Monday, December 30, 2019

Disney has been on a land-buying spree. Here's why it probably isn't a new theme park

Posted By on Mon, Dec 30, 2019 at 10:03 AM

A land purchase by Walt Disney World has rumors flying once again of a new park heading to the resort. Just prior to Christmas, public documents confirmed Disney had closed on a 235-acre plot west of the Magic Kingdom, near the western beltway.

The land purchase helps fill in an odd, jigsaw-like cutout of Disney’s property, and comes just months after Disney purchased another 1,500 acres earlier in 2019. Within the past 13 months, Disney has spent roughly $39 million to purchase more than 2,700 acres near WDW.

The buying spree has led some fans to dust off the old "fifth-gate" rumors for WDW. However, with major new plans announced or in the works for all four of the current parks, an addition of a fifth theme park at WDW is highly unlikely. Instead, the newly acquired land will likely be used as conservation mitigation, which will allow for more development on existing property that may have previously been set aside as conservation lands.

As WDW develops, many of the earlier conservation land areas are becoming much more desirable for development, causing a nearly constant chess game of Disney moving zoning around. While not a one-for-one trade on land, by moving conservation areas to new sites, Disney may open up previous conservation lands located near the central area of the resort.

As of 2010, 7,939-acres within WDW were set aside as conservation areas, nearly a third of all property within the resort. That same year, a study identified 2,825 acres, less than 20 percent of the resort’s undeveloped land, as suitable for development, with another 2,256 acres as marginally suitable, though development within these areas would be strongly discouraged. More than 64 percent of all undeveloped land within the resort was identified as unsuitable for development.
That 2010 plan, by Disney’s quasi-government entity Reedy Creek Improvement District, called for 30 percent of all land within the district (not already inside the Wildlife Management Conservation Area) to be set aside as open space. It also had stipulations for the development of sound ordnances, to monitor sound levels both within and outside the district.

The areas just outside of the district have seen a rapid increase in growth, with thousands of new homes popping up throughout the area in recent years. Some of the new mixed-use developments sit less than two miles from the Magic Kingdom, and less than a mile from the park’s firework launch areas. Since 2012, more than 13,000 residents have moved into the area west and north of WDW, known as Horizon West. This last major growth area in Orange County has seen some of the fastest growth in the nation, with new apartments, faux town centers, and New Urbanism-inspired neighborhoods rapidly filling the 38 square miles.
  • Image via Doradus Partners
Disney, infamous for their walled-garden approach to development in Central Florida, has shifted their strategy to capture some of the growth with their western gateway development, Flamingo Crossings, planned to have its own Winter Garden Village-like commercial district for tourists and locals to easily access. It will become home to more than 50 retail and dining tenants, including PDQ, Walgreens, Bento Asian Kitchen + Sushi, Five Guys, Dunkin’, Ben & Jerry’s, Speedway gas station, and a massive 250,000 square foot Target – one of the largest Targets ever built.

It will also be home to 2,600 new apartments that will be mostly used by Disney’s College Program. The addition of those new apartments may cause other college housing in the area to close, though only one of the four current complexes are owned outright by Disney. That complex, the infamous Vista Way, may be sold or, according to some insiders, may be turned into low-income housing, as part of a yet-to-be-announced "goodwill" initiative by Disney to address the recent slew of negative press.
With hotel competition from Universal and others heating up, Disney has doubled down on its plans to develop on-site accommodations. Flamingo Crossings is zoned for up to fifteen hotels, with two already open and five more now being constructed. All of those hotels are third-party operations, similar to the Swan, Dolphin, and Four Seasons resorts.

Some bits of their newly acquired land could eventually be developed by Disney for housing, hotels, or other needs that may arise over time. As of now, though, there is no indication that Disney plans to develop any of its new landholdings.

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