How Far Are We from the Future of Theme Park Design?

July 25, 2020, 5:34 PM · 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.

Replies (19)

July 25, 2020 at 6:12 PM

Interesting article. The present, or could it be past, model of bringing as many people as possible into the venue may be over. It brings not only the park capacity, but the expansion of hotels into question.

July 25, 2020 at 7:46 PM

Can we please stop thinking that anything about the current situation should ever be considered normal? It’s not the way humans were meant to live or to socialize, and it’s not sustainable. We should be trying to figure out how we can return to the real normal — whether it’s a vaccine, or just learning to live with it and accept the risk of disease the same as we accept the risk of car accidents .... cause odds are, this won’t be the last one we face and there’s a limit to how many times the world can shut down.

July 25, 2020 at 7:18 PM

This is an interesting thought experiment, but makes the unrealistic assumption that temporary changes lasting 1-2 years necessitate major modifications to a model that has proven successful for decades despite other hurdles to the entertainment and travel industry. Honestly, "new normal" is becoming among my most hated phrases of 2020 because it's just not true...whether through control of the virus or recognition of the limits of our control and acceptance of our reality, things will return mostly to what we previously considered normal in the not too distant future. I do think it is a wise idea for theme parks (and really any business) to have plans in place to immediately shift into a temporary pandemic-appropriate operation without closure should such a thing be necessary again in the future, but I'd question the logic of reinventing what works due to temporary conditions.

As for the model itself, it's founded on one of the things I've been extremely frustrated by this whole time...capacity should be based on crowd density and not a strict number of people or a percentage. It annoys me to no end that some states are giving the same attendance cap to a 10 acre zoo as a 100 acre theme park, essentially preventing the latter from operating at a feasible level, or that seemingly arbitrary percentages are slapped onto businesses for different phases of reopening with little apparent logic on how they were arrived at. The math is simple...a 6 ft. radius circle is 113 sq. ft. in area, so to me it makes the most sense to simply say one person per 113 sq. ft. maximum capacity. 116,000 sq. ft. Walmart? You could fit 1,000 people in there and still maintain acceptable distance (in reality it would be less since not all floor space can be occupied, but we're doing a basic approximation). 85 acre pre-Galaxy's Edge Disneyland? By this logic, 28,000 would be safe operation. Yes, that's only a little over half of Disneyland's typical daily attendance, but if we assume at least half the population would choose not to venture out in pandemic conditions, is there really need for massive redesign?

July 25, 2020 at 8:46 PM

Get used to the new normal. If masks and social distancing are the balm for COVID-19, they will also be the balm for every sickness moving forward, since they reduce casualties and improve hygiene. A lot of temporary things have a way of becoming permanent. The 55 speed limit was due to the energy crisis, and morphed into being a safety measure. The TSA's 3 ounce rule was introduced as a temporary measure, and that was roughly 14 years ago.

It makes sense for this type of long range planning to be done, but a bigger question is how many people want to visit theme parks in a perpetual new normal. I for one am not one of them. I am fine wearing a mask in Walmart for 15 minutes shopping, but 4 hours in Florida heat is something else, regardless of how fancy the mask is. I'll put up with it while my passes are still active, but I have zero interest in renewing those passes once they expire, and that is something that I am sure I am not alone in.

July 25, 2020 at 11:22 PM

No park is ever going to be developed with social distancing in mind. First off, it’s not financially sound to buy and develop nearly double the land to only allow the same number of people as they do now. Secondly, if a park developer WERE to buy and develop that much land, they would squeeze in as many people as legally possible to maximize profits.

I’m one the refuses to believe this is the new normal. Sure, it is possible that we will see an increased usage of masks like many Asian countries have been doing. But social distancing and reduced capacity at public venues will not be permanent. The human race has got through much worse illnesses than this: bubonic plague and Spanish flu come to mind immediately. But we went right back to being a social species, and it will happen again.

July 26, 2020 at 3:54 AM

Totally agree with the commenter Melanie. This is a pointless exercise. Robert has become totally paralyzed with fear over this virus. Life will go on. With or without a vaccine. Humans will not accept living in this fear for much longer. Robert needs to chill with his political views and unwarranted fear of a virus. We will move on from this. Don’t think so? Look at 1918, they all wore masks and then stopped. This will stop too. Enough of this nonsense.

July 26, 2020 at 6:41 AM

I find it interesting the comparison of "learning to live with it" like we do with death from car accidents.

To prevent collision related deaths, motor-vehicle manufacturers, law makers, road workers and several governmental ministries all contribute extensive and intrusive safety regulations and requirements on the operators of motor vehicles to reduce the likelihood of death by accident. Nobody "just lives with it."

And for just a little more perspective: Annual number of deaths in the USA by motor vehicle accident? A little less than forty-thousand.

Number of people who died from CoViD-19 in the last five months? Just shy of A Hundred-and-fifty-thousand.

Eventually there will be a vaccine. Eventually things will return to normal. But right now there needs to be more care and controls, to limit the affect on the population. Unfortunately, right now, there is a large and vocal percentage of the population that seems ignorantly fixated on demanding their right to not wear a seatbelt, while driving fast down the wrong way of a one-way street.

July 26, 2020 at 10:11 AM

@Fliptasmic:

Maybe you and I read different articles here, but I didn't see a single line of copy above espousing any political leanings. I believe Robert, as Editor and Proprietor of this fine website, was simply doing his job, which is to provide information to us whilst encouraging discourse among his readers. He writes:

"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 (emphasis on all-caps by me) for planning future themed attraction developments."

I think by dismissing the discussion or engagement of idea-sharing you not only take on a myopic view of the situation at hand, you also weaken the validity of your own stance. I welcome your reply and further discussion and I will say as well that as a Floridian who lives about 2 minutes from Atlantic Beach in Jacksonville that many of the same people who dismiss this virus as being a "Scamdemic" are the same people who refuse to social distance properly or do the absolute minimum things to help stop its spread, and yet clamor for a return to normalcy. Trust me, I yearn for normalcy as much as anyone, but if i see a fire burning needlessly, I'm going to do my best to help smother the flames instead of letting it burn and run its course. Point being, I don't feel that recognizing the reality of this situation and having dicussions about its possible ramifications on the future necessarily qualifies as being "paralyzed by fear".

July 26, 2020 at 10:16 AM

Interesting thought experiment, but I agree with AJ Hummel and Melanie. The idea that this will become the "new normal" seems way overblown. Of course, some things will likely change. Wearing a mask when you are sick, temperature checks, "pandemic "plans," and other such changes seem likely and welcome.

But the idea that theme parks, restaurants, theaters, and other such complexes will be designed around the "6 feet apart" rule forever just seems absurd. The longer this pandemic goes, the harder it is becoming for people to follow these rules even now. I believe that is because humans are just not meant to live in such a way. We are social creatures. To try and contain that crucial aspect of our humanity forever just because of the fear of disease is absurd.

I'm not saying that we shouldn't have these rules in place right now and be better prepared for a future outbreak, but the idea that this present moment is "the new normal" is absurd, and honestly, that kind of talk is not good for the mental health of many people.

July 26, 2020 at 10:54 AM

I think Disney et. al. should stick to a low capacity, reservation system, even if that necessitates big admission price hikes. It's a higher quality, premium experience.

July 28, 2020 at 10:19 AM

Hum. A bigger park could be usefull post pandemic for longer slower holidays, where people might spend 2 days in a park they spend one day now, without necessarily visiting many more major attractions. Most parks still got some wiggle room to increase opening hours and spread out visitors more evenly over the year. Right now the big theme parks are most profitable with the long working hour high income crowd that spends a lot on relativly short trips. The long working hours American professionals and Japanese in general tend to do are not something natural or necessary. That might still change. Another aspect is that long distance flights might get more expensive, or at least get cheap slower than other technology due to co2. For pretty much everything else, including shorter flights technological solutions are on a good way. Long distance flights might simply be reduced and people start to do rarer, much longer intercontinetal trips again, or for the first time.

That said, designing for a pandemic still looks odd. Shakespeare managed to sit out a couple of years without theatres during bad plague years to no negative effect for his reputation. The theme park industry could do the same in an unlikely negative scanario.

July 26, 2020 at 11:21 AM

I must have the wrong idea of what the word political means vs facts. Any of us can look up the facts (deaths, cases, hospitalizations, etc) and I suppose some could dispute those numbers and the meaning of those facts. The strategies around managing that from a governmental intervention is what I would suppose is political”. What’s absurd is losing your job, friends and your freedoms to pursue your own happiness and those fact deniers that fail to recognize the consequences to society as a whole. Roberts pieces are thought provoking and appropriate for an industry and it’s millions of employees that is on its knees. Thinking outside the box is not nonsense it’s called being creative, ambitious, problem solving and acknowledging reality. “Normal“ is not just around the corner so let’s think about new ideas- thank you Robert!

July 26, 2020 at 2:00 PM

@Fatty: This article doesn’t specifically appear political, but for the past several months Robert has made his political feelings very well known in other articles, and I suspect that is what @Flip was referring to.

Quite frankly, what else is Robert going to write about? There aren’t any new parks, rides, restaurants, or shows on the drawing board right now due to frickin’ Covid. He has to do something to keeps us clicking on this site and generating as revenue, and stirring the pot to keep liberals and conservatives at each others’ throats seems to be doing the trick.

July 26, 2020 at 4:19 PM

Point taken

July 27, 2020 at 6:15 AM

I don’t think there’s a long term need to design for a pandemic beyond normal disaster preparation (eg having PPE stockpiles, low capacity operations plan etc).

That said, how quickly we get to the ability to get back to normal depends on how many people put aside their immediate selfish needs, and realise doing what’s right for the community is no more political than obeying a stop light.

July 27, 2020 at 11:01 AM

Melanie +1

This is temporary.

Sure I am playing along with this sanitary "theater" that is making others feel safer. However, From what I see through social media, I appear to staying home much more than friends I know who get off on mask-shaming others and talk as though they are truly afraid (and truly care).

That said, in no way do I consider this the "new normal". I will not do this for every cold and flu season going forward... Once this pandemic is over, those germ-a-phobes who consider this "normal" and that wearing masks means you "care" will just need to get use to me not caring about them.

July 27, 2020 at 12:29 PM

KCWZ - you must be immune to the virus (or any other disease for that matter) or the virus is really afraid of you and wouldn’t dare bother you, your family or friends - congrats on the conquest !

July 27, 2020 at 4:23 PM

I can say with absolute confidence are going to return to normal life. Everything surrounding our daily lives is what will change significantly.

If we look at history, the Spanish flu took 3 years to circulate. This virus is more effective at spreading and has mutated. The real change I see coming are pandemic task forces, more investment in the WHO, CDC Foundation, data mining, focused and specific contact tracing, and especially intelligence gathering. We need to rethink Air Travel long before we rethink theme parks.

Theme Parks are land locked and where not, don't necessarily have the financial resources to acquire land.

We have proven twice in recent history that we had the ability and capacity to thwart pandemics. We need to change the focus of how we view these global events.

July 28, 2020 at 12:03 PM

Tiptop22 - Not sure what to say.... Thanks?

Thank you for your concern... So far so good... and I seem to have made it this far in life with all the super deadly flu, colds, ebola, brain eating amoebas, and cases of double dragon floating around out there (ok I did get a case of DD but it wasn't fatal)...

But seriously TT22, viruses don't have feelings, personalities, or even self awareness. That's just silly.

Evidently you're ready for this to be life eternal and not a passing pandemic. I guess you'll be donning all sorts of PPE until they have cures for all of life's ailments.

I can leave water next to your cave entrance if you like...

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