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California Misadventure -- Part 5

Jim Hill

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California Misadventure -- Part 5

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All Michael Eisner wanted was to turn Anaheim into Orlando. Was that too much to ask?

Given all the problems Disney had getting Westcot through the approval process ... Yes, I guess it was.

Everything that could have gone wrong with Disneyland's first expansion plans did. Orange County residents, upset at what they believed was the Mouse's cavalier attitude toward their neighborhood's concerns with the Westcot project model, quickly organized Homeowners for Maintaining the Environment (Anaheim HOME). This local activist group picketed the park, handed anti-Disney leaflets to guests entering the parking lot. Anaheim HOME did everything that it could to make the Mouse look bad.

Not that Disney needed that much help in that department. When it came to Westcot, between the free Disneyland tickets for Anaheim city hall employees scandal to the including property on the Disneyland expansion plan that the Mouse hadn't actually paid for yet brouhaha, it just seemed like the project had turned into one embarrassing gaffe after another.

Finally, Eisner, who had lost his enthusiasm for huge Disney theme park projects following the Euro Disney debacle, had had enough. He turned to his new hatchet man, Paul Pressler. "Make this go away, " said Eisner. Pressler did.

Which brings us to the Fall of 1995. Disneyland's expansion plans are back to Square One. High in the Rockies, a new team of Disney executives meet to discuss the future direction of the project.

This is not going to be pretty.

Westcot was dead. Long live Westcot.

Eisner and his Imagineers had tried to do something bold, something ambitious in Anaheim. That didn't fly with the locals or, in the end, make that much financial sense for the company.

But now the clock was ticking. CalTrans had already begun work on a multi-million dollar face-lift of Interstate 5. Once this six-year-long lane-widening, bridge-building and exit-ramp-constructing project was completed, folks could once again be able to zoom down the 5 to Anaheim to see ...

What? Disney had persuaded the state to put all that money into highway improvements to help support their new expanded resort. Now that plan was in ruins. The Mouse had better come up with something quick. Otherwise Governor Pete Wilson and those fine folks up in Sacramento are going to be plenty pissed.

As you might understand, the pressure was on as Eisner held a design summit up at his Aspen retreat late that fall. Chief among those in attendance were senior Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI) officials Marty Sklar and Ken Wong, Disneyland President Paul Pressler as well as Imagineering rising star, Barry Braverman.

Braverman had recently come to Eisner's attention because of the exemplary job he'd done putting together the "Innoventions" project at Epcot Center in Walt Disney World (WDW). Using just his tongue and a telephone, Braverman had persuaded many major American corporations to pay the Mouse to build and staff exhibits of their new products. By doing this, Barry had rethemed and redressed Future World's entire Communicore area for virtually no money.

Sure, Epcot's "Innoventions" might have looked more like a mall than a theme park attraction. What did that matter? Guests seemed to like the place. More importantly, it had been inexpensive to build and was even cheaper to run. That made Braverman look like a genius in Eisner's eyes. Which is why Michael invited Barry to join WDI's senior staff at this meeting in Aspen. Eisner was hoping that Braverman might be able to work some more of his budgetary magic on the Disneyland expansion project.

From the very start of the charrette, the group agreed about what Westcot's main problem had been: The plans for Disneyland's second gate had just gotten too big, and too unwieldy. In attempting to make sure the expansion plans met with the high quality of the existing park in Anaheim (arguably the best theme park in the whole Disney chain), the Imagineers had let the project get out of control.

This time around, the Mouse wouldn't try and top America's original theme park. Eisner wanted a second gate for Anaheim that the company could build quickly, but was still affordable. He wanted this new theme park to be a modest companion to Disneyland, rather than its flashy competitor. But, most importantly, this second Anaheim theme park had to be able to generate a huge cash flow for the Walt Disney Company from the very first day it opened.

Let's go over those design parameters again, shall we? Easy to build, but cheap to do. Must compliment -- not compete with -- Disneyland. And must be able to turn a profit as soon as the place opens.

With that assortment of meager ingredients, could you cook up a great theme park?

Well, at least the Imagineers tried. They talked about doing a smaller version of Disney Seas (too costly) or doing a scaled back Disney-MGM Studio theme park. (Why would folks want to visit a fake movie studio, when there are real ones to tour 30 miles up the road?) They also looked at building just Future World or just World Showcase. But -- if they built that -- guests would just complain that Anaheim had a half-assed version of WDW's Epcot.

It was obvious that none of the ideas that Disney had used for its previous theme parks would work in this situation. So the team began attacking the problem from another angle: What was it that was missing from Disneyland? Why do guests leave the resort and continue their Southern Californian vacations elsewhere?

Well, that one seemed obvious. People left Disneyland because they wanted to see more of California. They wanted to walk along the Boardwalk at Venice Beach. They wanted to hike through the Redwoods in Sequoia National Forest. They wanted to ride the killer roller coasters at Magic Mountain, and take the tram tour at Universal Studios Hollywood. In short, these vacationers wanted to sample everything else the State of California had to offer.

For a moment, Eisner and his design team just sat there, blinking at each other. The answer to their problem couldn't be that obvious, could it?
A theme park that celebrated California. A place that recreated -- in miniature -- the best that the Golden State had to offer. Guests would no longer have to leave Anaheim to continue their Californian adventure (Oooh! Hang on to that! I think we just tripped over the title!). Everything they were looking for, and more, would be right next door to Disneyland.

That's all Eisner had to hear. "That's it," he said. "Let's build it."

And that -- swear to God -- is how the concept for Disney's California Adventure (DCA) theme park was born.

The project quickly went into overdrive from there. Since Pressler and Braverman were the first to suggest a California-based theme park, Eisner put them in charge of developing it. This, as events continue to unfold, might have proven to have been a mistake.

Braverman, who was just coming off his first big success with WDW's "Innoventions" project, was anxious to see his star continue to rise within the Walt Disney Company. Eisner wanted a cheap park? Fine. Braverman planned to budget Disneyland's proposed second gate so tightly that the blueprints would squeak.

But Pressler was also an ambitious man. He too was already plotting his next move up the Disney corporate ladder, perhaps parlaying his Disneyland presidency into something further up the food chain. But, to do that, he'd really have to deliver the goods on the Disneyland second gate project.

So Pressler took Braverman's initial budget estimates ... and slashed them by a third.

Okay, so now we've got two ambitious people, each out to impress upper management by delivering a low-budgeted project on a high-speed timetable. Can you say "recipe for disaster"? Sure you can.

Pressler and Braverman got the project off on the wrong foot when they announced that they didn't want "Disney's California Adventure" designed by WDI. Instead, they wanted Disneyland's second gate to be created by the same folks who designed WDW's hotels: the Disney Development Company (DDC).

What was the deal here? The Imagineers had, somewhat unfairly, taken the rap for all the cost over-runs Disney racked up on Euro Disney. Never mind that Eisner himself had suggested dozens of last minute changes to that park that had tacked on tens of millions of dollars in construction costs to the project. When the red ink started flowing in France, Uncle Mikey needed someone to blame. (Guess who he picked?) Pressler and Braverman wanted to deliver "Disney's California Adventure" on time and under budget. Since DDC had a better reputation inside the company for meeting its deadlines and controlling costs, Pressler and Braverman wanted to give the park to it to develop.

When word of this got out, the Imagineers hit the roof. For over 40 years, WDI had designed every theme park, ride and attraction the Walt Disney Company held ever built. Now their jobs were to be usurped by the same guys who brought us the Dolphin and the Swan hotels at WDW?

No way.

Veteran Imagineer Chris Caradine (best known as the designer of WDW's Pleasure Island) did more than just complain about this injustice. He circulated a letter to all of WDI's senior architects, condemning Pressler and Braverman's cost control maneuver. He then had all of these Imagineers sign the letter, which he then personally hand delivered to Eisner.

Concerned that his senior Imagineering staff was about to revolt, Eisner got the message. He called Braverman and Pressler into his office and told them that they had to use Imagineers to design Disneyland's second gate.

This was the first of several short-sighted decisions that Pressler and Braverman made concerning "Disney's California Adventure." Individually, none of these decisions were bad enough to sink Disneyland's second gate. But combined?

Well, let's just say that there are a lot of folks at Walt Disney Imagineering who view DCA as an almost fatally flawed project.

What exactly are the project's problems? Some point to Pressler and Braverman's decision not to develop many new rides and shows for DCA, but opting instead for a lot of attraction recycling.

While it was undoubtedly more cost-effective to take shows that have already proven popular at other Disney theme parks (like Disney-MGM's "Kermit the Frog presents MuppetVision 3D" and Animal Kingdom's "It's Tough to Be a Bug") and redress them a bit to fit in DCA, is this really the best long-range strategy?

Isn't it possible that using old WDW shows could actually have a detrimental effect on Disneyland Resort's attendance levels?

Think about it.

Wasn't Eisner's main reason for building a second gate at Disneyland to turn the company's Anaheim holdings into a vacation destination like Walt Disney World? But why would folks from the East Coast fly all the way out to California just to see shows that they'd already seen -- years earlier -- in Orlando?

Don't get me wrong. "MuppetVision 3D" (WDW debut: May 1991) as well as "It's Tough to Be a Bug" (WDW debut: April 1998) are both fine shows. And there are millions of people west of the Rockies who've never seen these attractions and will happily make a special trip to Disneyland just to see Kermit and Flick in 3D.

But if Disney really wants to turn Anaheim into a destination resort like WDW, recycling old shows from Walt Disney World probably isn't the smart way to go. Adding fresh new rides and attractions that are exclusive to DCA is the only way to guarantee tourists from both coasts will make a point of frequenting the park.

Speaking of rides, another problem a lot of Imagineers have with DCA are those off-the-shelf carnival-style attractions being used in Paradise Pier.

But it's not for the reason you think.

Sure, the rides over here might look hokey and cheap. (And I can't help wondering how Orange County feels, having spent all those millions, renovating and expanding its convention center into a state-of-the-art meeting facility, only to have Disney build a deliberately chintzy looking Ferris wheel and roller coaster in front of it.) But the rides are supposed to look that way, folks. This part of DCA pays tribute to those old amusement piers you used to find along the California coast.

And I know that it's popular to bash this part of the park on the Web.

But I won't.

Why? Because I like it. I think that Disney's done a great job of recapturing the look and feel of an old turn-of-the-century seaside amusement park.

But you know what the real irony is? All the old cheesy-looking amusement piers disappeared because squeaky clean theme parks like Disneyland drove them out of business. So now here's the Mouse, bringing the amusement pier back from the dead, with all its grubbiness intact.

But what do the Disney dweebs on the Web do? Complain loudly about how "cheesy" Paradise Pier looks. It's supposed to look cheesy, guys. Get it? And -- off-the-shelf or not -- those old fashioned carny rides you'll find along on DCA's Paradise Pier will be a kick to ride.

The real problem is capacity. These old fashioned rides are slow to load and unload. Even with their projected painfully short ride times (Example: Guests will supposedly only get 90 seconds to savor the low-tech thrills of the "Orange Stinger"), there'll still be huge lines over in Paradise Pier.

Why? Because, on opening day, DCA is only going have only 22 rides and attractions. But Disney's own attendance projections show that, on a typical summer day, 30,000 guests will be wandering around DCA, looking for things to do.

Think about it. Are you really going to be happy, having paid $40+ a head to get into DCA, only to stand in a two hour long line just to ride "Mullholland Madness?"

This is what worries the older Imagineers. During that first crucial summer of operation, guests will undoubtedly exit DCA -- having spent most of their day standing in very long lines for the all-too-short attractions -- then go home to tell their friends and neighbors about what an awful time they had at Disney's new theme park. This is why WDI is pressuring Disney management to begin DCA's Phase II construction NOW.

Pressler and Braverman honestly believe that they're improving Disney's bottom line by bringing DCA in on time and under budget. But where will the great savings be if Disney has to turn around and immediately begin pumping millions into the park in a desperate attempt to boost its hourly ride capacity?

WDI has reportedly repeatedly warned Disney's top management team about DCA's potentially fatal flaws. Privately, Eisner has evidently acknowledged that Disneyland's second gate could be in for a rough couple of years. Even so, he expects DCA to make a lot of money for the company as well as eventually grow into a worthy companion to Disneyland.

Well, here's hoping.

Myself? I'm hoping that -- as I stroll into DCA on opening day -- that the theme park is at least as intriguing as the story of its development and construction.

Doesn't seem very likely now, does it?

THE END - for now...

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