Does Walt Disney World really need a fifth gate?

Concept Art overview of Disney's America theme park

I’m just going to jump right to my proposition. Disney needs to build a theme park somewhere else in the United States very soon. Somewhere like outside of Washington D.C. (driving distance from most of the North East), St. Louis or eastern Texas (reachable by the largest populations in the midwest). They should not build a discount park full of lightly themed off-the-shelf rides like they planned with Disney’s America (above). But, build something that really represents the best Imagineers can do given a blank slate, decent budget, and ample space.

I propose this because there’s all this talk of a fifth gate being needed at Walt Disney World. But Walt Disney World doesn’t need a fifth gate. It can just keep expanding the gates it has until they become two day parks. A park where you can go for two full days and still not see everything there is to do. The Magic Kingdom is almost there and EPCOT certainly has the expansion pads it would take to grow to two days worth of attractions. That would provide a whole week of entertainment for any guest.

But here’s where it gets interesting. Even with 2 two-day parks (MK, EPCOT) and 2 one day parks (DAK, DHS), there is a theoretical limit to the number of guests Walt Disney World can hold and not overwhelm its infrastructure and start providing diminished returns. That number is probably not that much higher than what the parks serve today. Probably 5 or 10 million more guests a year than visit a year today. This is the reality and its part of the reason Walt Disney World is becoming more of a luxury destination than a family vacation destination and that trend will probably continue (barring a severe economic shift).

There’s also the question of whether Disney could convince families to stay an extra night or two at Disney World when there is great entertainment right down the street at Universal’s four parks (the two that exist today, the one it is about to build across the street from the convention center, and SeaWorld, which it will buy at fire sale prices in a few years (I jest, at least I hope so)).

So why build a park somewhere else in the United States when you want people to visit Walt Disney World for 5 or more nights. It’s because you want people to visit Walt Disney World for 5 or more nights (that’s when Disney really starts printing money from restaurants and up-sell experiences). You still need to provide a place for those people who only have a day or two to visit a place to go without disrupting the product you’re selling in Orlando. That’s the advantage of starting a third destination resort outside of California or Florida.

CFO Jay Rasulo looks over a Disney project in Washington DC that never came to be
CFO Jay Rasulo looks over a Disney project in Washington DC that never came to be

Disney was on the right path when it started its Location Based Entertainment (LBE) initiative. It just wasn’t thinking grand enough. Sure a Disney resort hotel and DisneyQuest sized entertainment complex outside of Washington D.C. would be an attraction, but it wouldn’t scratch the same entertainment itch that makes people want to take a three-day weekend vacation to a theme park. The numbers don’t work out.

The idea for these LBE’s came out of Disney Imagineering’s hotel development division. It wasn’t coming out of the creative core of Imagineering (which had other ideas, like a floating theme park). The new regime at Imagineering needs to figure out how to do both, build a LBE style destination that also provides a two-day theme park experience.

Disney knew it would eventually have capacity issues at Walt Disney World that’s why it proposed Disney’s America. A themepark located outside of Washington D.C. that would have been something between Knott’s Berry Farms and historic colonial Williamsburg in terms of theming. The park was defeated by land owners who didn’t want the extra traffic on their roads and eventually morphed into a second gate at Disneyland in California.

Aulani, the only resort to survive the LBE experiment
Aulani, the only resort to survive the LBE experiment

This new domestic park I propose will serve two purposes. It will help Disney to continue to grow its theme park capacity without overbuilding in Florida. It will also serve as an advertisement / introduction to the Disney product for people who aren’t ready to commit the kind of funds it will soon require to visit the luxury resort that Walt Disney World is in process of becoming.

The idea of providing that taste of Disney theme parks elsewhere in the US should not have been discarded just because the nation entered a great recession. Walt Disney World is already having capacity issues (hotel rooms are averaging around 90% occupancy and the Magic Kingdom is consistently reaching capacity around the holidays). In order to keep from reaching capacity more frequently, Disney would have to seriously raise prices to the point where the ‘value’ of a vacation just isn’t there any more for more and more people. That will shrink the size of their potential audience to the point where they’re trying to convince the same 5 or 10% of American to visit over and over again. Building a new theme park somewhere in the US will act as an overflow valve and provide growth in audience beyond what Walt Disney World is designed to hold.

So, let the battle begin. If you live in a major population area, why do you think Disney should build its new theme park near you? Where would you place an entire new Disney theme park and resort complex?

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23 thoughts on “Does Walt Disney World really need a fifth gate?

  1. Judi

    They do need to come to the Midwest. Illinois or Indiana!!! We love Disney and still would visit Orlando, but having one closer would be wonderful!!😃 (Although winters would be rough!)

  2. Lizzie

    Part of the reason I don’t think they have built anything else in the United States has to do with weather. SoCal, Orlando, and Hawaii all have warm weather (even if it is a bit too hot on days) all year round. There is no risk of snow in any of those locations. Even with the hurricane/ tropical storm weather that Orlando will sometimes get they never have a need to completely shut down the park. If they were to build another park someplace north (such as DC as was talked about in the past) there would be months that they just wouldn’t be able to be open. All of those theme parks in that area are seasonal, only really open in the spring and summer months. I don’t believe that Disney would see enough profit in this to actually do it.

    1. tomorrowland weedway

      DC’s monthly average temperatures are very similar to Paris’ and Tokyo’s, both parks open year-round. Makes sense to put it near where people actually live and have money

  3. Jennifer Seeger

    I live in Ontario, Canada- I border Detroit, Michigan. So the Midwest. Within an hour and a half I can be in Sadusky, Ohio where Cedar Point Theme Park is. This park boasts having been given the award for best amusement park in the world for 17 years in a row. It also is home to some of the Worlds largest and fastest coasters anywhere! This amusement park first opened in 1870!! It is still fully operational with huge crowd attendance daily. This park closes over the winter months but has still managed to be profitable enough to remain open. there are a lot of Midwest theme parks that remain open, intact and profitable. The busiest times of the year obviously are spring and summer months due to families travelling for vacations. Even if Disney located a theme park centrally or Midwest it could help with the crowding issues at the Cali/Florida parks for the summer months. They could also tailor their adjoining onsite resorts to have indoor water features that would allow families to visit for long weekends over the winter. My family loves Great Wolf Lodge properties and we frequent them during the harsh Midwest winters to escape. If Disney started their own indoor water park/ hotels I believe they could get a huge chunk of that market. Also, With the humidity and rain issues Florida has in the summer, I’d gladly frequent one closer to home and I think a lot of other people would too. Not everyone wants to drive 18 plus hours or can afford to fly large families to their current destinations.

  4. Gabby

    I have always they needed to open a park in the middle of the country. Why not Texas! We have plenty of land and our winters aren’t bad at all. Dallas is lucky if they see a few snow falls. We also have the 3rd biggest state population and a surplus of lower income families that would love to go to disney but just can’t afford it. The price of theme park tickets is one thing but when you add hotel and airfare it can get pretty expensive. I’ve always struggled with the thought of becoming DVC members or pass-holders, as we go to a disney property almost every year. This would seal the deal for me. I even think think they could make them more money as I would surely go to a theme park in Texas multiple times a years but would still make that trip once a year else where. To me it makes no sense to open up another park in orlando until you get the formula for the other 4 parks right. MK is is by far the best, they are working on AK, DHS will hopefully be there in the next few years unless they change the idea on what that park should be again… and EPCOT though one of my favorites, is on a deep dark spiral to the land of no original IPs.

  5. Dizwire

    They’re welcome to take over the Mall of America Nick Universe park here in Minneapolis as far as I’m concerned. Soarin’s already done (“FlyOver America”) and the log chute would be an easy refurb with Disney’s Paul Bunyan IP

  6. GuyWithAVision

    It needs to be in the midwest, and it needs to be indoors, just like the planned St. Louis expansion would have been. It needs to celebrate America in the way that the St. Louis and DC-area expansions also did — this gives it a special theme. It also should be near Marceline, as a tribute to Walt.

    The place to put it is Branson, Missouri. That town’s economics are on the downturn, so they’ll gladly pass whatever ordinances/regulations/whatever Disney wants. There’s plenty of space, lots of infrastructure, and an airport in Branson and in Springfield, Missouri. It makes too much sense not to happen.

  7. Jan Vincent

    Building a third park in the middle of the country is a brilliant idea. By building a third park, that will draw some of the crowds away from both coasts which would be a blessing for the overworked staff and infrastructure at Disneyland and Walt Disney World.
    Also, I am in agreement with the author that this needs to be a full sized Disney theme park with new E ticket attractions.

  8. Dean

    Imagine the traffic they would get if they built a full-sized theme park in Vegas. Not right on the strip of course, but somewhere within a 30-40 minute drive. Can you imagine the combo vacations people could take? I know they can do that now, but it’s a 4+ hour drive. If they built it to be substantially different than the 2 parks in Anaheim it would even work as a “3rd gate” in Anaheim for some people who really wanted to take their vacation to the next level. Let’s say they wanted to build a “land” park (ie Avatar land, or something like Harry Potter….hmm Lord of the Rings anyone? Yeah I know Tolkein’s family isn’t interested), they could attract people who just wanted to see that one park, they could attract people who are vacationing in Vegas but want a day away from the strip, and they could attract Disneyphiles who would combine all 3 gates into one trip (and would have the Vegas strip right there if they wanted to do that too).

  9. Jason

    Disney should build a park in the Northeast to complete the Disney triangle. It should be open year round and embrace all four seasons with shifting attractions and focus areas to embrace the current season. Imagine the great events (eg food and wine festival, flower and garden festival, Mickey’s not so scary, etc) they could embrace.

    Imagine a Disney park that offered winter sports such as skiing and snowmobiling in the winter months and lake/mountain oriented fun in the warmer months?

    1. Kaz

      … and take advantage of ESPN being up here in the north east. Of coure, I’d hate to see Lake Compounce (open since 1846) suffer due to a Disney park in the vicinity.

  10. Gary Pearson

    I wish Disney would buy Canada’s Wonderland in northern Toronto and convert it to a Disney park. Toronto is a great tourist destination. They’d have to start pretty much from scratch with that park. The park couldn’t be open all year, but I’d propose something dome like where a large section could be covered and year round. Get on that, imagineers!

  11. Harvey Lee Householder

    Financially, you need to eliminate anything North of the Mason-Dixon line as weather becomes a major issue. Amusement parks in these areas have had problems making profits for years and many have closed. For an amusement park to survive in the north, quality needs to suffer due to trying to maintain a tight budget, this would not serve Disney well. As for the South, you have Florida and southern California, this makes neighboring states too much of a gamble. This being said for Disney to even consider a park in the states, it would need to be in the center of the country but the south, so Mississipi, Louisiana, area. Personally, I think it makes more sense from a revenue stance to build a park in Brazil and add a park to California.

  12. Jim

    NO! We do not need a fifth gate and we do not need another Disney anywhere else in the US. They need to fix and expand the four existing parks at WDW. Disneyland has three times the number of attractions as the WDW Magic Kingdom. Increase capacity and I’ll stay longer. EPCOT use to be a two day park when it had an identity. Energy, Imagination and Innoventions requires a complete overhaul. I use to be able to spend a full day in World Showcase enjoying the live entertainers in the various countries. Voices of Liberty, German Band and Mariachi Cobre are all that is worth staying around for anymore. I can’t think of a reason to go to EPCOT today other then the Food and Wine festival. The Studios and the Magic Kingdom have enough Disney Characters. Do we really need more photo ops and attractions with characters at EPCOT! Let’s hope the refurb at the Studios makes this a must see park again. A good friend took his grandkids to WDW recently. He came back and said to me that Disney use to be cutting edge, today it is dated. Even the famed Disney customer service is a shadow of what it once was. We should stop patronizing mediocrity and not return until they show us that they are ready to transform this fading jewel into the shining crown it once was.

  13. Dan Heaton

    I totally agree that Disney World doesn’t need a fifth gate. They don’t even really need to use new expansion plots in EPCOT. Back in 1998, we spent two full days at EPCOT and weren’t just shopping and eating. Most of it was experiencing attractions that were still great. There is so much untapped potential in the three parks that aren’t the Magic Kingdom. They’re heading in the right direction with DAK and DHS. There’s just one missing piece.

    I’m intrigued by the idea of another resort. Just look at what they did in Shanghai, and it doesn’t need to be on that scale! In fact, I feel like the risks are lower in the U.S. since the other resorts are so popular. Of course, it would take more capital investment in the U.S. than Disney management seems to want to invest. They would need to think beyond quarterly profits and look at least a few years in the future.

    In terms of the place, I would probably not want it in my hometown of St. Louis. I kind of like the fact that our city doesn’t have the congestion and crowds of Orlando. On the other hand, I wouldn’t mind it within a day’s drive. The Branson idea isn’t a bad one; there is winter weather to deal with, but it’s getting warmer every year. It also could draw from Kansas City and St. Louis directly plus other cities like Chicago and Indianapolis that aren’t so far away. It would also create such a buzz of excitement for the next 4-5 years while the resort was being built. Disney can’t buy such great PR.

  14. Willem

    “Walt Disney World is already having capacity issues (hotel rooms are averaging around 90% occupancy and the Magic Kingdom is consistently reaching capacity around the holidays).”

    How is having an incredibly popular product an ‘issue’?

    “…Walt Disney World is becoming more of a luxury destination than a family vacation destination”

    Walt Disney World has been a luxury destination from the day it opened in 1971. The company has been brilliant at marketing the resort further down the income scale, but by definition, people taking a Walt Disney World vacation are people that have thousands of dollars to spend on a vacation.

    Disney builds parks that operate year-round, which to my mind means if they were to build a third domestic park it would be in Texas. And why build a park there when they have so many people from the middle of the country going to California or Florida?

  15. Jeff

    I’m not in favor of watering down the brand.
    Orlando & Anaheim should remain the only US spots for a Disney Park Experience.

  16. Ryan Williams

    A third US location for Disney parks is a huge IF in my mind, but, if they agreed with your logic and decided to build another one, there is only one region that really makes sense and that is somewhere in Central/South Texas. Around San Antonio is probably the best bet, but there are other areas that could work as well.

    There are a couple of points to consider. First you need cheap land. Lots and a lots of cheap land. You need that land to be in an area with many warm days and a low chance of disruption of operations because of winter weather. This is why there will never be a park in New Jersey, Detroit or Saint Louis. It’s too cold and too unpredictable.

    You need a significant base population around that land, both for construction services and for “cast members” but also as a base of visitors. This is key because you need basic transpiration infrastructure, such as multiple freeways and an international airport(s). This is why places like Las Cruces or Meridian will not be considered.

    If the area is already somewhat of a destination, even better, as some of the other travel infrastructure will be in place, such as hospitality.

    I can’t really overstate how important climate is for this kind of operation. If you have a 100-150 days of potential winter weather a year, you can’t reliably run a theme park(s) and be profitable. You have to take the weather out of the equation. That’s why nearly all of the best and most profitable parks are located in warm weather areas. It doesn’t have to be comfortable (Orlando!), but it needs to be predictable and wintery weather needs to be minimized.

    San Antonio checks all of those boxes. The airport is a little underwhelming compared to MCO, but if Disney decided to build something in the area, I highly suspect the situation would be great improved in a hurry. Plenty of freeways including two coming from Mexico. Direct shots from Texas’ other major population centers. The area doesn’t really have tornados and hurricanes are also not a threat because it is so far inland. The area has many cultural and historical story lines that could be tied into the parks. The 500 mile radius population of San Antonio is basically the same as Orlando… around 43,000,000.

    I do not live in San Antonio nor am I a civic booster, but there really are not any other good options for a third US resort outside of Texas that meet the criteria above and are not too close to California and Florida.

  17. Dave Dayton

    I like the idea of a new Disney theme park in the Midwest. It would be great to see a park in a location that frees Disney from the constraints they have on using the Marvel characters in Walt Disney World, due to the agreement Marvel entered into with Universal Studios years ago. There a lot of great attractions Disney has in place in their international parks that are not available in either Disneyland or WDW. Take some of these international park attractions and combine it with a Marvel themed land and I think you have a unique destination theme park, different than the offerings in California and Florida, but still with the Disney magic.

    I don’t believe that a park in the Midwest has to be all indoors. Disneyland Paris operates in the winter months and deals with snow. Plus I believe a Disney park in the Midwest would open up a Disney theme park vacation to a lot of visitors that would not currently consider a Disneyland, or WDW vacation due to distance, expense of travel, etc.

  18. Todd

    We hear rumors of Disney buying land north of the Dallas area every year, would be crazy for one year they became true.

  19. Barbara

    Okay, I am from NY and clearly are not familiar with all of TEXAS..but right now on the news…flooding in Texas???? Is this where you want to build a Disney resort????? I am not sure you need to build another although I loved the idea of the American concept near DC…..but the prices at Orlando are starting to get out of reason for a family. We are now 2 seniors so can afford to go more often but when we were 5…..5 plane fares, 5 meal plans, 5 park Hoppers… was once every 7 years or so. Now tbough? How many families can afford to do this that often? I know my sons and their families cannot…and that makes me sad. Yes, weather is a major problem for a profitable park…otherwise I would love to have one either on Eastern Long Island (lots of land) or New Jersey somewhere near the Jersey Turnpike for easy traveling….or even PA off the jersey Turnpike? Winter snows though wold create a serious financial problem to this.

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