Disneyland Resort continues to lurch through a weird and unusual spring as Burbank mandates sweeping budget cuts while record crowds continue to pack both parks. In this update we’ll fill you in on why the parks are closing earlier than usual, why random locations continue to shut down, why weekdays feel just as busy as weekends, and the wild rumors behind what DCA has planned to counteract the attendance imbalance Disneyland’s massive Star Wars project will likely cause.
Cut To The Bone
All of Disneyland Resort’s recent cutbacks, closures and reduced operating hours are part of TDA’s attempt to meet the budget goal laid out by Parks Chairman Bob Chapek. This past winter Chapek decreed that the American parks needed to cut at least $500 Million from their operating budget for the third fiscal quarter, in order to lessen the financial impact of Shanghai’s cost overruns and make the quarterly numbers look better for Wall Street.
The results of that mandate has been felt and seen both inside the parks and back in TDA. Hiring for Disneyland has been nearly frozen the past month when TDA’s Casting center would normally be ramping up with lots of hiring for the summer season ahead. The hiring and labor cuts were already being looked at by TDA once the minimum wage increases were passed last year by Sacramento, and California’s minimum wage for 2016 has already surpassed many of the starting wages baked into the union contracts for Anaheim CM’s. Most of those union contracts with lower than minimum wages were in place to 2018 or beyond, when the minimum wage will rise even higher each year until it hits $15 an hour five years from now. Reducing labor costs and lowering headcount even more will continue be a key goal for Anaheim managers even if Shanghai is a huge hit once it opens. Chapek’s $500 Million savings decree simply forced the labor cutting issue sooner for the Anaheim parks.
While reduced park hours were put in place immediately when the third quarter started on April 1st, some changes and closures inside the park weren’t made until later in April. For instance, last week the Paradise Garden Grill restaurant was quietly shut down and put into mothballs. Paradise Garden Grill had a Greek skewer menu that was novel for a theme park, but sales were always lackluster there. After an internal struggle to keep it open for the menu variety, DCA’s managers finally got over-ruled by TDA and the location was shut down. A long term strategy for the location hasn’t been determined while TDA banks the labor savings as part of their Shanghai cost savings plan. A favored proposal is to turn the location into a flex-kitchen that can offer seasonal menus (Viva Navidad, Food & Wine, etc.) and then fill in as the park’s second burger place during peak seasons.
While Disneyland has tried to offer fresher and healthier menu offerings in recent years, a large majority of park visitors get frustrated when there is only one burger stand in the entire park and that issue keeps showing up on customer satisfaction surveys. But for now, Paradise Garden Grill will remain closed while TDA banks the labor savings.
Food And Wine A Smashing Success
Even in the midst of the spring cutbacks, many visitors are still in a spending mood. DCA’s relaunched Food & Wine Festival has blown all of its sales projections out of the water. The food locations went through three week’s worth of planned stock after just the first week. The outside vendors who were given lowball crowd and sales estimates by TDA had to ship in additional stock after the first weekend. TDA had to overnight express in additional serving supplies and stock after the first week, and spending at all the locations blew original estimates out of the water. The biggest challenge was the logistics of getting enough supplies and stock to the serving kiosks throughout the day, as they couldn’t keep up with demand.
Based off this sales success, Food & Wine will now return next year in a much expanded capacity, and with more advance notice than it got this year. The concept wasn’t even given the green light by TDA until after everyone returned from Christmas vacation and the DCA team wasn’t committed to it until late January. They pulled this one out of thin air in three months, and the customer response was overwhelming.
This Elevator Travels Directly To . . . The Marvel Zone
Elsewhere in DCA, a wild rumor got out earlier this spring about a plan to remake Tower of Terror into a Guardians of the Galaxy ride. We can tell you that the Guardians of the Galaxy rumor is true, and TDA’s executive suite was furious when the rumor leaked out from Glendale-based sources. The plan is for the original Twilight Zone backstory to be removed entirely, and replaced with an all new show based around the Collector character from the Guardians movie franchise. WDI had been testing and experimenting with the new show in the elevators for months and the Tower of Terror hourly CM’s were all aware of what WDI had been cooking up since this winter. But when the plan finally leaked online in April, the TDA executive suite hit the roof in anger.
And what does an angry executive team do in this modern age when a juicy rumor, that just happens to be true, leaks online? They issue Talking Points, of course! TDA’s Cast Communications team was instructed to send out vague and pointless “Talking Points” to the CM’s that instructed them to not believe everything they see online until it is confirmed by the Disney Parks Blog. Except many hourly CM’s who work the Tower of Terror attraction and its gift shop had known about this evolving plan for months prior to its online leak, as Imagineers and TDA executives spent plenty of early mornings and late nights inside the ride building testing out the new show proposals in the elevators and tinkering around the pre-show hallways and queue.
The current plan for Tower of Terror is to close the attraction this fall and give the entire building a full interior and exterior refurbishment so that the new version of the ride can open next May, with the Guardians of the Galaxy movie premiere held at DCA the same week the new ride opens. Assuming this gets the green light by August, and a disastrous Shanghai opening summer is about the only thing that could derail it at this point, the CM’s will be treated to another round of approved Talking Points that will somehow explain that they can now believe what they read online about Guardians of the Galaxy taking over Tower of Terror. The hourly CM’s, of course, are already several steps ahead of TDA.
This Tower of Terror proposal is part of a multi-year plan to get more Marvel into DCA, being pushed heavily by Bob Chapek. Since Chapek arrived a year ago as the new Parks Chairman, he’s been shocked to learn that after five years of owning Marvel there still isn’t a new Marvel ride in the California parks, and that the only thing TDA has done with Marvel is slap together some cheap meet n’ greets over the years. The plan now is to adjust the Marvel mega-coaster from its original spot in the Timon parking lot to fit into the northern end of Hollywood where Stage 17, Monsters Inc., and the unused Stage 12 buildings are. This would save Timon for future DCA expansion, and better use the under-utilized space on the opposite side of Hollywood Land.
That corner of Hollywood Land has always been an unloved and unfortunate looking space that has gone through a series of inexpensive and temporary overlays for dance parties and corporate events. Back in 2012 the plan was to remake that area as a Monsters Inc. themed Monstropolis area, with the inclusion of a family friendly Door Coaster that used the famous door scene from Monsters Inc. as its main show element. Height test balloons were even seen hovering over the land and TDA was nearly ready to give the project the green light before they got cold feet over the mild thrills planned for the coaster. It was at that time that WDI blue sky ideas were being cooked up for the newly acquired Marvel properties, and a much more thrilling and intense mega-coaster was pitched for DCA, to be placed behind Tower of Terror.
The trend with WDI now is fully immersive lands or mini-lands dedicated to one specific IP, and the Marvel mega-coaster will bring along with it a Marvel mini-land based in old Hollywood. The Monsters Inc. dark ride would go to Yesterland, although the dark ride facility may be re-purposed yet again with a Marvel theme if WDI can engineer the coaster around that building using all of the existing backstage area and demolishing support buildings as well as Stage 17 and Stage 12 that now surround Monster Inc.
MuppetVision has gone off to Yesterland, as TDA’s long term planning calendar keeps the new Sunset Showcase Theater as the location for most movie previews for years to come. Although Moana is slated to use the Bugs theater this fall for its preview, the Sunset Showcase will remain as DCA’s main flex theater. The Shanghai budget cuts have prevented TDA from spending the money to redo the queue and lobby from its Frozen theme, so for now audiences will enter through the exit doors only. By Fiscal 2017 the formal lobby of Sunset Showcase Theater should get a remodel to replace the Frozen theme.
With all those Hollywood plans, only the Tower of Terror remake has a shot at opening before Star Wars Land opens in late 2018. The Marvel mega-coaster would slot in for 2020, just before the Fantasyland expansion pad comes to life with a Frozen E Ticket dark ride and some of the attraction concepts recently announced for Tokyo’s Fantasyland.
Don’t forget, TDA has an important legal agreement with Anaheim to complete at least $1.5 Billion worth of park expansion before 2024. The Star Wars expansion that started in January, the big parking structure on Pumbaa that will break ground this July, and the Tower of Terror remake that would get started this fall will cover the $1 Billion of construction that has to begin by December 2017 in order to extend the tax breaks for 30 years. But to extend the tax breaks out another 15 years Disney has to finish an additional $500 Million of park expansion by 2024, which currently means Marvel expansion for DCA and Fantasyland expansion for Disneyland.
The half dozen new rides that are part of those expansion projects would theoretically help with park capacity, as crowds continue to flood the park in record numbers for the 60th Anniversary. Although WDI has a bad habit of proposing splashy new attractions that have miserable hourly rider capacity in the 1,400 to 1,800 range, instead of the 2,800 riders per hour Universal’s new Forbidden Journey ride can soak up. Much less the 2,200 to 3,000 riders per hour that Disneyland’s new attractions of the 1960’s and 70’s were designed to handle when customer-savvy ops leaders like Dick Nunis, John Cora, Ron Dominguez, and Jack Lindquist were running the parks.
It doesn’t help that most of TDA’s current executives, and Chairman Bob Chapek himself, have absolutely no first-hand experience of working in the parks and none of them seem to care about hourly capacity. Just like Disney’s fans at a D23 Expo presentation, TDA execs get suckered in by the glamorous WDI artwork and never stop to ask what the hourly capacity is for the ride they are being pitched. That’s a rookie mistake that Dick Nunis or John Cora would have never made at a WDI sales pitch. But the epic crowds show up now regardless, and the parks are bursting at the seams with ever-dwindling ride capacity. For the record, DCA’s Tower of Terror has an hourly capacity of only 1,500 riders per hour, and that measly number won’t change with the Guardians of the Galaxy version.
Meager park ride capacity only intensifies the big crowds that now show up even in the off-season. Since spring break ended in early April the attendance at Disneyland and DCA has been surprisingly strong, as the Value priced off-season weekdays have seen 7,000 to 12,000 additional visitors show up over original daily projections, while the Regular priced weekends have seen their already strong attendance estimates either hit on the nail or do slightly better by 2,000 or 3,000 per day.
This has surprised TDA, especially with the reduced park operating hours and all the attractions in both parks closed for refurbishment in the past month. TDA was expecting to take a temporary hit in attendance after Harry Potter opened at Universal, but that didn’t pan out. Disneyland’s new demand pricing strategy seems to be pulling in even more tourists on the weekdays as they perceive that those days are cheaper, while weekend attendance remains very strong with locals. A few attendance examples from the past week;
Monday April 25th
- Original Attendance Estimate: Disneyland 29,000 – DCA 23,000
- Actual Attendance: Disneyland 36,200 – DCA 28,300
Wednesday April 27th
- Original Attendance Estimate: Disneyland 31,000 – DCA 22,000
- Actual Attendance: Disneyland 35,400 – DCA 26,100
Friday April 29th
- Original Attendance Estimate: Disneyland 50,000 – DCA 41,000
- Actual Attendance: Disneyland 51,600 – DCA 41,200
Sunday May 1st
- Original Attendance Estimate: Disneyland 51,000 – DCA 41,000
- Actual Attendance: Disneyland 52,100 – DCA 40,700
These are historically huge attendance numbers that 10 years ago would have only been seen in summer or on busy holiday weekends like Presidents Day or Columbus Day. These numbers also show how close the attendance at the two Anaheim parks are to each other. They also show how badly the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA) annual reports are under-reporting the Anaheim parks, as DCA has gone over 10 million per year and growing since 2013, but the latest TEA report for 2014 claimed DCA got just 8.7 Million. (There’s something TDA could send out Talking Points about, to not believe the low-ball TEA numbers that come out in June!) And those big crowds continue to be a very healthy mix of local AP’ers, domestic tourists and international tourists. The wild hotel building boom in Anaheim’s Resort District the last two years has been happening for a reason, as domestic and international tourism to the Disneyland Resort continues to grow each year and Anaheim occupancy rates continue to be very strong.
While lots of construction and expansion announcements will happen over the next two years, this approaching summer season will kick off with the lavish new Frozen musical on Memorial Day weekend, which will test the patience of younger viewers as it clocks in at just under one hour in length. Then on June 17th the new Soarin’ film debuts, and it should be interesting to see how American audiences react to the new show that only represents America with a quick flyover of Monument Valley in Utah and a new finale over the Disneyland Resort.
The original Soarin’ Over California film will remain as an option on the upgraded projector system, ready to be flipped on with just the push of a button thanks to the new digital format. If the Soarin’ Around The World global film flops with American audiences, TDA has already proposed turning one theater back into the original California film while the second theater plays the Around The World movie.
Well, that’s our MiceAge Update folks. What do you think of the evolving Marvel plans for Disney California Adventure? With the Marvel attraction moving North, is it necessary to alter Tower of Terror? Will you miss the Muppets? Frozen on the brain?