Why Do Theme Park Attractions Cost So Much Money to Design and Build?

With theme park ticket prices soaring globally, many rightfully so continue to ask why is it so expensive to visit a theme park for just one day. All theme park Guests feel the sting when they purchase their daily tickets or annual passes.

There are many factors that affect increased theme park gate ticket prices, however, one of the key reasons is the every increasing cost to design and build world-class theme park attractions, lands, new parks, and hotels.

Reasons for the High Cost of Theme Parks

There are many reasons why new entire theme parks or new theme park attractions are costly to design and build. We have organized the main reasons into the following six categories:

  • High-maintenance and operation costs
  • Detailed and realistic sets and environments
  • Safety and regulatory compliance
  • Intellectual Property
  • Research and development

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Factors Contributing to the High Cost of Theme Parks

High-tech special effects and technology

Many modern theme park attractions use cutting-edge technology, such as virtual reality (VR) and 4D special effects, to create immersive and exciting experiences for visitors. These technologies can be quite expensive to develop and incorporate into an attraction.

Many of the larger theme park owners work with, or have internal, technology research groups to develop new ways of injecting technology into their storytelling. For example, Walt Disney Imagineering has its own internal R&D department scattered throughout the world – groups that are associated with colleges and universities working on new special effects.

That’s not to say that every new invention will make its way into a theme park attraction. Like many of the Blue Sky concepts that are put on moth balls, many of the inventions never see the light of day by any Guests.

However, there are those inventions that Creative may select to use to further enhance the storytelling within theme parks. A great example of this is seen at Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Pandora. The self-illuminating ‘plants’ and walkways are a real-world example of Disney created technology used in the theme parks.

Detailed and realistic sets and environments

Many theme park attractions require the construction of detailed and realistic sets and environments, which can be quite costly to build. This can include things like intricate and lifelike sets, detailed costumes and props, and even live actors and performers.

For Theme Park Architects and Show Set Designers, this is our bread and butter in theme parks. Long gone are the days when flat painted sets will make headlines in our industry – as seen in legacy attractions, such as Peter Pan’s Flight, Alice in Wonderland, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, etc.

Theme park Guests and designers crave more and can deliver highly detailed, realistic architectural facades and show set pieces that seemingly are lifted right out of one’s favorite IP (movie), but translated into 3D form that can stand the test of weathering, Guests ware-and-tare and meet all the applicable building code requirements.

Great examples of this are the Millennium Falcon in Galaxy’s Edge, the floating ‘clouds’ in Pandora, the toys in Andy’s backyard in Toy Story Land, and in the new Super Mario land at Universal.

Safety and regulatory compliance

Theme parks are heavily regulated and must meet strict safety standards. The design and construction of attractions must adhere to these regulations, which can add significant cost.

I could quite literally write an entire book on the extensive effort and the massive list of local, regional, state, and Federal Codes, laws, and company safety standards theme park designs – created by the theme park Architects and Engineers – in the U.S. must abide by to simply get a building permit and ultimately a final Certificate of Occupancy.

When you’re placing Guests into unfamiliar, often dark or dimly lit, immersive environments with show lighting, special effects, often ride paths, show action equipment, etc., the safety standards for both the Guests and the operators is exponential.

This is why I often proclaim on this website that awesome theme park renderings are drawings are great – I love them as well – but it’s the Architects and Engineers record documents they produce that allow theme parks to be built and provide a safe environment.

To properly design safe theme park facilities, it takes a small army of highly skilled professionals to go through every nut and bolt, every aspect and component of a theme park project to ensure it meets all applicable Codes and company safety standards. It’s an enormous task that takes time and money to design and build one-off or prototype themed environments no one has ever attempted to bring to fruition.

Intellectual Property

Intellectual Property characters
Images courtesy Disney & Marvel Comics.

If a theme park decides to create an attraction based on a popular franchise such as Harry Potter, Star Wars, or any other IP, they must pay royalties to the owners of the IP. This can add significant cost to the attraction.

As benchmark Intellectual Property is continually injected into new theme park offerings, the cost – even if owned by the theme park owner’s parent company – can be high to say the least.

Also, you have to factor in the cost of coordination and oversight that comes along with infusing IP into a built, theme park environment. The gatekeepers on the IP side have the final say if the theme park design meets the IP’s approval – provided for continuity of that particular brand.

So, when Disney decided to expand their theme parks with a new Star Wars themed land, Walt Disney Imagineering Creatives worked side-by-side with creatives and leaders from Lucasfilm and ILM. Everything had to be approved for continuity with the Star Wars ecosphere. The same with Pixar for Toy Story Land, Harry Potter at Universal, etc.

High-maintenance and operation costs

Theme Park attractions require regular maintenance and upkeep, which can be costly. Additionally, the operation of an attraction requires staffing, which also adds to the cost.

I’m not going to speak to any specific dollar values, but I can attest to knowing the annual maintenance budgets for many of the world’s most popular theme parks. The cost to maintain world-class theme parks on a daily basis, 365 days of the year is staggering.

Even with a high annual maintenance budget, each year theme park operators negotiate what particular efforts and projects they can address each fiscal year. Not every maintenance issue which is tracked and coordinated gets addressed each year. Often, large projects are pushed to later fiscal years because there’s only so much money allotted in the budget, for each park to utilize.

Research and Development

Designing and building an attraction takes a lot of research and development. This includes researching what visitors want, what the competition is doing, and what technology is currently available. All this process takes time and money.

As previously mentioned, the cost of R&D – find that next amazing special effect or gimmick – to bring a new spin on theme park storytelling is very costly. Especially, when you consider many of the new patents obtained and inventions created get filed away and never used.

In conclusion, creating a theme park attraction is a complex and costly endeavor that requires significant investments in technology, design, construction, and maintenance. However, for many theme parks, the cost is well worth it as the attractions can bring in significant revenue and attract visitors from all over the world.

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