As the rest of the country heads back to work or school this week after the long Christmas break, many of the Cast Members (CMs) at Disneyland finally get to take their long winters nap after a hectic and record-setting holiday season. But while the front-line folks in the parks breathe easier for now, the work behind all of those expanding Anaheim construction walls will be hitting a fever pitch in order to make all of the looming 2011 deadlines.
In this update we’ll fill you in on just how crazed the week after Christmas was, what’s going on behind those plywood walls, and what the suits out back in the Team Disney Anaheim (TDA) building may have up their collective sleeves to keep Disneyland’s successful financial and operational momentum of 2010 going through 2011 -- at the expense of many of the local annual passholders of course.
Got that leftover cinnamon bun out of its ziplock bag yet? Have that
K-cup snapped into the brewer now? Did you stash those last few nuts and chews from the huge 10lb box of See's Candy your office got last week for something sweet after lunch? Well then let's get going shall we? - Al
"Another hundred people just got off of the
After the first week of Christmas vacation was a literal wash-out due to days of endless rain, the crowds descended in huge numbers from about the 23rd through New Year’s Eve. December 27th and 28th were the busiest days, as Disneyland had to shut down ticket sales before Noon, and when the local media finally caught on to the story it became the talk of Southern California during an otherwise slow news week. On the 27th the Anaheim executive group of operations chiefs and industrial engineers known as the “Restricted Access Team” that meet hourly via conference call were a bit gun shy and waited too long to make the decision to cease ticket sales. That first truly tragic day of the busy season is always the worst, as the executives traditionally stall an hour or two longer than they should before approving the plan to halt ticket sales. By delaying that decision until mid-day the attendance number inside Disneyland quickly swelled to just above 54,000 people by 3:00 PM, when the number is actually supposed to be capped at around 49,000.
The crowding that day was truly horrendous, but it’s really a testament to the front-line Cast Members that they kept things moving as well as they did and prevented any really serious crowd control or civil disturbance issues from erupting. Of course, plenty of 911 calls came in that night around fireworks and Fantasmic! time from panicked tourists using their cell phones inside the packed park, but as we’ve detailed for you in the past those calls are simply rerouted from the highway patrol dispatcher that receives them to the Disneyland operator who then calmly forwards them on to a Guest Relations voice mailbox after wishing the caller to “have a magical day.” The total combined attendance of both theme parks for the 27th came in at right around 97,000 people for the day, just missing the 100,000 mark after thousands were turned away from the ticket booths in the early afternoon.
On the 28th the Restricted Access Team had learned their lesson and realized they had dodged a bullet the day before, and the call to halt ticket sales and shut the turnstiles that morning came the earliest it ever has. By 10:00 AM on Tuesday ticket sales were halted for Disneyland and even the folks staying in concierge rooms at Disney’s hotels, generally the last demographic to have to worry about such things, were being scrutinized for entry. The cars just kept pouring off the freeway through mid day and by 1:00 PM the ticket sales for DCA were also shut down.
The media finally picked up on the going-ons that afternoon, as talk radio in LA turned it into their big story during a slow political week and the local TV stations sent their reporters to stand on Harbor Blvd. to cover the closure of Disneyland for the viewing audience at home. Wednesday the 29th brought another round of rain, and attendance declined to more manageable numbers that day. But the 30th brought sun and more huge crowds yet again.
Interestingly, New Years Eve had lower attendance than earlier in the week, and the thinking is now that all the breathless media coverage of the over-crowded conditions and closed ticket booths as well as the thermometer dropping down into the 30’s kept some of the locals away. No matter, as that clear and cold New Years Eve still hosted a huge crowd of big-spending tourists who were treated to a great line up of entertainment and impressive Midnight fireworks and fountains that went off without a hitch. DCA’s combination of the slick elecTRONica street party plussed up with pyrotechnics from the rooftops, and an impressive display of customized World of Color fountains and fireworks over the lagoon provided the surprise hit of the night with visitors. DCA was where the younger In Crowd was on New Year’s Eve, even with all that Disneyland offered simultaneously, and that bodes well for the need to pull more people out of an over-burdened Disneyland on key days like that. (Imagine how those elecTRONica numbers could have improved if the Tron movie wasn't such a turgid mess...)
TDA’s executives and industrial engineers could not have been more pleased with New Years Eve and the Christmas season overall this year, as even the notoriously sketchy parking operation and infamously miserable tram service went smoothly this year (the smart folks head down to the Toy Story lot regardless). It would appear that after a summer of learning to juggle huge World of Color crowds and a more finely-tuned Halloween season that rolled right into another crazy Christmas, nearly the entire Resort is now firing on all cylinders and pulling its own weight rather than just depending on Disneyland park to do all the heavy lifting alone.
Part of your world
It’s good news that DCA and the Resort’s beyond-the-berm support teams are learning to play in the big leagues with Disneyland itself, as 2011 promises to build off the foundation of 2010 and bring in more crowds that won’t necessarily be heading to Disneyland first. As you read this, the first set of construction walls will have gone up around the iconic California letters in front of DCA. The project to get the original and very bland DCA entry turnstiles replaced with the new Pan Pacific turnstiles by this September is one of the most anticipated of this winter’s projects due to its visibility, but it’s not the only set of new construction walls coming to DCA this month. At the same time the walls are going up early Tuesday morning around the letters, the walls surrounding the Little Mermaid show building will be pushed out further to allow for the finishing work on the façade and queue to get underway.
It may be hard to believe looking at the exterior now, but the interior of the 100 Million Mermaid attraction is nearly complete. The big scenes have been installed and are being detailed, the dozens and dozens of animatronics of all sizes have been set in place, the complete lighting and digital special effects rigs in the ceiling are being adjusted, and the audio speakers are in place. The Omnimover system is effectively installed and by the time you read this in early January the first full cycling of the ride system will be underway, although at a very slow pace to begin with. Not all of the 100+ clamshell vehicles have been plugged into place on the track, but that’s an easy process later this winter once they have confirmed the clearances are right at all speeds and angles with the few test vehicles currently on site.
It used to be The View, from above.
While the Little Mermaid isn’t going to rewrite the book on theme park rides the way Pirates of the Caribbean or Indiana Jones Adventure did when they debuted, the top-notch quality and slick immersive eye candy this expensive ride will provide should be a big hit by the time soft openings begin, right now looking to happen just around Easter vacation. Girls will love the ride automatically just because it’s the Little Mermaid, and guys will most likely tolerate it because of the impressive technical effects and fast moving line. An updated and more detailed look at this new Mermaid attraction inside and out, plus new displays on the adjacent new restaurants and Goofy’s new coaster, will be available at the Blue Sky Cellar by the end of this month. It’s all going to be a vast improvement to Whoopi's Golden Dreams show playing twice per hour to a dozen dozing tourists, that’s for sure.
Just down the parade route from Mermaid, a route blocked for most of this year by all the construction, is the expanding park's corner of the Paradise Garden and Goofy’s Sky School projects. On January 10th the construction walls will grow and be pushed out further, effectively cutting off that entire corner of the park and creating dead-ends on each side about where the Maliboomer once stood. With the expanded walls up, it will become impossible to walk around the entire Paradise Pier lagoon until March. The Silly Symphony Swings, Jumpin’ Jellyfish and Golden Zephyr will all remain open and continue to operate on a narrow sliver of land left open along the water, as will the Fun Wheel while its queue butts up against the new walls moving in from the north end of the boardwalk.
More walls will go up this week as well around the Playhouse Disney building, which will operate behind the walls until closing down entirely for two months when the walls push out even further from late January to late March. The work here is to prepare that attraction for the change-out to the new Disney Junior format, as well as replacing the garish decorations and signage the sleek Streamline Moderne building received in haste when Playhouse Disney was shoehorned into the Soap Opera Bistro restaurant back in ’03.
More Hollywood, less backlot.
While the full re-theme of the Hollywood Pictures Backlot will have to wait for phase two of DCA’s makeover, the Imagineers are taking advantage of this change-out to make the streetscape look as period-specific as possible so as not to clash with the adjacent hyper-themed environment about to be built along Buena Vista Street and in front of the new Carthay Circle Theater. Construction walls also get pushed out even further all around the former Sun Hub as they remove the parade infrastructure there and rip up the last of the 2001 pavement and cementscape.
DCA’s main entrance area will be in a constant state of flux due to the ever-expanding scale of the overhaul throughout 2011. This winter and spring DCA visitors will need to run through a rat’s maze of walls to get into the park, and on busy days they will be setting up an elaborate queue of switchbacks in front of them to help pulse people into the temporary entry lanes. It promises to be ugly and confusing for most of this year, especially for the casual tourists. By next October the new turnstile complex will be complete, and a semblance of normality will return to the DCA entrance. But through the remainder of 2011 and in to 2012 arriving DCA visitors will enter under the Pan Pacific turnstile structures and then take a hard right turn and be shuffled down a corridor behind Soarin’ to be dumped into the park there.
While the 12 acre Cars Land expansion is physically a bigger project, and financially a bigger investment (as any E Ticket ride with a budget cresting towards the 300 Million dollar mark would demand), it’s the DCA main entrance project that is going to provide the biggest operational and logistical headaches for the park. I've said it before and it bears repeating again: Never in the history of Disney theme parks has something like this been attempted; the complete rebuilding and big budget re-themeing of an operating park’s entry complex and opening area. Be sure to take pictures this year in front of all of this main entrance mess folks, as your grandkids will never believe it actually happened.
Escaping the Esplande
The end result will be well worth it though, as anyone who has poured over the intricate models and sketches at WDI can attest. And with DCA getting a much more dramatic entry to rival Disneyland’s iconic and charming entry across the way, the Imagineers have recently been selling an interested TDA on the idea of sprucing up the sprawling Esplanade space between the two parks.
While not nearly as disastrously designed as the adjacent shuttle bus loading area, that central Esplanade had the fountains and lavish furnishings cut out of its budget midway through the project by Paul Pressler in the late 1990’s. It ended up as a basic brick plaza, with its only real design flourish being an inlaid travertine compass in the center that the Custodial department dutifully surrounds with a bevy of ugly plastic warning cones at the slightest hint of precipitation, owing to its slippery when wet surface.
The proposal gaining steam now is to install a slender, majestic fountain in the very center of the plaza where the compass is now, and add additional landscaping to soften the perimeters and the boxy ticket booths flanking each side. The timing of this work is part of the debate, as TDA simply can’t gamble with yet another headache construction project until the DCA entry is heading into the final stretch by late 2011 or early 2012. Regardless of the decision to be made on the Esplanade, Disneyland Resort President George Kalogridis has already approved a nice chunk of money this year to replace the industrial signage and furnishings in the adjacent shuttle bus area with more attractive looking signage and equipment.
While the plans for the 6,000+ space parking garage on the Pumbaa parking lot remain on hold due to ongoing struggles getting the high speed rail station and accompanying people mover system built in Anaheim, the sprucing up of the shuttle bus area is seen as a stopgap measure to erase one of the most glaring errors from that 1990’s design blunder.
Meanwhile, over at the Disneyland Hotel work continues at a fever pitch to get the new pools and water slides up and running by this summer season. Finishing touches on the new restaurants will continue through the summer, as well as work on the third and final tower and lavishly themed new lobby areas.
Gone, but apparently not forgotten.
One indication that online furor from Disneyland’s vocal fan base can actually work is about to be found at the Frontierland Tower, formerly known as the Bonita (then Wonder) Tower and once flanked by the famous horseshoe waterfalls. WDI has now come up with a plan to recreate a bit of the old Mine Train Through Nature’s Wonderland attraction, an icon of 1950’s and 60’s Frontierland, in the form of a geyser field and desert scene in front of the tower’s lobby.
Tony Curtis in a slapstick chase through 1962 Disneyland; from "40 Pounds of Trouble."
This rethink of that plot of land, originally slated to be a simple cactus garden with predictable wagon wheel western props, comes at the request of TDA and the hotel executives who felt the online critics had a valid point and now want some sort of water feature to pay homage to the thundering falls that the Wrather Corporation installed there 35 years ago. The Imagineers are now proposing a recreation of Disneyland’s famous “Old Unfaithful” geyser, plus the kitschy bubbling springs and burbling geysers of the painted desert that every Disneyland publicity shot of the early 1960’s seemed to include. It may not be a return of the waterfalls, but it should be a fun nod to the past and a rather unique entrance to that Frontierland-themed tower.
Soon to be a desert.
Winter also brings with it the usual long list of rehabs and maintenance closures for both Disneyland and DCA. Disneyland kicks things off with the standard short closures of Haunted Mansion and Small World to remove the holiday overlays. Later in January, Splash Mountain will be closing for an extended rehab to work on structural repairs needed for that 22 year old building with plenty of water rushing through it. The station at Splash Mountain, a notoriously narrow and cramped space, will also be reconfigured to better accommodate the current fleet of logs with individual seats.
Also slated for a rehab later in 2011 is the Matterhorn, where the 1978 bobsleds that require riders to keep their seatbelts fastened on an honor system will be replaced with a fool-proof and lawyer-approved system of locking lap bars. Mockups of the new bobsleds with three individual small compartments in place of two big compartments have made a few test runs, and they are as cramped to sit in as they look.
If the current rehab schedule sticks for next fall and winter, this will have been the last year when visiting Rose Bowl teams send their offensive line on a bobsled ride to careen into the splashdown pond for the publicity cameras, a new year’s image as famous in Southern California as the Rose Parade queen waving on her float. With the new compartmentalized seats and lap bars, there’s no way a corn-fed Big Ten football player will be able to fit in the confined space. Judging from feedback of those that have sat in the mockups, pretty much anyone over six feet tall or more than 200 pounds will find the new bobsleds a very tight yet lonely squeeze.
It will be the end of a Disneyland era for football players and flirty date niters alike, but at least the lawyers will be happy.
You Will Get Wet...
Across the way at DCA, despite the endless miles of construction walls, seasonal rehabs are also taking place. Grizzly River Run will close for several weeks, primarily for decorative enhancements and upgrades to many of its watery effects. Sharp eyed regulars began noticing last spring that the trendy XGames style props in the ride and along the queue that seemed so hip over a decade ago were being yanked out and replaced with charming and period-specific camping props themed to the late 1940’s and early 50’s.
While a much more thorough remake of this raft ride using some of the same wildlife animatronics being added to Hong Kong Disneyland’s new runaway mine train coaster is still at the top of the list for phase two projects later this decade, Bob Weiss’s current DCA team carved out a small chunk of the 1.2 Billion dollar budget to tackle glaring design clashes like the already dated extreme sports theme of Grizzly River Run.
The overall look here when this light re-theme of Grizzly River Run is done will be part of an homage to the True-Life Adventure films Walt produced in the American west beginning in 1948. New period-specific costumes for the ride operators are also being cooked up. This much more rustic yet sophisticated vibe gives you a good idea of where WDI wants to take that entire area and the Condor Flats section as part of a phase two project in a few years.
With all this taking place this winter, in addition to the snazzy new Soundsational parade arriving in time for spring break and the Star Tours 2.0 relaunch on track for May, it’s no wonder TDA is feeling very confident in 2011 that they can continue pulling in the attendance and spending numbers that have been trending slightly above the already rosy forecast goals. While the Walt Disney World property struggles exiting the recession with slightly declining attendance and barely budging spending levels, (not to mention an executive management team that makes cement look intelligent), the Disneyland property continues to pull in strong numbers that beat projections every fiscal quarter. Ticket price increases will be inevitable in 2011, sooner rather than later, but TDA is also looking closely at the Annual Passholder program.
While the AP program peaked at the one million mark at the tail end of the decade, it hasn’t grown from there and is now in a rather stable period with numbers just under one million. Proposals now gaining steam are all an attempt to manage the arrival and visitation habits of the AP’s better. One way TDA is beginning that just this week is by more than doubling the hourly parking fees charged non-guests at Disney’s hotels, in an attempt to save the inventory of those lots for actual paying hotel guests and to get AP’s heading to Disneyland for a few hours or World of Color to park in the cheaper theme park lots instead of the closer hotel lots.
Other operational and logistical changes are afoot as well, as TDA struggles with a huge demographic of Annual Passholders that are now very adept at working the systems to their advantage and using the Resort in ways it was never designed to handle. Many of these habits are to the detriment of more casual bigger-spending tourists who see their vacation impacted by hordes of locals driving alone or with just one passenger into the parking lots the hotel guests pay a nightly fee for, taking up seats and sofas in the hotel bars and lobbies just to ‘hang out;’ taxing the Resort’s overall infrastructure sometimes beyond any ability to cope with it. That’s a story we’ll be following in 2011 as those changes, big and small, come pouring out of TDA as they try to pay more attention to the growing number of tourists and the future Disney Cruise Line guests (the true big-spending “whales” of the tourism industry) lured to Disneyland by the new west coast home of the Disney Wonder ship that arrives in Los Angeles to big fanfare in just a few days.
Remember this 2007 campaign?
The other Annual Pass change brewing for 2011 is to stop marketing the concept as an “annual” pass, and instead refer to it as a “membership” so can they change the billing rules. Instead of entering in to a contract that has a specific end date one year out, the membership plan would act more like a health club membership where Disneyland charges you monthly dues endlessly until you tell them you want to cancel it outright. Of course the mouse will wrap this new concept in an environmentally friendly green message, and try to explain that it’s kinder to the earth to keep your same card year after year instead of issuing you a new one each year with an end date on it. Not only would this change to an open-ended membership plan likely rake in more money as fewer people fall off the wagon at the end of 12 months, but it would also allow them to save a bundle in labor and processing costs by nearly shutting down the always-crowded Annual Pass Processing center.
The savings increase further for TDA in 2012 as new turnstiles are installed and they move to membership cards that no longer have your picture on them in place of a biometric scan of your finger conducted in a few seconds upon first use of the pass out at the new turnstiles. Those biometric scans are impossible to fool as they permanently assign an identity to only one person on the planet, whereas the current system using a grainy picture given a cursory glance by a harried ticket taker is subject to abuse and fraud. The Disneyland Resort is changing folks, and while 2010 was a winner of a year that brought us World of Color, a new vibe for DCA and lots of plywood construction walls, 2011 is the year we’ll see more fundamental changes in the way the Resort plays host to all of us.
A Quick Mention...
I close with this following item only because: a) The El Capitan Theatre always manages to fill in the time between their scheduled movie runs with some classy special events, and b) This one features Rob Richards and the Mighty Wurlitzer pipe organ, which face it you won't find at the local googleplex:
Hollywood’s El Capitan Theatre presents DISNEY PIPES AND POPS, a musical celebration of Disney films and their music with the award winning Rob Richards at the Mighty Wurlitzer Pipe Organ and featuring American new gospel pianist Alex-Zsolt, on Saturday January 15, 2011 at 10:00am. In this performance Richards will accompany the classic silent Mickey Mouse cartoons “Plane Crazy” and “Galloping Gaucho” on the Mighty Wurlitzer Pipe Organ, allowing theatregoers to experience these films in the way they were originally presented.
Tickets can be purchased at the El Capitan box office (6838 Hollywood Blvd.) online at www.elcapitantickets.com, or by calling 1-800-DISNEY6. Special group rate tickets for parties of 20 or more are available by calling 1-818-845-3110.