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California Misadventure -- Part 2

Jim Hill

Jim's musings on the history of and rumors about movies, TV shows, books and theme parks including Disneyland, Walt Disney World. Universal Orlando and Universal Studios Hollywood.

California Misadventure -- Part 2

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Way back in 1955, Walt Disney made a rash decision. In order to get a hotel built next to his Anaheim theme park, Walt gave TV producer Jack Wrather a 99-year lease as well as exclusive use of the Disney name (should Wrather decide to build any more hotels in Southern California). It would take 34 years, $161 million, as well as just a slight hint of blackmail before the company finally got control of the Disneyland Hotel.

Once that was done, Disney CEO Michael Eisner hoped to turn Orange County into another Orlando by building hundreds of new Disney-owned-and-operated hotel rooms in the Anaheim area. Realizing that he would need thousands of guests to fill up all these new hotel rooms, Eisner orders Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI) to cook up some concepts for new California-based attractions that would drive up Disneyland attendance.

His only artistic directive to the team: "Amaze me. Astound Me."

One month later, the Imagineers returned with plans for not one but two new Disney theme parks: One which could be built on top of Disneyland's old parking lot, while the other could be constructed on property that the company had recently acquired along the waterfront in Long Beach.

They both seemed like such wonderful ideas. Which would Eisner choose to build? And why?

The rumors began flying in March 1990.

The Mouse was up to something.

Something big.

For months now, Disney had been meeting privately with the port authorities and city officials of Long Beach. Everyone the Mouse spoke with was sworn to secrecy. But -- even so -- little tidbits had begun to leak out about this highly hush-hush project.

Like ... whatever Disney was up to, the company would be spending at least a billion dollars to get the thing up out of the ground. And ... The project would feature a massive port for cruise ships, as well as several seaside luxury hotels. Best of all, there was talk of an elaborate new Disney theme park.

Long Beach residents were thrilled by these rumors.

The people of Anaheim, as you might understand, were not.

For years now, Orange County residents had listened politely as Disneyland cast members complained about how the company's pre-existing deal with the Wrather Corporation prevented the Mouse from expanding in Anaheim. Well, that contract was null and void now. So where was Disney? Not planning any projects for Orange County, that's for sure. The Mouse is down by the water, mapping out mega-resorts with his new pals from Long Beach.

Anaheim officials felt hurt and betrayed by what they perceived as the Mouse turning his back on his long-time friends. But -- rather than get mad -- these Orange County officials became determined to win back Disney's affections. They'd do whatever they had to get back in Mickey's good graces.

Which is exactly what the Mouse had hoped they'd do.

Ah -- if we'd only known for sure what the Disney Company was actually up to, way back then in 1990-1991. We could have gotten a big box of popcorn and sat right down front. 'Cause this was "Show Business" on a grand scale, with the real emphasis on "Business."

As in "Giving Someone the Business."

I mean, this was manipulation on a masterful, massive scale. The Walt Disney Company successfully pitting two major Southern Californian cities against one another, with Anaheim and Long Beach battling to see who would have the privilege of paying a billion dollars for public improvements (stuff like new highway ramps, street widening, etc.) that Disney insisted were necessary to properly launch its new theme park. All that time, all that energy, all the money expended, just so that city can have the bragging rights to having bagged the new Disney kiddie park? It hardly seems worth the effort.

Is the Mouse really that Machiavellian? Let's look at the time line, kiddies.

January 1989: Michael Eisner asks the Imagineers to come up with some ideas for new Disney attractions for Southern California. WDI delivers two killer concepts to its CEO: Westcot Center and Disney Seas.

Truth be told, there are some obvious similarities between the two proposed theme parks. Westcot Center and Disney Seas both had bold designs that depart radically from the look and feel of classic Disneyland. Mind you, the two proposed parks aren't that original. Both used a giant knock-off of Epcot Center's Spaceship Earth as their centerpiece / icon (Westcot Center has its great golden Spacestation Earth, while the Disney Seas park has its bright blue Oceana.)

Most importantly, both Westcot Center and Disney Seas are going to be almost prohibitively costly to construct. Initial estimates suggest that the parks will each cost $3 billion to build.

That's a lot of money for the Walt Disney Company to have to lay out all on its own; particularly in 1989, when the Mouse is still recovering from the massive construction bills the company ran up hurrying to finish Walt Disney World's (WDW) Disney-MGM Studio theme park in Orlando in time for its grand opening in May of that year.

And then there's the cash the Mouse has to have on hand to cover the costs of its portion of the Euro Disney. (This was way back when Disney thought that Euro Disney was going to be a guaranteed goldmine. Which just goes to show that the Mouse doesn't always know what it's doing. Anyhow... )

Disney needed a way to make either of these projects more financially viable (read that as "cheaper to build"). The easiest way to do this was to persuade an outside party to take on a portion of the cost. Someone with deep pockets. Like -- say -- Long Beach, or Anaheim, or even the State of California.

Disney worked hard to keep all the outside parties involved in this project off-center and out of the loop. For example, the Mouse officially announced the "Port Disney" project in April 1990. However, within just a week's time, the Mouse put out a press release that -- in a nutshell - said: "By the way, if we don't get that modification to the State Coastal Act that we're looking for, we're pulling the plug on the whole damned project tomorrow."

Long Beach -- which was desperate to land this $3 billion project (with the hope that it might revitalize its depressed downtown area ) -- repeatedly jumped through whatever hoop the Mouse set up. High-ranking city officials even put pressure on Peter Douglas, executive director of the Coastal Commission (reportedly even threatening to have him removed from his $70,000-a-year job), just because he dared to speak out against the "Port Disney" project.

Meanwhile, Anaheim officials continued to pester Disney management, hoping to get it to change its minds about Long Beach and refocus its expansion efforts on Orange County.

One enterprising politician even used Disneyland's July 17th birthday celebration as a forum to plead the county's case. Standing on stage in the Magic Kingdom, he departed from his scripted birthday greeting to personally urge Michael Eisner to bring the California second gate project back to Anaheim. Michael was not amused.

Little did this politician realize that the other shoe was about to drop. Disney was continually finding its efforts to clear all the legal hurdles to build Disney Seas / Port Disney stymied by environmentalists. Three of California's largest environmental groups had banded together to protest the project. They had a particular problem with the Mouse's plan to fill in 256 acres of San Pedro Bay so it could build its Disney Seas theme park.

Sensing that "Disney Seas" might end up going the way of the Titanic, the Mouse unofficially put the word out during the summer of 1990 that it might have another Californian theme park in the works, just in case "Port Disney" fell through.

Orange County officials were further heartened in February 1991, when they learned that the Disney Company had purchased 23 acres of land in Anaheim. Why would you buy land if you didn't intend to build something on it?

Still, the Mouse worked hard at keeping Anaheim officials off-balance. It would leak detail about the proposed Anaheim second gate, then have a ribbon cutting for the "Port Disney" visitor center the very next day.

By May 1991, when Disney finally officially unveiled its $3.1 billion plan for the Westcot / Disneyland Resort project, the Anaheim city fathers were complete basket cases. While they were thrilled that Disney had finally revealed its plans for a second Anaheim park, they were also terrified that the project might suddenly fall through.

The Mouse had these guys right where it wanted them, particularly when it began issuing statements such as (when asked in a straightforwardly fashion) whether the company intended to build just Westcot or just Disney Seas, a Mouse-ka-spokesman replied: "While it wants to build both, the Walt Disney Company can only build one of these parks in the 1990s. The company will build first in the city that provides us with the best support package."

The Mouse's message was clear: Give us what we want (In Anaheim, Disney was looking for $1 billion worth of street widening, tree planting and public improvements. At Long Beach, Disney was asking for $880 million worth of highway improvements) or we'll go with the other guy.

In the end, Anaheim did exactly what Disney asked. They even tabled discussion of a theme park admission tax because the Mouse threatened to cancel Westcot if the proposed tax ever came up for a vote.

By the fall of 1991, though Disney would never publicly admit to it, the company had given up on its Long Beach project. The state of California had refused to give the Mouse the zoning variance it needed to fill in that portion of San Pedro Bay. Without that additional land to build on, the whole "Port Disney" project was no longer viable.

Just days before Christmas, Long Beach got a huge lump of coal in its stocking, as Disney officially cancelled the "Port Disney" project. Had the project actually gone forward, "Disney Seas" would have created 20,000 jobs for the community.

Orange County officials rejoiced at this news, little realizing how often they'd been manipulated by the Mouse during the selection process.

And the manipulation would continue for months to come -- as the Disney Company would repeatedly seek Anaheim's approval for the numerous changes it would make to Westcot's master plan.

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