Enjoy the ride


US$15 billion

Amusement park industry’s projected 2014 global revenue

US$5.4 billion

Construction budget of Shanghai Disneyland, set to open in 2015

More than 30

Number of parks expanded or opened for the first time around the world in 2014

Enjoy the Ride

Amusement parks are big business, and getting bigger every year: More than 30 parks around the world expanded or opened for the first time this year. As the market has grown more competitive, developers have pushed for bigger, bolder rides and other park features to attract the crowds needed to turn a profit. Huge up-front investments spark lofty dreams—which project managers have to keep grounded in reality so the new ride or park can open on time.

“To build a world-class park, the entry-level price is somewhere around US$300 million,” says Dennis Speigel, president of International Theme Park Services, Cincinnati, Ohio, USA. “Explaining to developers how to spend that money in the most efficient way, especially if they’ve never built a theme park before, has to happen first.”

After years of steady growth, the amusement park industry will take in an estimated US$15 billion in revenue in 2014 worldwide, according to IBISWorld, a figure projected to more than double by 2017. But getting a slice of that growing global pie is a pricey endeavor. Shanghai Disneyland is currently being built from scratch for US$5.4 billion, while Disneyland Paris is undergoing a €250 million expansion. In Osaka, Japan, a replica of Universal Studio’s successful The Wizarding World of Harry Potter park in Orlando, Florida, USA is being constructed at a cost of US$500 million, while an expanded version of the original park opened in June 2014 for about US$400 million.

Opening Day Deadline

Ensuring that these highly publicized projects stay on track starts with allowing plenty of time between the initial feasibility study and opening day. “A successful project needs to have a realistic schedule,” says Korey Kiepert, a mechanical engineer and partner with the Gravity Group LLC, Cincinnati, Ohio, USA. For a new large ride in an existing park, the full project schedule is roughly nine months. The standard time frame for constructing an entirely new park is a minimum of three years.

“You’re dealing with a tremendous number of components and pieces,” Mr. Speigel says. “It’s very hard to build a park much faster than that. You might be able to do it in 30 months, but that’s pushing it.”

Given that projects usually have unmovable deadlines tied to the ride’s or amusement park’s advertised opening day, it is crucial that project managers build contingencies for setbacks into a project schedule. (Parks operating seasonally only have about six months to make a profit, making opening dates even more important.) Extreme weather can trigger work stoppages, for example. “If you’re in the Middle East, it can be so hot there are times you can’t work because you can’t physically handle the building materials,” says Mr. Speigel, whose company is participating in the development of a new park in Doha, Qatar, set to open in 2017. “Or if you’re in a cold area, there could be too much snow for construction to continue.”

While climate impacts a theme-park project’s timetable, the location of a park helps dictate its scope. “One of the worst things that can happen is over-designing a park,” Mr. Speigel says. For companies like Texas, USA-based Six Flags—the world’s largest regional amusement park company—that means understanding how many people live within a 2.5-hour drive, the average distance customers drive to visit an amusement park. “If you build something that the market you’re working in can’t support, that’s the kiss of death,” Mr. Speigel adds.

Despite careful market research and rigid deadlines, some projects do hit snags. The world’s steepest wooden roller coaster, the Goliath at the Six Flags Great America park located between Chicago, Illinois, USA and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA, didn’t open as promised in May this year due to “finishing touches taking longer than anticipated.” And the new Falcon’s Fury ride at Busch Gardens in Tampa, Florida, USA—which will lift riders 335 feet (102 meters) into the air, tilt them 90 degrees, then drop them toward the ground at 60 miles (97 kilometers) per hour—missed its scheduled opening day that month as well because the park’s design and engineering team hadn’t finished testing the ride.

The delay at Busch Gardens is a reminder that although amusement parks are all about fun, project managers working in them must prioritize safety above all other concerns. “Ultimately, everything that we do follows the governing safety standards,” Mr. Kiepert says. “It’s just like structural engineers striving to design that next tallest building—they’re attempting to make a bold design while still following the structural building codes. By following established codes, there can be confidence in the safety of the design.”


Pack the motion-sickness meds. These new theme park projects are bigger and bolder than ever before.


Project: Goliath

Location: Six Flags Great America, Gurnee, Illinois, USA

Claim to Fame: Steel layers in the tracks allowed designers to include the longest drop (180 feet or 55 meters), steepest drop (85 degrees) and fastest ride (72 miles per hour or 116 kilometers per hour) of any wooden roller coaster.


Project: Banshee

Location: Kings Island, Mason, Ohio, USA

Claim to Fame: The 4,124 feet (1,257 meters) of roller coaster track include seven inversions, a spiral and a zero-gravity roll. It will be the world’s longest inverted roller coaster.


Project: Formula Rossa

Location: Ferrari World Abu Dhabi, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates

Claim to Fame: Safety glasses are required: The world’s fastest roller coaster accelerates from a standstill to 240 kilometers per hour (149 miles per hour) in less than five seconds.


Project: The Smiler

Location: Alton Towers Resort, Staffordshire, England

Claim to Fame: At 85 kilometers per hour (53 miles per hour), the Smiler may seem slow compared to other big rides. But 14 loops in its steel tracks make it the world’s most inverted roller coaster.


Project: Takabisha

Location: Fuji-Q Highland, Yamanashi, Japan

Claim to Fame: The world’s steepest roller coaster boasts a 43-meter (141-foot) drop at a 121-degree vertical angle built into the steel frame.

Because if the rides aren’t safe, visitors won’t line up—and project sponsors won’t get their piece of the revenue pie. —Emma Haak




Related Content

  • PM Network

    PMO Possibilities member content open

    By Scott, Lindsay Lindsay Scott, direct of program and project management recruitment at Arras People (London), offers career advice for project practitioners looking to move up into program management and for…

  • PM Network

    Delivering on a Promise member content open

    By Cohen, Yael The way your organization handles proposals has a big impact on the projects themselves. That makes it crucial for project managers to pay attention to the proposal process.

  • PM Network

    Safety in numbers member content open

    By Rockwood, Kate Every project has risks. Whether the cost of a building material suddenly spikes, the value of a currency nose-dives or the regulatory landscape changes mid-project, realized risks can kill a…

  • Estimating member content open

    By Meyer, Werner G. Estimation is at the heart of most project disciplines, and project cost and time overruns can often be traced back to inaccurate estimates. Estimation requires human involvement to create a…

  • How much does this cost? member content open

    By Leybourn, Evan How much will this cost? How long will it take? What am I going to get? These are the questions that every agile project gets asked at some point. And while "as much as you're willing to spend," "as…