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How Big is Too Big? Theme Park Resort Design and the Effects of Higher Energy Prices

I was recently visiting with a former Disney executive, writes Chad Emerson (below left), when the topic of oil prices and their seemingly daily increases came up.  The conversation centered on how incredibly expensive it is to operate the massive Walt Disney World complex from an energy use perspective.  While the resort has made many efforts to go green and reduce its carbon footprint, the fact remains that the more than 20, 000 acres that make up the Most Magical Place on Earth require large chunks of energy to keep the whole enterprise running.

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For instance, the internal Disney World bus fleet is larger in number and daily miles traveled than many city systems.  While some parts of the resort are accessible by monorail or watercraft, filling up these 250 plus busses with fuel is expensive but necessary in order to realistically shuttle guests throughout most of the sprawling complex.

All of this led to another interesting conversation:  How big is too big when it comes to operating a theme park resort?

One of the key ways to answer this question revolves around how expensive it is to operate a resort like Disney World and all of the infrastructure that goes with it.  When oil, natural gas, and electricity are cheap (which for much of Disney World’s existence, outside of the oil crises in the 1970s, has been the case), operating the massive resort within a reasonable price frame as compared to smaller resorts is possible.

On the other hand, when gas prices skyrocket, the energy-intensive nature of Disney World and its fleet of busses, boats, and related infrastructure places it at a distinct disadvantage as compared to more compact theme park resorts like Disneyland in Anaheim and Universal Orlando.

Both of these resorts offer a wide array of entertainment and on-site lodging options but with a much smaller physical footprint.  Disneyland checks in at less than 500 acres while Universal Orlando comes in under 1, 000 acres. 

Because of these more compact layouts, both resorts are able to dramatically reduce energy consumption as neither requires an extensive internal transportation system.  For example, most Disneyland guests park in one of the resort’s parking decks and then take a short tram ride to the parks.  Alternatively, some guests walk to the parks or ride a monorail.  All in all, the energy costs expended in transporting guests and employees throughout the Disneyland Resort is a miniscule percentage of the costs that its sister resort in Florida incurs.

Similarly, Universal Orlando has very little need for a large internal transportation fleet as most guests either walk from its mammoth parking structure or, if staying at an on-property hotel, ride a small boat or walk along the large network of interconnecting pedestrian pathways.

As energy prices (especially fuel) go up, all of these resorts certainly take an operating expense hit but the ability of Disneyland and Universal Orlando to absorb that hit is significantly better since they do not expend nearly as much as Disney World when it comes to internally transporting guests and employees.

This brings us back to the original question about the optimal size of a theme park resort.  From an operating perspective, Disneyland and Universal Orlando seem to have struck the near perfect balance.  Build too small and you risk losing guests to off-property hotels and other entertainment options nearby.  This is the challenge faced by most Cedar Fair and Six Flags amusement facilities and why they are generally considered to only be one day destinations. 

Disneyland and Universal Orlando strike a perfect balance

It’s also why, despite the fact that it offers two different parks and a waterpark, SeaWorld in Orlando is generally not considered a multi-day destination resort (though it does have a large hotel within reasonable walking distance but across a large surface parking lot).

Conversely, you can build big like Disney World and, if energy costs jump, the sprawling distance between most of the parks, hotels, and other resort areas makes it almost impossible to do anything other than eat the cost since on-property guests are not really able to walk among parks and hotels like they can at Disneyland and Universal Orlando.

Indeed, when you look carefully at both Universal and Disneyland, it’s somewhat surprising to see how very similar they are.  Consider these similarities:

  • Both resorts have two theme parks essentially adjacent to each other (Disneyland, Disney California Adventure/Islands of Adventure, Universal Studios Florida)
  • Both resorts have three on-property hotels within walking distance of the parks (Disney’s Grand Californian, Paradise Pier, and Disneyland Hotel/Universal’s Portofino Bay, Hard Rock, and Royal Pacific)
  • Both resorts have a central shopping/entertainment district near the parks and the hotels (Downtown Disney/CityWalk)
  • Both have massive parking structures that are either within walking distance or a tram ride to the parks and entertainment district

Pretty interesting how their design and layout are so much alike, eh? 

One wonders if not just the limited size (between 500 and 1, 000 acres vs. Disney World’s 20, 000) but the way that the parks, hotels, and entertainment areas were essentially built adjacent to each other with parking on the exterior makes both of these resorts right-sized for the likelihood of energy prices that will continue to remain high and possibly even increase.

As rumors of theme parks like Busch Gardens, Legoland, Dollywood, and others potentially expanding into full service resorts continue to abound, the size and layout of the parks, lodging, and other entertainment venues at Universal Orlando and Disneyland offer an interesting case study in how to design a destination resort without having to install an expensive and extensive internal transportation network.

Image: kind courtesy and Copyright 2006, THE WALT DISNEY COMPANY

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