SAMLAND: The Port Disney Story

Written by Sam Gennawey. Posted in Disney, Disney History, Features, Samland

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Published on May 09, 2013 at 4:00 am with 31 Comments

Back in the late 1980s, Walt Disney Productions management was becoming increasingly concerned with the public realm surrounding Disneyland. The area had been deteriorating for years due to the laissez-faire attitude toward planning within the City of Anaheim. However, there was little the City of Anaheim could do. One planning official described the surrounding properties as “a lot of scrawny little lots with funny configurations. You have developers trying to do something with them, but you don’t get a decent restaurant or a hotel on a 200-foot wide lot.” The City lacked the authority and the political will to control development around the Park.

 

Although the Walt Disney Company was concerned about Anaheim, they did have other options in Southern California. On January 21, 1988, the Walt Disney Company entered into a 50–50 joint venture agreement with Industrial Equity Ltd. of Hong Kong to purchase the assets of the Wrather Corporation for $152.3 million. Included in the agreement was the 1,174-room Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim and the right to build hotels on the west coast with the Disney brand. Jack Wrather had gained the rights when he made the deal with Walt before the park opened. Other assets included the Vacationland Campground north of the hotel, control of the Queen Mary and Spruce Goose in Long Beach, forty-seven acres of parking lot and retail space in Long Beach adjacent to the tourist attractions, and the Biltmore hotel in downtown Los Angeles. Most importantly, Disney believed they gained the right to create 236 acres out of tidal water in the Port of Long Beach. Typically, coastal waters in California could not be filled in for recreational purposes, but Disney felt it could overcome such a limitation. In March, Disney bought out its partner for $85.2 million and gained full control of all of the properties.

In July 1990, Disney announced plans for the new $2.8 billion Port Disney resort. The resort would front both sides of the mouth of the Los Angeles River in Long Beach Harbor. On the port side, the Queen Mary would be moved 700 feet north and remain a tourist attraction and a hotel; it would also serve as the resort’s marquee. The big attraction would be DisneySea, a new theme park where guests would “embark on a fascinating evolutionary journey through the seas.” At the center would be Oceana, a gigantic oceanarium with a variety of marine habitats. People would be able to see the display from walkways above or through underwater portholes below.

Along with the usual array of Disney-type attractions and shows such as Captain Nemo’s Lava Cruiser, Fleets of Fantasy, Mysterious Island, and Hero’s Harbor would be the Future Research Center, a state-of-the-art laboratory. Project Manager David Malmuth said, “Our goal is to sensitize millions of visitors each year to the enormous challenges and opportunities of our seas—our most precious resource—in a setting that encourages play and fantasy.”

There would be a new waterfront shopping and entertainment district with ferry service connecting the resort to Queensway Bay adjacent to downtown Long Beach. A total of 3,900 hotel rooms were proposed, including two new hotels built adjacent to the park. The 500-room Port Hotel would provide luxury accommodations and a waterfront setting. The 1,400-room Canal Hotel would include a 150-slip guest marina and waterfront promenade. The Port of Long Beach would be responsible for a new cruise ship terminal with five cruise ship berths, a 15-acre park, and a 250-slip marina.

On the city side would be three more hotels, including the 900-room Tidelands Hotel along the waterfront with a 6-acre park, the 400-room all-suite Shoreline Hotel with its own shopping center, and the 700-room Marina Hotel adjacent to the Long Beach Convention Center. A new 17-acre park was part of the plan, as were enhancements to Shoreline Drive.

The assumption was that the project would open in two phases, with the first coming online in 2000 and the second by 2010. Disney hoped to attract 10 million guests in the first year and more than 13 million by the time the second phase was completed.

For Long Beach, the project would have been a major win. More than 12,400 permanent jobs were expected. The project would have generated new direct and indirect economic activity of approximately $1.7 billion per year in Long Beach and $3 billion per year in the five-county Southern California region.

After the Walt Disney Company made their announcement, Long Beach city officials were very excited and optimistic about hosting a Disney resort. However, Disney began to run into opposition from the very powerful California Coastal Commission and environmental groups such as the Sierra Club. The 1976 California Coastal Act did not allow for landfill to be used for recreational purposes. Disney needed the Commission’s approval for the required 236 acres of landfill. Without the additional land, the Disney project could not move forward. To get around this limitation, Disney sponsored Senate Bill 1062, which would exempt Disney from the Coastal Act. State Senator Henry J. Mello (D-Watsonville) said, “They’re trying to fill ocean waters. That’s the biggest sin man can commit on this planet as far as I’m concerned, whether it’s Disney or anybody else.” By June, the bill died in the Legislature. In hindsight, Robert Sulnick, executive director of the American Oceans Campaign said, “Disney went about this in an ivory-tower approach, which was either naive or arrogant on their part.”

Would a Port Disney, separated by 24 miles of California traffic from Disneyland, have been a success?

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About Sam Gennawey

Sam Gennawey is an urban planner who has collaborated with communities throughout California over the course of more than 100 projects to create a great, big, beautiful tomorrow. Sam is a member of the Board of Directors of the Los Angeles Regional Planning History Group, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving municipal, county, and private sector planning documents from throughout Los Angeles County. Sam is the author of Walt and the Promise of Progress City which you can find on Amazon.

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31 Comments

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  1. If filling in ocean waters is the biggest sin Senator Mellow knew of, he must have lived a very innocent life!

    For the most part it sounds like Tokyo Disney Sea got most of these concepts, with a few making it into California Adventure, so no real loss on the Disney fan’s part.

    • As a former Disney Imagineer and member of the “What the %*&$# to build in Long Beach” team I can tell you that “Disney Seas” WAS to be the “theme park” + water park to be built in Long Beach …along with hotels and other resort amenities. The Walt Disney Co. (corporate name changed from “Walt Disney Productions” after Eisner came in 1984) had acquired the property at and around the Queen Mary (owned by City of Long Beach) and Spruce Goose (owned by private trust.) The property came with “rights” to expand the buildable land mass by about 30%. The main blockade to Disney going through with this enormous project was the SIXTY-SIX member “citizens committee” the mayor of LB assembled. They almost NEVER had meetings because people’s feeling got hurt if a meeting was scheduled on a night they could not attend. THAT …and the mayor at the time was quoted in the L.A. Times as say he wasn’t sure they wanted “Mickey Mouse to mess up downtown LB.” (I was at a breakfast meeting with Michael Eisner as he was reading this in the Times. He had dinner with the LB mayor just a couple nights before and thought we had his enthusiastic support. Disney was going to spend 2 -3 BILLION dollars there and the mayor wasn’t sure …. SO, Tokyo got the benefit of our many months of brainstorming and one enormous, DARN good theme park. (That’s the short version.)

  2. Long Beach as a city really missed out on this one!

  3. Bureaucrats at there finest. Now we have a lumber tax on wood products. Try to build. I remember this and was very interested in it. Long Beach loses andTokyo wins!

  4. To everyone talking about how this would have been like DisneySea in Tokyo, puh-lease. Do any of us really think Disney would have invested in a stateside DisneySea like the Oriental Land Co. did in Tokyo? Hardly. And the half-a**ed attempt at the original DCA (dedicated about six months before DisneySea) stands in stark contrast to its “sister” in Tokyo, which, by the way, cost four times as much because OLC doesn’t mind spending money when it’s worth it.

    • I have to agree. I’m glad TDR got this one because they did it justice in a way the WDC never would have. It’s also a better park concept to complement TDL than the originally planned studios park clone #a billion.

      • “Tokyo Disney Seas” (originally concepted for Long Beach waterfront) was completely designed by Disney Imagineering in Glendale,CA. Long time Imagineer Tim Kirk was design chief and most of what we brainstormed in the 1980′s for Long Beach ended up in the Tokyo park. (Except that in Long Beach there was to be full-fledged water park accessible from inside “Disney Seas” as well as a stand-alone experience accessible from parking lot.) Oriental Land Co. has majority “ownership” of the Tokyo parks, but the contract is clear that WDC & Imagineering design and build everything. The reason there is a large “steamship” inside TDS is because the original project was all to be built next to the Queen Mary. [Spoiler alert :: The "ship" in Tokyo is a building, sitting on a concrete foundation, surrounded by water.] The Queen Mary is still a real, FLOATING ship.

  5. “They’re trying to fill ocean waters. That’s the biggest sin man can commit on this planet as far as I’m concerned, whether it’s Disney or anybody else.” – Sen. Mello

    REALLY??? Evidently the good Sen. Mello has never visited the fine ocean waters of Long Beach Harbor. If he had, he would find that the good ol’ U.S. government built a break water completely around LB for it’s shipping port. Doing so disrupted the ebb and flow of the ocean and thus Long Beach has the most polluted and contaminated beach on the west coast. Attempts to remove the break water via litigation and protests by environmental agencies are always thwarted by big oil companies and government itself.

    I also remember hearing Disney was trying to relocate the Angels (MLB) to Long Beach at this time with a new ballpark and sports entertainment facility much like the ESPN Sports complex in FL. Did anyone else hear of that or have any stories on that?

    • Re: Angels winging their way to Long Beach, TRUE. Michael Eisner wanted to build new Angel “Walt Disney Stadium” and “The Pond” (hockey arena) in LB and make the stadium work for a new LA pro football team as well. Long Beach was wimpy about the whole thing and Eisner said, “Sayonara!”

  6. How did Disney acquire the Pacific (Paradise Pier) Hotel? I bet that’s an interesting story, too.

  7. Another example of environmentalists getting in the way of people learning about and enjoying our environment.

    • What is the difference between a developer and an environmentalist? The developer wants to build a home in the mountains. The environmentalist already has one.

      Sam
      http://www.samlanddisney.blogspot.com

      • That’s an amazingly accurate statement about environmentalists. I’m pretty fed up with these bands of clueless clowns making decisions for everyone else. In my state, Colorado, environmentalists consistently block efforts to thin the forests, no chock-o-block with kindling after 100 years of fire prevention. Last year, hundreds of people lost their homes here in Colorado Springs when a mountain fire burned insanely hot and fast.

        I think it’s about time people organized againts so-called “environmentalists” who really just want media attention and to protect their own lifestyles with “saving the planet” as their ruse.

  8. It doesn’t say when the construction would begin, but if it was supposed to open in 2000, then I’m guessing construction would have started 2 – 3 years before that? If that’s the case, then we can assume that it would have been just as terrible as DCA, because that was right when Disney was building some pretty crappy things (Light Magic, new Tomorrowland, DCA). I also think it would be really weird having a park in Long Beach so far away from Disneyland, and I don’t know if that would work or not. I guess if it’s a good enough product people will put up with the inconvenience. But imagine if you’re staying at the Disneyland hotel for 4 nights and two of the days you want to visit Port Disney in Long Beach. With traffic on the 405 it would take probably over an hour to get there if you left at 7:00AM in order to get there when it opens at 8:00AM. I’m sure Disney would have had a bus or something so I guess that’s marginally better. Of course an express train would be ideal but considering how things are going with the train that is supposed to connect Disneyland with Anaheim Stadium I wouldn’t hold my breath on that one. However, a former airline executive once said that the quality of the destination directly affects what someone is willing to put up with on the journey, so if they did build Port Disney more like the kinds of quality products that Disneyland was doing in the early 90′s (Splash Mountain, Fantasmic, Indy), then maybe people would have been willing to deal with the distance between the two properties.

    • Disneyland’s Indiana Jones was the Best thing to come out of that 1994 to 2000 era for the Anaheim park.

      • Luckily it was started before 1994 at the end of EDL when Frank Wells was still around and got a great budget.

      • It seems like it was a combination of two things. My feeling is that the biggest thing was the initial failure of Euro Disney, which was a park that Disney really spent a lot of extra money on making the park look as beautiful and immersive as possible. Then, when that happened and Frank Wells wasn’t around to stop Eisner from trying to make things hip and cool while slashing all of the budgets for everything and doing things as cheaply as possible, that’s when Disney really went downhill there for several years. So it would all come down to when the budget for Port Disney was finalized. If it was pre-Euro Disney, then we might have gotten a really great park close to what DisneySea is, and if was post Euro Disney, then we would have gotten a DCA type of park.

  9. Much like the quality found in the later Tokyo Disney Seas, Euro Disneyland had just been completed with almost all financial stops pulled. If one could put up a good argument for their Land’s show needs, they usually got it. EDL was Fantastic and some of Disney Imagineering’s most creative talents, who also created TDS, all made it so. Frank Well’s, the Great Oz behind the Eisner curtain, was there through its completion. It still is a great shame the second gate Disney Studio Tours Park at that same level of detail, was not completed as well, to make the Hotels more successful after EDL opened. It was much tougher financially in doing the second phase of EDL and I believe that was the start or the new era facing the Long Beach Port Disney Resort and Disney California Adventure without Frank Wells. As has been mentioned above there would not have been available the level of investment by Disney, that Oriental Land Company put into Tokyo Disney Seas. DCA’s opening was evidence of that. The Long Beach project could have provided birthing for the newly launched Disney Cruise Line’s Magic and Wonder and future ships near the park, which seems a loss now. Yes much or what was to be the Long Beach project ended up in Tokyo Disney Seas. Even the HRMS Queen Mary which was to be the figurehead of the Long Beach project was duplicated in TDS’s American Waterfront as the SS Columbia. At EDL one had to argue for better or added show, but at TDS, OLC expected better show and asked Disney Imagineers for it. The bar was raised beyond what Long Beach would have been, or even could have been at that time. Sam you always pick the BEST subjects to write about.

  10. There is so much here that I’m not sure where to start.
    First, This looks like a botched PR job that if Disney had taken a different tact, then they might have had a different result. (see In hindsight, Robert Sulnick, executive director of the American Oceans Campaign said, “Disney went about this in an ivory-tower approach, which was either naive or arrogant on their part.”) This is VERY similar to what happened with Disney America where Disney (Eisner) thought he was the smartest guy in the room and treated everyone like an idiot. HOWEVER, the California Costal Commission is one of the WORST governmental agencies, so I’m pretty sure Disney was doomed from the start.
    Second I see in a number of above comments, “Frank Wells this and Frank Wells that”. Frank Wells death had NOTHING to do with the quality of attractions after EDL. EDL ITSELF was the cause of the fall. EDL went WAY over budget and they spent WAY too much money on it (including other mistakes) and when EDL didn’t become an overnight sucess, it doomed EVERY other project after it. Disney became overly cautious after EDL and the quality suffered for it.
    On a related note, OLC is not smarter or better than Disney, the OLC has a VERY different market in Japan than Disney has ANYWHERE else in the world. OLC can (and I would argue HAVE to) spend the ENOURMOUS amounts of the money that they do BECAUSE of the Japanese market. If Disney spent the kind of money that OLC does somewhere else, they would not get the same results (see Euro Disney). That’s not to say that Disney shouldn’t spend money more liberally. They spent too much in Paris and too little on DCA, DHS, HKDL, but they are trying NOW to find a happy medium and have opened their pockets more freely lately (Carsland, HKDL expansions, etc)

    • I would have to say not enough was spent at EDL, as they didn’t get the Studios Tours built in the second phase, as originally designed by its team (some who led TDS to what it is). This would have completed the package and made the park an extended day or weekend park, making the hotels a successful investment. Maybe it was a mistake to build so many hotels until you had the second gate completed, as at WDW. The second gate park now is hardly what was originally designed to complement the first gate park.

    • I’m glad that so much money was spent on the detail and building of Disneyland Paris, it’s level of theming rivals that of Tokyo DisneySea, and it truly is the crown jewel of Magic Kingdom parks, it is a beautiful beautiful place. The money spent on a bajillion hotels for the resort opening however, that I believe was the major flaw that has caused the financial struggle and debt (and maintenence/quality issues) that the EuroDisney Co. has faced since.

      • Disney was entitled to build a certain number of hotel rooms from the French government within a certain time frame. If they did not build the rooms, they could sell off the lots to other hoteliers. So instead of slowly ramping up, Eisner green lighted the entire entitlement all at once. It was too much. You are right, it has been the hotels that have been the biggest drag on earnings.

  11. Sam, a project around this same time that I would LOVE to hear more about is when Disney was looking to purchase Knott’s Berry Farm when it was for sale. I remember hearing about the plans they had, but I can’t find anything about it.

  12. I find it interesting that Disney got kicked out of Long Beach and that same city has the Aquarium of the Pacfic. Wierd huh?

  13. It would have been hard to make it a success, same with converting Knott’s to Disney’s America. California traffic is a huge turnoff for people who don’t live there.

  14. California dodged a major bullet with that WDW quality turkey. LA tired of sea parks decades ago. Disney would have made a killing with condos and their timeshare scams though.

  15. I’m not sure traffic would have deterred any tourists from making the journey to this new resort. As a tourist, I would have gladly driven in SoCal traffic to see another quality Disney Resort. The key here is Quality. I drive to Sea World and Universal in brutal traffic because they are both quality facilities. Knotts also had me until they became Five Flags Magic Missing Park. I don’t think anyone who has traveled any distance to go on vacation is against doing more driving to see the variety of attractions in an area. That’s the life of most tourists. But crap doesn’t draw me to travel anywhere more than once. Quality would have won me over everytime.
    Great article as always Sam! Thanks.