Master Planning a Theme Park: The First Steps

The feasibility study is the first step the development team takes in master planning a theme park because it provides important guidance for designers, construction companies, and management. An industry expert usually prepares this detailed study, which is required by potential lenders and investors. It is critical that designs are in line with market needs and justified investment.

This study provides initial physical parameters, such as total land size needed and building space required. It also recommends the attraction mix and major components. Click here for more details on the feasibility study process.
The planning firm conducting the feasibility study may also expand that effort and add initial theme park design and master planning. These could include images of the new leisure attraction seen through the eyes of a typical visitor, which would help define the project's "look and feel" in financing and promotional presentations. This effort would also begin the detailed planning process needed to move the project towards completion.
Although the actual process developers use to build a theme park differs from one project to another, the following paragraphs outline a typical approach for the initial conceptual design stage.

Concept Development in the Feasibility Study

The development process generally begins with a site visit and initial meeting to discuss the client's vision for the new leisure attraction. Conceptually, the design effort begins with a blank page. The greatest opportunity occurs when unique aspects of the project can be effectively integrated with the proven experience of comparable attractions elsewhere and potential market support for this particular location. The resulting plan is generally the strongest tool in financing and operational efforts.

Design Charrette

As the feasibility study nears completion, the physical and financial framework is in place for conceptual design. The transition often occurs in a "design charrette" that brings together the client group with designers and other creative team members. The study's findings are discussed, and ideas presented by all involved.
Specific goals for this brainstorming session differ, depending on the type of leisure attraction being developed. For a new theme park or amusement park, this effort can begin with selecting a general overall theme and specific themes for individual areas. The most popular themes typically involve adventure or fantasy.
From the start, it is important to keep the potential guest experience in mind. Ultimate success depends on the new leisure attraction meeting visitor expectations and desires.

Land Use Plan

At the design charrette, the master planning process also begins. It often starts with a "bubble diagram" that applies the feasibility study's physical recommendations to the client's site. This initial land use plan becomes more refined and detailed as it adapts to the particular needs of the concept and site.
A "theme park" typically has five to seven distinctively themed areas under a broad overall theme.  Each themed area has a unique identity that is reinforced by its architecture and landscaping. .

The functional layout often follows the "loop" approach that is common with many recent theme parks. In this layout, the themed areas surround a central lake that often serves as the location for evening spectacles. Another common layout is the "hub and spoke" approach that Disneyland first popularized. It has a central visual icon (such as a castle) as its hub, with themed areas fanning out from this centerpiece. Other layouts are used, and none is clearly superior to the others. Unique site characteristics influence the choice of the best functional layout, as well as other design aspects.
After establishing the themed areas, individual components are distributed within each area. Major rides and shows are typically placed at the edges in order to attract guests throughout the park. This approach helps maximize overall holding capacity and crowd flow. The main shops are generally placed near the exit for convenience.
Based on typical guest behavior and pedestrian planning standards, a visitor circulation plan can also be prepared to ensure smooth movement throughout the theme park. This enhances guest comfort and prevents bottlenecks.

Illustrated Master Plan

Functional needs are combined with visual theming in an illustrated master plan. Structures are often color-coded by type in order to aid optimum distribution and placement.

Aerial Perspective

Although functional aspects are critical for operational success, a new theme park also needs to be visually appealing and understandable to non-professional individuals involved with the project. An effective way of showcasing a new theme park is with an aerial perspective, often from a "bird's-eye" perspective. This perspective gives a better sense of what the theme park would look like as it more clearly comes to life in the eyes of viewers. As the overall design vision for the project takes form, more detailed views of smaller parts of the project (such as an individual themed area) can also be prepared.

Concept Art

Our visual perspective can also shift to ground level, now that we have a detailed overall perspective. These artist conception images provide a view of the new leisure attraction through the eyes of a typical visitor.

Past Consulting Projects

Selected past theme park and amusement park projects are described below. These include past consulting efforts by John Gerner, LBA's managing director.

Proposed Disney Theme Park (Latin America)

The Walt Disney Company is the leading theme park developer in the world. Its locations include Disneyland, Walt Disney World, Tokyo Disney Resort, Disneyland Park (Paris), Hong Kong Disneyland, and Shanghai Disneyland. As a senior consultant with Economics Research Associates in the 1980s, John Gerner (LBA's managing director) evaluated locations in Latin America for a proposed Disney theme park.

Universal Studios: Back to the Future - The Ride (Worldwide)

Universal Studios has theme parks in the USA, Japan, and Singapore. John Gerner, LBA's managing director, served as president of Berkshire Ridefilm during the early 1990s. During that time, the company produced the highly acclaimed simulation film for "Back to the Future - The Ride", which was directed by Douglas Trumbull.

Major New Theme Park (China)

Village Roadshow is Australia's largest amusement park operator and owns Warner Bros. Movie World, Sea World, Wet'n'Wild Water World, and other attractions. In 2011, LBA evaluated the market and financial potential of developing a major new attraction in China for Village Roadshow.

Hopi Hari (Brazil)

Hopi Hari is one of the largest theme parks in South America, and is located near Sao Paulo in Brazil. It is 76 hectares (188 acres) in size, and cost USD$220 million to develop.  As a subcontractor to International Theme Park Services, John Gerner (LBA's managing director) evaluated the market and financial feasibility of Hopi Hari.

Pavilion Nostalgia Park (USA)

Pavilion Nostalgia Park is located within the Broadway at the Beach tourist complex in Myrtle Beach, and opened in 2007. During its planning stage, LBA evaluated Pavilion Nostalgia Park's potential financial performance for Burroughs & Chapin Co, Inc.

Nanshan Cultural Tourism Zone (China)

The Nanshan Culture Tourism Zone is approximately 27 hectares (67 acres) in size, and contains several tourist attractions. These include the Hainan Culture Park, Felicity and Longevity Park, and Buddhist Culture Park. Its centerpiece is the Guanyin Statue of Hainan, which is currently the fourth tallest statue in the world. As a subcontractor to Economics Research Associates, John Gerner (LBA's managing director) evaluated the feasibility of developing this major tourism project.

La Ronde (Canada)

La Ronde is a theme park in Montreal that is approximately 59 hectares (146 acres) in size. It offers 40 rides, including ten roller coasters. As a subcontractor to Economics Research Associates, John Gerner (LBA's managing director) evaluated the potential of expanding this theme park and adding year-round uses on the site. These uses included a retail entertainment center, waterpark resort hotel, and expanded marina.

Six Flags New England (USA)

Formerly named "Riverside Park", Six Flags New England is located in Massachusetts. As a subcontractor to Economics Research Associates, John Gerner (LBA's managing director) evaluated the theme park's operating history, market potential, and likely annual attendance based on its planned capital improvements.

Cedar Point (USA)

Cedar Point is a major theme park in Ohio. John Gerner (LBA's managing director) was a senior consultant with Economics Research Associates. He evaluated the impact of various factors on past operating performance. These factors included capital reinvestment, pricing, marketing efforts, economic conditions, and weather.

Busch Gardens Williamsburg (USA)

Busch Gardens Williamsburg is located in Virginia and has been repeatedly voted the world's most beautiful theme park by amusement park enthusiasts. John Gerner (LBA's managing director) was an internal productivity supervisor during the early 1980s, and evaluated the operating performance of individual rides and other components of the park. He also examined past financial performance based on various factors, and prepared the theme park's financial breakeven analysis.

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