Star Wars Land construction is on the way this winter, and it’s promising to force some big changes to Disneyland’s sleepy northwest corner. Here’s a quick update to recap some of the recent public announcements, and some of the backstage planning now going on in Team Disney Anaheim.
The plans for Star Wars attractions at Disneyland have been changing since Disney bought LucasFilm three years ago. The original Tomorrowland plan to build a speeder-bike ride where Autopia and the Submarine lagoon now exists wasn’t deemed ambitious enough, and TDA’s planners weren’t impressed with the loss in overall park ride capacity by removing Autopia and the Subs. Once the Star Wars project got enough funding to create an entirely new land it’s been shifting from a 10 acre plan that was due north of Fantasyland to an even bigger 14 acre plan that has landed on Disneyland’s northwest perimeter. But there’s not enough space within the existing railroad tracks, so big changes to Disneyland’s footprint are required.
The end result is that to cobble together enough acreage for the two big E Ticket show buildings, plus the facilities inside the land itself, Disneyland’s Rivers of America and the Disneyland Railroad will need to be heavily modified and rerouted to make it all happen. The track of the Disneyland Railroad will be realigned for the first time since 1965, when the rails were rerouted further north to prepare for the arrival of It’s A Small World and adjusted on the eastern side of the park for the new Primeval World diorama. Additions to Disneyland since then have caused years-long closures of the railroad for the construction of Splash Mountain in the late 80’s and Indiana Jones in the mid 90’s, but those big additions didn’t change the route of the tracks in any meaningful way.
The new railroad route will make a sharper right turn past Splash Mountain and head out towards what is now Tom Sawyer Island and the Big Thunder Ranch area. The tracks will pass along the backside of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad before making another dogleg turn to the north and joining the current alignment near the existing Toontown station. The Fantasyland Theatre will head off to Yesterland as the new railroad alignment is sent through that area, carving out some new acreage for a future Fantasyland expansion that is gaining steam with TDA planners now.
The new railroad alignment will obviously mean big changes to the Rivers of America. The river pathway will be truncated and shortened on its northern end, and the unused northern half of Tom Sawyer Island will be removed so that the new riverbed can take that space. Once the new riverbed is created and new underwater track is laid, the Rivers of America track that the two big boats travel along will be approximately 25% shorter than its original 1955 layout. With Star Wars show buildings directly to the north of this area, WDI is working to create new show scenes and rock formations along the northern third of this new Rivers of America alignment to entertain future riders on the Mark Twain and Columbia.
All this work will be attempted in record time. The current timeline that WDI is working with has both the Disneyland Railroad and the Rivers of America closed for approximately 15 months, from January 10th 2016 until April 2017. Once the Rivers of America reopens in spring ’17, Disneyland’s entertainment team will hustle to restage and remount a freshened Fantasmic! show, but they will need several months for technical tests and then rehearsals. Fantasmic! is now scheduled to go dark on January 10th 2016 and reopen by July, 2017. That timetable is very aggressive for both the attractions and Fantasmic!, and may need to be extended, but it’s the current strategy both WDI and TDA are working with.
There was an attempt by TDA to try to preserve Fantasmic! during this construction, since all of the work will take place on the northern end of the River complex. Disneyland’s entertainment team tried to come up with a plan to still perform Fantasmic! without the Mark Twain and by using the Columbia in a shuttle mode where it would be backed up after each performance to its launch dock across from Big Thunder Mountain. Under this scenario, coffer dams would have been built near where the barrel bridge is on Tom Sawyer Island and in front of the Hungry Bear Restaurant, in order to keep the southern half of the river full of water. But with the work required to move the railroad and the riverbed just past the Hungry Bear Restaurant they simply couldn’t come up with enough space to make that plan work safely for the Columbia. So the Fantasmic! plan was scrapped.
However, TDA is still trying to figure out a way to have the Rivers of America be completely drained for only a few months during this project, and be able to install coffer dams so that the river can be full of water along the Frontierland and New Orleans Square riverbanks for purely aesthetic purposes. Even if TDA can approve a plan for dams for the southern half of the river through construction, the island would remain off limits and Fantasmic! would still be dark for at least 18 months. Installing those temporary dams to retain hundreds of thousands of gallons while construction crews work nearby is not easy to do in earthquake country, but TDA is at least trying to come up with something for the 15 month duration.
Disneyland’s Rivers of America was already scheduled to have a three month drained refurbishment in the winter of ‘17, an unattractive yet necessary maintenance practice that happens every seven years in Anaheim. But for Star Wars Land construction, the river and the railroad will all be closed for well over a year. This is going to have a modest hit on the overall park ride capacity when all five of those attractions are combined. Disneyland has the most operating river attractions of any Disneyland-style park in the world, with two big boats, a fleet of canoes, and Tom Sawyer Island all operating during busy times of the year. Combined with the busy railroad, this will create a loss of up to 3,000 riders per hour during busy days.
This past summer, with Disneyland attendance spiking over 15% above last summer’s already healthy attendance, the five attractions about to temporarily close for 15 months quickly add up the turnstile clicks:
Summer, 2015 Average Hourly Ridership
- Mark Twain Riverboat – 510 riders per hour
- Sailing Ship Columbia – 390 riders per hour
- Davy Crockett Canoes – 340 riders per hour (the Canoes are actually busier in the cooler months)
- Rafts to Tom Sawyer Island – 325 riders per hour
- Disneyland Railroad -1,300 riders per hour
- Total River Attraction Ridership (including the railroad) – 2,865 riders per hour
That said, on many days of the year it’s only the Mark Twain and the rafts operating, and then only for five or six hours per day at far fewer hourly tallies than those above from this past busy summer. Since the Rivers of America takes up a massive chunk of Disneyland’s total acreage, it’s no surprise that Imagineers and TDA industrial engineers alike realized how under-utilized the current northwest corner of Disneyland is. To dedicate over 25% of the acreage of the park and have so few riders per hour using all that acreage many days of the year is a scenario that can’t be sustained when the rest of the park is so crowded.
That said, on the busy days having all five of those attractions closed for 15 months will be like having both Space Mountain at an average 1,500 riders per hour and Matterhorn Bobsled at an average 1,350 riders per hour closed at the same time.
Old-time Attractions Cast Members reading these hourly counts will be horrified at how low they are and assume their 21st century colleagues are loafing on the job. But with all the new lawyer-approved loading requirements and the increasingly unique demands from 21st century visitors, the efficiency of most Disneyland attractions has crashed into the basement over the past decade, shaving hundreds of riders per hour off the historical hourly counts of many attractions. Where Pirates used to get 2,900 riders per hour, it now only gets 2,300 riders per hour as ride operators scurry to vacuum out the water from the heavier loaded boats throughout the day. Where Small world used to easily get 2,300 riders per hour, this summer it only averaged 1,800 riders per hour as the constant loading and unloading of people in electric scooters consistently backs up the 1966 station design and the rows designed for three adults at the New York World’s Fair now only fit two. The examples are endless, and the effect on the park overall is widespread.
The 15 month loss of these five Disneyland attractions that date back to the 1950’s will be even more acutely felt if TDA goes forward with its plan to bring a modified version of Fastpass+ to the Anaheim parks in 2016. TDA has been grappling with Burbank’s demand to make their billion dollar NextGen investment in the WDW parks pay off by expanding at least some of it to Anaheim. The original plan was to have begun testing Fastpass+ this past summer, with all the existing Fastpass rides being joined by smaller rides that would have temporary Fastpass systems installed in their queues. Originally this was going to start in July and hit its peak with a two week test adding a dozen additional Fastpass options to each park by early August. But the logistics of tackling this in Anaheim have proved difficult to overcome and the summer test of Fastpass+ was mercifully postponed.
The plan is to use a hybrid version of WDW’s Fastpass+, but with RFID enabled Annual Passes and ticket stock in addition to a smartphone app that anyone could use instead of WDW’s MagicBands. A central Fastpass+ reservation center in each Anaheim park would handle day-of visitors, or Annual Passholders who arrived at the park without making any app-based Fastpass reservations beforehand.
Queue enhancements for the bigger E Tickets are also part of this plan to help keep the Standby riders entertained, much like the now mostly ignored or non-working games installed in the WDW queues a few years ago. Although anyone who has actually spent time in a Disney park as a real customer could tell you the big queues really just need more shade, better air conditioning, working cell reception, and some additional drinking fountains (with filters and chilled water, like other parks offer). But most of WDI’s celebrity designers and TDA executives don’t spend time in the parks the way their actual customers do, so they are currently rushing headfirst into a big-budget queue enhancement plan while the basics of hospitality go ignored. It should be noted that the comfy conference rooms where all these queue decisions are being made have air conditioning, excellent WiFi, and often a small buffet set up with bottled water, Starbucks coffee, soft drinks and snacks for the suits in the room. You can bet if they moved just one of these Fastpass+ TDA meetings out to the stifling switchback Standby queue at Space Mountain or Tower of Terror or Matterhorn that their decisions might change a bit.
Obviously there are big changes headed to Anaheim in 2016, physically and also culturally. It bears remembering that Michael Colglazier’s three year executive contract is up this January. Three of the past four Disneyland president’s in the last 12 years have seen their Disney careers ended with their Anaheim gig, all with a bizarrely worded press release. Cynthia Harris was forced to suddenly claim she was leaving immediately to “spend more time with my family” even though she was an unmarried woman from the Midwest without children, and then two months later she got a new gig up in San Francisco away from any family she may have had in SoCal. Two other Disneyland presidents in the 2000’s were claimed to have “retired” suddenly, even though they were decades away from collecting Social Security and both men went on to work as executives at other companies within a few months of their Disneyland “retirement”.
Only George Kalogridis was able to continue working for Disney after his three-year Disneyland Resort President contract was up in 2012, and he actually got a promotion in scope (if not climate) by becoming the President of WDW out in Orlando. Wherever Michael Colglazier’s next chapter leads him this winter, we wish him well. But if Michael leaves Disney in January let’s just hope Burbank’s publicity team doesn’t claim Michael is suddenly “retiring” when he’s only in his late 40’s.
It’s Michael’s replacement that has some folks in TDA excited. If the current rumors pan out there’s someone who has worked in Anaheim for many years that will take the top spot, and if recent history is any indication there could be some really interesting changes taking place in the Anaheim parks under that new person’s helm.
And perhaps new Parks Chairman, Bob Chapek, can finally break that unfortunate cycle of having a revolving-door presidency in TDA that’s filled every three years by someone brand new to town! The constant revolving door at TDA is part of the reason why important yet un-glamorous leadership decisions, like building the long delayed Pumbaa parking structure, get deferred and passed on to the next executive and then the next one. No one wants to shell out the money from their budget if the results won’t be felt until after their 3 year Anaheim contract is over and they have “retired”. That type of decision making for Anaheim has got to stop, as the frustrating parking situation for Cast Members and visitors alike has become beyond ridiculous. Meanwhile, anyone from middle management on up has reserved parking steps from their office, and Disney’s senior executives only know how to valet park at the Grand Californian when they visit the parks, with a smiling VIP tour guide to lead their family up all the exits. Although the new Pumbaa parking structure is planned to be publicly announced before Christmas for a 2018 opening, its continual delays since 2007 by TDA’s revolving-door presidency are really inexcusable.
But stay tuned, January will be here before you know it, and with it a wave of changes which will alter Disneyland forever.
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