2016 is going to be a big year for Disneyland as construction on Star Wars Land begins in earnest, and changes and expansion takes place around the rest of the Resort in anticipation of Star Wars’ arrival. In November, Parks Chairman Bob Chapek approved a new executive structure for the Anaheim property that will see old faces depart and new faces arrive. In this update we’ll fill you in on all the executive changes and the new folks soon to arrive in Anaheim, and what each executive will be responsible for from Star Wars Land to a dramatically changed Fastpass system.
Before we get to Star Wars Land news, it’s important to understand the new executive structure for the Anaheim resort and why each new TDA suit landed where they did. Michael Colglazier, whose three year contract as the Disneyland Resort President is up in January, will be sticking around for a while as his contract gets extended. Michael has been an amiable President the past three years, although he is very rarely seen inside the parks themselves. Michael’s Anaheim tenure is best known for focusing on short-lived corporate trends from Burbank MBA’s (who tend to be out of touch with the real needs of the theme parks and their visitors), which all the operations teams then have to grin and bear through while they simply try to manage record crowds and overtaxed facilities.
But Michael scored a huge career win this past summer when he led a successful drive to prevent the Anaheim City Council from levying a tax on Disneyland tickets until the year 2045 in exchange for an agreement to spend at least 1 Billion dollars on park expansion before 2024. Since he slayed that Anaheim tax dragon for his Burbank bosses, Michael Colglazier won’t suddenly be “retiring” after his three year Disneyland gig is up in January, unlike three out of the four past Disneyland presidents.
Although there is one exec who will be departing TDA in January. Jon Storbeck, the well-respected Vice President who started as a Fantasyland ride operator when he was just out of college over 30 years ago will be retiring in January. Jon is only in his mid 50’s and it took everyone by surprise that he will be leaving Disneyland.
With Michael staying and Jon leaving, that meant it was time to shuffle the other VP’s around. Mary Niven, the woman who has worked in Anaheim for 15 years and made a name for herself by helping to reinvent and relaunch DCA very successfully, just got a promotion to Senior Vice President of Resort Operations. That’s a newly created position, and the three Resort VP’s who originally reported directly to Michael Colglazier will now report to Mary who then reports to Michael. Michael can entertain the Burbank MBA’s with corporate psycho-babble, while Mary handles the real work of making the Disneyland Resort run.
Taking over Jon’s most recent duties at the Hotels is a man named Elliot Mills who was just promoted from the General Manager of Aulani. Elliott will be the VP in charge of the three Disneyland Resort hotels plus Aulani, while Aulani gets a new GM to report to Elliot. Previously the Aulani GM reported to a VP based in Orlando, and the Aulani operation chafed under that arrangement. Not only was the six hour time difference between Honolulu and Orlando a pain in the neck for conference calls, but the Orlando suits who are all from the Midwest and East Coast never got the Hawaiian vibe. Many of the Orlando executives had never even visited Hawaii, and their only point of reference for Aulani was the Tiki Room and old TV shows. The Aulani team had been strategizing a way to fall under the Disneyland Resort umbrella instead, where Southern Californians have a much better understanding of Hawaii and why it’s special, and this change accomplishes that. The VP for the Hotels will no longer oversee Downtown Disney, so Elliott can focus on the hotel hospitality trade without worrying about property management of a mall.
Speaking of that mall, DCA and Downtown Disney will now be bundled together under a new VP who is really going to be the one to watch. Her name is Christie Fleischer, and until January she will remain in her current job as the Senior Vice President of Retail Development for Disney Consumer Products. But after the holidays Christie will take a demotion in title and become the Vice President of DCA & Downtown Disney. Christie has no previous experience with theme parks or the hospitality industry.
Downtown Disney Springs
Ever since Parks Chairman Bob Chapek arrived last February, the parks had been waiting for Bob to start installing his favorite executives from his old Consumer Products and Disney Store empire, and Christie is the first high profile move from Bob Chapek. The conventional wisdom within TDA is that Michael Colglazier will bide his time for another year or so until a suitable lateral move or promotion can be carved out for him in Burbank or Orlando, and then Mary Niven will slot into Michael’s role as President. That will leave Mary’s spot open, and Christie can then regain her old Senior Vice President title and begin to expand her power base as one of Bob’s own people from Consumer Products.
Moving Christie into the VP role for DCA and Downtown Disney will be important in 2016 as Downtown Disney embarks on a major plan to remodel and repurpose the 15 year old mall and remake it into a West Coast version of WDW’s newly opened Disney Springs complex. With the House of Blues closing in January, and that large expansion plot directly north of House of Blues that’s never been built on, the time is right to give the entire Downtown Disney complex a cosmetic reskin and a rethink on the mall’s tenant mix.
Christie has worked for Disney’s Consumer Products and Disney Store group for over eight years in a variety of executive jobs focused on branding and merchandising, and she became the Senior Vice President of Retail Development there almost two years ago. Before she joined Disney in 2007, Christie had merchandise manager jobs at several different apparel companies. She of course has an MBA, from USC’s Marshall School.
Fancy executive titles are plentiful at Disney’s Consumer Products division, with over a dozen lowly Vice Presidents reporting to a gaggle of Senior VP’s and Executive VP’s. The mere VP’s have literally dozens of Directors reporting to them, each with battalions of Managers and Senior Managers working with Chinese factories to bring the latest branded t-shirts and plastic toys to a Disney Store or big box emporium near you. The executive org chart is much slimmer and sleeker in Anaheim, so Christie may be getting a demotion in title but it’s a job that has real meaning and importance in the Parks & Resorts division.
The Downtown Disney makeover will be a big job for Christie, and she’ll focus on that primarily this winter since not much else is happening in DCA next year. The remake of Luigi’s Flying Tires into a much simpler spinner ride is already done, the state inspectors will approve it for operation in two weeks, and the ride is planned to soft open before Christmas. The proposal to add Marvel Studios to DCA on the expansion plot north of Tower of Terror was sent back to the drawing boards this past summer, but is once again moving ahead. The indoor mega-coaster planned as the lands new E Ticket was wowing the designers but underwhelming the Anaheim operators.
The Anaheim team has been getting more and more disappointed with WDI’s latest creations that are big on excitement but very short on hourly capacity to handle Anaheim’s ever-growing crowds. Long gone are the days when WDI built custom E Tickets that can handle 2,500 or more riders per hour. Today they can spend $300 Million building something like Radiator Springs Racers that struggles to break 1,500 riders per hour, and the entire park experience suffers because of decisions which don’t take into account the paying customers waiting in slow moving lines.
While the coaster concept has gone back for a rework, the plan now is to open the Marvel expansion in two phases, with a series of themed meet n’ greet and merchandise offerings opening first before Star Wars Land can open in 2019. Then the Marvel coaster would open a year or two later, after Star Wars Land. That plan is the reason why Superhero HQ in Tomorrowland only got a light rework for its debut last month, as it’s not planned to be a facility that exists much past 2017.
Best Foot Forward
Before Christie can dig in to the Downtown Disney makeover, she’ll need to make her debut at DCA. Scripted talking points will be created for her, so she can tell and retell stories of how she loved to visit Disneyland as a child and how special she thinks the parks are. And TDA’s clueless communications team will send out a photographer to capture Christie’s first few days on the job as she does the mandatory executive duty of spending a couple hours in a uniform selling churros on Buena Vista Street, or sweeping the parade route, or checking lap bars at Monsters Inc. They’ll take plenty of photos of her and then breathlessly bombard the Cast Member newsletter and intranet with them to prove Christie really understands the theme park industry after her hour or two of churro duty.
We wish Christie well through all this upcoming pageantry, and since she seems to be a smart woman perhaps she’ll be savvy enough to know the 27,000 Anaheim Cast Members see right through these types of publicity stunts. Dialing it down a notch and simply spending a lot of time in the park in 2016 will go much further than talking points and a glossy photo shoot in the Cast Member newsletter. And if you can’t immediately answer which is your favorite Disneyland Resort ride and why, you shouldn’t show up to work that day.
Christie also needs to be aware of the reputation executives who come from the Disney Store and Consumer Products have in Anaheim. Disneyland went through a very dark period of its history due to the decisions of several key execs who came from the Disney Store, namely Paul Pressler and Cynthia Harriss and their assorted mall groupies, who insisted that merchandising trumped showmanship and the mall way was the right way. Disneyland came out of that period battered and bruised and with Cast morale that had never been lower, and it took a great deal of money and resources to undo all the harm those Disney Store executives caused during their infamous 1995-2003 reign. There are many people at the Disneyland Resort who have not forgotten that. Christie may be brilliant at branding and merchandising, but Disney’s theme parks involve dangerous moving machinery and deep-rooted emotions, and the parks are not malls. Just ask Cynthia Harriss.
Kris Thriller and a Galaxy Far, Far Away.
That leaves Kris Theiler as the new Disneyland VP, moving over from her current role as DCA VP. Kris has worked for Disney theme parks for 20 years now, and as a woman with a degree in industrial engineering she was instrumental in planning the extreme makeover of DCA from 2008 to 2012. Her charming and honest Midwest demeanor has earned her a stellar reputation among the various Anaheim teams she has led in the last decade, and she’s the type of person that Walt would approve of to run his operation. You can bet you’ll see Kris walking around Disneyland often and without an entourage.
Kris will have her work cut out for her in 2016 as several big projects get off the drawing boards. The first is obviously Star Wars Land, which begins massive demolition in January and will be into heavy construction phases by springtime. The footprint of the new land has continued to flex a bit this fall, but has recently settled into what should be its final version. Three main entrances will now lead into the land;
The Disneyland Railroad will form the southern border of the new land, passing along the rerouted Rivers of America and then over a series of trestles and along a high berm that will physically separate Star Wars Land from the existing lands. Once the railroad passes the Hungry Bear Restaurant, a new route will take the tracks along a snaking S-curve before it rejoins the original route just north of the Fantasyland Theatre. The new railroad route will also take the train along a rocky mountainside with a watery cave below that will lead to the new storage marina for all of the Fantasmic! barges and equipment. In what’s likely the final version of the Star Wars footprint, the Fantasyland Theatre will stay for now, although it’s prime real estate to access a smaller expansion pad just west of Toontown that will be left over after the Star Wars Land dust settles.
The demolition project itself, code named “Delos” by WDI, is a massive undertaking. It doesn’t just involve removing and altering original 1955 landmarks and park boundaries, but also requires a logistical nightmare of demolishing and rebuilding large swaths of Disneyland’s backstage operation that are necessary to keep the park running day to day. Once the Delos phase is complete, the actual construction phase of Star Wars Land will begin, and that program has been code named “Atlantis” by WDI. (Greek scholars will appreciate the Imagineers coded references here.)
When the construction phase of Atlantis begins later in 2016, the biggest warehouse, or “show building” in Disneyspeak, will be found in the northwest corner of the new land and will eventually block the views of Mickey & Friends. That building will be the home to the Stormtrooper chase and escape ride, code named “Alcatraz” at WDI, that will feature autonomous trackless vehicles and nearly every other techno marvel WDI can throw at it. The second largest building will be on the northern perimeter and will contain the Millennium Falcon flight attraction, which is code named “Big Bird”. These massive show buildings should begin to be framed in by early 2017, with a projected opening date that’s now pegged for Spring, 2019.
The short term results of all this construction is already well known – the Disneyland Railroad and Rivers of America will be closed for over a year, and Fantasmic! will be closed for 18 months. But during that closure Kris will have plenty to work on with the rest of Disneyland. A new version of Fastpass will begin to arrive in Anaheim in 2016, but will be quite different from the MyMagic+ and MagicBand programs in use out at WDW. Many additional Disneyland rides will have Fastpass added to them this spring, and while paper Fastpasses will remain at all attractions, people inside the parks will be able to use the new Disneyland App to reserve paperless Fastpass reservations downloaded onto their smartphone for any ride that has them available. There will be no plastic wristbands and no 90 day reservation windows for the Anaheim system – the existing legacy Fastpass operation will be expanded to additional rides and then overlayed with the App based system as an option.
TDA will be pushing the official Disneyland App like crazy, as the program is dependent on people downloading and having the App available when they are in the park. The ability to reserve Fastpasses in advance of your visit won’t be available to day guests or Annual Passholders, although it’s planned to be an option for people staying at the Disneyland Resort hotels at first, and perhaps later for Good Neighbor hotels. The App will also require you to allow location tracking on your phone, as the App-based Fastpasses will only be available to users who are physically inside one of the two parks when they attempt to make a Fastpass reservation on the App. And no, you won’t be able to reserve a Radiator Springs Racer Fastpass immediately after redeeming your Fastpass for Hyperspace Mountain – you will need to physically be inside the park you want to reserve a Fastpass in, so no DCA options will appear on the App until you physically step foot inside DCA, or vice versa.
This system is absolutely nothing like what was originally supposed to arrive in Anaheim two years ago, which was to be a lightly modified version of the MyMagic+ system from Florida. But that system has proved to be a massive headache for the Florida parks, and costs skyrocketed several times more than the original healthy budget it was given. Those cost overruns from the technical side are why so many of the themed queue upgrades have been quietly shelved for the WDW parks. It will be a long time before the MyMagic+ system pays itself off for the Florida parks, and there was no appetite to try something similar in Anaheim. The entire concept went back to the drawing board in 2014, and what rolls out for Disneyland in phases during 2016 and 2017 should be easier to manage and use, especially for day trippers and Annual Passholders. You can bet it will be a real headache for the Cast Members though, with lots of teething pains, and Kris will be instrumental in trying to make it work correctly as quickly as possible.
Adding this new Fastpass system will prove tricky in 2016 due to the lengthy refurbishment calendar that has to happen, in addition to the closures for Star Wars Land. The Jungle Cruise will be closed for four months this winter to install an automated unloading and loading system. Autopia will be closed for a couple months to get a much-needed cosmetic upgrade to satisfy its upcoming sponsor, Honda. Pirates and Splash Mt. and Little Mermaid and Silly Symphony Swings have big refurbishments planned, Soarin’ Over California will close again prior to the debut of the new Horizon movie from Shanghai, etc., etc. 2016 will be busy, and they’ll try to keep the Diamond Celebration party going throughout all of this.
Kris has plenty of work cut out for her right now though, after Season Of The Force opened to huge crowds and mixed reviews. While Hyperspace Mountain and the modest Star Tours tweaks got good reviews, the big centerpiece of the Season has not been successful. Star Wars Launch Bay has only seen modest attendance, and was often an easy walk-in option last week when attendance skyrocketed for Thanksgiving. The blank walls and dead corners of the Launch Bay exhibit have been an embarrassment for many in WDI, and after modest visitation and middling customer satisfaction ratings came in last week the blame game has already begun between Glendale, Burbank and TDA.
The good news is that Launch Bay has options for the future to become the preview center for Star Wars Land, which should help its reputation. The small video theater and some of the display areas are meant to transition to Blue Sky Cellar type exhibits giving a sneak peek of what’s coming to Star Wars Land. But the project has to get past the Delos demolition phase and into the Atlantis construction phase before WDI will feel comfortable releasing more details publicly.
What has been successful is the novel twice-per-night fireworks shows that Disneyland tested last week. The hope was that it would relieve nighttime crowds and balance people across both parks, and it did just that. Peak in-park numbers were happening around 6:00PM and then after the first fireworks shows thousands of people were heading over to DCA while Disneyland’s in-park attendance moderated noticeably by the second fireworks show. It’s something they’ll only be able to do this time of year when the sun sets early, but it seems to have done the trick and will likely reappear for the busy two weeks of Christmas and New Year’s.
There is no Disney property that can come close to the amount of nightly entertainment that Disneyland Resort has, with five parades and four water shows and two fireworks spectaculars per night, plus the Anaheim exclusives like Mad T Party, Viva Navidad, etc. It was a smart move on Mary Niven’s part to take the chance and try to play to all those strengths instead of fighting against them as the Anaheim parks had been doing for the last decade. Gambles like that show that Mary Niven is a great choice to take on the new Senior VP of Operations job. Let’s just hope Mary can keep ahead of the mall executives waiting in the wings in 2016.
Well, that wraps things up for now. As always, Disneyland plans are a work in progress. As new executives are installed, some plans will no doubt change. We’ll be back as the sands shift to fill you in on the current projects at the happiest place on earth.