Rumors and speculation are once 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. (We’re talking fifth theme park gate–none of that ‘water theme park’ nonsense.)
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. First, following record crowds to start the early 2020 “off-season” months, there have been more rumblings among Walt Disney World fans about the need for another theme park. “Feels like” crowds and capacity during the last couple months definitely lend credence to this.
Second, the global coronavirus outbreak is likely to have an impact on Walt Disney World. We’re not necessarily predicting a closure, but attendance is likely to decrease regardless due to trip cancellations. While this could very well be a short-term blip, it also could have long-term ramifications, leading to an economic downturn or even a recession. At the very least, the situation will likely give Disney pause about any aggressive development plans…
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. 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, 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.
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? I’d argue that there was no better time than right now.
Consumer confidence and sentiment statistics, something we discuss on this blog with frequency, are at an all-time high, which has been great for Walt Disney World’s quarterly results. Additionally, for the last several years, commercial construction has been historically cheap, and we’ve seen an explosion in development across the travel and tourism sector as a result.
Personally, I’m fairly bearish about the global economy, and think we’re nearing the end of a prolonged and prosperous economic growth cycle that is (over)due to wind down. (This was true even before the coronavirus fears materialized, and is doubly so now.) Of course, if I could predict this sort of thing with certainty, I’d be putting my talents to better use than writing a speculative Walt Disney World blog post, so take that with a grain of salt.
The point is that the last few years into (perhaps) the next couple of years are arguably as good as it gets for Walt Disney World from a business point of view. We’re seeing an unprecedented amount of investment, and none of it is going towards a new theme park. It’s all pointed at expanding capacity in existing parks.
No matter what else happens in the real world, it’s highly likely that Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary celebration will be a major driver of attendance. Assuming that the event ends in early 2023–probable if it’s an 18 month celebration–that means we’re likely ~3 years away from any major downturn in attendance.
However, unless you also believe that this same timeframe will also see unprecedented consumer confidence and sustained economic growth–with a forecast beyond that timeframe for more of the same–it’s hard to envision Disney being so bullish on the country’s long-term economic prospects to build another park in Florida rather than expanding the current ones.
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. 😉
I’ll tell you what though, since I’m an honorable guy, I’ll put my money where my mouth is. The first person to find me in Walt Disney World’s fifth gate will be handsomely rewarded with a prize currently valued at ~$8,000: one whole bitcoin. I am absolutely willing to make good on that, and it should tell you everything you need to know about how confident I am in my prediction.
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!