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California Misadventure -- Part 3

Jim Hill

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California Misadventure -- Part 3

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Hoping to turn Anaheim into another Orlando, Disney CEO Michael Eisner proposes adding hundreds of Disney-owned-and-operated hotel rooms to Orange County. Understanding that he needed a way to keep those new hotel rooms filled, Eisner asked his Imagineers to design huge new Disney attractions for Southern California.

Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI) came up with concepts for two new California theme parks: Westcot Center and Disney Seas. Since both of these proposed projects carried hefty price tags ($3 billion each), Disney knew that they'd need help covering the total cost of construction. So they began looking for financial partners (AKA a sucker with deep pockets to help pick up the tab). The cities of Anaheim and Long Beach as well as the state of California immediately came to mind.

Setting up a scenario that Machiavelli himself would have admired, the Mouse began playing Anaheim (the proposed location of Westcot) and Long Beach (the proposed location of Disney Seas) off one another in a not-so subtle competition for the next Disney theme park. For two years, Disney manipulated officials in these cities -- constantly threatening to cancel that town's project and take its thousands of jobs (and millions of tax dollars) elsewhere -- to cough up hundreds of millions of dollars in public funds for highway improvements.

Anaheim ultimately won this corporate butt-kissing contest in December 1991, when the Mouse announced it was abandoning plans to build Disney Seas in favor of developing Westcot. Orange County officials rejoiced, little realizing the headaches and heartaches that lie ahead.

Why do Disneyana buffs constantly complain about Disney's California Adventure?

It's not so much about what DCA is, as it is about what that park isn't.

Imagine if there was an announcement in your local paper that a major company intended to build a world class restaurant, right in your home town. Their plans called for the restaurant to be housed in an elegant building surrounded by beautiful gardens. Inside, they'd serve delicious food while live bands performed.

Wouldn't you be excited if you heard that a place like that was coming to your town?

Conversely, wouldn't you be disappointed if you were to learn that -- after years of hype -- the same company had decided not to construct the elegant restaurant, but were opting instead to build a McDonalds on that site?

One might argue that a restaurant is a restaurant. Food is food. It doesn't much matter if an elegant restaurant is replaced by a fast food place. You still have somewhere to eat.

This is why Disneyana buffs are so upset. In their minds, they were promised the beautiful restaurant (Westcot) but ended up with McDonald's (DCA).

It doesn't much matter that many of the very same Imagineers who dreamed up Westcot also worked on attractions for DCA. Not to the Disney die-hards, anyway. All that they remember -- all too keenly -- are the plans for Westcot. Next to the greatness-that-might-have-been of that grandiose resort, everything -- particularly California Adventure -- pales in comparison.

Was this abandoned-but-not-forgotten project worth all this fuss? In a way, yes. Had Westcot been built following the project's original plan, it would have been the culmination of Disney's theme park experience. Everything that the Mouse had learned while building resorts in Florida, France and Japan was going to be used back in California.

And how fitting that Disney was going to re-invent the theme park experience -- right back in the place where theme parks had been invented in 1955.

Westcot and the original Disneyland Resort plan was truly groundbreaking stuff. It sought to turn Disneyland and the tired collection of motels and fast food joints that surrounded the park as something extraordinary: a lushly gardened, brightly lit urban entertainment center. Had this project gone forward as originally planned, Anaheim could have emerged as one of California's premier destination resorts.

You want to know what all the fuss was about? Do you long for a taste of the wonders of Westcot? Here, let me take you on a journey to the greatest theme park the Disney Company never built:

Your day at Westcot begins as you zoom off Interstate 5, driving straight in to one of two massive parking garages that border the reconfigured Disneyland Resort. After parking your car, you hop aboard an elevated shuttle (modeled after the automated system that Orlando International Airport uses to shuttle passengers to its outermost air terminals) which takes you quickly and quietly to Disneyland Plaza.

Though it's only a short trip to the plaza, you still use this opportunity to eyeball the plush new resort. Off in the distance, you spy the Magic Kingdom Hotel -- one of three new resorts the Walt Disney Company has built outside the parks. Its red tile roof and stucco stylings remind you a lot of the historic Spanish missions up in Santa Barbara.

The shuttle's elevated track also takes you past Disneyland Center -- a retail, dining and entertainment area located next to a six acre lake. You notice that many of the buildings in this part of the resort are modeled after memorable Californian landmarks: Catalina's Avalon Ballroom, Venice Beach's Boardwalk as well as San Diego's Coronado Hotel. You make a note to do a little poking around here after your day at Westcot.

But now it's time to disembark. As you stroll down the steps into Disneyland Plaza, you can't help but think: this used to be the parking lot? Now it's a tree-lined, fountain-filled open space, which allows guests a moment or so to get themselves oriented before beginning that day's adventure.

To your left is Disneyland "Classic." To your right is Westcot, a stylish rethinking of WDW's Epcot Center. Everything that makes that Florida theme park fun is recreated here. Everything else that made Epcot somewhat creepy and a bit of a bore ("The Future as envisioned by Republicans") has been left behind.

As you push through the turnstile to enter Westcot, the first thing you see is the park's icon, Spacestation Earth. A giant 300-foot-tall golden ball reminiscent of Epcot's Spaceship Earth. Even in the distance, it towers over everything. Sitting on a lush green island at the center of World Showcase lagoon, Spacestation Earth is home to the Ventureport.

You'll have to cross a pedestrian bridge out over the water to reach Spacestation Earth and the Ventureport. But here, you'll get your first taste of the Wonders of Westcot. Many of your old favorites from Epcot's Future World -- the "Journey into Imagination" ride with Figment and Dreamfinder, the "Body Wars" ride from the"Wonders of Life" pavilion as well as the "Horizons" ride -- will be waiting for you here, where you can "Dare to Dream the Future."

Well, the Future's a fun place to hang out for a while. But suddenly your stomach's growling. Maybe now would be a good time to sample all that international cuisine that's available around World Showcase Lagoon. So you walk back around that pedestrian bridge and begin exploring the Americas.

(Westcot's World Showcase is a little different than the Epcot version. Here, you won't find separate countries, but countries grouped by regions. So, if you want to check out the international area, you have a choice of heading to the Americas, Europe, Asia as well as Africa & the Far East. Four distinct districts that try to span the globe. Today, you'll begin your journey in the Americas.)

As you walk back across the pedestrian bridge, you can't help but notice how cleverly Westcot is laid out. The buildings that form the Americas area (which also double as the main entrance to the park) have been done in an early 1900s style, reminiscent of the way New York City must have looked like at the turn of the century. Architecturally, these buildings have just enough in common with the buildings that make up Disneyland's Main Street U.S.A. that the two theme parks blend together effortlessly. There are no jarring transitions for guests who are exiting one park to visit the other. It all flows together seamlessly.

Inside World Showcase, this sort of architectural blending continues. Instead of doing what the Imagineers who designed the original Epcot did (i.e.: building large, free-standing international pavilions with wide swaths of greenery separating each building from its neighbor), the team that designed Westcot put its buildings right next to one another. That way, you can -- for example -- see how Japanese architecture borrowed from Chinese design, which -- in turn -- influenced Indian ornamentation.

You also notice that Disney has obviously learned from the other mistakes it made with Epcot. There are fewer travelogue films to be seen here, but a lot more rides. Kids won't complain about there being nothing to do in this park, particularly with attractions like "Ride The Dragon." This steel coaster roars across the rooftops of the Asian section of World Showcase, following a track that's designed to look like the Great Wall of China.

As you explore the many shops and exhibits you find in the park's international area, your eye keeps being drawn to the top three floors of the six story buildings that ring World Showcase Lagoon. What a thrill it must be to have a room up there -- in one of two new Disney Resort hotels, where guests can actually "live the dream" of staying inside a theme park.

I bet those rooms offer a great view of the nightly fireworks extravaganza.

Speaking of night, where did the day go? It seems like you just got to Westcot, yet it's already time to head back home. You barely got to see half of this hyper-detailed theme park. I mean, how did you end up missing taking a trip on "The River of Time," the park's signature attraction? That 45 minute boat ride would have taken you all the way around the park, past elaborate audio animatronic recreations of great moments in history.

Oh well. I guess you'll just have to catch that the next time.

You walk out of Westcot. And -- while you are sorely tempted to catch that rock concert that's currently playing in the Disneyland Arena (a 5,000-seat venue located just outside the entrance of Westcot, right next to Harbor Boulevard) -- you know it's really time to go home. That's another one of the many attractions that will have to wait 'til the next time you visit the new and improved Disneyland Resort.

But -- given all the new stuff that there is to see here -- you're sure you'll be back soon.

You see. THAT'S what we missed out on. NOW do you understand all the endless griping you read about California Adventure as you're out trolling the Internet?

This was a version of the Disneyland Resort that you could never have seen in one day. You would have -- at the very least -- needed three days: One to visit Disneyland "Classic," one to visit Westcot, as well as an additional day to explore the new hotels, and to shop and dine at Disneyland Center.

This was exactly what Eisner wanted: Walt Disney World recreated in Anaheim in miniature. A world class resort built on a postage-stamp sized parcel of land. Best of all, in spite of the number of attractions the Imagineers had crammed into the project, the Disneyland Resort would not have seemed cramped. All the plazas, trees and fountains would have given guests the illusion that there was plenty of open space.

One of the things that really excited Eisner was that "Live the Dream" program, which would have allowed guests to stay in hotel rooms that were actually located inside Westcot's World Showcase. Extensive survey work at Disneyland had showed that guests were willing to pay top dollar -- $300 to $400 a night -- to stay in these rooms. That would have made this part of the resort a tremendous money maker for the Walt Disney Company.

The beauty of this plan was that -- in designing six story structures for World Showcase that housed shops, shows and restaurants on their first three floors and guest rooms towards the top -- is that the Imagineers created a unique variation on Disneyland's berm. The very height of these combination show buildings / hotels prevented guests from seeing out into the real world, perfectly preserving the sense that they had been transported to a different place.

The Westcot project seemed to have everything going for it. It had looks. It had style. It had the potential to make massive amounts of money, which to Michael Eisner's way of thinking, is a lot more important than looks and style. It had Orange County officials drooling over the idea of hundreds of thousands of people putting off that WDW vacation in favor of visiting Disney's newest resort in Anaheim.

There was just one slight flaw in this plan: No one had bothered to ask Disneyland's neighbors -- the folks who actually live in homes off of Katella and Ball Street -- what they thought of all this development.

As it turns out, they had plenty to say.

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