It’s been a week since Disneyland shut down five attractions from the 1950’s to begin the massive construction on the biggest expansion of the park in its 60 year history. While fleets of bulldozers, dump trucks and industrial wood chippers began arriving on the Anaheim property a few days ago, similarly big changes were happening up in Glendale at Imagineering headquarters with a nerve rattling reorganization. In this update we’ll fill you in on how the new Star Wars land will change the existing park footprint and the surprising date it’s planned to open, as well as tell you how Parks chairman Bob Chapek is remaking WDI executive ranks to gain more efficiencies while he simultaneously takes a sharp pencil to the budgets of the big construction projects getting underway in Anaheim.
For more than a year we’ve been telling you how the huge Star Wars land project kept growing and flexing and moving. After the previous plan to remake Tomorrowland with multiple Star Wars attractions was cancelled just as it neared final approval, the location of the growing land became a moving target for over a year. Mickey’s Toontown and backstage space directly north of there was the original 8 acre target, which then morphed into more backstage land to the west, before the project grew to a total of 14 acres and future Fantasyland plans moved it entirely to the west of Toontown and demanded existing space from the Rivers of America.
(Below is a slider image. Slide the bar in the middle left and right to see the image before and after Star Wars Land)
The final layout of the land has a northern and western perimeter walled off from the outside world by massive show buildings over 150 feet tall that will push right up against the existing toll lanes and tram route that parallels Disneyland Drive. Built to look like sheer rock cliffs and forested mountains from inside the land, the show buildings will be partially sunk into the ground yet still tower overhead. The largest show building in the land, for the headliner battle escape attraction coded named “Alcatraz” at WDI (get it?), will dwarf even the largest backstage buildings for Anaheim’s other massive E Tickets like Pirates, Indy or Radiator Springs Racers.
(Below is a slider image. Slide the bar in the middle left and right to see the image before and after Star Wars Land)
While the perimeter structures of the Star Wars land are huge and elaborately themed, they will be nearly impossible to see from anywhere else in the park as they’ll be obscured by a tree-lined berm built just north of the new Rivers of America route, along with the existing forested hills east of Fantasyland and north of Critter Country. The tall forested berm that forms the buffer between the new land and the Rivers of America will also house a new Fantasmic! storage marina. Hidden behind the biggest waterfall along the new railroad trestle, the entrance cave will lead to a hidden indoor marina and storage area for Fantasmic! barges and show equipment. It’s the type of hidden cavern marina guarded by a waterfall that would make the 1960’s villain of a James Bond movie jealous, and it will surely become a new piece of lore for Disneyland secrets. It’s also larger and more purpose-built than the existing open air cement marina that was often spotted through the trees from the Mark Twain or Columbia, and will support the return of an updated and freshened Fantasmic! in 2017.
For those trying to get a peek of Star Wars land, only when you walk through rocky tunnels newly built along the Big Thunder Trail, or the winding forested pathway leading from Critter Country, will you then see Star Wars land. The reveal moments from the two tunnels off the Big Thunder Trail will be the most architecturally stunning, while the winding path through the forest north of Critter Country will be memorable for the sudden appearance of X-Wing fighters parked on rocky ledges and landing pads as you enter the alien land from the west. The goal here is to meet or exceed the Wow! moment that people experience when they walk through the archway into Cars Land from the Pacific Wharf area.
WDI is spending a lot of resources to ensure that Star Wars land stays hidden from the rest of the park, and then has a dramatic and gasp-inducing reveal as park visitors run towards it through the tunnels at rope drop each morning. And while it may take a few years for the forested berm on the northern edge of the Rivers of America to fully grow in, the new river route will still offer a better themed view than the previous lights of the Mickey & Friends parking structure that were easily seen through the trees by passengers on the Mark Twain.
SHAKEUP AND BIG CUTS
While the impressive physical layout of the land and the lengths WDI is going to hide it all from Frontierland and Fantasyland is good news, there’s also troubling developments coming from Burbank. When Bob Chapek arrived as the new Parks Chairman eleven months ago, he was tasked by Bob Iger to get WDI under control. While WDI is home to brilliantly creative minds and the biggest rock stars in the theme park industry, it’s also well known as an organization that can never seem to build anything on time or on budget. There’s always been a few divas strutting around the WDI campus, and while they enjoy salaries that dwarf those on the theme park operations side of the house and a hip creative campus in Glendale with every conceivable perk and benefit, they’ve become infamous for never being able to deliver the goods on time or at a reasonable cost. Bob has been trying to fix that, with some questionable decisions of late.
One of Bob’s smarter moves became public last Friday, when a big reorganization was announced for WDI. Bob Weis, the well-liked Imagineer tasked with leading the Billion dollar makeover of DCA from 2008 to 2012 has now become the President of WDI, a new title that replaces the two Executive Vice Presidents that used to co-lead Imagineering. Executive Vice President Bruce Vaughn has been moved out, while his former co-executive Craig Russell will take on a role as construction boss that reports to Bob Weis. This structure is important as Craig will now be in charge of making sure that projects stay on time and on budget, and for the first time that WDI role will have a big boss to answer to.
One of Chapek’s recent mandates, and something Bob Weis and Craig Russell will work hard to deliver, was to ensure that Star Wars land opens at Disneyland before the final Star Wars Episode IX opens in theaters in 2019. Previous to Bob Chapek’s arrival, WDI calendars didn’t have the land opening in Anaheim until late 2019 or 2020. While ground clearing begins now and while some design details are still up in the air, the grand opening date for the Star Wars land that the Glendale and Anaheim teams are now working with is December, 2018. That’s less than three years away, and by the time Disneyland celebrates its 61st birthday this July the structural steel of the massive show buildings north of Frontierland and Critter Country will be rising from the ground.
Bob Weis is also being tasked with making the two big E Tickets for Star Wars land memorable and immersive, with a sudden return to winding and elaborately decorated indoor queues and entertaining pre-show lobbies that Imagineering perfected in the classic EPCOT Center pavilions of the 1980’s.
While big E Tickets and an efficient timeline on major projects is appreciated by Disneyland fans, a few of Chapek’s other demands are not as customer friendly. The third attraction in Star Wars land, an internal transportation system of sorts, was cut from the budget recently after Chapek demanded cost savings. WDI was sent scrambling to find a way to put it back into the project as it was designed to bring kinetic energy to the sprawling land much like the Red Car Trolley brings energy to Buena Vista Street, but Chapek won’t budge on his budget mandates and something else will need to be cut in order for the third attraction to survive.
PARK AND WALK AND WALK AND WALK
Another of Chapek’s budget mandates has hit the next big project to get underway in Anaheim soon, the new 5,000+ space parking structure to be built where the current Pumbaa parking lot and office building at 1585 South Manchester is. The structure is designed to be expanded out to 8,000+ spaces once the office building at 1515 South Manchester is no longer needed for Disney administrative uses.
In order to save some money late in the game, Chapek and Michael Colglazier have decided to cut the moving sidewalks planned for the huge structure and the connecting skybridge over Harbor Blvd. Without the moving sidewalks the walk from the middle of the Pumbaa structure, north to the old Carousel Inn property, and then over the Harbor Blvd. skybridge and along the shuttle loading area to the Esplanade is going to be a long haul for guests.
It should be noted that this was an easy decision for senior execs like Bob and Michael to make because they have never had to deal with Disneyland’s chronically overtaxed parking and internal transportation system. One of the perks that senior executives from all Disney divisions get is complimentary valet parking at the Grand Californian whenever they want to take their families to Disneyland or DCA. A quick call from the execs secretary to the Disney Special Activities office in the Grand Californian Hotel puts any executive’s family visit in motion within minutes. A Guest Relations VIP Tour Guide is dispatched to meet their car at the driveway of the Grand Californian, the valet runner takes the car away while the VIP guide ushers them into DCA via the Grand Californian gate at Grizzly Peak or walks them to the nearby monorail station at Downtown Disney to be whisked into Disneyland via monorail. The execs and their families are then escorted by their VIP guide through the exit of any ride they wish, given the best seats in the house for any theater show, have reserved areas roped off for them at parades and water shows, and shown the best tables at any restaurant they want. When their luxurious complimentary visit is complete, the VIP guide calls the valet stand at the Grand Californian and by the time they stroll back to the hotel the family car is already waiting for them.
Even the lower level executives, mere Vice Presidents or General Managers, get the perk of Gold Sticker parking with choice spots reserved for their family cars in the Downtown Disney lot near the monorail station. Those lower level execs can park in those reserved Gold Sticker spots indefinitely for free and take their family into the park via monorail, bypassing the crowded trams and long lines at Mickey & Friends that their “guests” must deal with. The valet service and Gold Sticker parking perks have been in use for over 15 years now, and most execs have never had any other type of parking experience when they visit Disneyland.
The executives in the conference rooms of TDA and Burbank have absolutely no idea what parking at Mickey & Friends or Toy Story is like, fighting to get a seat on a tram or bus, and waiting in long lines for trams and buses both in the morning and at the end of the night. Never mind the thousands of cars each weekend who are forcefully redirected to far flung satellite lots at the Anaheim Convention Center, GardenWalk mall, or the Pumbaa parking lot and then shuttled in on a ragtag fleet of hired buses. Then there’s the ugly fact that Disneyland Cast Members were forced to park at the Anaheim Stadium on more than 30 different days this past holiday season, due to general parking overcrowding.
Living such a sheltered life, it’s no surprise that Chapek and his senior executives have recently decided it’s acceptable for a $155 Billion company to cut the moving sidewalks from the Pumbaa parking structure budget and expect the customers to walk. The last three Disneyland Presidents, from Ed Grier through Michael Colglazier, have chickened out of greenlighting the Pumbaa parking structure originally designed in 2008. Chapek and Colglazier are finally going to build the structure, but right now they’re pretending as though it won’t be heavily used for the next 50 years by hundreds of millions of paying customers, and they’re trying to build it as cheap as they can. One hates to invoke Walt too often, but this is definitely a case where Walt would be furious with the customer-unfriendly decision these men are about to make.
Hopefully a few of the kinder folks in TDA who understand they are in the hospitality business can convince the senior execs to put the moving sidewalks back in the parking structure budget. But they need to prevail and get the sidewalks put back in soon, as the structure is slated to begin construction this spring and must be completed by the opening of Star Wars land in late 2018.
ALL IS NOT LOST
While Bob Chapek’s sharp budget knife is busy cutting through key parts of Star Wars land and the parking structure, a few smaller projects continue in the pipeline for Anaheim this year. The new Luigi’s spinner ride has hit technical problems due to difficulty with all the RFID tags buried in the pavement that help guide the cars, and it failed to make its planned Christmas debut. But once the little spinner opens within a few weeks, the real excitement at DCA this year will be found with the new Soarin’ The World movie and the new Frozen musical. With the announcement that Shanghai Disneyland will open June 16th, DCA’s version of the new Soarin’ movie is planned to open the following day on Friday, June 17th. That will be a few weeks after the new Frozen musical debuts, and a small media event will be thrown together to tout those two DCA offerings in an attempt to blunt all the attention going to Universal’s new Harry Potter expansion this spring and summer.
The lavish TV special filmed last week at Disneyland is another attempt to pump up the 60th anniversary this winter, as a defensive maneuver against the expected avalanche of media attention that Harry Potter will begin to receive this April.
Otherwise, there won’t be much news coming out of Disneyland Park this year while most of the energy goes into Star Wars land. The new Vice President of DCA and Downtown Disney, Christie Fleischer, will continue to focus her energy on shepherding the cosmetic remake and tenant shakeup for Downtown Disney that will begin later this year. The parking department is also under Christie’s wing, but after years in Consumer Products and without any previous experience in theme parks or the hospitality industry Christie is not up to arguing in favor of the moving sidewalks for the Pumbaa structure, especially when her bosses Michael Colglazier and Bob Chapek don’t see any problem with making the tourists walk and padding their yearly bonus.
Meanwhile, Senior Vice President Mary Niven and Disneyland Vice President Kris Theiler will focus on the hassle of trying to install Fastpass on a bevy of Disneyland rides. That’s proved to be a real headache for everyone, and plans to install Fastpass on Peter Pan and Matterhorn and other old attractions have been put on the back burner while they focus on installing Fastpass on the logistically easier rides like Midway Mania and Pirates of the Caribbean.
And that wraps things up this time around folks. It’s a mixed bag. Looking at those Star Wars maps will excite many of you. It’s big folks. But worries about Bob Chapek’s budget cutting, even at a time of record profits, should be a sign of warning. What are your thoughts? Would you like to see a moving sidewalk from the new parking structure? Ready to visit Luigi again? Your voice matters more than you think!
Our thanks to Andy Castro for the sliding maps and Norman Gidney for the parking map and banner.