American Heartland Theme Park: Consolation Prize for Fans Wanting Disneyland Texas?

For years, Disney fans have clamored for a third U.S. complex in Texas…and we’ve explained why that won’t happen. Well, some of you now might be getting a consolation prize of sorts, as a new $2 billion theme park comparable in size and scope to Disneyland or Magic Kingdom has been announced for Oklahoma. This post shares details and commentary about the potential competition for Disney and Universal.

The project is called American Heartland Theme Park and Resort, a more than $2 billion entertainment destination development in northeast Oklahoma, just west of Grand Lake on Route 66. American Heartland will be a 1,000-acre development with a 125-acre theme park, which is slated to open in 2026.

American Heartland Theme Park and Resort will be built in phases starting with a large-scale RV park with cabins scheduled to open phase one in spring 2025, a film and television studio, and a world-class theme park and resort after that. The American Heartland Theme Park and Resort will offer a unique visitor experience rivaling the world’s top resort destinations.

“We are thrilled to make Oklahoma the home of American Heartland Theme Park and Resort,” American Heartland CEO Larry Wilhite said. “At the crossroads of the heartland, Oklahoma is an attractive location for a family entertainment destination. The state’s business-friendly approach and innovative partnership efforts have helped make this possible. We look forward to bringing unforgettable generational experiences to Oklahoma.”

As noted above, American Heartland Theme Park and Resort will be comparable to the size of Magic Kingdom and Disneyland. The park will feature an Americana-themed environment with a variety of entertaining rides, live shows, family attractions, waterways as well as restaurant-quality food and beverage offerings.

“Oklahoma is excited to welcome American Heartland Theme Park and Resort,” Oklahoma State Rep. Rusty Cornwell said. “Located on historic Route 66 just west of Grand Lake, the development will attract visitors from around the world to experience and celebrate the rich cultures and hometown values America has to offer.”

The adjacent 320-acre Three Ponies RV Park and Campground is designed by Oklahoma architects ADG Blatt. This complex will be the largest campground in the central U.S. with 750 RV spaces and 300 cabins plus amenities. When completed, American Heartland Theme Park and Resort will also include a top-tier 300-room hotel and modern indoor water park.

“There’s no better place to represent the heart of America than northeast Oklahoma,” said Oklahoma State Sen. Micheal Bergstrom. “This $2 billion investment in our state will create more than 4,000 jobs and introduce a new category of entertainment to the region, and its long-term economic impact will be transformative.”

“Tourism is already one of Oklahoma’s top industries and this project will elevate our state even further. Since tourism is a doorway to economic development, American Heartland Theme Park and Resort will draw new businesses not only to the surrounding area but also throughout the region and state,” Bergstrom continued.

The developer of American Heartland Theme Park and Resort has leadership with deep Oklahoma roots. American Heartland is an affiliate of Mansion Entertainment Group, LLC, Branson’s leading performing arts, animation and studio brand.

According to its mission statement, “Mansion Entertainment Group is on the verge of becoming the most powerful entity in family entertainment, with its unparalleled expertise across film, television, animation, music, theatre, and family immersive entertainment experiences.”

(Editor’s note: The only completed productions of Mansion Entertainment Group that I could track down were for the Rose Parade finale float and a symphony on PBS.)

Mansion purports to have a “commitment to producing high-quality, wholesome content that the entire family can enjoy.” It has carved a niche for itself in the entertainment industry with an impressive roster of talents, cutting-edge technology, and innovative storytelling techniques.

As Mansion Entertainment Group continues to expand its reach and diversify its offerings, the company claims it is “poised to become the go-to destination for families seeking engaging and meaningful entertainment that inspires, educates, and entertains.”

Led by Executive Producer Steve Hedrick, the design team of American Heartland Theme Park is made up of the world’s best theme park designers including 20+ former Disney Parks builders and Walt Disney Imagineers. Design firms include THG, FORREC and Cuningham, whose portfolios feature the world’s foremost theme park brands including Six Flags, Disney Parks and Universal Studios.

American Heartland Theme Park’s creative team is comprised of over 500 years of Disney and Entertainment experience.  This award winning team spans generations of production, live entertainment, studio work, television, and theme park development.

  • Steve Hedrick – WDE Disney Executive 22 yrs (TP Industry 40 yrs)
  • John Sorenson – Walt Disney Imagineering Land Planner 30 yrs
  • Tom Turley – DLI Ops Planning & Development 45 yrs
  • Don Hilsen – Walt Disney Imagineering Ride Engineer – 30 yrs
  • John Polk – Walt Disney Imagineering Special Effects 20 yrs
  • Tim Kirk – Walt Disney Imagineering Concept Artist 35 yrs
  • Annette Crump – Walt Disney Imagineering Planner/Scheduler 11 yrs
  • Andy Burden – WDE/DLI Technical Design 12 yrs
  • Rick Allen – WDW Operations 24 yrs
  • Craig Hodges – WDW Operations – 42 yrs
  • Dave Vermeulen – Disneyland International 40 yrs
  • Ted Carlsson – Disneyland/WDI VP of Technical Design – 35 yrs
  • Scott Sinclair – Disneyland & WDI Theme Park Designer – 20 yrs
  • Ronnie Rodriquez – Disney Creative Entertainment – 35 yrs
  • Reggie Jarrett – Disney Entertainment – 35 yrs

“We are pleased that American Heartland Theme Park and Resort has taken the first step and chosen Oklahoma to build a world-class entertainment destination,” said Hopper Smith, interim director of the Oklahoma Department of Commerce. “We look forward to assisting with this project as it develops.”

American Heartland Theme Park and Resort is a family-friendly park promising timeless fun and boundless adventure. The 125-acre theme park will feature a collection of six distinctly American lands to welcome guests on a journey through the best of the American story. Families will find thrilling rides and heartwarming shows as they discover Great Plains, Bayou Bay, Big Timber Falls, Stony Point Harbor, Liberty Village and Electropolis.

“American Heartland will be a place families can come together to create lasting memories, experience joy, laughter, imagination and wonder,” American Heartland Founder and Chief Creative Officer Gene Bicknell said. “There is so much to celebrate about our country: its landscapes, its cultures and most importantly, its people. No matter where you’re from, you’ll feel right at home at American Heartland.”

“American Heartland will be an anchor tourist destination on Route 66 set to attract more than two million out-of-state visitors to Oklahoma each year,” Kristy Adams, senior executive vice president of sales and marketing for Mansion Entertainment Group, American Heartland and Three Ponies, said. “The scale and quality of the development will be unlike anything else in the region, making Vinita, Oklahoma a can’t-miss destination for families around the world.”

Turning to commentary, there’s good and bad to discuss with reasons for optimism and pessimism about this project. Let’s start with the positive. There are multiple high-profile former Imagineers who are working on this project, including several in senior design and other roles on Tokyo DisneySea.

Moreover, the founder Gene Bicknell is a Pizza Hut magnate and franchising those restaurants, apparently, pays better than I ever would’ve guessed. Based on the verbiage of the press release and the accompanying website, I get the impression that this is a pet project and driven by the values and beliefs of the owners.

Given both of those variables, the best case scenario is that American Heartland Theme Park becomes the Disney’s America that never was, and obviously minus the Disney branding and characters. If the concept art is accurate, it won’t have design and attention to detail on par with Tokyo DisneySea, but it still looks really nice–there are lands on par with the American Waterfront port. (In fact, Stony Point Harbor looks a lot like Cape Cod at TDS–compare the concept art above to the photo below.)

As a fan primarily of themed design and not Disney IP, this is something that would be right up my alley. In fact, I really like a lot of what I see in the concept art and described in the overview of each land. There are a lot of good ideas and potential in the project.

However, my excitement level is minimal for American Heartland Theme Park. First and foremost, I’ve seen a lot of announcements like this over the years from new entrants into the theme park space, and very few actually end up being built. And that’s even when they are attached to major studios or brands, and American Heartland Theme Park is not.

It’s very easy to envision a scenario where the only thing that happens here is the campground and RV park. In fact, that’s probably the most plausible outcome. There’s likely no shortage of demand for Three Ponies, and it’s certainly easier to get a campground off the ground than it is a brand-new, large-scale theme park.

I also would caution against assuming that the theme park is likely to happen because several ex-Imagineers are attached to this. It’s also true that WDI purged much of the team behind Tokyo DisneySea after that project was completed. There’s a veritable graveyard of announced-but-unbuilt theme parks around the world that have similarly impressive design teams. Everybody’s gotsta get paid.

There is also the reality that, impressive as it may seem, $2 billion is not a lot in 2023 dollars to build a whole theme park and resort complex along with a film and television studio. Yes, I realize the stated budget for Universal’s Epic Universe is only around $1 billion, but the final number will either end up being significantly higher or the park will feel incomplete at opening (or both). I also realize that Disney can’t do anything cheaply or efficiently, so its budgets are basically in Monopoly money as compared to the other parks.

Regardless, the point stands: this will not be Disney’s America or Tokyo DisneySea caliber on $2 billion. More like Busch Gardens Williamsburg or Knott’s Berry Farm, which are two awesome regional parks in their own right. However, they’re not world class tourist draws or what you’d expect from the company that “is on the verge of becoming the most powerful entity in family entertainment.”

Just as this being a pet project likely being driven by the owner’s values and beliefs is an asset, so too is it a liability. Bicknell wants to will an entertainment empire based on wholesome and family-friendly content into existence…but may soon be faced with the hard realities of creating such content and the actual market for it.

Nevermind the 100-year first-mover advantage of Disney, and the vast libraries of characters controlled by Disney, Universal, etc. (Even Skydance Animation is having a tough time gaining traction, despite the formidable talent, funding, and studio support!) There’s absolutely a market for Americana and nostalgia, but it’s exceedingly difficult to build a theme park that’ll attract millions of visitors per year on that alone. There needs to be another hook.

Then there’s the location. I’m far from an expert on this region or Oklahoma, but Vinita seems like it’s kind of in the middle of nowhere with no inherent tourism appeal like Florida or California. Touting a location along Route 66 caught my attention, and not in a good way; this is 2023, not 1963. (It is about 60 miles from Tulsa International Airport, which isn’t terrible.)

I mean no disrespect to the people of Vinita, but if I were scouting spots for the most powerful entity’s first theme park presence, I’m probably looking at plots near major cities in Texas, Atlanta, Charlotte, or a few other cities in the Midwest or East Coast. For a viable large-scale theme park, you’d ideally want easy access to millions of upper middle class locals within an hour from the park and a place with tourist appeal and relatively convenient access.

Ultimately, it’ll be interesting to see whether American Heartland Theme Park ever opens. It does seem more credible than other announcements from the last decade that haven’t come to fruition. And on the plus side, at least it’s probably not a scam unlike some of those past projects. It seems more like one business tycoon’s passion project, and maybe he’ll will it into being.

If it somehow does happen, I’d recommend visiting American Heartland Theme Park early in its existence. Business acumen in the Pizza Hut arena does not translate to the same in theme parks–the official website and press release suggests a lot of hubris and very little knowledge of what makes for a successful theme park. Basically, there’s very little to suggest that this park has any form of financial viability in the long-term even if is built. But what do I know, Mansion Entertainment does have a full three years to build their brand and become the most powerful entity in family entertainment. Perhaps it’ll happen.

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