On Friday, almost every public-facing division of the Walt Disney Company will arrive in Anaheim to host the bi-annual open house known as D23 Expo. The Burbank teams will try and create buzz for the media networks and movie studios with star power, while less savvy divisions like Disney Consumer Products will simply roll out a static display of stuff to buy like at any home show or mall, and the Imagineering group from Glendale will be muzzled from saying much of anything about the very real projects they’ve got coming to the American parks in the next few years. In this update we’ll get you up to speed on just what those projects currently are for the Anaheim parks, why they won’t say much about them at D23, and what else is coming to Anaheim before the bulldozers arrive.

So grab one of those trendy glazed cronuts and a skinny latte as we explore the wonderful world of Disney.

Emerald city it's not.
The D23 Expo is August 9-11, 2013 at the Anaheim Convention Center.

ALL THE WORLD’S A STAGE

After the D23 Expos in 2009 and 2011 when senior execs gave splashy keynote addresses revealing big new theme park projects, it was a surprise to Disney fans when the D23 Expo schedule was announced and Tom Staggs wasn’t listed as a keynote speaker and no Parks & Resorts session was scheduled for the Anaheim Arena. If the schedule is to be believed, no major announcements of new products and upcoming attractions will be announced at this D23 Expo. Although WDI has expanded the footprint of their super-popular pavilion, and it’s really the crowd generator for the entire weekend amongst the smaller and more mundane displays from Consumer Products, the Internet Group, or ABC Television. But the interior of the WDI pavilion will house displays and exhibits of how Imagineers go about their work, a cautiously staged open house of sorts, instead of revealing any of the new rides and shows they are actually working on in Glendale. Although a few carefully edited images will be placed around the pavilion for sharp eyed fans to find; like sketches of the Star Wars land project coming to both Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Disneyland’s Tomorrowland, or of the Monstropolis miniland and Door Coaster E Ticket planned for DCA. But overall, D23 Expo has been neutered of nearly everything that helped it create what buzz it had in ’09 and ’11.

It’s not that WDI doesn’t want to share their new toys, it’s just that the timing isn’t right for the corporate bean counters to be announcing major new capital expenditures just yet, and officially the Door Coaster and Star Wars projects have yet to be greenlighted by Burbank. There’s also another round of white collar layoffs coming to TDA and TDO, after similar downsizing happened at ABC, the Studios and ESPN in recent months. And Jay Rasulo as Disney’s CFO has been telling New York bankers for the past year that Disney is scaling back on their parks investments after going big with over 1 Billion at DCA in recent years, plus two new cruise ships, Aulani, and New Fantasyland. After that much capital expenditure, the Wall Street crowd wants to see a company scale back and earn back some of that investment before they announce more spending. And finally, the MyMagic+ program at WDW has had more hiccups than successes thus far and is still far from a full rollout and thus isn’t ready for prime time and a major public reveal at the Expo. The timing of the D23 Expo in early August, agreed to over a year ago, just isn’t right for big parks announcements this year. Perhaps if it had been held in October or November, when most of the current projects will have a better chance of being announced, then D23 Expo could have offered big news for theme park fans.

So instead we’ll fill you in now on where these various projects stand and where they are headed.

The first big project was the most surprising when we broke the news on it here a few months ago; the plans to turn the sleepy, semi-abandoned corner of Hollywood Land at DCA into a Monstropolis miniland complete with new shops, restaurants, and a major E Ticket thrill ride themed to the Door Hangar scene in the Monsters Inc. movies. That plan continues to move forward as stealthily as possible, with the timeline still for an opening at the end of Disneyland’s 60th Anniversary celebration in late 2016.

A LONG TIME AGO…

Meanwhile, Disney’s purchase 10 months ago of Lucasfilm turned the plans to remake Disneyland’s Tomorrowland on its ear. Out were ride concepts based on Tron and Marvel, and in was a Star Wars invasion of nearly the entire land. Disneyland operations teams don’t want the park in construction mode for the 60th Anniversary, so the plan to remake Tomorrowland is now being broken up into two phases.

You think me beautiful?

The first phase is planned to get underway this winter with the closing of Captain EO and major “placemaking” work on the existing buildings that mostly date from 1967. The 15 months of work would wrap up by early spring 2015 in time for the 60th, and leave a new Star Wars 3D movie in the old Captain EO theater, new destinations programmed into Star Tours based on the seventh Star Wars movie to be released in summer 2015, and a freshened aesthetic to the buildings surrounding Space Mountain. Once the 60th Anniversary begins to wind down, the real work begins on plans to build a Star Wars speeder bike coaster on the old PeopleMover tracks, plus more Star Wars eye candy and freshened facilities throughout the land.

The biggest of the Star Wars offerings wouldn’t open until after the 60th is over, and the construction in Anaheim’s Tomorrowland would be in conjunction to a similar Star Wars expansion for Disney’s Hollywood Studios out in WDW. But also planned for 2014 and ’15 is an update to Soarin’ Over California and an upgrade to an HD digital format instead of the 70mm film it currently uses, all in anticipation of the Soarin’ The World film being created simultaneously for Shanghai, DCA and Epcot. There’s also the tech upgrades to the five existing Fantasyland dark rides in Disneyland, plus new parades and fireworks in Anaheim coming for the 60th Anniversary events.

There's nothing to see here . . . move along . . .  move along . . .

Most of that won’t be mentioned at D23 Expo though, and the announcements are instead planned to be dribbled out to the public only at the last minute before construction begins. It’s also no secret that Burbank is keeping a close eye on all the work going on at Universal Studios Hollywood, with the Comcast corporate owners seemingly trying to cause havoc at Disney’s flagship parks after Comcast was spurned and publicly embarrassed over their clumsy takeover attempt of Disney back in 2004. It’s now in Disney’s best interest to play their cards as close to their vest as possible.

THE EXECUTIVE TREATMENT

The MyMagic+ system also won’t get a keynote address at D23 Expo, but not because the execs behind the program didn’t want to be ready to talk about it by now. Unfortunately, the rollout has been repeatedly delayed and the limited tests of the system at WDW have seen more bugs and problems crop up than they’d hoped for. MyMagic+ will have a techno-display in the WDI pavilion, but the display will stick with vague promises of future offerings rather than a big infomercial type plug from senior Disney execs in the arena.

It’s probably for the best that Tom Staggs or other senior execs don’t try and deliver a keynote address on MyMagic+ anyway. Remember Mr. Staggs, and most other senior execs in Burbank, never bother with anything remotely resembling a Fastpass return time much less a long Standby line when they are visiting the parks. Most of the executives and their families are always assigned a VIP guide from the Guest Relations team and they are whisked through the exit of any ride in the park without question. Tom Staggs certainly isn’t a recognizable face to 99.9% of theme park visitors, so it can’t be considered a security measure to prevent him from being mobbed for autographs. As we told you in a previous update, even Tom Staggs’ extended family gets the royal treatment. This past Christmas his in-laws and their children were assigned VIP guides even when Staggs wasn’t with them, so the whole extended family could be whisked in through ride exits and have special character interactions and viewing areas set aside for them during the busy Christmas period.

Tom Staggs and the other senior execs who might eventually give a public demonstration of MyMagic+ will never actually use the service beyond a staged media event, nor have they ever had to deal with the theme park hassles that theoretically make MyMagic+ a worthy product in the first place. It’s interesting to think of a company executive touting his company’s new product that he himself would never use, nor has he or his family ever had any need or desire to use such a product, and as long as he works for the company that offers that product he and his family will never have any need to use it. Now that you know that, it’s probably for the best that MyMagic+ won’t be hyped by Staggs at D23 Expo this year.

However, Tom Staggs will give a kick-off and keynote address at the second D23 Expo this year, which will be held in October at Tokyo Disneyland. Staggs and Bob Iger will both appear at the Japan Expo spread across Tokyo Disney Resort’s hotel and convention facilities, and they will be able to share more about future attractions there than they will in Anaheim this weekend. Many of Disney’s media stars, the archival displays, and the exhibit hall offerings shown in Anaheim will be shipped over to Tokyo for the Japanese D23 Expo, which should make a few East Coast fans grumble since Burbank has flatly refused to consider hosting a D23 Expo at Walt Disney World. And that about sums up why D23 Expo won’t mention any of the new rides coming to Anaheim.

PEOPLE EATERS AND PROCUREMENTS

For years the plans to add new attractions to Disneyland were based on a need to increase overall park capacity, in order to achieve the magical number of each daily visitor experiencing an average of 10 rides per day. That “ride per cap” statistic is used by Disneyland managers and TDA’s industrial engineering team to plan everything from park operating hours to the number of cash registers open at The Emporium or the number of canoes running on the Rivers of America. The higher the ride per cap, the happier the customers are. With the opening of Cars Land and the wild success of Radiator Springs Racers, an attraction that still shows up in all the customer research this summer as the most popular offering at the entire resort, the traditional park attendance numbers have been turned on their ear.

This summer the attendance split continues to be roughly 60/40 between Disneyland and DCA, a huge jump from previous years where the split was at best 75/25 and often closer to 80/20 with visitors preferring Disneyland in huge numbers. But that has all changed. Most days this summer have seen Disneyland’s attendance right around 40,000 per day, while DCA brings in 30,000 or more.

Dude, where's my car?

The result is that Disneyland has seen the ride per cap skyrocket well past 10 rides per day as the Anaheim crowds are far more evenly spread out between the two parks. That means the Star Wars remake of Tomorrowland isn’t driven so much by a need to increase park capacity, as it is a need to cash in on Bob Iger’s big new investment in Lucasfilm. The expansion of DCA with Monstropolis, on the other hand, is being driven more by a need to increase park capacity in that park that is now more popular than anyone in TDA had thought it would be. Cars Land simply reinvented how the entire Disneyland Resort works, and it turned decades old assumptions about where Anaheim tourists would go with their time and their dollars upside down. TDA is just now catching up to that new reality.

TDA’s industrial engineering team will be attempting a few experiments with that new reality this September. With Disneyland’s ride per cap safely above the number 10, TDA will be cutting back on weekday hours the first few weeks in September and closing Disneyland at 7:00 p.m. while DCA continues to stay open until 8:00 p.m. and host a nightly World of Color show. Disneyland has also cut back on late evening hours on the first few weekends in September, until at least the HalloweenTime offerings kick off later in September. They’ll watch the numbers and crowd flow closely on those days, to see if they can get away with shorter operating hours at Disneyland while DCA remains very popular. It also helps that these are the last few weeks of the fiscal year, and saving some labor dollars as the resort coasts to the financial finish line will make the sharp pencil boys in TDA smile. But who could have ever thought we’d see the day that DCA could pull in such huge numbers that Disneyland would have shorter daily operating hours than DCA? The Disneyland Cast Members getting off an hour early this September can thank Cars Land for that.

GAC ATTACK PART 2

With D23 Expo avoiding a mention of most of the big long term projects the company is actually working on, there are still new things coming to the Anaheim parks in the short term. We’ve told you in the past about changes coming to the Guest Assistance Card (GAC) program, after an embarrassing expose on The Today Show had executives in Orlando and Anaheim shocked that it had gotten that bad. Of course the Guest Relations and Attractions teams in the six American parks knew it was even worse than that, and the abuse of the system was so widespread that thousands of people per day were wandering the Anaheim parks with GACs issued to them for dubious or simply fraudulent reasons. But the executives had refused to address the growing problem for years since it wasn’t a glamorous topic and the hard work of fixing it might bring unflattering attention. The Today Show changed all that, and the complete revamp of the system has been pushed back to October due to the scope of the project growing quickly over the summer. What has many theme park managers rolling their eyes is how all the executives are now tripping over each other to try and get on the bandwagon and be seen by their peers and bosses as someone who is working on the GAC project. There are other huge problems in the Anaheim parks that don’t get much attention from ladder-climbing execs (the horrific Cast Member parking situation, for example), but at least The Today Show turned the GAC problems into a trendy topic that can be used to puff up annual performance reviews for the executive class.

New and improved. Now with 50% less GAC.

With all the recent investigation into the problems associated with the GAC system with paying guests, even more scandalous behavior has been uncovered. The Guest Relations team has now determined that a growing number of active Anaheim Cast Members now get GACs for themselves when they sign friends and family into the park with their complimentary main gate passes. Many of these temporarily-disabled Cast Members work in Attractions five days a week, or used to work in Attractions before they moved to white collar jobs in TDA, and thus are familiar with the GAC system and how to get it. But a growing number of Cast Members from across all departments are now stopping in at Guest Relations just after they sign in their families or friends and are picking up a GAC for their use by using the popular code words that get you the GAC with the desirable stamps that provides the fastest boarding.

But it’s not just the front line Cast Members and TDA office drones who have been identified picking up their GAC on each visit, as a growing class of lower level executives and white collar folks from various Burbank divisions are also getting in on the GAC craze when they visit Disneyland. It’s a growing topic around Burbank water coolers that if you are taking the family down to Disneyland with your complimentary tickets on the weekend you can get a GAC by using a few select medical phrases or excuses. One VP from Disney’s Burbank media networks even wore a neck brace as she got her GAC on a recent weekend visit, although she wasn’t wearing the neck brace when she left work on Friday afternoon and no longer needed it by the time she returned to work on Monday morning. Only the senior executives in Burbank like Tom Staggs get the VIP guides who whisk their family in through the exits, as the lower level execs are left to fend for themselves by getting a GAC to go along with their free admission passes. But the newly restrictive GAC process to be rolled out this fall will hopefully put a stop to the abuse, especially with the Cast Members and Burbank employees who are using them fraudulently.

MiceChat Podcast

Dusty and Doug dish the dirt on the Disney parks while Fishbulb grills Universal Hollywood Creative Director, John Murdy, on plans for Halloween.

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Are you on your way to the D23 Expo August 9th – 11th, 2013? Please stop by the MiceChat booth in the Collectors Forum to shake hands with Disney legends and notables, win prizes, and meet the MiceChat and MicePod crew. For a full listing of MiceChat special guests, prizes and activities please visit our 2013 D23 Expo page HERE

Oh-kay.  That should just about wrap up everything for this pre-D23 update.  Get over to Tomorrowland and say goodbye to EO before he blasts off this winter. What are your thoughts forlks? Glad to see Monster’s Inc Laugh Floor no longer mentioned for Tomorrowland? Are you ready to open doors in Monstropolis? Happy our concerned about TDA’s GAC attack? Half the fun is hearing your comments.

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