Development of Theme Park Real Estate and the future of theme park designing.


Walt Disney had a dream. He wanted to contribute solutions to the problems that pressed the urban society of North America. He envisioned a perfect woth, with an atmosphere of a better life than the one lived in conventional suburban developments, but also better than that of similar developments of closed communities that have proliferated. Calm streets lined with trees, free of advertising hoardings, bicycles without padlocks, vast areas of open spaces in the form of parks, communal buildings, squares and Neighbourough Electric Vehicles to get around the neighbourhood.

This became His EPCOT: Epcot (Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow) was to be the materialization of this initiative: a community of some 20,000 people that was completely regulated, with infrastructures controlled by a central system and strict codes of conduct. In his last promotional film produced before his death, he described Epcot as ‘a new model of a city which could influence the shape of urban life in the future’.

Part of the technology that Disney would have required to materialize its plan was not yet available at the end of the 1960s or it was too expensive.

The death of Walt Disney meant that the plans for Epcot were totally reconsidered and that the project was carried out in the easiest way for the company: a theme park.


In the 1980s the company embarked on an important process of diversification and wished to take advantage if its experience in the design of spaces, the management of groups, transport and entertainment. It is in this context that the development projects for hotels, resorts, malls and office buildings on the property in Orlando multiplied, with the Disney Development Company being created specifically for this purpose.

As of the 1980s the Disney Company became committed to projects that were not directly linked to its existing parks and gained experience in the real world. It developed consultancy projects like the Johnson Space Center in Houston and the Gen Autry Western Heritage Museum in Los Angeles, and advised cities as Long Beach, Seattle and Anaheim. Disney offered knowledge and know-how on matters such as theming, merchandising, traffic and the management of the masses.


In this context, Michael Eisner took up Disney’s idea of creating a community, though taking another look at its bases. This was Celebration: a city of 20,000 residents designed in 1988 in accordance with the principles of traditional urbanism.

A pedestrian town with a coherent structure of streets and squares with no fences. It is not a closed community like those that are distorting urban revitalization in the USA. There is no corporate police. There are, on the other hand, mixed uses of space and of buildings, for example apartments over the shops in Main Street.

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Celebration was the materialization of the aesthetic and ethical idea of what a city should be like according to Disney ideology.

The question is whether Celebration is a model for urban renovation schools such as New Urbanism would have it, or whethere it represents the failure of real urban America.

Celebration is a reanimation of the ideal American suburb in a form that never existed anywhere but strikes everybody as familiar.

Celebration aims to rediscover the civic life of 50 years ago. Thus, funcional activities such as garages are located behind houses. The fronts are meeting places, for riding a bicycle or for walking. Computerized systems make the homes ‘smart’. customized presence of technology, a certain type of atmosphere and specific formats of the houses.

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For Disney a town is not just its structure and design, but also the relationships that are established among its citizens and with its institutions.

It is a completely controlled, private urban community, conceived on the basis of values like the family and enterprise with an absence of problems of ethnic and class differences.

But towns need the presence of indigent poor as well as of physically and mentally unfortunate citizens in order to sustain instincts of decent humanity in everyone else, and how does a city behave when such factors are not designed in?

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The town worked while a lot of factors were kept out, but when the financial crises started to have an effect on Celebration as well, cracks appeared in the Disney bubble. More and more houses are not perfect maintained anymore. Lots of houses are empty, no one mowing the grasss every sunday…. Besides that the citizens want to have more value for what they can buy as well. Not only expensive shops and luxurious restaurants but also a place where you can eat fries and hamburgers. Slowly but steadily Celebration is recovering. But that is only because the people who life there make it work. They created projects for the less fortunate members of society and created shops and restaurants with more affordable products. The Disney society kept creating branded buildings and spaces that can be rent for high prices but the citizens just can’t or won’t pay the high prices that go with that for products that are a lot cheaper outside of town. So the Disney glamour has vanished and Celebration is now basically a town like any other, where people find their daily needs. But it still has the built in concepts of more communicating with neighbours and it is a more friendly city than most in the area. Plus it has some of the greatest theme parks nearby.

For Disney there were three reasons for the city:

1. The growing privatization of spaces which at the time were clearly in the public domain.

2. A growing watch over public spaces and controlled access in order to improve security.

3. The increasing use of designs that use simulations in theme park style and the rupture of connections with local history and geography.

The activities that used to take place in the public arena have shifted into private areas and have become a good for sale. Feasts, festivals, parades, ceremonies, sports and entertainment are better in private places than in that common cultural good, the public arena, an open space where people got together communicated and were committed in cultural matters.

Public space has changed from a meeting place, the heart of social life, into a highly regulated domain, where every individual demands safety and security.

Today it is private areas that put on sale the satisfaction of the private needs of leisure time. the places – squares and streets – have met a competitor; markets, malls, activity parks and theme parks.

You have to pay for the public life.

 Conclusions concerning the dynamics of privatization:

– It makes an officious urbanism policy possible.

– It facilitates political strategies of economic growth.

– It imposes development costs on the outside public.

– It reduces the capacity of the local public sector to plan growth.

– It causes contrary reactions when the problem of the management of growth becomes manifest.

– It gradually erodes power relations.

There are three characteristics that distinguish this new situation:

1. the disappearance of all stable relationships between things urban and the physical geography and local culture, the loss of specific links with the space.

2. The obsession with security and the proliferation of surveillance systems and segmentation.

3. the domination of simulations of the past as a replacement for the present and as a way of giving urban value to the new.

A nice example is Melaka in Malaysia. Since the 1980s the city was transformed from a political city to a new capital-intensive tourist destination. In the old days Melaka was known for its trade in mostly spices. Then government found the city and made it a policital capital. but after the politicians left the city went dead. This also threatened the historic heritage. so protection programmes were started and historic heritage went into museums. From the Malaysian state’s point of view the conservative status of historic landscapes limits their development potential and, in the era of mega development potential.

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And the development of theme park projects is also a strategy by which to engage in related property development schemes. Thus the largest-scale project, Baba Nonya Heritage Village, blends the leisure theme directly into a residential development and so blurs the distinction between home and tourism, substituting authentic landscapes of Melaka town with themed copies.

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The urbanism of parks generates new territorial identities. In spite of the lack of heritage, parks are concerned with proposing an identity via their narrative for the area they organize. They want to be spaces with content. Transferred to the rest of the area both in the creation of new places and as regards to the valorisation of pre-existing historical places.

In short, today’s practises of urban development and the preservation of heritage are applying the creative practise of the parks to the logic of the creation of places, because it is not just a question of the peripheral creation of malls or of resorts: it is also a question of the commercial reconversion of the historical centres.

The result is the creation of environments which, in spite of being supposedly real and having their identity, are scenographic inauthentic, though economically viable. There is a need to create identities that are adapted to the needs of visits.

Disney arrived in Seattle in order to advise as to the reconversion of the Seattle Center. This ageing civic and entertainment area had been built on the occasion of the 1962 universal exposition. Disney said they could help to reformulate the area. For this Disney designed a project which was to become its first and biggest incursion into town planning outside Disney property. Disney not only offered a proposal to redesign the landscape but also the development, financing and operations. Three years later, and following a promising start, Disney abandoned the project. There were two fundamental reasons:

– Disney’s inability to create designs for the Seattle Center that came into line with the residents’ wishes and needs.

– Disney’s apparent lack of willingness to remedy this situation by seeking the opinion, or taking it on board when offered, of local agents.

The Seattle Center was finally renovated without Disney. Its current configuration has incorporated the efforts of the numerous architects, planners, designer and other citizens the explicitly rejected the Disney project which did not manage to capture the local culture and suitably incorporated the ethnic diversity of the town’s social groups.

It seems distinctive of these dynamics that modernization, rather than constituting a straight path ahead, instead assumes a more complex form in which the global is tailored to the local and vice versa. In this way, rather than completely undermine and replace local cultures, identification is possible of a global trend towards staged and reconstructed authenticity, wherein traditional crafts, dances and etc. are artificially preserved and reconstructed.

While Southeast Asian theme parks may appear to be commercially viable and internationally appealing, and aking to the universal Disney product, they also communicate and respond to the various impulses of what is often construed as local.

The Township Model

China’s first theme park opened in the early 1990s, added to residential developments as a bonus — an extra attraction for the city’s new residents. “[Developers] had the idea of building a town, and decided to include a number of theme parks to anchor the development,” says Chris Yoshii, the global director of the consulting group AECOM. “That township model has caught on. It has been replicated in China and to some extent in South East Asia.”

The attraction of combining a residential and commercial development with a theme park, Yoshii says, has to do with the intensive capital requirements that come along with theme parks. Parks are attractive to local governments because they can attract tourism and encourage locals to spend their disposable income within the city. A successful park, however, requires infrastructure and a large initial investment. “A lot of the cities themselves don’t have money to invest themselves, but they do have land,” says Yoshii. To get their theme parks, cities will offer land to developers willing to include a theme park in their plan. This way, Yoshii says, “The city gets what they want without putting out much money. All they have to do is issue land approvals.”

In turn, a developer can include residential and commercial units in their theme park “township.” These aspects of the development offer a quicker return on investment. “They can use the residential element to pay for some of the infrastructure costs,” says Yoshii. “And at the end, you have a park that is generating a good return while some of the capital has already been paid back.”

While the majority of theme parks in China are built this way, the formula does not always produce stellar results. In some cases, developers have not delivered on their promise to develop a theme park and have focused instead on residential and commercial real estate alone. In others, the theme park is an afterthought –poorly put together, poorly maintained and poorly run.

“Surveys show that the majority of theme parks [in China] have been loss making,” points out Michel Brekelmans, the co-head of L.E.K. Consulting’s China operationsbased in Shanghai. Local governments will often offer land at a steep discount to developers who include a theme park in their plan. “Not surprisingly, many of these parks have been unsuccessful and leave visitors with a disappointing experience,” Brekelmans says.

China’s earliest parks were intended to present China to foreign tourists. These include the parks Splendid China and China Folk Cultural Village. Soon after, a park called Window of the World opened in Shenzhen, offering visitors a look at  theworld—the pyramids, the Eiffel Tower—on a small scale. China’s largest theme park chain, Happy Valley, opened its first park in the 1990s, offering a more Western-style format, introducing its own characters and dividing the park into different themed areas.

While Happy Valley has been successful and expanded, the majority of parks opening in China are either animal themed or loose adaptations of existing theme parks. According to Brekelmans, the majority of new parks will present visitors with an amalgamation of thrill rides, roller coasters and Ferris wheels. “More recently local operators are realizing that theming … is a key factor in marketing the park and creating the overall experience,” he says. “We’re seeing more attempts to come up with original concepts.”

Although Brekelmans believes the majority of new parks opening in China are still poorly planned and unlikely, in the long run, to succeed, he also sees changes in the market. With the arrival of Disney and other multinational projects, he says, more expertise and dedication is being shown across the board. “A wave of [joint ventures] with foreign players is entering the market, bringing with them the skills and concepts to succeed in China,” he says. “Slowly local players are learning lessons, and many smaller upstarts have exited the market.”