The Disneyland Resort made it through another busy Halloween season that kicked off with the new Disability Access Service, and they’re barely taking a breath before jumping into the even busier Christmas season ahead. Bob Iger’s comment last week that “Disneyland Resort delivered record attendance in revenue and profitability” for the just ended Fiscal Year 2013 sums up how happy the Burbank masters are with Disneyland and its executives. There’s a few new things in store for Anaheim this holiday season, but the bigger story is the aggressive refurbishment schedule both parks will embark on just after the holidays in January. In this update we’ll fill you in on what to expect for the holidays, how TDA will be tweaking its new Disability Access Service for its guests and playing the Grinch with its Cast Members, and what attractions will be closed this winter and the surprising reasons why.
The big story earlier this fall was Disney’s decision to cancel its ten year old Guest Assistance Card (GAC) program and replace it with the more restrictive Disability Access Service. Now that it’s been a month, TDA executives recently had a summary meeting on the new DAS program and the consensus is that the roll out went exceedingly well and the program is working almost perfectly for the parks.
The first few days had plenty of drama, with even some local protesters appearing in the parks and on Harbor Blvd. to protest Disney’s cancellation of the old GAC system. But for their part, the TDA executives and senior managers in the parks were out in force for the first week standing alongside the hourly Cast Members and handling anyone who got too upset or began berating the hourly Cast. General Managers from both parks, as well as Directors of TDA’s safety and disabled programs teams, spent hours in the Guest Relations offices that first weekend handling the most boisterous concerns, and for that the Guest Relations Cast Members were very thankful. A few surprised and upset folks continue to complain at Guest Relations when they try to get a GAC, but for the most part the storm has passed and the park management teams are thrilled with the results, particularly at DCA where all queues are wheelchair accessible.
There are a few weak links that have been discovered in the DAS program, but the TDA executives have already committed the money to fix and tweak the DAS system further this winter. One of the changes coming to the DAS cards will involve turning on the functionality of the QR codes printed on each card. It seems some Annual Passholders have already figured out that they can get multiple DAS cards for different members of their party, thus allowing the entire party to have multiple ride stamps on multiple cards. The fix for that is activating the QR code and digitally attaching each ticket or AP for each party member to just one DAS card. Tickets and APs belonging to able bodied visitors will only be allowed to be attached to one DAS card, blocking folks from getting another DAS card with the same tickets or APs attached to it. That software upgrade is now planned to roll out later in December.
The QR code is also key to the second phase for DAS cards, which would track the next boarding time digitally instead of using a written time on the back of the card. Cast Members at the attractions and the Guest Relations kiosks are discovering DAS cards with fraudulent boarding times written in, as the DAS holder fills out their preferred rides and times themselves trying to bypass checking in at a kiosk or waiting the length of the line. With the digital downloads the times and rides would be assigned and tracked via the QR code, and a Cast Member at the attraction would scan the code with a handheld reader to validate the boarding time. That digital tracking system is planned to go live in Anaheim in 2014. Overall however, both TDA executives and front line Cast Members are very happy with the DAS program and how it has cut down on abuse and fraud while still offering services for those who need it.
With the flawed GAC program a thing of the past, the Anaheim Resort speeds towards the busy Thanksgiving week and on to Christmas. In a complete reversal of traditional attendance patterns during the 20th Century, the busiest days in November are now the Sunday through Wednesday before Thanksgiving, when most Annual Passes are unblocked and almost all local schools are out for the entire week. Those weekdays before Thanksgiving are currently projected to see huge attendances of up to 60,000 at Disneyland and 40,000 or more at DCA. And because Annual Passholders always have a low rider-per-vehicle statistic, those days stretch the Resort’s parking and infrastructure systems to the breaking point and forces Cast Members to park at Angel Stadium.
Once Thanksgiving Day arrives however, and all the Passholder blockouts kick in, the daily attendance declines by 30,000 or more and the parks become noticeably less busy, while per capita guest spending skyrockets compared to the stingier Annual Passholders. And because it’s mostly tourists flooding the Resort that weekend, with Disney hotel occupancy levels at 95% that weekend, the parking situation lightens considerably and lines all over the parks go away as the tourists spread out to take everything in instead of focusing only on the newest or most temporary offering like the Annual Passholders do. The entire mood of the Resort changes on Thanksgiving Day and through the weekend because of that. If you absolutely must visit the Resort for Thanksgiving holiday, try to avoid the days before Thanksgiving when the Resort will be beyond crowded with APs.
After Thanksgiving, the Resort shifts into peak holiday mode. For three years now TDA has been contemplating big changes to the way they operate the Christmas season. There was last year’s experiment of performing the Candlelight Ceremony nightly for weeks instead of just one weekend, and there have been endless studies and TDA strategy sessions on offering Halloween-style Christmas parties at extra cost at Disneyland in the future.
The plans for extra-cost Christmas parties have now been shelved, as TDA realizes they can’t get the idea to pencil out based on what they’ve already built up in the park over the last 15 years. With the holiday versions of Small World and Haunted Mansion drawing in many times more guests daily than the average audience for the Christmas Parade or the Holiday Believe fireworks, the industrial engineers and the marketers both convinced the TDA suits that there’s no viable way to sell the extra cost parties to savvy locals as worthwhile without massive remakes to both the parade and the fireworks. After all, you’d have to offer the existing holiday attractions to all park visitors, and could only ladle on extra entertainment for the evening parties. If and when the extra-cost Christmas parties arrive, they would need to kick off with all new versions of the nearly 20 year old Christmas parade (1994) and aging holiday fireworks show (2001). TDA is committed to spending its parade and fireworks money on the upcoming 60th Anniversary in 2015-16, so the Christmas party plans with major new entertainment will have to wait until at least 2017, if they ever do surface again at all.
The experiment with Candlelight last year has been written off as a very bad decision which cost too much money in extra labor and lost goodwill and not enough gain from dinner sales, so that’s out too.
Various TDA regimes have unwisely played around with the Candlelight tradition before, moving it to the Fantasyland Theater and trying to attach extra-cost dinner packages to it, and it never really works for them. You would think they would finally learn, or that someone of suitable importance would have enough long-term memory to tell the latest exec in TDA’s revolving-door presidential office to not mess with Candlelight. But TDA just can’t seem to learn from past mistakes when it comes to this 55 year old tradition that Walt started in 1958. For 2013, Candlelight returns to its time-tested original format and TDA’s only real worry will be the rain forecast that weekend. Let’s see how long it takes them this time to forget that lesson learned.
TDA’s big push this year is obviously the new World of Color Winter Dreams show, which is DCA’s attempt at battling the formidable one-two punch of nightly entertainment that Disneyland has during the holidays with the Christmas Parade and the Believe In Holiday Magic snowy fireworks. Winter Dreams is heavy on segments from the upcoming Frozen movie with plenty of face time for Olaf the snowman, so if that movie doesn’t do well in theaters the Winter Dreams show for 2014 will need to be reworked. Early reviews of the Winter Dreams show overall are mixed, with some observers saying the show’s pacing is very fragmented and blocky, although the Toy Story Nutcracker Suite segment is said to be genuinely charming. The Disneyland Entertainment team has also ladled the viewing area and Paradise Pier backdrop with lots of new lighting effects and techo-gimmicks to be used in the show, some of which could then be incorporated in future versions of the regular World of Color. The Winter Dreams show is planned to soft open on Thursday, with a formal debut on Friday night.
Nearby at DCA, in the Paradise Gardens food court area, another new holiday offering will formally debut on Friday. Dubbed Viva Navidad!, the area will be home to a big new street show, new menus and decorations, plus various character appearances, cooking demonstrations, bands, and Hispanic cultural activities. The street show in particular has enjoyed a huge budget from TDA, and is hosted by the Three Caballeros on a rolling bandstand and Minnie and Mickey zooming in on pedicabs. The 10 minute show will be performed daily throughout the afternoon and evening, and features dozens of dancers and street performers, a full Mariachi band as well as a troupe of Brazilian drummers, and large rolling puppets representing festive ladies from Mexico and Brazil, plus Santa and Mrs. Claus for good measure. The Viva Navidad street party show will take over the parade route from the Silly Symphony Swings to Goofy’s Sky School, as it builds itself to a rousing and rowdy rendition of Feliz Navidad backed by the dozens of dancers and live Mariachis that should prove impossible to not tap your toes to.
This new entertainment and dining offering got such a big budget from TDA because it’s being run by the team who have been trying very hard to reach out to the local Hispanic community in Southern California. The Resort’s overall attendance has grown steadily in recent years, and the domestic and international tourist business is booming in Anaheim with record numbers of foreign guests and rising hotel occupancy rates. The locals are also still well represented, with almost a Million Annual Passholders happy to pack the parks during the “off-season”, which now actually flip the traditional crowd calendars and create scenarios where the weekdays before Thanksgiving are busier than Thanksgiving weekend itself.
But the local Hispanic community has been under-represented among Disneyland’s local visitors, and for the past year TDA has been trying to reach out by hosting Disneyland booths staffed by Spanish speaking Cast Members at local Hispanic street fairs and community events. TDA will be hyping Viva Navidad extensively via Hispanic media and at local community events this month. The upcoming Three Kings Day events in Frontierland and at Viva Navidad will also be heavily marketed in an attempt to pull in more of the local Hispanic community. Remember that when you stumble across the Viva Navidad street party this weekend and marvel at the lavish budget this new holiday offering received.
With TDA going after the Hispanic community and the extra-cost Christmas parties on indefinite hold now, and with the latest Candlelight experiment a big flop, you would think that TDA could have the guts to bring back the traditional Disney Company Family Holiday Party that they cancelled last year. But there’s no way TDA will stand up to the Florida suits on that one, since the Florida version of that cherished California event was cancelled almost 20 years ago in Orlando. The big shame is the casualties of that cancelled Disneyland party this year, who are primarily needy children, families, and senior citizens in Orange County.
The Disney Company parties were always the big chance for local Marine Corps Reserve units to collect toys for their famous Toys For Tots campaign, a charity that was a personal favorite of Walt himself in the 1950’s and 60’s. Cast Members, Imagineers, and Burbank employees were all reminded to bring a new toy on the night of the parties, and the uniformed Marines would staff giant collection bins out in front of the Disneyland main entrance as thousands of toys and donations poured in on each party night. Last year however, without a company party to attend, the donations to Toys For Tots dried up completely. The local Marine Corps Reserve units were suddenly caught shorthanded after decades of huge donations from the Disneyland parties and the generous Cast Members.
TDA managers were red faced when they handed over the measly collection of toys to the Marines last year, but they somehow weren’t embarrassed enough to consider bringing back the 58 year old tradition of the Company Christmas party to Disneyland.
The answer to that embarrassment this year is an odd choice by TDA; by canceling a second major Cast Member charity steeped in tradition and mandating that everyone donate exclusively to Toys For Tots instead. In previous years over a hundred different Cast Member teams in the parks and hotels would participate in Salvation Army Adopt-A-Family campaigns in December. Specific departments like Parking or Guest Relations, or large individual location teams like the Plaza Inn or Space Mountain, would all rally around an adopted needy family or local senior citizen. The larger departments would take on multiple families, or multiple seniors, with the Salvation Army providing the first names, ages, and their wish lists of clothing sizes and hoped for toys.
Wish lists from the needy families or elderly would be posted in backstage offices and the hourly Cast Members, many of whom live modest lifestyles themselves, would collect spare change or go purchase gift items to fill the lists. TDA’s Cast Activities team would get in on the act by padding the specific gift collections with Disney plush or t-shirts pulled from stockrooms.
In an average recent year up to 200 different local families or senior citizens would be “adopted” by a various Cast Member team. Once all the gifts were collected the present-wrapping parties with potluck dinners, carols and hot cocoa in backstage offices were a big annual event for the teams around the Resort, and there are key Cast Member organizers who would gladly give their own time to make the logistics behind the massive campaign work. The wrapped gifts, all proudly bundled for specific families and seniors, would then be sent to the Salvation Army headquarters in Anaheim by trucks and handed to thankful and teary-eyed Salvation Army staffers for distribution before Christmas.
But for 2013 all Salvation Army Adopt-A-Family campaigns are now forbidden by Anaheim Cast Members. TDA has mandated that all holiday donations from any specific Cast Member or Cast Member team must go to Toys For Tots only in order for TDA executives to save face with the Marines, but without a physical presence by the Marine Corps at the entrance on company party nights to collect those toys. So instead of having a predictable source of charity to the Salvation Army where hundreds of local needy families and senior citizens would get their Christmas wish lists filled, plus the thousands of new toys and large dollar amount given to the Marine Corps Reserve on the company party nights, TDA has now effectively killed off the giving stream to both worthy charities. After shooting themselves in the foot in 2012, TDA is now aiming at its other foot for 2013.
The Cast Members, most of whom just learned of this Grinch-like policy last week, are baffled and saddened by this TDA mandate. TDA may do a wonderful job in decorating the parks for the holidays, but they are doing a horrible job in spreading the holiday spirit backstage for the Cast Members who genuinely looked forward to the chance to give back. Sadly, the TDA decision makers behind this heartless move never worked in the park (or have been stuck in a TDA office so long they forgot) and have no idea how important it was to both the CM’s and the needy in Orange County.
TDA’s sudden ban on Salvation Army Adopt-A-Family definitely needs a rethink, even if the company Christmas parties can’t return for the Cast Members. We also wish them luck in trying to gain back just a fraction of the amount that Cast Members historically donated to Toys For Tots.
With the Grinch apparently calling the shots in TDA, once the Disneyland Resort gets through those busy weeks of Christmas and New Year’s, the typical winter refurbishment calendar will kick in for Anaheim. The month of January begins with the typical short closures for Haunted Mansion and then Small World as the holiday overlays are removed. But once Haunted Mansion reopens, the west side of Disneyland will be hit with a one-two punch of refurbishments at both Pirates of the Caribbean and Splash Mountain, while Big Thunder Mountain hustles to reopen by Valentine’s Day after it’s rebuild was extended by four months due to the new fall-protection standards.
The scrims that recently went up inside Splash Mountain’s finale’ scene are also related to the toughened fall-protection standards which prevented maintenance Cast Members from accessing the upper levels of that animatronic showboat. A suitable fall-protection system was rigged up behind the scrims, and maintenance Cast Members had a few days to get back up there to tune up and activate the animatronics on those upper levels.
During the winter refurbishments at Pirates and Splash Mt. new access ways will be installed to allow permanent access to the animatronics and lighting in those older rides again. Remember, these new fall protection standards that have rebuilt the rooflines all over the parks and sent animatronics into a deep freeze are only being applied in Anaheim as TDA tries to impress California DOSH inspectors. All of these same fall-protection issues exist in the Florida parks, with some rides like Soarin’ offering an exact clone of the catwalks and access paths deemed “unsafe” in California. But Orlando execs have elected to ignore the various upgrades and rebuilds that the TDA team will continue to tackle into 2014.
On the other side of the park, January will also finally bring the refurbishment to the Alice In Wonderland dark ride. The long winding exterior track will be torn out and replaced with a wider and slightly shorter outdoor track that will hug the side of the building and provide ample room for maintenance and ride operators to walk besides parked vehicles on that outdoor track. At the same time, WDI will invade the interior of the Alice In Wonderland building and begin to lay the groundwork for the dramatic upgrades in technology and showmanship they have planned for all of the classic Fantasyland dark rides. Peter Pan’s Flight and Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride are the next scheduled refurbishments in 2014 for Fantasyland after Alice, and WDI will go in big with their upgraded technology projects for those dark rides. Once all of the Fantasyland dark rides are complete with their upgrades the plan is to tout their re-launch as part of Disneyland’s 60th Anniversary celebration for 2015.
Remember that Anaheim still has eight of those classic Walt-style dark rides, from Roger Rabbit to Monsters Inc. and everything in between, while Walt Disney World now only has two of those classic rides left; Peter Pan’s Flight and Winnie the Pooh. It’s an embarrassment of dark ride riches in Anaheim, and WDI wants to keep them entertaining audiences for decades to come with these swanky upgrades.
Meanwhile, over at DCA, the refurbishment calendar will also ramp up quickly this winter. First up is the planned digital makeover we’d told you about in previous updates that is coming to Soarin’ Over California. The ride is now planned to be closed in February to have the original 13 year old 70mm film projectors swapped out for new digital projectors, and WDI execs are said to be thrilled with how the cleaned up version of the original film shot back in 1999 and 2000 looks now. Soarin’ was one of the last attractions made using film technology before the widespread switch to digital in the mid 2000’s, and WDI is excited over the prospects for this one.
The lobby area of DCA’s Animation attraction has also been closed for the past month for a switch from film to digital projectors, and later this week the attraction will soft open to demonstrate the new HD animation show in that lobby courtyard. The new images for Animation are said to be stunning and almost appear as if they are 3D and have slight animation to them just by panning the camera on a still image. The projections and interactive technology inside the Sorcerer’s Workshop part of the Animation building also got a full digital upgrade and artistic rework.
At about the time Soarin’ reopens with new digital technology, WDI will be capturing the Resort from above for a new Soarin’ attraction. As we told you back in June, the evening of Wednesday March 12th 2014 is blocked off on calendars in Glendale as the evening that helicopters mounted with HD cameras will zoom and swoop over the Disneyland Resort area filming new segments for the upcoming Soarin’ Over The World attraction for Shanghai. There’s now a proposal to launch that new film at DCA in 2015 before Shanghai Disneyland opens in early 2016. WDI and TDA would like to run the new film in one theater while the original Soarin’ film plays in the other theater, forcing visitors to choose which destinations they want to soar over.
Also planned for a refurbishment this winter is one of DCA’s newest attractions; The Little Mermaid – Ariel’s Undersea Adventure. After this attraction opened to mediocre reviews in 2011, then went under the knife in 2012 to replace the cheesy CGI animation and send Ariel back to the hairdresser, it’s been plugging away in Paradise Pier. Although it rarely has a line longer than 5 minutes, the massive hourly capacity of the Omnimover system means that Mermaid consistently pulls in 2,000 or more riders per hour very reliably for 12 to 15 hour days, for 25,000 or more riders per day.
The breezy walk-on status paired with the high capacity means that the maligned Mermaid ride is still pulling in more riders per day than a lower capacity ride with a long line, like Star Tours or Indiana Jones or Radiator Springs Racers. It’s those big daily ridership numbers that helped make the case for WDI to go in and close the ride for a second time this winter, as they have more ideas to help with the lighting and overall art direction throughout the ride, particularly with the ride’s big Under The Sea musical production number. TDA’s industrial engineers salivate over the ridership numbers a modern Omnimover like Mermaid can provide a park, so WDI has been given the money for more fixes. Again.
The Mermaid rehab is scheduled to last at least a few weeks this time, and TDA is currently juggling its calendar to determine when this winter or spring will be the right time. We’ll fill you in on more about Mermaid’s makeover when those calendar decisions have been made.
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