Disneyland and California Adventure have just made it through a whirlwind 45 days of mega-events, starting with the extremely successful Pirates movie premiere, continuing on to the successful debuts and launch parties for Star Tours, Little Mermaid, a revamped Disneyland Hotel, and a new parade, plus a string of hectic Grad Nite parties, all topped off by a final crunch from a few hundred thousand Annual Passholders eager to see it all.
Now it’s on to a relatively calm summer for Disneyland, a time that used to be the peak of activity for Anaheim but that now simply means a manageably festive season that is actually a respite from the rest of the year.
In this update we’ll fill you in on just how busy the Disneyland Resort was this spring, why Grad Nites are in no danger of leaving Anaheim after being cancelled out in Florida, and what’s ahead for both of the Anaheim parks in the months to come.
There is some really good news here, not only for Disney, but even for another nearby theme park. Special thanks to Andy Castro and Fishbulb for the photos today.
Got that cinnamon oatmeal microwaved yet? Have that K–Cup in the machine now? Well then let's get going shall we? - Al
The party's over…
The suits in the Team Disney Anaheim (TDA) building turned up the hype and doled out the swag, free food and cocktails to get as many reporters and local personalities from west of the Rockies and around the Pacific Rim as they could for the big openings of Star Tours, Little Mermaid, the Soundsational Parade, and the newest phase to open at the Disneyland Hotel. It was a whirlwind week for TDA in early June, but the results were a mountain of positive press and a very strong buzz for both Star Tours and the Little Mermaid.
But with the ceremonies and shindigs over, it was now time to operate the new offerings daily without juggling soft openings, media sneak peeks, and ticketed preview days. Shortly after the new rides opened, a big slice of the 900,000+ Annual Passholders descended on the Resort and created the highest attendance days of the year thus far, with almost half the people packed into both Anaheim parks in recent days being Annual Passholders.
The second week of June is always a busy time since the two lower tiers of Annual Passes, the cheaper SoCal and SoCal Select passes, run up against their mid-June deadline before hitting 8 to 10 weeks of summer block outs. Those last few days before the summer block outs kick in are always very busy, but this year with two major new rides open and a new parade on offer the crowds were legendary and rivaled the busy week between Christmas and New Years.
The Monday and Tuesday after the new rides opened on June 3rd were very busy, but the following Monday and Tuesday June 14th and 15th after more local schools had ended for the summer, were the busiest days of the calendar year thus far. Both of those days had over 40,000 local Annual Passholders flood through the gates of the two parks, swelling the attendance and making things rather uncomfortable for the 50,000 domestic and international tourists visiting that day.
Wednesday, June 16th saw the first of the summer block outs and only Deluxe and Premium Annual Passholders whereallowed in, which resulted in an attendance decline of 25,000 people. By Saturday of that week, with all but Premium Annual Passholders blocked out, attendance had declined further and both parks could breathe again with only 13,000 of the daily total attendance being made up by Annual Passholders, with the rest made up by about 12,000 locals without AP’s, and 40,000 North American or overseas tourists made up the rest of the crowd.
There’s a fine line both parks can cross when the throngs overwhelm the existing infrastructure and attraction count and create noticeably overcrowded conditions, and that daily attendance threshold is currently around the 55,000 mark for Disneyland and right around 20,000 for DCA. Once you crest those daily attendance levels, the parks grow exponentially more unpleasant with each additional thousand that packs in to the place.
A 65,000 day at Disneyland is particularly miserable, owing to the narrower walkways and older design of the park and its amenities. This past week had several of those miserable crowd days, and it flew in the face of the outdated conventional wisdom that Disneyland is busiest on a Saturday and quietest on a weekday.
Some of the numbers from the second week of June tell the story here…
Monday, June 14th
Disneyland, 8AM to Midnight: 65,000
DCA, 10AM to 10PM: 25,000
Annual Passholders In Attendance: 41,000
Tuesday, June 15th
Disneyland, 8AM to Midnight: 66,000
DCA, 10AM to 10PM: 26,000
Annual Passholders In Attendance: 42,000
Saturday, June 18th
Disneyland, 8AM to Midnight: 48,000
DCA, 10AM to 10PM: 17,000
Annual Passholders In Attendance: 13,000
Early this week will bring another repeat of last week’s huge numbers. Although the cheapest SoCal Select passes are now blocked out for the summer, the SoCal level still has several more days before their summer block outs begin. Not until Saturday, July 2nd will both parks be able to breathe easier when over half of the 900,000+ Annual Passholders will become blocked out until late August. The attendance forecasts for this July through mid August are very healthy for both parks, with only 10,000 to 15,000 of the daily attendance being made up by Annual Passholders, and 55,000 or more of the daily attendance being made up by traditional tourists from outside of Southern California.
This entire drama will play out again the third week in August however, when those summer block outs begin to lift and all those AP’s come flooding back for another Disneyland fix before Labor Day and the beginning of school. The first day that those lower levels of Annual Passholders may return is Sunday, August 21st, and all bets are off on how crazy the two parks will be that third week of August.
Mermaid vs Stormtrooper
The good news is that the crowds are being pulled in by not just one, but two major new attractions and a brand new parade. The customer feedback surveys on all three of those offerings have been overwhelmingly positive thus far. Interestingly, it’s the Little Mermaid attraction that is delivering the biggest daily numbers. Thanks to its super-efficient Omnimover ride system and roomy clamshell vehicles that have entire families of four piling in to sit together for the show, the Little Mermaid has been cresting the 2,000 riders per hour mark with ease. The Mermaid attractions has been playing host to 23,000 or more riders per day for the past several weeks, even with DCA’s shorter operating day of 10AM to 10PM.
Over in Disneyland, Star Tours has a much lower hourly capacity of around 1,200 per hour, and even with an extra four or five hours of operating time each day at Disneyland, Star Tours has had a hard time breaking the 19,000 riders per day threshold thus far. The Soundsational Parade has proven to be a big hit with Disneyland visitors of all types, and it was just what the doctor ordered to erase the memory of the past few years of a Top 40 street party instead of a genuine parade. But since the Disneyland parade route holds between 7,000 and 9,000 spectators, the two-parade daily schedule still can’t match the 23,000+ people experiencing the Little Mermaid attraction every day. When it comes to sheer numbers of entertained customers, it’s The Little Mermaid: Ariel’s Undersea Adventure that is doing the heaviest lifting in Anaheim this summer.
Sharp pencils, dull minds...
At the same time the Resort was juggling those big daytime crowds, they were also finishing up the last of this year’s overnight Grad Nite parties, a 50 year tradition at Disneyland that dates back to 1961. There was quite a buzz this past March when the management of Walt Disney World announced that this would be the last year for Grad Nites on their property. Understandably some folks here wondered if Disneyland would be going the same way, but for the time being at least the answer is that Disneyland not only continues to step up to the logistical challenge of hosting Grad Nites in the middle of a very busy time of year, but that it makes a tidy profit at it too. The healthy profit angle is something that can’t be claimed for the Orlando property, after a multi-year series of blunders and missteps that quite literally killed the golden goose and chased the kids away.
In a typical story that has been repeated too often in recent years, the WDW team kept cutting away at the offerings each year to try and wring out a few extra pennies for the sharp pencil boys. The result of the penny-wise, pound-foolish decisions out in Orlando were a steady decline in WDW Grad Nite attendance for most of the last decade, and a bizarre schedule that pushed the events back into April, instead of late May and June when the kids were actually graduating.
The final straw was when they moved the parties to Disney’s Hollywood Studios in 2009 to try and take advantage of that park’s cheaper operating costs and tiny attraction roster. The move to DHS was an unmitigated disaster, with only three operating rides that a 17 year old would have interest in; Tower of Terror, Rockin’ Roller Coaster, and Midway Mania. As fun as those rides can be the first few times you ride them, the grads were bored to tears after the first couple of hours and were faced with camping out overnight with some moonlighting wedding reception DJ’s, or taking a nap on the bench seats of the Great Movie Ride.
The complaints rolled in from the Hollywood Studios experiment and they quickly moved Grad Nite back to the Magic Kingdom in 2010. Now whittled down to just four nights in April and early May, the damage had already been done and WDW’s Grad Nite battled a sinkhole reputation with Florida teenagers. They tried discounting the tickets below 2009’s 50 dollar price, and yet the sharp pencil boys piped up and insisted they only offer a severely edited roster of Magic Kingdom attractions for the event (in a park that already has too-few E Tickets and over a dozen fewer attractions than Disneyland). It was all too little, too late and when pre-sales for the modest four night 2011 season came in very weak, the decision was made to pull Grad Nites off of life support in Florida. The official reason the Disney talking heads gave the media this past spring was that WDW was just too busy in the spring to try and host an overnight party any longer.
Luckily, at Disneyland, Grad Nite has been on an entirely different trajectory for the past few years. The event has never been more popular in Anaheim than it is today, and the Disneyland Entertainment Department has really laid on the extras the past few years and cultivated a hip yet Disneyfied vibe that the kids have responded well to, and that their parents don’t mind paying for. What has also helped is that TDA’s corporate relations group went out and signed a very lucrative deal with Honda several years ago to be the long-term title sponsor for the parties. Grad Nite, Presented by Honda has padded the bottom line just as much as the brisk pace of sales for the 61 dollar tickets.
Schools coming from further away who mainly stay at area hotels start the party earlier with a Blast Off event from 9:30PM to Midnight at DCA, where they get free run of over a dozen popular rides and the elecTRONica street party to rev them up. The real party then starts next door at Disneyland where nearly every ride is open except for Mickey’s Toontown and the boats on the Rivers of America, and local SoCal radio personalities play host at the popular dance clubs set up in Frontierland, Fantasyland and Tomorrowland. A twice-nightly firework show lights up the sky over the Castle at 1 and 3AM, and go-go dancers and fancy nightclub lighting turn the Central Plaza into a major party scene until the event finally ends at 6AM.
But it’s all of those displays of Honda cars, trucks, motorbikes and action-sports vehicles set up around the park and at the various dance clubs that truly keep the party going for TDA. Honda loves having their name and products attached to an event popular with a sought-after demographic of young people from Honda’s most lucrative western markets, and TDA loves having the sponsorship cash to plus up the evening even further. The end result is that this year’s Disneyland Grad Nites, spread over seven separate nights in late May and June with sell-out crowds above 30,000, pulled in graduating seniors from up and down California as well as a half dozen other western states and Baja. The parties are expensive to pull off and require an army of overnight Cast Members to staff, but even in these recessionary times Disneyland has reportedly been making profits in the range of a million to one and a half million dollars per night for each of the seven parties.
Grad Nites at Disneyland are not going anywhere anytime soon. And if TDA could pull off the masterful logistics of this year’s movie premiere, major attraction previews, and grand opening galas wedged between peak attendance days in the midst of a busy Grad Nite season, there’s no reason why TDA can’t schedule the 2012 Grad Nites around the previews and big events being cooked up for Cars Land next June. The excuse that WDW is now “too busy” to bother with Grad Nites is just that, an excuse, and not one that holds up to much scrutiny.
The decline and fall of Grad Nites in WDW should be a valuable lesson for Disneyland that if you cheapen and dumb-down a product too much even rowdy teenagers will notice and stop coming.
With Grad Nites done, and most of the Annual Passholders blocked out until August 21st, Disneyland and DCA now turn towards summer. But it’s a summer full of uncharacteristic refurbishments for Disneyland and massive construction for DCA. The 4th of July weekend will offer up the now-standard roster of entertainment, with the popular Celebrate America fireworks performing nightly July 1st through the 4th. The performances on July 1st through the 3rd will feature the shorter version of Celebrate America, and the show on the 4th will feature the extra-long version with a great deal more pyro. There will also be three Fantasmic! performances scheduled on the 4th instead of the usual two, with the third show slotting in at 11:30PM.
World of Color will also offer a new patriotic version of the show that weekend, with pyro added for the 4th. There will be an army of red-shirted CM’s from the “Guest Research” department quizzing the crowd on their thoughts on the July 4th World of Color show. The execs in TDA had originally given the go-ahead for a special Halloween version of the show to perform in October and help pull folks over to DCA on nights that Disneyland has their trick or treat parties. But TDA has gotten cold feet over six weeks’ worth of Halloween shows instead of the proven version of World of Color most folks expect.
The Guest Research team will be aiming their questions at determining how each demographic of Disneyland visitors (locals, domestic tourists, international tourists) would react to an entirely different version of a show that would be just over a year old by this September. If the results aren’t favorable this 4th of July, they may hold off on the Halloween version of World of Color for at least another year.
At the end of July, more of the already decimated DCA main entrance area is scheduled to go behind construction walls. It’s that total remake of DCA’s opening act into the hyper-themed Buena Vista Street area that has the project managers sweating bullets already. The late arrival of the comparatively modest Paradise Garden section of the park has everyone realizing just how aggressive and optimistic these DCA construction timelines are, and there’s much more riding on the line for Buena Vista Street than there was for the Paradise Garden area. The timetable for the Paradise Garden restaurant area and Goofy’s Sky School was thrown off by some winter rains and an overly aggressive plan, and there’s no guarantee we won’t have a wet winter next year too.
When the Paradise Garden area opens July 1st the smaller Paradise Garden Grill may be the only thing open there for the first few days, unless some miracles can happen at the larger and still behind schedule Boardwalk Pizza & Pasta restaurant. Goofy’s Sky School is all ready to go operationally and could theoretically open today, but they are purposely holding off to allow some of the construction crews to work unimpeded right up to the rides southern flanks. The walls around Goofy’s Sky School will shift further this week, and daily soft openings are tentatively scheduled to begin this Saturday and continue until the area formally opens on July 1st.
The pressure has already been turned up on the Buena Vista Street project because it simply can’t suffer a major timeline slip like Paradise Garden did. Buena Vista Street must be completed and fully functional for the opening of Cars Land and the big media event that Burbank wants TDA to stage to officially re-launch the most infamous theme park in Disney’s history. To have arriving Cars Land visitors and the media passing through canyons of construction walls at the main entrance next summer is simply not going to be an option, and the project managers are now creating a series of triggers that might be hit through spring, 2012 to activate the needed overtime to get it all done in time.
The result is that TDA is already planning for a Cars Land and DCA Relaunch celebrity party that is aiming for the last half of June, 2012 instead of something closer to Memorial Day weekend or early June. Not having the Buena Vista Street arrival complex finished by the Cars Land debut is simply not an option, per the suits in Burbank who have approved all the money to get this done. Even with a late June premiere date, it will really be a race against the clock.
Later this July, once the new turnstile complex is fully functioning, the old turnstiles will be quickly torn down and walls will be placed just south of the turnstiles and a new backstage corridor will be opened up that shoots along the north side of the Soarin’ Over California hangar building. That rather unglamorous route will serve as DCA’s main entrance and exit, along with an auxiliary evening exit at the floodgates near the World of Disney store, for the next 10 months as Buena Vista Street races against the clock to completion. Never in the history of Disney theme parks have they had to welcome and bid farewell to park visitors in such an uninviting environment, and for such a long period of time. But then again, never in the history of Disney theme parks (or any theme park really) have they had to perform such major surgery on an operating theme park before.
There is a theme park here, really.
In early August the western half of DCA’s entry complex that currently houses the stroller shop, Engine Ears Toys, Bakers Field Bakery, and Bur-r-r-rbank Ice Cream will go behind walls for its makeover into Clarabelle’s Ice Cream Parlor, the Fiddler, Fifer and Practical Café, Kingswell Photo Supply, Julius Katz & Sons, the Atwater Ink and Paint shop, and the Red Car Trolley station. And then in late August the eastern half of the street that currently houses the Guest Relations and Lost and Found complex and the big Greetings From California store will shut down as well, to be turned into Mortimer’s Market, Oswald’s Service Station, Los Feliz Five & Dime, and the Elias & Co. Department Store. By early September, DCA’s entire entry complex of stores and restaurants will be shut down and behind walls, making it particularly difficult to get into or out of the Hollywood section of the park. September will also see a six week refurbishment begin at California Screamin’ to entirely replace the loop and paint much of the structure from September 6th until October 14th.
Save the date...
Meanwhile, at Disneyland, the old rule of no rehabs scheduled during summer has also been thrown out the window, thanks to the steady yet manageable crowd levels that are no match for the maxed out days in spring and fall when the Annual Passholder variable can bring the park to its knees. Gone are the days when the three months of summer would see the year’s biggest crowds and Disneyland needed every ride vehicle it had running at peak capacity. Only the two weeks around Christmas and Easter seem to remain as rehab-free weeks now.
After a June with short rehabs at Big Thunder and Matterhorn Bobsleds, there’s a brief reprieve around the July 4th holiday week. But from July 11th until Labor Day weekend the Matterhorn will close again for the first phase of a two-phase major refurbishment. The Matterhorn will then stay open for the fall and Christmas season, before closing in early January for the first six months of 2012. It’s during that six month period when the new bobsleds with lap bars will be installed, the mountain will be painted and refurbished cosmetically, and it’s also when Tony Baxter hopes to cram as many technology upgrades and new effects in as his budget will allow.
Super sleds for the Matterhorn
This August will see Tarzan’s Treehouse close for a month for a cosmetic refurbishment and bridge maintenance. Also in early August, the busy Blue Ribbon Bakery on Main Street USA will close for good at that location so that the adjoining Carnation Café can expand and offer indoor seating. The bakery concept will reappear at the far end of Main Street USA in December, when the Mary Poppins themed version of the charming old Plaza Pavilion opens in the space currently occupied by the Annual Passholder processing center. Now that Disney has gotten rid of the need to take a picture of every person who buys an AP and turned it into a process that can largely be handled over the Internet or at any ticket booth, the elaborate setup for photos and processing is no longer needed.
Judging from how well the local WDI team working out of the Anaheim satellite office has handled recent major refurbishments of existing restaurants, the chances are good that this bakery will be a must-stop location for anyone who skipped breakfast on their way to the park. Now if only the corporate sponsorship talks with Starbucks hadn’t hit that rough patch over prominent logos and training Disney’s CM’s to operate Starbucks-approved barista equipment, you wouldn’t have to settle for watery Nescafe with your Poppins popup.
Princesses, exit right..
September then sees a flurry of short downtimes at Indiana Jones for animatronics work, plus the usual short downtimes for installation of the seasonal Halloween overlays. Haunted Mansion will be closed from late August until September 15th to get ready for the twelfth season of the wildly successful Nightmare Before Christmas overlay, and Space Mountain will be closed for just three days before reopening as Space Mountain Ghost Galaxy and kicking off the HalloweenTime season on Friday, September 16th (yet another day to expect epic crowds of AP’s descending after work).
If Disneyland’s Entertainment Department gets the green light this autumn, they’ll shut down the Princess Fantasy Faire to turn the facility back into a 1,200 seat theater and produce a big stage show there again. If the Fantasyland Theater project gets its final approvals, the Princess Fantasy Faire concept would be condensed and moved to the Plaza Gardens area during the day, although the new Princess sets would be designed to be moveable so that the Plaza Gardens dance floor could be retained for the popular orchestra-led swing dancing that takes place there every weekend. The biggest loser in that move would appear to be the Disney Performing Arts school groups that enjoy performing on that small stage in the afternoons. And finally, an all-time favorite will be closed for most of the fall this year, with Pirates of the Caribbean scheduled for closure from just after Labor Day all the way until Thanksgiving for all sorts of cosmetic, animatronics, and mechanical refurbishment.
Don't worry, it ain't coming.
In the midst of all that construction and an aggressive refurbishment plan, TDA will be watching closely how attendance and spending pans out this summer. The recent rise in ticket and AP prices plays well into the plan we’d told you earlier, where Disneyland could institute a Hong Kong Disneyland style of ticketing where admission prices have three or four different levels of pricing depending on the time of the year. If they get bold enough to do it once the DCA main entrance is finished, the then-current ticket price would become the middle ground price, with a much higher priced ticket offered during the busiest holiday weeks of the year, and a slightly lower priced ticket offered during the slower weeks of winter, early May, and early September.
With that ticketing system in place, they could also offer a cheaper SoCal pass during those slow periods. The variable in this plan to restructure the way Disneyland charges admission throughout the year is the customer response to the dramatic changes at DCA that wrap up next summer, and the economy. TDA would understandably like to see the local SoCal economy and the broader American economy strengthen before they begin potentially charging a lot more for visits during the most popular times of year.
The other factor playing in to the price of tickets and what TDA is going to try and charge is the operating hours of each park. Disneyland is already maxed out, with the busiest months offering 8AM to Midnight hours seven days per week, with several Fantasmic!’s, two parades and a fireworks show scheduled daily.
Once they get Cars Land open, the current plan is to extend DCA’s summer operating hours for 2012 to a daily 8AM to 11PM operation, with several World of Color performances and at least two parades slotted in. (The return of the Electrical Parade floats next year is the wild card, as varying proposals to slot it back in to either DCA or Disneyland’s daily entertainment roster are currently being floated around, pardon the pun).
With Disneyland and DCA then opening at the same time each morning, the concept of “Magic Mornings” would also arrive at DCA. The plan is to also offer a 7AM Magic Morning head start in DCA for guests at the Disney owned hotels, or select travel plans purchased through the Japan Travel Bureau or other foreign tourist organizations. Disneyland would likely keep its current schedule of offering Magic Morning four days per week, with DCA picking up the duty the other three days of the week.
Instead of summer being the traditional time when the Disneyland Resort focuses solely on being a good host to all those sunburned tourists from around the world, this summer is really the kickoff to the final home stretch of an unprecedented expansion and investment all over the Anaheim property. It’s going to get uglier before it gets better at DCA, and they don’t have the luxury of waiting until Labor Day to get started. But the end result holds great promise, and this summer begins the last leg of the massive projects in Anaheim.
Beyond the Berm
You may have heard the good news early yesterday, former Disneyland head Matt Ouimet is taking over the top CEO spot at Cedar Fair.
Ouimet's tenure at Disneyland is still fondly remembered by hourly and salaried CM's alike, years after he left. Part of his legacy was just being lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time; taking over Disneyland from two previous presidents who clearly didn't get it and who nearly ran the place into the ground, as well as getting the financial backing from Burbank to fix most of their mistakes just in time to bring the sparkle back to Disneyland and celebrate the 50th Anniversary in grand style. It was a Disney-style fairytale you couldn't have made up if you had tried, but it happened.
Ouimet welcomes back Fess Parker to Disneyland in the run-up to the 50th
Ouimet also excelled on his own personal strengths and his crystal-clear leadership style. He is remembered as someone who dared to speak regular english instead of corporate gobblydeygook, which is a rare and appreciated quality to his employee audience below the ranks of upper-middle management. Matt wasn't a typical California theme park guy who started out with a summer job as a Tomorrowland Terrace busboy or a Jungle Cruise Skipper. Instead, he was really an outsider when you read his resume'; an East Coaster who had no theme park experience and who had spent the last few years running Disney's cruise ship business out of Port Canaveral.
But Matt took to Disneyland immediately, and likewise the Disneylanders took to him just as quickly. Matt realized and acted upon his belief that the success of Disneyland laid not with backstage TDA "initiatives" that never impacted the paying customers or front-line Cast Members, but with the basics of a clean park in tip-top shape offering a courteous performance for every park guest. He remained focused on those common sense basics throughout his stay in Anaheim, while simultaneously beginning to plan for the biggest and most expensive expansion the resort had ever seen.
It's really a shame that corporate politics forced out Ouimet (and his top lieutenant Greg Emmer not long after) at the end of his three year contract in '06, because Ouimet would have been a fantastic candidate to shepherd the 1.2 Billion dollar DCA extreme makeover through at least its public announcement in '07 and construction kickoff in '09. In 2011 very few people even remember who the president was that replaced Matt Ouimet in '06 and whom also met his Disney demise after his same length contract ended in '09, and that three-year curse is something Burbank simply must cure for Anaheim executives. Yet many still fondly remember the too brief period when Ouimet was in charge and Disneyland rose again to be the sparkling flagship park of the Disney empire. The term Camelot may be too cloying and cliche' to use to describe Ouimet's tenure in Anaheim, and yet there was something special there in those 1000 days Matt spent at Disneyland. Whoever has the chance to tap into that should consider themselves very lucky.
It will be interesting to see what Matt's plans are for Cedar overall and Knott's in particular, and if he could potentially bring some luster back to what was once considered an unofficial second gate to Disneyland for most of the late 20th century.