Will a Fifth Park Be Built at Disney World?
Rumors and speculation are again flying about a fifth gate at Walt Disney World. I’ll make a not-so-bold prediction: Disney won’t build a 5th theme park in Florida any time soon. Want a bolder prediction? No one reading this will see a fifth gate at Walt Disney World in their lifetime. (Updated July 13, 2022.)
To be clear, we’re talking fifth theme park gate–none of that ‘water theme park’ nonsense. (And in any case, it seems like Disney is perfectly content operating only one water park in Orlando right now, so adding a third seems highly unlikely.) This is a topic we’ve touched upon previously (last time due to major land purchases by Disney around Central Florida), but felt it was worth revisiting for a few reasons.
We’ll start with the elephant in the room: Universal’s Epic Universe, the third theme park being built in Central Florida by Comcast. On recent earnings calls, that company’s executives have praised the success of their parks in their post-reopening recovery. This is a big reason why Epic Universe is full steam ahead, and slated to open by Summer 2025. Many fans want Walt Disney World to have an “answer” to Epic Universe, and the only thing that can really compete with a new theme park is a new theme park.
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. Disney is still in the process of cloning a roller coaster in an empty warehouse it announced 5 years ago and has been building for over 4 years.
From what I understand, an entire theme park is considerably more elaborate than even multiple empty warehouses. (Some of the warehouses would, presumably, be filled with things.) In other words, if TRON Lightcycle Run is a reliable gauge of the company’s construction pace, Disney could open a new theme park in approximately 2077 if construction began today. Perhaps that’s a bit hyperbolic…maybe 2055. 😉
That assumes that Disney wants to build another theme park in Central Florida right now, and that is absolutely not the case. In reality, Disney won’t have any official answer to Epic Universe. They won’t acknowledge the project as a threat or Universal as a bona fide competitor. When the Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened, Disney claimed that “a rising tide lifts all boats” — that a stronger Universal was beneficial to Disney because it attracted more people to Central Florida. That’s inarguably true to some extent, but it’s also spin.
Of course, Disney’s tune could change once Epic Universe opens and Universal starts siphoning vacation time or, more importantly, hotel stays away from Walt Disney World. That could prompt the company to get more aggressive after the fact and come up with an answer, but it still won’t be an entire theme park. Now, let’s delve into the why of that.
Again, we’ll start with considerations that are undoubtedly front-of-mind for Florida management. The big one right now is staffing shortages. This seems to come up in just about every other post here these days, and there’s a reason for that: it’s the root cause of many problems and why so much has not returned to normal. It’s the driver behind park reservations and virtually anything that’s still missing from the full Walt Disney World experience right now.
The reason the parks are not at full capacity is entirely driven by staffing shortages, which reduces the total number of guests the parks can accommodate. In a nutshell, if certain entertainment and experiences are missing or the parks are unable to operate for as many hours as normal, overall park capacity decreases. Wait times are longer even though overall attendance limits are (significantly) lower because more guests are consolidated into fewer options.
There’s a certain cynicism among fans that this is intentional, so Walt Disney World can reduce its labor and operational costs. This is patently false. It is accurate that Disney wants to right-size its workforce and optimize efficiency during normal times. That is not what’s presently occurring.
Turning paying customers away during a period of sky-high consumer spending–which is what is happening right now–is a far bigger hit to revenue than the minimal cost of more employees. Just look at the lack of After Hours hard ticket parties, EPCOT festival seminars, and other upcharges–all of which are expensive add-ons for guests–that have not been happening. Disney is literally leaving millions of dollars on the table without these offerings. Does anyone really believe that’s a deliberate choice?
There’s a number of root causes of the labor shortage itself. As you’re undoubtedly aware, this is occurring around the United States–but is particularly bad in Central Florida due to somewhat unique circumstances. While this will normalize to some degree as the economy cools and normalizes, it’ll again be exacerbated by Epic Universe and a slate of other high-profile hospitality industry projects on the horizon.
Frankly, I wonder where Universal is going to find enough frontline employees for Epic Universe. They undoubtedly have a plan as Comcast is a sophisticated business that would certainly be cognizant of the local labor pool. Regardless, it will be an issue–and some of the smaller players that have plans to open in Orlando in the next few years may have a difficult time.
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. 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. Even with weekly job fairs and regular recruiting, Disney is still falling woefully short on staffing.
In reality, 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.
Beyond that, there are not actually credible rumors of a fifth gate even being considered (let alone actively worked on) for Walt Disney World. What chatter does exist is wishful thinking by fans who see the existing four Walt Disney World theme parks drawing record crowds, and deducing that the solution is more parks. It’s not a bad idea, but that doesn’t make it a realistic one consistent with Disney’s approach in Florida.
What this wishful thinking fails to take into account is the cost of developing and building new theme parks versus existing ones, the state and trajectory of the global economy, and the vacation trends of potential Walt Disney World visitors. From our perspective, pretty much every reliable indicator is against Walt Disney World building new parks.
Let’s start with visitor patterns. The average American’s vacation is between 4 and 6 days long, depending upon the source consulted. More to the point, that average has been on the decline for the last couple of decades, and Americans are leaving a record number of vacation days on the table (there’s article after article about the shrinking American vacation).
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 an issue because it necessarily means that a new park would cannibalize attendance from the existing gates, at least among a good segment of guests.
Of course, this doesn’t take into account the visitors from Europe who each ‘holiday’ at Walt Disney World for approximately 97 days (slight exaggeration), and it also doesn’t account for the diehard American Disney fans reading this who go for 7-10 days every year.
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. The average guest is simply not visiting for that long, and it’s important that we don’t confuse our own anecdotal experiences for the norm.
This relates to the theoretical fifth gate because the concept would need to fit within Walt Disney World’s existing structure as a vacation destination. Not in terms of theme, but in terms of time allocation. This is where all that blue sky fan daydreaming falls apart.
If the majority of visitors to Walt Disney World don’t have another park day to add, that fifth gate is a nonstarter. Heck, if even 30% of Walt Disney World visitors don’t have another potential park day, that’s a serious problem. This would mean that, for a large number of potential Walt Disney World visitors, the day to attend that theoretical 5th gate wouldn’t come from a beach day or be reallocated from another theme park in Orlando, it’d largely come at the expense of Walt Disney World’s existing parks.
Now, you might point to existing crowds in each of the four parks and say, “perfect.” From a guest perspective, there’s tremendous appeal in easing the burden on the existing parks, and decreasing attendance at each of them. I can promise you that Disney does not view things similarly. Decreased attendance at any of the existing parks, even if it meant higher attendance in aggregate, would be a negative. (Don’t believe them when they say the opposite–reducing attendance is not one of Disney’s actual goals.)
Assuming for the sake of argument that Disney does have an issue with current park crowd levels (they don’t), 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 is building 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.
While each of these additions is likely to induce more demand than it’ll add capacity (another topic for another day), this approach of expanding the footprint of existing parks 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 turnstiles, new backstage facilities, new 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.
That is to say nothing of labor costs, which would also be higher with a new gate versus an existing gate with added capacity. Simply put, expanding the existing parks is the conservative, cost-effective, and low-risk approach.
Let’s say you still disagree with our assessment for some reason, and think Walt Disney World leadership views a fifth gate as a “good idea” that’s on the horizon. Timing-wise, when do you see Walt Disney World building another theme park?
Personally, I find it difficult to look at recent decisions and conclude, “this is leadership with a grand vision!” To the contrary, they seem content milking what already exists, attempting tricks to increase per guest spending, while boasting about things like yield management rather than their creative vision. In order to bet big on a fifth gate (or anything ambitious) they need to have the zeal and guts to expand. Think back to the biggest Walt Disney World news of the last couple years…does any of that scream “creative vision and ambition” to you?
Beyond that, there are signs of a looming recession or slowdown, declines in consumer confidence, and the travel segment is likely to see pent-up demand fizzle out in the coming months. Of course, whatever is announced today would open in a different environment–maybe debuting during an economic expansion or recovery years from now. Still, building during a downturn requires vision and boldness.
From my perspective, the “best case” scenario for Disney’s boldness right now is seeing the resilience of its theme parks in the last couple of years while also realizing that direct-to-consumer streaming services may not be the robust business model they once thought. In such a scenario, the company’s leaders could feel emboldened to invest in Walt Disney World. Even then, those budgets will be pointed at expanding capacity in existing parks.
As for a 5th park at Walt Disney World sometime beyond that in the long-term, anything is possible. I know that I made the “not in our lifetimes” prediction at the beginning of the post, but that was more for the sake of a bombastic prediction. I personally don’t think that I will ever see a fifth gate, but I’ve been wrong plenty of times before.
Plus, it seems that whenever a prognostication exceeds a 5 year horizon, people tend to forget about it. I’ve seen other Disney commentators share their own “rumors” with regard to fifth gates years ago that should have come to fruition by now and no one has called them on it, so it felt like a safe thing to say. 😉
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Do you think a fifth gate is on the horizon at Walt Disney World? Do you agree or disagree with our reasons as to why one is unlikely 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!
Interesting and well written article. Disney is facing a lot of hurdles in trying to keep their place atop for the long run. Universal’s efforts were once looked at as second rate up until they open the Harry Potter sections which whether Disney likes to admit or not, it took the park experience to a new level. Since then Disney answered with the Avatar area in WDW, Cars Land in Disneyland, (I am actually surprised that they haven’t ported that over to WDW), and Galaxy’s Edge. However, Universal’s efforts are getting momentum and they are fully taking advantage of that to build their new gate. Plus, they are been more innovating in building a theme park for younger kids in Texas and a horror ride in Vegas. In 2021, Universal Orlando beat 3 of the 4 parks in DisneyWorld in attendance. Whether they could maintain that pace or not is irrelevant. The point has been made that Universal can compete with Disney in terms of parks. Central Florida now has 10 major theme parks (soon to be 11) and hundreds of other attractions of a smaller scale. If I were Disney, I would not open a fifth gate over at WDW. I would start developing ideas for what a brand new park would look somewhere in Texas. The rumor mill in the past always put the idea of a new resort for Disney in Texas if the company were actually to build a new one. The timing is wrong to build right now but not wrong to plan for something within the next 15-20 yrs. Right now, Disney is looking at foreign markets, most likely in Asia. In Europe it would dilute attendance to Disneyland Paris and the Asian deals are licensing and consulting deals which makes a ton of money for Disney at a much lower cost. Business-wise and short term, that’s the way to go. But here’s the rub, the park experience over at WDW is eroding fast. Overpriced, poor maintenance, under-staffed, cumbersome and still the longest lines I have ever seen if you choose not to pay extra for the freaking genie plus. It’s horrible, magic gone, being able to forget about your worries while there is gone as you must be tied up to your phone all day to do anything, even buying a hotdog on a whim. Let’s be realistic here, it sucks. Maybe not so much for newbies who had never experienced the good days of the resort. But for us who have repeatedly gone there over and over in the course of several decades, it is extremely disappointed. For the price I rather go to Europe and see real castles instead of fake ones. On the lower end, a cruise to the Caribbean on a gigantic ship with several stops in tropical islands come out at a cheaper cost per day than a stay at WDW. Going to WDW was something we looked forward as a family, last time we went was in 2022. I left wondering if I’ll ever come back. If they keep the rate of things as they are, I probably won’t. A new resort in Texas with a different park altogether could be used to enhance visits at the other resorts as well if done properly instead of just syphoning crowds away from them. If you place the resort between Houston and San Antonio somewhere along I-10, you could draw from both places culturally. Houston being home of NASA’s human space program would provide a compelling story line for a Space-related theme land while San Antonio with the Alamo and it’s rich history could provide some of that old west charm for a version of Frontierland that would be more unique. Some rides could be repeat from the other parks and some rides would be unique to that one. As guest spend their time in the new resort, there would be a push as well for them to “go visit WDW and Disneyland” as well.
Why Texas? Because it makes all the sense in the world. Second largest economy in the US eclipse only by that of California. Second most populous states in the US as well. 30 million people by itself is a decent size market. temperate weather with mild winters (specially between Houston and San Antonio), proximity to Mexico and easy access to the Latin American markets. Houston has two major international airports, Austin one and San Antonio one, all of them could be within no longer than a two hour drive to where the resort could be placed. Dallas airports (two of them as well) are some of the busiest in the nation but it would be a longer drive from there. Texas has three fo the top ten largest cities in the country (Houston, 4th, San Antonio 7th, Dallas 9th) Austin stands just outside the top ten at 11th. Texas economy is the ninth largest economy in the whole world. Larger than Canada, Korea, Russia and Australia. Travel and tourism in Texas has an economic impact of $164 billion per year, with over 72 million out-of-state visitors (pre-pandemic numbers, I am sure it took a bit of a dive since but the potential is there). If Disney indeed decided to make a new resort, it would be silly not to build it in Texas.
A fifth gate at WDW would not make sense right now but for the future, Disney should look into the Texas market to balance things and still provide an edge over the competition. Universal is beating them to the punch in Texas unless Disney decides to get into that action and go with a bigger and better trap. Otherwise, look for Disney to milk the Asian markets, (latin America is not politically stable enough to sustain a resort yet). But even then, Universal will be able to expand their own deals in Asia. There are already Universal Parks in Osaka, Japan, Singapore and Beijing but the market still has room for more. as the competition tightens, the thing is to come out with the next most immersive experience. For me, he elimination of any extra fees once you are in (even at the risk of yet another increase in ticket price to compensate), would go a long way in making the experience a nicer one. Maybe booth all over the place where you can check your reservations, activated by your magic band, would help ease the resilience on one’s personal phone while the battery drains. Right now having a drained phone in WDW is being dead in the water. There are things Disney can do to regain overall trust. They are just not doing them.
One word: DisneySea
I strongly believe that a 5 gate would be great for Disney World, they should start considering doing so sooner than later, if they don’t Disney World will be second to universal in time to come sooner than later.
The greedy jerks that run Disney just want to sit back and keep increasing theme park costs, souvenirs and food prices, and at the same time ripping people off by paying for a Genie pass, instead of free Fast Passes.
It is obvious to everyone that Disney could not care less about its visitors, or even their stockholders. They are blundering left and right by entering the political landscape, instead of shutting up and just running a company. Those hypocrites running the company just don’t care. They all have their golden parachute of hundreds of millions of dollars.
The smart thing for Disney to do is just add new attractions – is so hard to do? Have some of the rides from California come to Florida (who constantly gets treated like a stepchild, even though the company’s main revenue source is from the Florida Parks).
Animal Kingdom Park has always been a failure that takes up too much land and provides few attractions. That worthless park should plan to add 6 more rides, not dopey restaurants.
Then there is Hollywood Studios. Wow, they added two Toy Story Attractions and two Star Wars attractions. Big Deal!!!! That park also needs another half a dozen rides.
EPCOT has always been a disappointment. We waited forever for the latest new attractions. Is it so hard to design more future-orientated rides. How come Six Flags Parks throughout the country keep adding a new ride EVERY YEAR?
I am a Vacation Club member who finds the people running Disney to be despicable in their greed.
I hate this place now!!!!!
We are far more likely to see disney get rid of their parking lots, build large parking garages in the furthest lots from the gate and start build the parks out towards those garages. Your 4 gates will get larger before you see a new gate. This also allows them to stay withing the current foot print they have la d wise.
The Elephant that I did not see addressed is what happens if Universal, with its 3rd park, starts siphoning guests in significant numbers from WDW? Disney management in the past few years seem to have picked up a copy of an old Sears Co, management book: “How to Do Everything Wrong and Always Make the Wrong Choice”, while they’re teaching Master Class seminars on How to Alienate Your Fanbase.
I agree they’re going to do nothing right away. Recession looks inbound, inflation is far higher than the actual numbers indicate due to changes in how the numbers are calculated from the last time we had such severe inflation numbers (late 1970s). All of Orlando’s parks could be headed for a rude awakening, but Epic might well open when the economy is rebounding and might be perfectly timed to catch that wave, while WDW has…nothing (Besides the finishing refub at Epcot).
What WDW needs to do: First, rotate the sustained closures of the Water Parks for significant expansions and rebuilds to retake the water park lead back from Universal. Don’t touch the theming, but they need to compete better with Volcano Bay. This NOT an answer to Epic, but to VB.
But how to address Epic’s impact? New rides? We’re seeing how long that process is taking. Right now WDW needs to get its own house in order first, with way too many maintenance issues. Too many rides and resorts are showing their age. So take care of those basics before any new expansion.
Once they’ve done that, which will take years, then they can decide to either add rides to parks or a 5th park. One thing they SHOULD do: Repair relations with Florida and then work with their competitors on a campaign to increase vacay time in the US. Which would benefit Florida and truly would be a rising tide for the tourism industry.
Other responses? Expand hours, including Nighttime Extra hours back to ALL resort guests. Yes, additional rides, and, maybe, just maybe that 5th park.
Tom, you’re right about Disney’s current construction pace. But if Epic starts bleeding guests from WDW, I suspect that trend will reverse with astonishing rapidity.
I think Disney needs to focus on MAITENANCE ISSUES in all 4 parks. For those of us that did not wish to purchase Genie+ and waited in long lines only to be told after 1 to 2 hours wait, ride has gone down, so sad too bad situation as there was no offer a time to come back. This was unfortunately the case during our 2 week stay @ the Wilderness Lodge Jan 2022. Every park we were in had major rides down, extremely disappointing!!!
With that said the Avatar on the Navi River ride moved and swayed as if real, Disney needs to step up and update the animatronics in all parks.
Expansion in the current parks would be nice. When they are full, you can barely get into anything. Attendance > capacity
This sounds spot on although I have a teen who would love a Percy Jackson land!
Hopefully WDW will add more rides to all four parks….
I don’t know Tom- may be wishful thinking but they have 66 acres of land with brand new permits over at blizzard beach. Foreseeable future, probably not- but I think there is definitely an appetite for that 5th gate leveraging available resources. Turning that into a winter themed park with the fake snow or a villains playground would be cake.
With Disney’s recent downturn in the value of their stock, there’s no justifiable reason to build a new theme park, especially after Florida stripped Disney of their self-governing status. Let’s see if Disney and Florida can work out their differences before talking about building another park.
As Tom said, many of those poor decisions are reversible easily enough. But a vocal minority of cast members have made a huge mess for all. Only time will tell how this shakes out.