All the major theme park companies have released their quarterly financial earnings reports, and many of those statements shared a common theme — “It’s all the weather’s fault.”
Several companies blamed the weather at least in part for disappointing financial results in 2023. Following a rainy spring, smoke from Canadian wildfires and the brutal heat of summer, enough people stayed home that the parks noticed their absence on their bottom lines.
Not every park suffered, however. The new Super Nintendo World pushed Universal Studios Hollywood to record attendance numbers this year, while the Disney100 celebrations and new attractions helped Disneyland put even more distance between itself and other local rivals. The success that Disney and Universal enjoyed this year showed that it is possible to build attractions whose popularity is resistant to outside challenges, including the weather.
Companies such SeaWorld and the soon-to-be combined Six Flags and Cedar Fair might hope that investors see this year’s bad weather as an unusual circumstance. But anyone who has been following the news about climate change has reason to fear that this year’s wild weather is more likely a step toward a new, harsher normal than some kind of one-off.
Even Disney and Universal are not immune from the weather. In Florida, the traditional afternoon thunderstorms failed to materialize for much of the summer this year, leaving visitors melting in brutal heat and humidity. In both Florida and Southern California, summer has lost its former status as the “high season” for theme parks, as more and more visitors choose instead to visit in the more temperate spring or fall.
So how can parks better weatherproof themselves? SeaWorld has introduced a weather guarantee that includes extreme heat for its parks. But that only helps visitors whose trips are interrupted by variable weather — it rains one day, but the sun comes out the next; it’s hot one day, but then turns pleasant. When the temperature blows past 95 degrees every day, without relief, a weather guarantee provides no comfort to tourists who must go home at the end of the week.
Parks will need capital design changes to provide the comfort that visitors need as once-pleasant destinations become hotter and harsher. Yet the answer is not to encase parks entirely indoors, as we are seeing the Middle East. People have biological and emotional needs for sunshine, especially when on vacation.
The next generation’s theme parks will need to minimize the walking space between attractions. That space will need to be filled with shady trees and cooling landscaping, not cheap concrete and tarmac. Waiting, dining and shopping areas will need to be indoors, or at least covered and cooled, but with natural light shining in, where thematically appropriate.
Most of all, rides and show will need to be so compelling — and comfortable — that people will be willing to come out and experience them. Bad weather is not an excuse for theme parks to dismiss. Bad weather is the design challenge that will determine the industry’s future.
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