Fans are hopeful that Walt Disney World will build a 5th theme park given the billions of dollars the company plans on investing on expansion in Florida. This makes the pessimistic prediction that a fifth gate won’t come to WDW any time soon…and shouldn’t! Here’s why it won’t happen, what we’ll get instead at Magic Kingdom and beyond, and why that’s the better outcome for fans and the company.
This is a topic that has been discussed to death by Walt Disney World fans for a while. As soon as Animal Kingdom opened, people began looking to the future again at what would come next. To some degree, this was understandable. California Adventure and Tokyo DisneySea both opened a few years later, with new parks in Paris, Hong Kong, and Shanghai after that. All offered amazing attractions and lands that Walt Disney World fans would love to see in Florida.
More recently, there’s been a lot in the last year-plus that’s given fans optimism that Walt Disney World will build a 5th (and even 6th!) theme park in coming years. This has really kicked into high gear in the last couple of months, after the company hosted Wall Street analysts and investors at Walt Disney World for an investor summit. That’s where they first revealed a plan to double investment to $60 billion in Disney Parks over the next decade.
That wasn’t the first time in the last year or so that Walt Disney World fans had heard teases of a bright future for the Florida parks. At last year’s D23 Expo, Parks Chairman Josh D’Amaro teased expansion plans for Animal Kingdom and ‘Beyond Big Thunder’ at Magic Kingdom. Those were once again reiterated and refined at Destination D23 this fall.
D’Amaro and Disney CEO Bob Iger have hyped investment in the parks beyond that. During the most recent earnings call a few weeks ago, Iger identified four “building opportunities” for the Walt Disney Company that will be central to future success, one of which is “turbocharging” growth in Parks & Resorts.
While other fans are skeptical, we believe both Iger and D’Amaro are sincere. We do think there are some necessary prerequisites that the company must address before switching gears and moving into ‘building mode’ but we’ll give the benefit of the doubt and assume that’ll happen by late 2024 or 2025. We will also assume that the $60 billion amount is accurate for all of Parks & Resorts, and that of that, the company has $17 billion investment plans for Walt Disney World.
Some of these might be optimistic assumptions, but they’re ones we’re willing to make. And even in light of these charitable numbers that might be reduced later, we still do NOT expect a 5th gate at Walt Disney World. Here are all of the reasons why…
First, because both Bob Iger and Josh D’Amaro have specifically said they want to expand the existing parks. During the many interviews the two have given this year that discussed plans for the future and bullishness on parks, they talked about capacity-expanding additions.
Iger and D’Amaro are careful and deliberate when speaking publicly, choosing their words carefully. If there were plans for new theme parks, they’d say as much. Instead, they repeatedly have invoked Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, Toy Story Land, and Pandora – World of Avatar as the blueprints for how Disney plans to expand its parks and “invest in increasing capacity” and “opportunity within these existing footprints to optimize.” Those words are pretty clear.
There’s really no need to speculate. D’Amaro and Iger have repeatedly and consistently shared the plan, and it is not for a fifth gate!
Somehow, some Walt Disney World fans still find this unpersuasive, thinking maybe that D’Amaro and Iger are playing their cards close to the vest. That is quite the charitable interpretation, especially of two dudes who have developed a habit of publicly blue sky daydreaming in the last year. So they have no problem sharing unconfirmed concept explorations for the existing parks, but are keeping a 5th gate a closely guarded secret? That’s a stretch.
More likely, fans are looking at that headline $60 billion or $17 billion number and doing some dreaming of their own. To be sure, those are colossal sums of money. Taking just the $17 billion, which is conceivably enough for 5th, 6th, and 7th gates. That’s theoretically enough for roughly three new Shanghai Disneylands (~$5.5 billion upon opening in 2016).
However, there’s zero chance of a 5th gate at Walt Disney World costing that little unless it were done in the spirit of the OG Walt Disney Studios Park in France and, trust me, no one actually wants that mess. For one thing, construction isn’t as cheap in the United States as it is in China (that was also almost a decade ago). Labor and material costs have skyrocketed and Disney doesn’t have a great track record of keeping costs in check. A new Disney theme park in Florida would easily cost $8 billion unless it were an absolute barebones, half-day park.
On top of that, this is all of the CapEx at Walt Disney World over the course of a decade. Even Disney could build a new park for $6-7 billion (they can’t–unless you want a bad park), that be a big chunk of that total, and would necessitate CapEx reductions in the existing 4 parks as compared to the last decade.
At first blush, $17 billion seems like a ton of money, but it’s actually only slightly above the last decade at Walt Disney World when adjusted for inflation (it may not be above it at all when looking exclusively at construction costs). To be sure, there were a ton of awesome additions over the last decade–and it’d be great to get another 10 years of that–but zero new parks.
Building a fifth theme park at Walt Disney World would mean that the Tropical Americas and Beyond Big Thunder projects, which they’ve already said are happening, wouldn’t be able to happen. Again, there’s every reason to believe the plan is expansion to the existing parks rather than development of a new one.
Still, many Walt Disney World fans think a 5th gate must happen for one simple reason: as an “answer” to Universal’s Epic Universe, the third theme park being built in Central Florida by Comcast. Epic Universe is full steam ahead, and slated to open by Summer 2025. Many fans believe Walt Disney World needs to have a response to Epic Universe, and the only thing that can really compete with a new theme park is a new theme park.
The reality is that absolutely will not happen. Even if Disney wanted to build a new theme park and announced one today, there is a 0.000% chance the company could have it open by Summer 2025. Heck, even if Walt Disney World started work on Tropical Americas at Animal Kingdom tomorrow (they won’t) that land probably wouldn’t be done by Summer 2025.
In all likelihood, Tropical Americas is the next major project on the horizon (outside of ride reimaginings) and it’ll start in late 2024 and be done in 2026. It appears increasingly likely that Walt Disney World is going to “sit out” 2025 and not try to compete with Epic Universe. (I remain of the belief that a reimagined Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster will be the tentpole addition of 2025. That plus maybe a couple of redone things in EPCOT. Enough to be marketable, but not to actually compete with Universal.)
Disney has probably concluded that the only way to “win” is to not play the game. No new ride or land is going to meaningfully compete with a brand-new theme park. Sitting out this round of the theme park wars, conceding the spotlight for a year, and claiming “a rising tide lifts all boats” (their official answer to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter when it first opened) might be the best hand that Disney can play. No Disney fan wants to hear this, but might be the smarter move than trying to steal Epic Universe’s thunder.
Assuming, for the sake of argument, that Walt Disney World had built a 5th gate and it also opened in 2025. At least when it comes to theme park fans or people wanting to do the hot new thing, Epic Universe and that fictional Disney 5th gate aren’t going to compete with one another–they’d both cannibalize attendance from the existing parks.
That’s a natural segue into a core point that Walt Disney World will only ever build another theme park if it won’t pull away from its existing gates. You may also hate to hear this, but Walt Disney World is not going to build another park to reduce crowds or attendance in its current parks. There’s no scenario where they’re going to spend billions of dollars to tread water–that doesn’t make any sense.
Walt Disney World will only build another park if it can increase per guest spending via vacation duration and add at least ~8 million new visits to Walt Disney World’s cumulative total in its first full year. That would be a difficult feat. The average American’s vacation is between 4 and 6 days long, and that average has been on the decline for the last couple of decades with Americans leaving a record number of vacation days on the table (there’s article after article about the shrinking American vacation).
Anecdotally, we’ve heard from many travel agent friends this year that the most common “answer” from clients to rising costs at Walt Disney World is decreasing length of stay. Rather than doing a full week or 6 days, they’re doing 4-5 and avoiding weekends. There’s actually indirect data to support this–look no further than the slowdown on Saturdays and Sundays.
With the duration of the average American vacation on the decline, adding more gates is a tough sell. After factoring in travel days, many Americans already don’t have enough time to experience all four parks plus Disney Springs or water parks plus whatever Universal’s parks might siphon away.
This is a problem because it necessarily means that a new theme park at Walt Disney World would cannibalize attendance from the existing gates, at least among a good segment of guests. If the majority of visitors to Walt Disney World don’t have another park day to add, building a fifth gate is a nonstarter. It’s easier to get more people to come to the current parks than to take the current demographic and have them add another day.
As always, there are outliers–and those of you reading this who measure your annual time at Walt Disney World in weeks are exactly that. But if you’re reading this, you already do not match the median guest profile for Walt Disney World, so let me stop you right there. You are very much above average. It’s important that we don’t confuse our own vacation time or preferences for the norm.
Then there are the logistical impediments or reasons why building a new theme park would be less desirable than expanding existing gates. One of these is staffing.
Staffing shortages have been a hot topic for the last couple of years, and although they’re largely resolved in the parks, it’s still not perfect. It’s still a tight labor market, with nearly two job openings for every unemployed person. The root causes of this are beyond the scope of this post, but the bottom line is that it’s unlikely to change in the Central Florida hospitality industry.
Whether the local labor market (not to mention the housing market, which is already pricing hospitality industry workers out–that’s the reason why Disney is helping to build affordable housing) can sustain not just one, but two more parks, is an open question. It’s not just these parks, either. There’s the $1.5 billion Evermore Orlando Resort, Area15, and dozens of other attractions and hotels that are under construction. All of these places need people to work at them.
Of course, Walt Disney World has the College Program and various other means of importing temporary workers from out of state–and that could certainly help provide the workforce necessary for a fifth gate–but thus far that has not been the case for their 4 gates in the last couple of years.
If Disney is going to allocate existing or additional employees to new developments, they’d probably prioritize timeshares and hotels over a theme park. There’s better ROI and less risk, and those are not nearly as resource-intensive. Personally, I think Disney is likely reticent to build new hotels in the near-term, but timeshares are full steam ahead.
When it comes to growing theme park attendance, the easier and more cost-effective solution is the one we’ve been seeing over the last several years: expanding the existing parks. Walt Disney World has already built out the capacity of its existing gates with attractions like Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure, the Guardians of the Galaxy coaster, TRON Lightcycle Power Run, and Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge.
This approach of expanding the footprint of existing parks or replacing underutilized attractions is advantageous from Disney’s perspective because it keeps infrastructure costs lower. It also doesn’t require gambling big on a new, untried concept and having to throw more money at that in the future to boost its popularity.
With a new park comes new toll plazas, ticket booths, turnstiles, backstage facilities, roads, transportation hubs, and other infrastructure that already exists in support of the existing theme parks. These infrastructure expenses are not insignificant, and it’s difficult to justify their expenditures when the existing parks can be built-out without incurring all of these same costs.
Then there are the operating costs, which would also be higher with a new gate versus an existing gate with added capacity. New theme parks require more labor (see above) for staffing said toll plazas, ticket booths, turnstiles, transportation, and so forth. Simply put, expanding the existing parks is the conservative, cost-effective, and low-risk approach. It costs less for the company, and that means less expense to be passed on to consumers.
This brings us to the point that Walt Disney World should not build a fifth gate. Here, we’re switching gears from what will likely happen to what should happen. Frankly, Walt Disney World has no business thinking about another brand-new theme park anytime soon. I know this is going to get me some hate mail, but hear me out.
Fans love the idea of a 5th theme park because it’s a blank slate, capable of holding a long wish list of rides and lands. Instead of getting 1-2 rides here or there, we get a half-dozen new lands. I get it. A brand new theme park is sexy and exciting, and it’s fun to daydream about Florida DisneySea or whatever might be in your perfect park.
Don’t get me wrong–I would love to relive the feeling of setting foot in a brand new park that’s totally unfamiliar. There’s nothing like that–expansions absolutely do not compare! But I’m also a realist. It’s fun to dream, but the practical reality of a new theme park in the late 2020s or early 2030s would not be perfect or meet what you’re imagining; at best, it would open incomplete.
If this fictional fifth gate at Walt Disney World were on par with Walt Disney Studios Park (Paris), Disney’s California Adventure, or Hong Kong Disneyland when any of those opened, the experience would be utterly underwhelming. Building Tokyo DisneySea or Shanghai Disneyland…as they exist today…in Florida, USA…in the year 2030 would cost at least $10 billion once all is said and done. Maybe more.
As exciting as that would be–and it’d be very exciting!–it’s difficult to advocate for that when Animal Kingdom is still a half-day park for most guests and in need of 2-3 more rides. When Disney’s Hollywood Studios needs more all-ages attractions so that its headliners don’t average 60+ minute waits. When EPCOT, even post-overhaul, needs another new World Showcase pavilion and reimaginings to a few rides at the front of the park.
And those are just the things that really should be done at the existing parks. That list did not include Beyond Big Thunder at Magic Kingdom. Not because I think it’s a bad idea, but because Magic Kingdom “needs” the least help. (It’s going to happen, regardless.) There are a ton of discretionary projects that could happen at the existing gates to really improve them, and Beyond Big Thunder is one of those.
Outside of the Dinoland plot, there’s a ton of unused or underutilized space in Animal Kingdom. That park already has great bones–now how about a couple of all-new (not replacement) lands–that turns it into a 1.5 day park? There’s endless potential at EPCOT. Backstage facilities could be relocated at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, allowing for the smallest park to become larger (and have an easier-to-navigate) layout. Imagineering is plenty capable of dreaming up tens of billions of dollars of fantastic ideas for the existing 4 parks at Walt Disney World.
If you’re not persuaded that fixing or building out the existing parks is the right course of action, I get it. The shiny new object (5th gate) is always going to be more exciting. But how about with this added to the mix: the infrastructure costs alone of building a new theme park would eat away at least $2 billion of that $17 billion. So unless you are a road and drainage enthusiast, those are sunk costs that would not enhance your vacation.
Stated differently, let’s say that if the company simply chooses to expand existing parks, we might get around $13 billion worth of new stuff, whereas we’d get $11 billion in total if there’s a new gate thrown into the mix. (I’ve already skimmed $4 billion from the top under the assumption that it’ll go to DVC/hotels or other non-attractions projects, regardless.)
For me, the answer is easy: I’ll take a maximization of the investment, and have that money allocated towards expanding the existing parks and reimagining rides that are currently underutilized or outdated. I know that’s not the exciting choice and might be an unpopular opinion. But the alternative is the current 4 gates stagnating for at least a full decade–and that’s assuming a new gate would be properly built-out in the first place, and wouldn’t require another decade to fix or expand.
As a Disney fan, I’ve lived through decades of stagnation and I don’t really want a repeat of that. From my perspective, the last decade was far, far better. Sure, I think everything took too long and a decent amount of money was poorly allocated at EPCOT. But at least part of that can be blamed on the pandemic, and hopefully that won’t happen again. If leadership coalesces around a clear vision for Walt Disney World’s 10-year plan, the fruits of that in the existing four parks could be fantastic.
The current parks are great, but they have a lot of untapped potential and room for improvement. I’d rather see billions of dollars invested into the current 4 parks than for them to be neglected for 10+ years. The good news, at least from my perspective, is that Walt Disney World fans don’t get a vote on this. My opinion and your opinion do not matter in the least–this is the route that Disney has already indicated it’s going to go.
Do you think a fifth gate is on the horizon at Walt Disney World? Would you like to see $10 billion of that $17 billion spent on a brand-new theme park, or would you prefer it spent on building out the existing 4 parks? Do you agree or disagree with our reasons as to why one is unlikely–or desirable–in the foreseeable future? Any other thoughts or commentary to add? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing your feedback–even when you disagree with us–is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!