What's Behind Disneyland's Expansion Proposal?

March 26, 2021, 4:14 PM · Time for a deep dive into why the Disneyland Resort dropped that big DisneylandForward news yesterday.

In case you missed it, Disneyland officials announced that they will be asking the City of Anaheim to change the 1990s agreement that created the Anaheim Resort and cleared the way for Disneyland to add a second gate and the Downtown Disney district. Disney said that it is not asking for a change to add any property or change the number of hotel rooms that it has approval to operate. The resort said that it simply wants the flexibility to develop space assigned for parking use under the Anaheim Resort agreement for theme park, retail, or hotel use instead.

At first glance, that might seem pretty reasonable. Shouldn't Disneyland be allowed to use its property in the ways it sees as best? The apparent simplicity of Disneyland's ask enticed many fans - and some publications - to discount the political tussle that Disneyland faces and to jump straight into playing a "Where's Waldo?" game of looking in the concept art that Disneyland provided for clues tipping new attractions.

But what Disneyland is asking for is not a given. Disney faces two major sources of potential opposition to its plans.

First, residents who live to west of the resort, on the other side of Walnut Street. The issue here is not just how much parking Disneyland needs to provide, but also where Disney provides it.

There's a huge debate within the urban planning community right now over parking. Most communities have established minimum parking requirements for developers. But critics are pushing back that surface parking lots are a horribly inefficient use of valuable urban real estate. Why not reassign that space for much-needed housing or office space or retail - and then use multi-level garages for parking or, better yet, create walkable communities with useful mass transit, where people do not need to park cars? Ditch the parking requirements, and you open up an immense amount of land for more lucrative development.

That's basically what Disneyland wants to do. It would like to redevelop its acres of surface parking west of Disneyland Drive for use as attractions, dining, and retail. Yes, Disneyland charges a lot of money to park in those spaces. But it charges far more money to enter its theme parks, making attractions a more lucrative use of its property.

The Anaheim deal didn't just mandate the amount of parking Disney needed to provide. It was very specific about the location of that parking. By assigning land at the western edge of Disneyland property for use as parking, the agreement created a buffer between Disneyland's crowded attractions and the neighborhoods to its immediate west. If Disneyland builds new attractions on that space, that buffer is gone.

And that's likely to elicit at least some skepticism - if not hostile opposition - to Disneyland's plan, from those neighbors.

Disneyland officials made a point of saying that any new attractions built west of Disneyland Drive would be designed "sensitively to protect our neighbors." When Disneyland submitted plans for its new DVC tower at the Disneyland Hotel, they included a terraced design facing Walnut Street, in order to protect a buffer between the resort and its neighbors. Disneyland will need to assure its neighbors that it will continue to do that with any attraction designs along that street, as well. I suspect that they will want to see Disneyland do better than it did with the backside of Cars Land's Cadillac Range along Katella Avenue. That blank facade looks out to the Anaheim Convention Center, so local residents are not staring at it from their windows all day.

The upside for theme park fans is that any design that placates Disneyland's neighbors provides an opportunity for Imagineers to create a well-themed, immersive environment on the other side of that barrier - as they did for Cars Land. I suspect that a commitment to more indoor attractions might help win support from neighbors, too. Most Disneyland fans probably would welcome more well-themed dark rides to the resort.

Let's turn to the other, second source of potential opposition to DisneylandForward - the businesses on the east side of the resort. Disneyland's plans revive the parking structure that was part of the old Eastern Gateway proposal that Disney ultimately shelved in favor of building the Pixar Pals garage. If Disneyland eliminates acres of surface parking on the west side of the resort, as well as the Toy Story lot (we will get to that in a minute), it will need another parking garage to accommodate the extra guests driving to the resort for all those new attractions.

The garage isn't the issue. It's what having that garage over there would mean for access to the resort. The Eastern Gateway plan elicited the wrath of hotels and businesses along Harbor Boulevard when it included plans for a security checkpoint east of Harbor, next to the proposed garage. That meant guests staying in Harbor hotels could not just walk across the street to Disneyland, as they could before. Instead, they would have to backtrack to the new resort entrance to their east before heading west across Disney's pedestrian bridge over Harbor Boulevard. The fact that concept art for that bridge looked awful further enflamed the opposition.

Disneyland will need to show its commercial neighbors that it has learned from the Eastern Gateway debacle and that it will promise a security checkpoint on the west side of Harbor for guests staying along the boulevard. And Disneyland will need to show off some better concept art for the pedestrian bridge at the old Carousel Inn site, if Disney is continuing with approach.

DisneylandForward also suggests that the resort would convert its Toy Story parking lot into a mixed-use development aimed at locals and visitors to the nearby Anaheim Convention Center. Disney officials described this as a plussed Disney Springs or Shanghai's Disneytown, which includes a Broadway-style theater as well as shops and restaurants. With the GardenWalk mall next door struggling, I imagine that local merchants might not be too happy about the idea of Disney bringing more competition into the market. The easiest way for them to block this would be to stop DisneylandForward.

So city approval for Disneyland Forward appears to be far from a done deal. Disneyland officials said that they envision a two-year process, starting with public input and environmental impact reports before moving to planning commission and city council votes.

Three decades ago, Anaheim agreed to its original deal with Disneyland after Disney released plans to build a "DisneySea" theme park next to the Queen Mary in Long Beach. Anaheim did not want to lose business from Disneyland's second gate to Long Beach, so it worked with Disney to give the company what it wanted.

Today, there's no threat of building elsewhere giving Disney leverage to demand a better deal. But one year without Disneyland - and the resulting devastation to Anaheim's economy - should have shown everyone involved the importance of maintaining the Disneyland Resort as a healthy attraction for the Anaheim community. Some businesses along Harbor might complain that Disneyland's growth should not come at the expense of their own, but the past year illustrates that everyone in Anaheim suffers when Disneyland does.

So what should fans take from all this?

Ultimately, it's that Disney remains committed to the southern California market. Yesterday's announcement was not about specific new attractions that Disneyland might build in Anaheim so much as it was a declaration that Disney remains committed to building new attractions there. Disney officials cited a list of attractions that it is developing around the world as "possibilities" for what could come to Anaheim. But that was basically just WDI's list of current projects, minus Avengers and Cars-themed projects that are already represented or underway at Disney California Adventure.

The only oddball on the list was its inclusion of Toy Story Land, which is built out already in Orlando, Paris and Hong Kong. That's hardly the most alluring non-Disneyland attraction that Disney could bring to Anaheim. How would the fanbase have freaked out if Disneyland had teased Tokyo Disneyland's new Beauty and the Beast ride instead? Or - heaven help us - Hong Kong's Mystic Manor? But if Disney felt the need to include a Pixar-themed land in its tease, I suppose that's the best option out there after the Cars Land that the Disneyland Resort already has. Internal politics can matter as much as external ones.

Clearly, Disney's Imagineers have given some thought to what the company might build in an expanded Disneyland and Disney California Adventure. The Walt Disney Company is not about to spend political capital to pursue a new agreement with Anaheim only to have WDI come back with, "actually, there's nothing we can do with that space."

That's not going to happen. WDI has some ideas. You just won't find them in that concept art. Want a clue as to how closely a piece of concept art will match what ultimately gets built? Look for the dots. Concept artists often use dots of various colors to substitute for detail and create a sense of action in their work. I've never seen more dots on a piece of concept art than I did in the one that Disney released yesterday.

Announcing specific new projects only buys Disneyland trouble. As it asks the Anaheim community to support DisneylandForward, Disneyland does not want to appear that it is taking that support for granted by announcing specific attractions that it will build if this proposal is approved. Disneyland must show the community that it can accommodate whatever design flexibility that that the community demands in return for the design flexibility that Disneyland wants.

So that's why we got the announcement that Disneyland made yesterday, in the form that Disneyland made it. Now theme park fans will have to wait to see what comes from it.

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Replies (4)

March 26, 2021 at 8:07 PM

I wasn’t overly thrilled with Toy Story Land being a possible addition to the parks. Toy Story is already well represented throughout the parks, with Midway Mania, and Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters. Honestly, how much Toy Story do we really need?

I like Robert’s ideas of Tokyo Disneyland’s Beauty and the Beast, and Mystic Manor. I, personally, would love Tokyo Disneyland’s, Journey to the Center of the Earth. They should include Hong Kong Disneyland’s, Iron Man Experience, in Avengers Campus.

Personally, I would love to see a replication of Wakanda. I know a Wakanda ride was originally planned for Avengers Campus. Hopefully it’s still being considered. But even more, I would love an entire area dedicated to Wakanda.

March 26, 2021 at 8:32 PM

Robert wrote:
"The Eastern Gateway plan elicited the wrath of hotels and businesses along Harbor Boulevard when it included plans for a security checkpoint east of Harbor, next to the proposed garage."

From DisneylandForward.com:
"Disney envisions creating a new parking destination on the east side of The Anaheim Resort, which would include a pedestrian bridge with upgraded entrance accessibility for hotels and businesses located along Harbor Boulevard."

Maybe they can gain the support of those Harbor Blvd. businesses with a compromise like this.

March 27, 2021 at 1:11 AM

As soon who lived through the promises of "The Disney Decade," I can acknowledge not announcing plans for attractions that never get off the drawing board is a good idea and Disney smart not setting anything in stone. After all, be years before this gets approval anyway.

March 27, 2021 at 3:51 AM

a whole 'land' is a bigger tease than an attraction.
If they teased an attraction or two, then people would wonder what they would be dong with the rest of the physical land.
Toy Story land would also be a good fake land to announce, they could replace it with something else that is in the works (Xmen for instance) and no-one will really mind because there is already a bit of Toy Story in the park

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