Developing a theme park is far from child’s play, especially in the current economic climate. The coronavirus brought dark clouds to the industry as parks around the world temporarily closed their doors and froze their expansion budgets. It has driven the development of a tool which could help operators assess new opportunities despite budgets being on hold.
Theme parks appear to be built with magic but manpower is actually needed to make them. Testimony to this, it took 456 designers and 5,500 workmen six years to create Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi, the world’s biggest indoor theme park. The 1.6 million square feet facility opened in 2018 at an estimated cost of $1 billion and can comfortably accommodate up to 2 million visitors annually. We will never know how much could have been saved by making it smaller but the data for this kind of blue sky thinking is now available to enthusiasts.
Most major theme park developers employ teams of staff to scour the globe for new locations and calculate the cost of building there. No matter which company they work for they follow principles which were established nearly 70 years ago. The brainchild of them was research economist Harrison ‘Buzz’ Price who helped Walt Disney hand pick the optimum location for Disneyland.
Buzz produced a shortlist of ten potential sites in California based on population, accessibility, climate factors, and more. Ultimately, Buzz, Walt and his brother Roy settled on 160 acres of orange grove in Anaheim and Disneyland opened there in 1955. It attracted four million visitors in its first year and reportedly grew over the next 37 years at a compound rate of 4%. It was such a success that it led to Buzz being involved in the selection of sites for Walt Disney World in Florida and Tokyo Disneyland.
Overall, Buzz worked on more than 150 project studies for The Walt Disney Company and also carried out site and economic feasibility studies for Six Flags and SeaWorld parks. Outside theme parks, he produced planning studies for numerous winter resorts and was the master planner for eight World’s Fairs, including Seattle and San Antonio.
His influence was so great that when Buzz died on August 15, 2010, The Los Angeles Times wrote that “nearly every amusement park built since the 1950s in some way reflects Price’s approach to planning theme parks.” In true Disney tradition he has also been honored with a message painted on a window in the turn of the century-themed Main Street at the heart of Disneyland.
Buzz didn’t just set the financial model for where parks should be located but how big they need to be and what mix of attractions they need to contain. The details were all contained in his autobiography, Walt’s Revolution!: By the Numbers, which was published seven years before he passed away in 2010. Thanks to the magic of the internet, and a team of industry leaders, the tricks in this spell book are now freely available.
It comes in the form of the website www.ask.buzz which is essentially a question and answer session with Buzz Price. It starts by asking users key questions about the theme park they would like to build. Users need to enter figures for criteria such as their desired attendance, seasonality and the mix of attractions with story-driven rides costing the most.
The website then forecasts the attendance for the peak month and peak week as well as key construction metrics such as how big the park needs to be, how much parking space is needed and how many food and beverage seats will be needed. The magic number is of course the budget and, perhaps surprisingly, it is derived from a simple formula.
“For the budget calculations, we are using price per attendee of $500 for a ‘story park’ and $200 an attendee for a ‘ride park’, says Geoff Thatcher, one of the team behind Ask.Buzz and founder of themed entertainment design firm Creative Principals.
In summary, to calculate the cost of a park with attractions which have detailed theming to immerse riders in stories, the attendance needs to be multiplied by $500. It costs less to build parks with less elaborate rides which are typically found in fairs so the attendance only needs to be multiplied by $200 for them.
Thatcher says this is only a guide as “there are a lot of variables that can impact these numbers”. He adds that “there’s no doubt some parks, like Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi, spent more than this per attendee. And certainly a lot spend less. However, the number is based on both what’s in Buzz Price’s book, industry averages and our team’s own experience.
“For example, on the Ask.Buzz team is Ty Granaroli who is currently the Senior Vice President over themed entertainment at Paramount Pictures. Before we launched the web site, we talked with some operators and crunched the numbers with their own parks.” The results are spellbinding.
Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi is a mixed seasonal indoor story park with five hour length of stay and guests who arrive by car. Although it can accommodate up to 2 million guests, its attendance is estimated to be around 1.2 million. According to news reports, the park was designed to handle from 4,000 to 7,000 guests per day and Ask.Buzz puts it at 7,802 on Design Day which is the average of its highest-attended 15 to 25 days. Other results are even closer.
Take Cedar Point, a seasonal ride park in Ohio with a seven plus hour length of stay and everyone arriving by car. According to the consultancy firm AECOM and the Themed Entertainment Association, it had 3.7 million visitors in 2018 with news reports putting its daily capacity at 50,000. The Ask.Buzz Calculator puts its Peak Day at 41,761 with theoretical capacity at 50,113 which is almost spot on.
“It’s amazing how close Ask.Buzz is to the actual numbers,” says Thatcher. “And remember, our stated goal is to create a tool that theme park designers can use as an early reference. Our goal was to be in the ‘ballpark.’ And we are certainly there. It’s amazing to us how accurate Buzz Price’s formulas are 10 years after his passing.”
His personality is infused into the site. A cartoon of Buzz is front and center on every page and clicking on it brings up catchphrases from the man himself in a speech bubble.
“We wanted to capture his personality,” says Thatcher. “We wanted people to feel like Buzz Price himself was…doing some quick calculations on a white board. Based on the feedback we’ve received from people who knew and worked with Buzz, we have done it. The animated Buzz Price character and real Buzz Price quotes in the speech bubbles is an important part of capturing the spirit of this Disney Legend.”
Thatcher had a helping hand from a number of theme park designers including one who knew Buzz better than anyone. In addition to Granaroli, Thatcher and his daughter Zoe, the website team included Vlad Perelman from Backpack Creative, Bob Chambers from The Producer’s Group and Buzz Price’s son David who runs his own theme park planning and design firm.
“My dad was excellent at crunching numbers in his head,” says David. He adds that this is what is needed to “help focus the creative discussion. And so that was one of our goals with this web site — to help people bring Buzz into their planning sessions today.”
Thatcher adds that “we’ve been talking about it for two years, but once we decided to actually build it, the web site only took two months…I was watching my daughter play Roller Coaster Tycoon and wondered whether we could create an app that allowed professionals to crunch numbers. I then re-read Buzz Price’s book and realized we had everything we needed to create a web site.
“However, I didn’t know Buzz’s son David, so I happened to be in Dubai at the same time Bob Chambers from The Producer’s Group was in town so we had lunch at iHop in the Mall of the Emirates. I told him about my idea and he agreed to introduce me to David Price…The idea languished while we all stayed busy working on other projects. Then, COVID-19 hit…The pandemic has delayed and even canceled a number of projects. In other words, COVID-19 gave us the time.”
Thatcher says that “the only concerns we’ve heard are from people who worry that developers will make investment decisions based on Ask.Buzz. As we clearly spell out in the disclaimer, this tool is meant for creative professionals in the early stages of a project. There are so many variables involved in each project that Ask.Buzz was never intended as a replacement for more formal feasibility studies.”
The cost of a theme park operator licensing the Intellectual Property from a studio isn’t factored into the calculations. Neither is the location, market size, available public transportation or the back office area of the park.
Nevertheless, there is nothing else like it in the industry and it represents an early stage step which is normally done by a team of professionals. Thatcher says his team has “no plans to charge for Ask.Buzz in the future. This was a passion project for our entire team. We wanted to honor Buzz Price and provide a tool that we ourselves would want to use.” It isn’t stopping there.
“Now that we have a formula for theme parks, our next step will be to introduce the same thing for museums and family entertainment centers by November 2020,” says Thatcher. The flexibility of the formula shows that Price really did have the magic touch.