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?