Expansion concept art from the Disneyland Forward website.
Last week, Disneyland made an announcement with an accompanying “Disney Forward” website, which I heard described variously as an expansion to the Anaheim theme parks, a third theme park, a west coast Disney Springs, or a second attempt to push through their earlier rejected plans now that the COVID-19 pandemic gave them more leverage with the city of Anaheim.
Looking at the site more closely, it looks to me like it’s just a proposal to re-zone land at the Disneyland Resort to be mixed-use. The stuff I’d read suggested all kinds of grand schemes and/or nefarious ulterior motives, but I should know by now to take everything I read about Disney parks on the internet with a big old salt lick. It’s never as spectacular and magical, or as sinister and profit-driven, as people make it sound.
To be clear, it’s an extremely savvy pitch on Disney’s part, as you’d expect. It’s timed right before the parks re-open, when the city and residents of Anaheim are most aware of how much their economy relies on Disneyland. It’s presented to the public — and using much the same format they use to sell hotel stays and DVC points to guests — instead of as a dry zoning proposal. I’m presuming that’s partly for transparency, to keep it from seeming as if Disney is colluding with the city government, proposing huge projects without any regard for the people affected by them. I’d bet it’s also to get the legions of Disney parks fans excited, to try and change the narrative from “Global entertainment behemoth stomps over small local businesses” to “Opportunistic Harbor Blvd hotel and restaurant chains crush the dreams of children.”
There’s also a repeated idea that sounds, hilariously, like a veiled threat: if this proposal doesn’t go through, Disney’s going to have no choice but to demolish some beloved attractions. “Nice tea cups we got here. It’d be a shame if anything… happened to them.”
But at the same time, everything that they’re saying is obviously true. There is no space left to expand the parks or build new stuff; the Galaxy’s Edge expansion was squeezed in as it was. They have tried to expand using the current hotel/retail/theme park zoning, and the plans fell through on account of pushback from the city. (Technically, their most recent plan was cancelled by Disney judging it not worth the investment when the city refused to give them the tax breaks they wanted. Still tough to choose a “good guy” in that fight, which was why it was savvy of Disney to pitch this one as room for new attractions instead of just room for more profitable hotel space).
There’s been a space issue for as long as there’s been a Disneyland, but the proposal became especially critical now since the COVID-19 shutdown. I’d thought I was being insightful for making that connection, but Disney comes right out and says it at the start of their FAQ. People on the internet talk about Disney as if it has limitless resources, and any decision that’s not completely altruistic is completely greedy, but even a corporation as successful as Disney can’t stay in business if almost all of its divisions are shut down around the world. I’m convinced they could’ve gone a lot longer without furloughing or laying off so many people crucial to their business, and that will have serious repercussions on their status in the theme park industry, but still.
I’m not one for conspiracy theories, but a virus that shuts down theme parks, movie theaters, retail stores, restaurants, broadway theaters, sporting events, and cruise ships seems all but genetically engineered to target Disney specifically.
In any case, Disney frequently mentions diversification of its districts. Implicit in that is the idea of getting rid of a major vulnerability that nobody could’ve foreseen: if all of Disney’s development in California is just a supplement to Disneyland park, then none of it pulls in any revenue if the park is closed. They couldn’t have foreseen that because the park’s almost never been closed. Even natural disasters don’t shut it down for more than a few days. It seems clear that opening Downtown Disney, and then opening California Adventure for shopping and dining only, drove home the realization that their business wasn’t diversified enough.
In other words: I predict we’re going to see a change in philosophy when it comes to Disney parks and resorts. No matter how this specific proposal goes — and honestly, after 2020, seeing the city of Anaheim practically begging Governor Newsom to let the parks re-open, it’s hard for me to imagine Disney would get too much push-back on it, no matter what some analysts might say — that idea of diversified entertainment is probably going to dominate every proposed project.
The proposal has a section that shows the “possibilities” of actual expansions to Disneyland and DCA on the other side of Disneyland Drive, which seems to have a lot of people excited. The fact that the expansions wrap around and absorb the hotels, and the website refers to them as an “Immersive Theme Park,” makes me think that Disney’s thinking more long-term.
Especially when combined with the Disney-Springs-like district in the current Toy Story parking lot. And combined with the fact that guests are currently paying $70 to visit California Adventure without any rides. If the goal in 1990 was to have enough stores, restaurants, and hotels to keep Disneyland guests on property for longer, I would bet that the new goal is to build a venue that might attract people who have no intention of going to the parks.
Or to put a more positive spin on it: maybe the new goal is to challenge people’s expectations and understanding of what a theme park is. That’s the kind of thing that’s more fun to speculate about, anyway, as much as we all love thinking about land use and zoning.
For decades, it’s seemed that Imagineering would be capable of doing so many ground-breaking things… if they weren’t bound to the theme park format. Way back in the late 1990s or early 2000s, we saw a VR Aladdin demo in Epcot that felt more futuristic than anything in Horizons, but it would never have worked until DisneyQuest was built. The Void was exciting for the potential it suggested at least as much as the experiences themselves, but it simply wouldn’t be possible in any of the theme parks.
I love Trader Sam’s at the Disneyland Hotel, but it’s near impossible to get in and just relax comfortably anymore. But what if it weren’t the only option, and you could choose from three or four other highly-themed, highly-immersive bars and restaurants in walking distance? It calls to mind the original plans for the Enchanted Tiki Room or the Haunted Mansion — Walt wanted them to be a dinner show and a walking tour, respectively, but they were impractical for a theme park.
Plus all the other stuff that’s made it seem as if Disney’s behind the times, when in fact they’re just limited by their own size and popularity. I’m definitely not the first person to wonder what a Disney-developed escape room, or Hollywood Horror Nights-style haunted house, or immersive theater experience would be like. Approaching them with the same budget, the same attention to detail, and the same focus on accessibility as a theme park ride, but without the concerns of theme park capacity, seems like an unqualified win.
And if the Galactic Starcruiser turns out to be a success, maybe they could build a Haunted Mansion or Tower of Terror-themed hotel where the Paradise Pier used to be?
The reality is probably a lot less complicated, and they’re just proposing exactly what they say on the website: permits to build more stuff on the land they’ve got. After all, Disney’s perception as being generally slow-moving and “safe” isn’t all just due to capacity constraints and huge audiences, but because any company that big is going to be risk-averse.
But it is a fun exercise for us fans of the park, to re-think what we expect from a Disney park, and how much of what we associate with the whole experience has to be the way it is now. Considering how much I hated the ticket books as a child, it’s weird for me to be advocating individually-ticketed experiences now. But as I get older, the idea of an “E-Ticket” looks less like Rise of the Resistance (no matter how much I like that attraction!) and more like wandering around the rest of Galaxy’s Edge and seeing small stories develop on the streets around me. My old idea of a theme park — a collection of rides along with stuff to buy and to do until it’s time for the next ride — is seeming less and less sustainable.