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 undoubtedlyhave 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. 😉
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!