How can you build a theme park to combat climate change?
Guests enjoy the scorching heat at Universal Studios theme park in Orlando in May 2022. (Photo by Stephen M. Doyle, Orlando Sentinel)
All major theme park companies released their quarterly financial earnings reports, and many of these statements shared a common theme – “It’s the weather’s fault.”
Many companies blamed the weather, at least in part, for disappointing financial results in 2023. After a wet spring, Canadian wildfire smoke, and brutal summer heat, enough people stayed home that theme parks noticed their absence in their bottom lines.
However, not every garden suffered. The new Super Nintendo World has pushed Universal Studios Hollywood to record attendance numbers this year, while Disney’s 100th celebrations and new attractions have helped Disneyland put more distance between itself and other local competitors. The success of Disney and Universal this year has shown that it is possible to build attractions whose popularity can withstand external challenges, including weather.
Companies like SeaWorld and the soon-to-be-merged Six Flags and Cedar Fair may be hoping investors will see this year’s bad weather as an unusual circumstance. But anyone who follows the news about climate change has reason to fear that this year’s extreme weather is a step toward a new normal that is more severe than just a one-off.
Even Disney and Universal are not immune to the weather. In Florida, traditional afternoon thunderstorms failed to appear for much of the summer this year, causing visitors to melt in the sweltering heat and humidity. In both Florida and Southern California, summer has lost its former status as “peak season” for theme parks, as more and more visitors instead choose to visit in the milder spring or fall.
So how can gardens be better weather-resistant? SeaWorld has offered a weather guarantee that includes extreme heat for its parks. But this only helps visitors whose trips are interrupted by changeable weather, as it rains one day, but the sun shines the next; One day it’s hot, then it’s nice the next. When the temperature exceeds 95 degrees every day, without respite, the weather guarantee provides no respite for tourists who must return home at the end of the week.
Parks will need major design changes to provide the comfort visitors need, as once-fun destinations become hotter and harsher. However, the solution is not to completely cover parks indoors, as we see in the Middle East. People have biological and emotional needs for sunlight, especially when they are on vacation.
Next generation theme parks will need to reduce walking space between attractions. This space should be filled with shady trees and cool landscaping, not cheap concrete and tarmac. Waiting, dining and shopping areas should be indoors, or at least covered and cooled, but with natural light, when thematically appropriate.
Most important of all, rides and offers need to be so compelling — and convenient — that people will be willing to come out and try them. Bad weather is no excuse to close theme parks. Bad weather is the design challenge that will define the future of the industry.
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