Guide to Theme Park Design

View-of-amusement-park-from-waterfront

| Jan 5, 2022

Designing a theme park is an ambitious and exciting enterprise. Whether it’s to attract new visitors to an area, entertain a built-in audience or fulfill a life-long dream, this type of endeavor requires a healthy amount of planning, preparation and passion. Just ask Walt Disney, whose crowning achievement was Disneyland, a theme park most everyone thought would fail. Despite the myriad of obstacles, Walt put his time, money and energy into creating something built to last. It worked. 

Nowadays, Disneyland and its sister property, Walt Disney World Resort, are two of the most frequented theme parks in the world. Other parks, such as Universal Studios, Cedar Point and Six Flags properties, draw millions to their locations too. These places are carefully designed, deliberately crafted and fine-tuned to bring exciting attractions to guests on a daily basis. How did they do it? In this guide, we’ll dissect the key features of theme park planning, attraction design and park layouts. By the end, you’ll be one step closer to opening your very own amusement park!

Planning a Theme Park

Before you begin drawing up schematics for rides, restaurants and parking lots, you first need to create a foundation for your future theme park. Laying the groundwork in the planning stages can avoid preventable pitfalls down the road. Here are the five key factors for planning a theme park.     

Choose a Theme

True to its name, a theme park needs to have a theme! Without one, you’re more or less lumping thrill rides and amusements in one central location. Theming, on the other hand, lends a sense of cohesiveness to your park. Essentially, it is the very first attraction you’re offering guests — the opportunity to immerse themselves in a new world that is full of stories, thrills and fun.

Boy sitting in t-rex's mouth

Sometimes the right theme is upfront and concrete. Other times it evolves as you build up the park and guests offer feedback. For instance, Disney World’s EPCOT park was designed to showcase an experimental prototype community of tomorrow. Over time, the theme transitioned to a perpetual World’s Fair, and it remains that way today. Universal Studios, on the other hand, was designed to replicate a Hollywood studio lot. Attractions are designed to immerse guests in a film-making experience, complete with sound stages, exterior shooting lots, and so on. Either way, these themes inform designers and engineers as they build upon the park. 

As you brainstorm the theme for your park, find the middle ground between broad and specific. If you’re too vague, you may confuse your guests or lose some storytelling integrity along the way. If you’re too niche, then you may end up pigeon-holing future projects. Here are some typical themes to help get you started:

  • Adventure: Thrills rides and action
  • Nature: The natural world, animals, science and conservation.
  • Fantasy: Myths, legends, fictional lands, heroes and villains.
  • Historical: Period-based, reenactments, costumed, day-in-the-life and educational. 
  • Film: Based on movies, the art of movie-making and celebrity.

Settling on your theme will help you find your focus and prepare you to hone in on your park design and park experiences.   

Finalize a Budget

Finalizing a budget is what separates the dreamers from the doers. Developing an amusement park is a serious undertaking that needs funding to turn it into a reality. It’s okay if you don’t have thousands or millions of dollars in capital sitting in the bank. Investors are a great option for bringing your park to life. In order to win them over though, you’ll need to show them how you plan to spend their money to build the park and how you plan to become profitable. Conducting research will go a long way in helping you estimate an accurate figure to get started. Here are some expenditures to keep in mind you finalize your budget:

  • The cost of buying or leasing property to build your park. 
  • Salaries for engineers, designers and contractors.
  • Labor and materials for the attractions.
  • Tables, umbrellas, seating and trash cans.
  • Marketing and advertising expenses.
  • Food and merchandise overhead.
  • Employees and staff to run the park.

Do the leg work on the front-end of this process. Be sure to dig into things like expected ticket prices, project feasibility and projections too!     

Find a Location

If you don’t have a place to build your park, then you’re dead in the water. Work with a reliable commercial real estate agent to scope out possible tracts of land in your desired location. Remember, you’ll need space for more than just rides and stores. There is a substantial behind-the-scenes presence at most theme parks, from maintenance to staffing rooms to security. You may also want the opportunity to expand your park over time, so investing in the land could be a great asset in the long-run.  

Aerial view of amusement park

When you find some suitable locations, be sure to also ask about any sort of required permits or ordinances that may prevent you from running your park well. Inquire about the land composition and local ecosystems as well. Is it prone to flooding? Is it swampland? Is it home to an endangered species? Leave no stone unturned. This will be the permanent home of your park. Pick a good one!

Evaluate Your Market

Now that you’ve determined your location, it’s time to evaluate the market you’re targeting. Understanding your prospective guests will help you make profitable decisions. Everything you do should be to enrich their experience, bring them back for more and encourage them to tell their friends. If your project is too narrow and niche for the necessary market, then that can guide you toward expanding your offerings or narrowing your scope.

Consider the market local to your park, as well as the location of your ideal guests. Find out how far they are willing to travel, if your location will accommodate them appropriately and what sort of features they’ll expect once they arrive. Other questions to ask is whether their household income can afford visits to the park, how long they’re likely to stay in the park and what attractions they prefer.

Brainstorm Attraction Ideas

Now that you have your theme, budget and location, it’s time to dream up some attractions! This is where theming becomes practical. It serves as the fulcrum for all your attractions and will guide you and your team as you build out the rest of your park. Start off by brainstorming obvious scenes, props and motifs associated with your theme. For instance, if you chose a pirate-themed park, you could start off with some obvious associations — ships, treasure maps, doubloons, skulls, flags and all things nautical. You could also imagine a storyline, characters or even an objective like a quest. Using this framework, you can start to imagine the possible rides and features your park will offer. A swinging ship ride? Crew members in pirate clothes? A pirate-themed show? Swashbuckling music? Park maps designed like treasure maps? You get the idea. 

Swing ride in operation

Another option is to start off with your location and budget. Predetermine how many rides you’d like to incorporate, as well as other attractions, staff quarters and food services you’ll need. How many roller coasters can you afford or fit on the property? Create a generic grid and then craft the specifics of each ride into the framework you’ve already put into place.

Be sure to consider the guest experience as you brainstorm. Will your market want to hop from roller coaster to roller coaster or are they more interested in a varied experience? If you’re designing a park meant for the whole family, then are there enough age-appropriate attractions for all potential guests? Map out the perfect park day for your ideal customer and see what you can build for them. 

Designing an Attraction

Designing an excellent attraction can take months when it’s all said and done. Fortunately, there are some steps that can streamline the process and eliminate some roadblocks along the way. Let’s break down the building blocks of an attraction and tips for attraction design.

Building Blocks of an Attraction

If a theme park is a macrocosm, then an attraction is the subsequent microcosm. It can almost be treated like a mini park in and of itself. It requires designers to consider a lot of the same elements, such as theme, budget and potential location. Here’s a breakdown of how these pieces apply to an attraction.

Theme

Each attraction should focus on its own theme or storyline that exists within the theme of the park. In our previous example, we suggested that a pirate-themed park could warrant themes like ships, sailing, seeking treasure, fleeing opposing pirates and so on. Oftentimes, an attraction can take elements of the larger theme and concentrate it into its own storyline. 

Girl on themed ride

Attraction Type 

When choosing the type of attraction to add to your park, here are few factors to keep in mind:

  • What attractions does the park already have?
  • What attractions match your market demographics and preferences?
  • What new attractions are your competitors releasing?

An attraction is an investment in your park and needs to offer a profitable return. For a ride, that means leaving guests wanting to come back, with friends and family, for more. Some attractions are so popular, they’ve warranted merchandise and even movie franchises! You’re not just relegated to roller coasters, however. Here are the types of attractions you could consider:

  • Water rides: Log flumes or rafts
  • Dark rides: An indoor ride that tours through a series of specially lit scenes
  • Transportation rides: Monorails, trains, carriages or other modes of transportation that move large numbers of guests from one part of the park to the other 
Family on log flume ride

For the hypothetical pirate park, a ship-themed attraction could manifest in several ways, whether that’s the traditional pirate ship swing ride, water ride with the car shaped like a ship or a dark ride, such as the classic Pirates of the Caribbean attraction at Disney.   

Available Space

Each attraction type requires different square footages and building requirements to make it successful. A dark ride requires a building while a coaster requires room for the track and so forth. There also needs to be enough room for line queues, crowd flow, on-ride photo booths, restrooms and landscaping too. The smaller the space you have to work with, the more expensive it may become for engineers and contractors to successfully design and implement the ride.   

Layout

This may be the most important part of the process. The layout determines the flow — from onboarding, riding and off-boarding the attraction. In addition, the layout should factor in the ride’s length, safety features, thrill factor, storyline, engineering and structural considerations and any incorporated storefronts or points of interest. Capacity can also determine the sort of investment you make into a ride. This is calculated in hourly riders. A ride that can accommodate 400 guests per hour shouldn’t eat up your budget when another attraction could serve 3,400 per hour. The ability to move guests through the queue will impact wait times and necessary line accommodations. 

Attraction Layout Tips

Designing the layout of an attraction is the most involved aspect of the project, which is why we’ve outlined some additional tips for designing a ride that will make your guests want to get back in the queue!

Build a Safety Bubble

Keeping guests safe is the highest priority at the park. When laying out your attraction, you’ll need to determine a bubble of safety around your guests as they enjoy the ride. This bubble is determined by the farthest reach of any passenger. For bigger rides, like coasters, strapping guests into their seat with belts or drop-down bars limits their movement and shrinks the bubble. Slower rides with larger seats and no restraints will increase the bubble significantly. The idea is to immerse the guest into the attraction while minimizing their ability to make contact with set pieces or potentially hazardous scenarios. 

People on green-colored ride

Tell a Linear Story

Every single story has a beginning, middle and end. So should your ride. These stories can be very simple and direct or they can build from scene to scene. A coaster, for instance, may telling the beginning of a story when passengers board the ride, the middle is quick and action-packed, followed by the end of the ride that marks the conclusion of the story. A dark ride, on the other hand, can tell a story more leisurely with set pieces, scenes and characters who “follow” the audience from beginning to end. 

Avoid Dead Space

The idea of any attraction is to keep your guests’ attention. Dead space can disrupt their focus, so be mindful of avoiding dead space when laying out your ride. Think rounded corners even if you’re in a square environment. If dead space can’t be avoided altogether, try adding additional theme elements or transitionary props to help bridge one scene to another. You can also play on the passengers’ other senses. Darken an area of dead space and incorporate a voice-over or sound effects, for instance. Use every square inch of your attraction to deliberately guide and direct the riders’ focus, varying from limited theme to highly themed throughout.  

Designing a Park Layout

Designing a theme park is about developing a setting for your guests to choose their own adventure. The overarching theme trickles down into distinct sectors of the park that trickle down even more into individual rides. The idea is to help your guests journey from attraction to attraction as seamlessly as possible, and it includes a lot more than the buildings and pathways. Even your landscaping, outdoor seating options and accessibility to trash receptacles should factor into your design! Here are some tips and tricks for crafting an excellent park layout. 

Black perforated bench with awning

Building Locations

The process for designing your park’s layout starts, once again, with your theme. Used as a baseline, it will inform five to seven distinct areas within your park that will host your individual attractions. The identities of these unique areas should be supported by the surrounding architecture, landscaping and rides you choose to build there.  

There are two popular options for configuring these areas in your park. The first is the loop layout, where these places circle around a center point, such as a lake. Guests walk around the circle to experience each site and then gather around the center point to enjoy an evening show. Another layout is the hub and spoke layout, sometimes referred to as the icon design philosophy. This configuration became popular due to its effectiveness at Disneyland. There is an icon at the center (such as Sleeping Beauty’s castle) with offshoots branching out to the themed areas. 

Big attractions should be built on the outer edges of either configuration in order to entice guests to all parts of the park, while shops can be conveniently placed at the exit. Neither one of these options is better than the other, though a circular approach can ensure fluid movement around the park and prevent bottleneck problems. These aren’t the only two configurations out there. The building layout you choose will depend on your available space, theme and vision for your visitors.     

Landscaping

Landscaping is an important visual component of your theme park. It can guide the eyes, hide less favorable portions of buildings, highlight pathways and keep people on course. It can also be used to reinforce your theme when you layer story elements, props and little flourishes into the landscape, enhancing the unforgettable and immersive experience afforded by your park. Not only does quality landscaping enhance the park’s brand and guest reception, a well-planned setup offers practical benefits too. It offers expedient resolutions for natural risks, such as obstructions on walkways, loose tree branches or storm debris.

Park path in autumn

Seating 

Exploring a theme park requires a lot of walking. That makes accessible seating and theme park benches an incredibly important component for a great experience. There are two types of seating you’ll want to incorporate into your layout — casual seating and outdoor dining. As they journey through your park, you’ll want to offer comfortable amusement park benches for guests to rest and relax, wait while others ride, tie their shoes and so on. Place benches around other amenities such as restrooms, water fountains, shade and trash receptacles, as well as in front of scenic views and outside of rides. 

For outdoor dining, opt for tables that can withstand the elements and can accommodate large parties of people. Locate these close to eateries, as well as in more secluded parts of the park where guests can get away from the bustle of the crowd and enjoy a meal in the shade. If neither of these places offers natural cover, choose tables that can incorporate durable outdoor umbrellas

Trash

Guests accumulate a lot of trash throughout their day, especially around dining areas. Trash cleanup is crucial to cultivating a clean and comfortable atmosphere for visitors. People can be negligent about their trash, so the best strategy is to choose the right trash receptacle and make using it as convenient as possible. There are several ways to do this. First, make sure trash receptacles are accessible all over the park, especially in areas prone to trash, such as bathrooms, stores and restaurants. The longer a guest needs to look for one, the less likely it is that their trash will end up in a trash receptacle. Secondly, empty your trashcans frequently. This prevents unpleasant smells from building up and avoids any overflow that may prevents guests from disposing of trash properly. Lastly, select a durable receptacle and receptacle lids that can withstand pedestrian, weather and pest damage and blends in nicely with the themed area where it is located. 

Outfit Your Park With the Best Outdoor Furniture

At Wabash Valley Site Furnishings, we offer outdoor furniture solutions for amusement parks that add a special touch of excellence. Designed with materials and finishes specifically chosen for their durability, our products are long-lasting and require minimal maintenance. Choose from a robust variety of colors and configurations, capable of matching many potential themes and meeting your desired specifications. Furnishing your park is accessible and expedient with Wabash Valley Furnishings.

To outfit your theme park with outdoor furniture, reach out to a representative today to request a quote or learn more about our products! 

Group of chairs and tables by forest