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California Misadventure -- Part 4

Jim Hill

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California Misadventure -- Part 4

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After months of playing Long Beach and Anaheim off one another, Disney (surprise, surprise) picked Orange County as the future home of its next Californian theme park. This $3.1 billion development would have risen up out of Disneyland's old parking lot, changing forever the fiscal as well as physical layout of this part of California.

Had the Mouse actually gone forward with building Westcot Center as well as redoing the entire Disneyland resort, Anaheim could have evolved into one of California's premier vacation destinations. The proposed theme park's bold new look and stunning array of state-of-the-art attractions would have made the place an instant hit with vacationers worldwide. There was no way the place would have failed.

All the Mouse had to do now was get the City of Anaheim to rubber-stamp its expansion plans. Given the decades of cozy (some might say too cozy) relations between Disney and Orange County, Westcot and the Disneyland Resort project should have no problems getting approved, right?

After all, what could go wrong? ... go wrong? ... go wrong? ... go wrong? ...

There was no getting around it. Spacestation Earth was going to be impressive.

At 300 feet, Westcot's centerpiece building was going to be the tallest structure in all of Orange County. As big as a 23-story skyscraper, but round and covered in gold. Shimmering under the Californian sun, it would dazzle your eye and be visible for miles around.

Impressive, yes. But would you really want one towering over your backyard?

That was the problem Curtis Sticker and Bill Fitzgerald had. As long-time Anaheim residents, they had grown accustomed to the nightly crackle of the fireworks over the Magic Kingdom. They had learned all the short cuts to get around traffic jams on Interstate 5. That's just what you had to do when the Mouse was your neighbor.

But now here comes Westcot with its 4,600 new hotel rooms, its 17,500 new employees, and its 300 foot tall golden ball. All those dramatic changes to Disneyland were bound to have an impact on the local community, right?

That's what Sticker and Fitzgerald thought. But when they tried to voice their concerns about the project during a June 1991 Wescot public forum all they got was Disney's dog and pony show.

When asked about traffic flow, the Mouse pointed to the project's two huge parking garages (which on the model loomed over Fitzgerald's neighborhood like the Great Wall of China.) "They'll be the largest parking garages in the whole world," the Disney Guest Relations spokesperson squeaked proudly.

When asked about noise, the gosh-how-cute spokesperson tried to deflect the crowd's concerns by pointing out the Disneyland amphitheater. "It'll seat 5000," she said, "And we'll get neat people like Neal Diamond and Barry Manilow to come there and play." (Sticker couldn't help but notice given the way that amphitheater was situated on Disney property that the natural acoustics of the place would drive a lot of noise from those concerts right into his neighborhood.)

"What about our schools?" the neighbors asked. "Won't they get swamped when the children of those new 17,500 cast members try to enroll?" This was the cue for Disney media relations staff to play up the educational aspects of Westcot. "Your kids will be able to take field trips here and learn all about other lands as they tour World Showcase. And have you noticed Spacestation Earth? That will have lots of science exhibits in it, too."

Fitzgerald and Sticker had heard enough. It was obvious that Disneyland thought its Anaheim neighbors were a bunch of complete idiots, the types of yokels that could be distracted from voicing their petty concerns by lots of bright, happy talk about the wonders of Westcot. "Oooh! Look at Spacestation Earth! It's so big and shiny."

Let this be a lesson to Mickey: Never piss off a suburbanite.

In the days that followed, Fitzgerald and Sticker met with other area residents who were equally bothered by the Mouse's seemingly cavalier attitude towards the concerns of the local community. They felt something should be done to make Eisner aware that the locals weren't too thrilled with his ambitious new plans for Anaheim. Someone suggested that they get a petition going, maybe form a group.

This is how the Anaheim Homeowners for Maintaining the Environment ("Anaheim HOME") rose up in Spring 1992 and grew to bite Disney squarely in the ass. 1,600 members strong, this neighborhood-rights group quickly became a force for Disney to reckon with. Anaheim HOME did things that terrified the Mouse, and that forever changed the way Disney did business in Orange County.

Take for instance the tickets scandal. For 38 years, one of the nicest perks Anaheim city employees got when they worked in the Mayor's office was free tickets to Disneyland. You just told the Mayor's secretary when you wanted to go, and she made the call to Disneyland's City Hall. Your passes would be waiting at Guest Relations when you arrived at the park.

Anaheim HOME got wind of this decades old practice. Since the people who worked in the Mayor's office were obviously going to have some influence over the Anaheim Planning Commission (the folks who'd actually say "yea" and "nay" to Disneyland's expansion plans), wouldn't it stand to reason that giving free tickets to the Mayor's staff could somehow be viewed as influence peddling by the Mouse? Kind of like offering them a bribe?

Anaheim HOME clued the local media in to the free tickets scam. In the firestorm that followed, hundreds of Orange County employees had their reputations sullied for allegedly taking illegal gifts from the Walt Disney Company. The Mayor's office was forced to hand down an official edict: no city employee would ever be allowed to accept free tickets -- or free anything -- from Disneyland ever again. It was the end of an era.

It was not, however, the end of Anaheim HOME's guerilla tactics in its attempts to make the public aware that the Mouse was one awful neighbor. Guests driving into the Disneyland parking lot during Christmas Week 1993, had to actually roll through a Anaheim HOME picket line. As guests slowed down, they were offered a leaflet detailing the less savory aspects of Disney's expansion plans.

As you might imagine, Michael Eisner didn't have a happy holiday when news of this got back to him.

Disney tried to turn around the bad buzz about its Disneyland resort project. The Mouse quietly recruited prominent local businessmen like KTLA's Ed Arnold, Coporate Bank Chairman Stan Pawlowski and Pacific Bell executive Reed Royalty to head a pro-Disney organization that area residents would be asked to join.

This organization, which came to be known as "Westcot 2000," meant well. But the overly-polished and professional way Arnold, Pawlowski and Royalty produced their pro-Disney rallies easily gave away the Mouse's influence over the group. One infamous "rah-rah" session was actually staged in the Disneyland Hotel convention center. Though 4000 people were in attendance singing the praises of the Walt Disney Company, it was the Anaheim HOME team, with its dozen volunteers, carrying signs that trumpeted "Disney Greed" as they picketed out in front of the hotel, that got all the TV coverage.

It seemed that no matter what the Mouse tried to do to turn around Wescot it just couldn't catch a break. Take, for example, the giant parking garage that Disney was planning to build for the expanded Disneyland resort. Through extensive lobbying in the US House and Senate, the Mouse was able to persuade Congress in the summer of 1994 to pick up $25 million in construction costs toward the project. Seems like a pretty clever thing to do, right?

Not in light of what happened next. Later that fall, word got out that Representative Bob Carr (D. - Michigan), one of the authors of that appropriations bill, had accepted sizable campaign contributions from several senior Disney executives. Mind you, nobody did anything illegal. But it still didn't make the Mouse -- or Westcot -- look good.

In the meantime, big problems were flaring up elsewhere the Disney empire. Euro Disney, what many Mouska-fans had figured would be a sure-fire success, floundered immediately after its April 1992 grand opening. It took Walt Disney Attractions president Judson Green and a cadre of accountants almost 18 months to clear up the resort's cash flow problems. Finally, in October 1994, a workable financial restructuring plan was in place and Euro Disney, now renamed Disneyland Paris, slowly inched its way out of the red.

Now, it's important to understand that in the 18 months it took to get the Euro Disney bail-out strategy in place, Michael Eisner really lost his taste for huge ambitious Disney theme park projects. He saw how Euro Disney had been dragged down by the six luxury hotels that surrounded the theme park and thought: "I'm never going to overbuild another Disney resort ever again."

So the word came down in Spring of 1993. Michael wanted the Imagineers to scale back the Disneyland Resort plans. How far did Eisner want the plan rolled back? The project's original specs called for 4,600 new hotel rooms to be built within the Disneyland Resort. Westcot 2.0 would feature only 1,000 new hotel rooms.

Spacestation Earth? Gone. In its place was a new icon: a 300-foot-tall, tapered, white spike. At its base, the spike featured a 35-foot-tall, blue-and-green, revolving globe. Not exactly awe inspiring sounding, is it?

The Mouse also had to make numerous changes to its original Disneyland Resort master plan to appease the irate locals. It seems that Disney, on their Westcot overview site plan map, listed the company's plans for parcels of property the Mouse didn't actually yet own.

As you might guess, this last bit of news truly ticked off the owners of the Melodyland Christian Center and the Fujishige strawberry fields. Both of these parcels had been listed as possible locations for the Disneyland Resort's second giant parking garage. This was odd, given that neither owner had any intention of selling his property to the Mouse.

In a particularly fiery letter dated June 1993, Carolyn Fujishige stated that her family "would never sell [its] property to the Disney Company or to anyone that is affiliated in any way to the Walt Disney Company." Of course, one must remember never to say never. The Fujishige family, giving in after decades of pressure from the Mouse, finally sold its 52+ acres to the Walt Disney Company in August 1998 for an estimated $90 million. (I wonder what Carolyn's cut of that windfall was? Anyhow ...)

On and on, year after year, Westcot's problems kept hammering away at Eisner, draining his confidence and raising his doubts about the project. All he had wanted to do was recreate Orlando in Anaheim. How had this seemingly simple plan get thrown so far off track?

In the end, Eisner turned to his new hatchet man, Paul Pressler. A bright, young executive who had worked wonders with the company's retail division, Pressler had recently moved over from the Disney Stores to head the Disneyland Resort.

Eisner told Pressler: "I'm tired of all the mess and bad press that's associated with Westcot. Make it go away."

So Pressler did.

On the day before Disneyland's 40th birthday, Pressler called in the local media and broke the bad news: Disney was abandoning its plans to build Westcot, as well as scaling back all previously announced expansion plans for Disneyland.

When pressed for information about the Mouse's future plans for Anaheim, Pressler said, "We're going to build a second gate, absolutely ... Our (Eisner's / Pressler's) vision is consistent. Make Disneyland the best resort we can. Certainly a second resort is part of that vision. My job is to figure out how to do it."

Does that sound ominous?

It should.

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