distancing at pre-Covid crowd levels. Attractions would need even more space, with show venues specifically needing to grow by 50 percent over their current size to keep viewers safely distanced.
Obviously, the 12 theme parks that attracted more than 10 million people in 2019 can't just bulk up to occupy 50 percent more land mass than they do now. So this is more a thought exercise for planning future themed attraction developments.
But even then, this white paper kicks off a butterfly effect when envisioning future theme park and attraction operations. The report notes that theme park revenue is a product of attendance and guest spending. And changing the size needed for park operations may well change the creative approach that designers take in developing those facilities. Those changes may, in turn, affect the amount of money that guests are willing to spend for those experiences. Ultimately, it might be more profitable for attraction developers to go small - and charge more - than to try to scale up to safely meet mass market demand.
Whether you believe that a vaccine or more aggressive containment measures will eliminate the need for physical distancing requirements at some point or not, the past six months have taught us that pandemics are a real possibility that must be considered in facility design. Does that mean designers need to demand more raw, empty space with which to work? Or will then need to consider more explicit shaping of traffic and air flow to protect visitors in a contained environment?
The Thinkwell white paper provides some numbers that can help developers, aspiring developers, and even curious fans to start thinking about what this pandemic means to the near- and long-term future of attraction operations.Tweet
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