Let's take a closer look at Disneyland's expansion plans

September 15, 2023, 3:57 PM · Let's dive into the City of Anaheim's new report on Disneyland's proposed attraction expansion plans.

The TL;DR here is that there is no obvious deal-killer in the report that would provide Anaheim officials with indisputable justification for denying Disneyland's proposal to build theme park attractions on land currently reserved for surface parking lots. But let's keep reading anyway, okay?

Letting Disneyland change parking to parks won't cost the city anything... in fact, it should generate millions of dollars in additional tax revenue for the city annually. Disneyland will need to take steps to mitigate the environmental impact of building and operating its new attractions, and the report details those actions. The city will make them conditions for approving the DisneylandForward proposal, and Disney either will abide by them or end up in court.

Yes, Disney has great lawyers, but one of the qualities that makes a lawyer great is having a client who listens to good legal advice. So I do not expect Disneyland's compliance with environmental impact mitigation requirements to be an issue, should Anaheim approve this proposal.

So what will Disneyland build if it gets city approval to proceed? That is the great unknown question of the moment. Disney is calling DisneylandForward a "blueprint" to guide the resort's development and growth over the next 40 years, which would take Disneyland to its 100th birthday and beyond.

With its years-long public relations campaign, Disneyland needs to be specific enough about its plans so that no significant share of the public will feel deceived when Disneyland ultimately goes ahead with them. But Disneyland surely doesn't want to get so specific that people wipe out the forest to cut down a specific tree by killing DisneylandForward to stop a proposed attraction they might not like.

DisneylandForward would remove restrictions in the 1993 Disneyland Resort Specific Plan that designated areas within Disney's then-490 acres in Anaheim for specific uses, such as attractions, hotels, retail, and parking. That plan designated land along Walnut Street, on the resort's western edge, for parking, so that it could provide a buffer between the parks and residences on the west side of Walnut.

Disneyland now has land on the east side of the resort area, east of Harbor Boulevard, that it wants to use to build parking garages to hold up to 17,000 vehicles. People who park there would access the Disneyland theme parks and Downtown Disney via one of up to three pedestrian bridges that Disney would build over Harbor. The parking is already permitted under Anaheim rules, so Disneyland does not need DisneylandForward approval to proceed with a development plan there.

That said, a plan called the Eastern Gateway that Disneyland previously proposed went down in flames after businesses on Harbor complained that Disney's plan to have guests go through security on the east side of Harbor would divert thousands of potential daily customers from walking past their businesses. Disneyland officials have been meeting with Harbor business owners as part of its DisneylandForward campaign in an effort to at least minimize opposition, if not win support for its plans.

When Disneyland builds those 17,000 parking spaces, that would eliminate the need for surface parking in the Simba and Toy Story lots, freeing them for attraction and hotel development. (Toy Story currently has 4,589 spaces, according to the city.) So what about their neighbors?

Anaheim already has extensive rules in place concerning setbacks around commercial developments, including Disneyland. Those setbacks are designed to protect neighbors from intrusive noise and sight-lines from nearby development. If you have visited Disneyland recently and seen the terraced profile of the new DVC tower at the Disneyland Hotel, it's designed that way because of the setback height requirements from Anaheim. The farther you get from the property line, the higher you are allowed to build.

Setback requirements are why Disneyland would not be allowed to build a big outdoor roller coaster on its land west of Disneyland Drive, even if DisneylandForward gets approved. Whatever indoor attractions Disneyland choose to build in that area also would need to abide by setback restrictions on height and noise, so Walt Disney Imagineering will need to get resourceful with its 360-degree architectural design so that no neighbors are having to look at the backside of ugly industrial installations or listen to noisy HVAC units, lest Anaheim decide that Disneyland has violated the conditions of the DisneylandForward approval.

Okay, let's assume that all that happens. What new attractions will fans get?

Disney has plenty of IP to fill whatever 97 acres of newly-available space at the Disneyland Resort could hold, including Avatar, Black Panther, and Frozen. WDI already has plans for Frozen and Zootopia attractions that it developed for parks in China that could be adapted for California. An Encanto attraction teased last week for Disney's Animal Kingdom at the Walt Disney World Resort could fit here, as well.

Remember that Disneyland is asking for the right to expand onto the Toy Story parking lot land as well as the parking lots around the Disneyland and Pixar Place hotels. Disneyland has promoted the Toy Story site as the site for a potential "new kind of Disney entertainment destination," while suggesting the land west of Disneyland drive as potential expansions of the Disneyland and Disney California Adventure theme parks.

I would be shocked if Disney chose to expand its two existing theme parks west of Disneyland Drive. Building over Disneyland Drive escalates what already will be crazy-expensive construction costs, given Disneyland design standards. Why do that to create awkward spurs with bad guest flow to the rest of their parks? It makes far more design sense for Disney to designate these two parcels - west of Disneyland Drive and Toy Story - as separate developments from the existing parks.

Now is that a third gate, or something else? Maybe this is an opportunity for Disney to redefine what a "theme park" is and how it is priced. Could Disneyland create attractions that are exclusive to hotel guests and included as part of a new style of resort experience? Could Disneyland build a collection of stand-alone, pay-per-use attractions rather than a single integrated theme park? Could Disneyland create a new attraction zone that is an "extension" of its current parks in that you would need a valid Disneyland or Disney California Adventure ticket (or hotel reservation) to enter, but where you would pay something extra for the attractions you experienced inside it?

Or maybe Disneyland just goes ahead and creates a third gate. Disney's Magical Adventure? DisneySky? Disney's Hero Kingdom?

Armchair, play-at-home Imagineers, guess away. For the purpose of passing DisneylandForward, none of this matters. It's just getting clearance for attraction use on all of Disneyland's land, whatever those attractions might be.

But Disney would not be taking on the hassle of proposing DisneylandForward if its business and creative leaders did not have some specific ideas already in mind for what to do on its current surface parking lots. As for what those ideas are, we will need to wait and to see the fate of DisneylandForward before we find out.

For more on DisneylandForward, including links to the environmental impact report and city FAQs, please see yesterday's post, Anaheim releases DisneylandForward environmental impact report.

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Replies (6)

September 15, 2023 at 5:15 PM

great breakdown, Robert.

September 15, 2023 at 6:55 PM

What would you like to see Robert? Would you like a 3rd park? What attractions/lands would you like to see?

September 16, 2023 at 12:52 AM

I'd like to see something like the World of Frozen put in and maybe even give California a version of Pandora.

September 16, 2023 at 8:09 PM

I don't think there's enough space for a proper third park here. Judging from some estimations on Google maps, the area they've got marked for theme park development is under 60 acres, which would be smaller than even opening day DCA. Additionally, it would be a very awkward shape for a full park, as the plot is fairly linear and is bisected by Downtown Disney. Instead, what I'm thinking are large multi-area expansions to both parks that consist of two or three lands themed to various IPs and that also serve as a secondary entrance and exit point to the parks. Given that the project is at least a decade out I think it's way too early to project any specific IPs, but I think those currently speculated or confirmed for projects (Avatar, Coco, Encanto, Frozen, Lion King, Marvel, Moana, Zootopia) are all on the table as well as anything else that becomes a box office or streaming hit in the remainder of the decade. Whatever is chosen, I'm hopeful that Disney will choose properties that flow together as guests progress through them and connect fairly seamlessly into the existing theme parks.

September 16, 2023 at 9:51 PM

I was thinking the DCA expansion could be “neighbors of California”: Coco, Moana and Encanto. And the Disneyland expansion could be fantastical IP lands like Arendalle, Pandora and Wakanda.

September 18, 2023 at 1:25 PM

Good article.

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