Parking garage or parking lot?

When I moved my family to Southern California in 2005, we spent a lot of time at Disneyland, with a couple of side trips to Universal Studios Hollywood. At both locations, we always parked in very large, clean, and Disneyland and Its Parking Garagewell lit parking structures. When we moved next to Six Flags Magic Mountain, we started spending lots of time there and parking in their giant asphalt parking lot. After a couple of very long walks from the car to the tram pickup, or worse, all the way to the main gate, I started to wonder why they didn’t have a parking garage like everyone else. After doing a little research, I soon discovered that Disney and Universal Studios were the exceptions and that everyone else actually uses parking lots. I had just gotten spoiled.

I know parking garages cost a lot more money than a parking lot, but the advantages seem to outweigh the disadvantages, at least in my mind. A parking garage takes up less real estate, freeing up more land for new attractions. A garage is easier to secure, patrol, clean, and provides increased protection for guest’s cars. And lastly, a garage is more convenient for guests, typically providing a shorter walk to a single tram pickup area. Overall, most people feel that parking garage is a much better experience than a massive parking lot.

When I found out how much parking garages cost to build, my jaw hit the ground. A flat, asphalt parking lot can cost anywhere from $1,500-4,000 per space to install from scratch. For a lot that holds 5,000 cars, like my local park, that’s around $10M, give or take a few million. This explains why you see some lots that are not paved, but rather a fine gravel. An above-ground, free-standing parking garage costs anywhere from $15,000-40,000 per stall to build. For 5,000 cars, you’r talking a whopping $75M, minimum!
Parking Lot at Six Flags Magic Mountain
At first, I immediately dismissed the idea of these parks ever putting in garages at those prices. However, when I started to pencil it out, it wasn’t that outrageous. My local Six Flags has roughly 5,000 parking spaces and it’s open year-round, which equates to 220 days for 2011, based on their published operating calendar. The lot is almost always full during the regular season and usually about half-full during the off-season days that they are open. Being conservative, I’m going to say they average 2,500 cars per day for the entire year. After talking to several of the folks that work the toll booths, a very un-scientific method for sure, it appears that roughly 75% of the people pay for daily parking and the rest use parking passes. Again, being conservative, I’m going to say that 50% of the guests pay the daily fee. At $15 per car, which is what they currently charge, this is what it looks like:

2,500 Cars/Day

x .5 1/2 Pay Cash

1,250 cash Cars/Day

x $15 Daily Parking Fee

$18,750 Daily Cash Intake

x 220 Days Open/Year

= $4.125M Annual Cash Intake

Keep in mind that I’m being very conservative on these numbers, so the actual intake is likely much higher. I also didn’t count the revenue from the season parking passes or the uplift for busses and RVs, so that will take it even higher.

I know absolutely nothing about commercial construction financing, but I can’t imagine that you wouldn’t be able to finance a $75M project over 20 years. Servicing that debt would run $3.75M per year, plus taxes and insurance. There would also be some maintenance costs thrown in each year as well, but the money they charge for parking appears to be more than enough to cover it. If they raise their parking fees to $20 per day, like they already have at a couple of other parks, they would be taking in at least $5.5M per year.

They don’t disclose it in their annual reports, but I’m sure the money they make on parking goes to subsidize other programs. There is no way they are spending over $4M per year on maintaining their existing parking lot. Even the trams they use are original to the park, from 1971, so there’s not much of an expense there. I don’t mind paying a bit more for parking as long as I’m getting to park in a nice facility. Paying $15 to park in a large lot, far away from a tram stop, walking through deep puddles when it rains, only to get on an old, rough tram is not a good deal for me. However, I’d gladly pay $20 to park in a clean, well lit parking garage.

Let’s hear from you. Would you rather park in a large parking lot or a nice parking garage? Would you be willing to pay a few bucks more to park in a nicer garage? Other than the cost, what are some of the downsides to building a garage?

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8 Responses

  1. Tod

    I would love to see parking structures at all parks freeing up much more room to expand the parks with more impressive offerings. Then when you seperate that from the park by hiding behind scenery it is even a better deal.

    • Joel

      Agreed. I’d never really given it much thought, but it was a lot more convenient and quicker to leave Universal Orlando with its parking garage than when I’ve left most parks. Nice article Kurt.

  2. Louis

    Would love to know how much Universal Orlando’s garage cost to build. I believe it is on the top 5 list of largest garages in the US.

    • Kurt Dahlin

      The Disneyland garage, seen in the red square in the first photo above, was the largest parking garage in the world when it was built. The aerial perspective doesn’t do it justice, but consider that it is roughly 1/4 the size of the entire park. It holds something like 10,000 cars. I believe there has been another garage built overseas that surpassed it in size, but only by a few stalls.

      • Ben

        Universal Orlando’s two garages have a combined 21,000 spaces. The Disneyland garage is larger than either of the two, but not both together. Together, the Universal Orlando parking garages are the second or third largest parking facility in the world (depending on if you count Epcot and the Magic Kingdom together or separately).

  3. Jack

    I think that parks should do garages like orlando and disney. When i went to my local park, after a hot day, my car was burning, but when i used the garage, it was cooler. and if they wanted, they could keep part of the parking lot and charge a normal 15 dollars, and then charge 20 or 25 to use the garage.

  4. Crave Cravak

    I’m not sure if a parking garage is necessarily safer… unless there’s camera on each level, but then again it’s more likely an accident will occur as well. Regardless, I like garages, especially the massive one at Universal Orlando. I would also LOVE to a roller coaster attached to / take advantage of the structure. Interesting piece here, and I loved the buffet of statistics. From now on if it’s a gravel lot and it’s free I’m not going to complain!

  5. Jay

    It all depends on how much real estate they have. It made sense for Universal Orlando to build the garages. When Universal Studios Orlando first opened you actually parked in the lot behind the park and then trammed to the front. Then they began planning for Islands of Adventure and other hotels. They have limited real estate so at that time it made sense to build the garages to conserve space. The old parking lot is now the employee lot.

    As far as Disney World, I don’t expect them to build garages anytime soon. They have so much land that they haven’t even built on yet it doesn’t make sense for them to incur the cost of a garage. Maybe in the year 2100 and they have used up all their land they might look at it. 🙂


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