Greed is good. Gordon Gekko preached this philosophy in 1987’s Wall Street and again in its already forgotten 2010 sequel, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. While the braggadocio largely died in the wake of the housing crisis, a lot of folks still obsess over big numbers. In the industry of theme park tourism, that means taking a look at which rides cost the most to build.
A lot of this information is shrouded in secrecy. It’s hard to keep the financing of a major theme park attraction hidden forever, though. It’s also a fascinating examination of how much capital major corporations must spend if they want to keep guests vacationing at their mind-bogglingly expensive properties.
The entry fee to earn a spot on the list of the most expensive theme park attractions is nine figures, yet companies have willingly paid that price for 20 years now. So, some inflation adjustment is also required to balance out the differences between a dollar then and a dollar today. Though this list is hardly exhaustive or all-inclusive, here's a list of the six of most expensive theme park attractions ever built (in no particular order).
1. Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey - $131 million
When Universal Studios acquired the rights to the Harry Potter license, even they couldn’t have known just how large a reversal of fortune their Orlando theme park was about to experience. In 2008, their two parks claimed total admissions of 11.5 million people. In 2014, that total was 16.3 million. And their totals keep on growing.
The reason Universal boosted its attendance almost 50 percent in six years is that they took Harry Potter seriously. Whereas Disney execs only intended to make it another intellectual property to throw on their (massive) pile, Universal showed the willingness to make it the life’s blood of their operation. Their first Harry Potter attraction had to be authentic enough to entice fence-sitters to give an otherwise mediocre theme park for the time a chance to win their loyalty.
How big did Universal bet on Harry Potter? $265 million in 2009 is the equivalent of $293 million today. This figure is even more impressive when you consider that Universal was flying blind with the franchise, simply hoping that this initial investment would produce a return. They had no idea that this new land would be as big as it eventually became. Though that $131 million investment may have seemed like a hard pill to swallow back in 2009, this attraction has undoubtedly paid for itself many, many times over.
2. Pooh’s Hunny Hunt - $186 million
While reading this list, something that should jump off the page at you is how much deeper Disney’s pockets are than the competition. They are technically part of a theme park oligopoly, but it’s a functional monopoly. Disney’s attendance more than doubles that of the next closest competitor. The way that Disney protects their brand by investing enough money in new rides and technologies that they maintain the perception that they’re the only theme park that matters.
Pooh’s Hunny Hunt is a wonderful demonstration of this. Few theme park fans realize that Tokyo Disneyland can stake an argument as the most popular theme park in the world. In terms of 2014 attendance, two of the four most visited parks in the world were here, not Walt Disney World. To maintain their popularity, The Oriental Land Company and The Walt Disney Company agree to try daring new rides here. Pooh’s Hunny Hunt is a singularly unique bouncing trackless ride that cost $135 million to build in 2000. A lot of that cost was for the research and development required to build such a novel attraction. If you don’t plan to go to Japan but want to know how the ride works, you can watch this video.
3. Radiator Springs Racers - $206 million
Radiator Springs Racers is the linchpin of the billion-dollar Cars Land expansion at Disney California Adventure. Since the entire mountain surrounding the ride is arguably part of the backdrop, an argument could be made to slot this one in first place. You can learn more about the distinction between the ride and the mountain here, but the gist is that Disney was going to build Cars Land with or without a Test Track clone. It’s cheating to list Radiator Springs Racers for anything (significantly) beyond $200 million in 2012. Even so, the attention to detail in recreating the world of Pixar’s Cars exemplifies why theme park tourists are so passionate about visiting Disney parks. They’re the gold standard in quality.