The Disneyland Resort has just finished one of the most consistently busy Christmas seasons in its history, and you can practically hear the Cast Members breathe a sigh of relief this week. But now the parks in Anaheim plunge into a winter of unknowns, as money from Burbank is coming in fits and starts, and with recent pre-Christmas layoffs in TDA casting a chill over many back-of-house and nonessential departments. In this update we’ll recap just how busy the season was, what’s really going on with some of the weird refurbishments this year, and what’s been approved and what is still on hold for both Tomorrowland and the 60th Anniversary in 2015.
Got that leftover frosted snowman cookie warmed up? Market House Starbucks latte poured (the lines are so much shorter than the DCA location)? Good. Let’s get you updated on the latest in the ever-evolving news coming from the Disneyland Resort.
A Merry Little Christmas
The two weeks of Christmas and New Year’s always bring the very busiest days of the year for the Disneyland Resort. This year the calendar and the weather cooperated perfectly to provide a steady stream of domestic and international tourists to Anaheim. With perfect sunny and warm weather for two weeks straight, the crowds remained consistent from day to day, instead of the attendance peaks and valleys caused by a few rainy days last year. From December 21st through January 4th the two parks pulled in almost uniform attendance each day, with Disneyland at around 65,000 per day, and DCA around 35,000 per day. The very busiest day of the holiday season for Anaheim was Friday, December 27th when just over 101,000 people packed into both parks combined. Disneyland did have to suspend ticket sales for several hours on the 27th, and several other days in the past two weeks, forcing late arrivals over to DCA until early evening when Disneyland could reopen to them. But the local press never picked up on that story like they usually do, and TDA has gotten smart with how they train CM’s to phrase things at the ticket booths and parking lots now when Disneyland becomes full to capacity. The result was a two week stretch of extremely busy days that slipped under the radar with the media and most of the park’s fans.
Although 2013’s holiday season missed setting an attendance mark on any one day by a few thousand, unlike last year when a cold rain slashed attendance for a couple days and then compressed that attendance when the sun returned and pulled in 105,000 for both parks a few days after Christmas. But the steady and consistent pace of daily attendance in the 95,000 to 100,000 range this year proved that a steady pace wins the race, and the overall 2013-14 holiday season is going down as the busiest and most profitable in the Resort’s history. After Bob Iger’s recent comments to the investment community about this past summer and fall featuring “increased visitation and spending” at the Anaheim property while Disney’s Orlando property struggles with both of those things, the folks in TDA are simply thrilled at the results from this holiday season.
Please Continue to Hold…
But now TDA has to wade through a tough corporate environment this winter, where big investments like Star Wars Land that Bob Iger had broadly hinted just a few months ago would be coming to Disneyland are still stuck in that unfortunate holding pattern we’d told you about in the last update. As our Editor’s Note last week leaked however, that first phase of the Star Wars makeover of Tomorrowland did mercifully get the green light from Burbank in December.
While no exact date has been set for the project to begin, the current plan will see the complete reskin and remodel of the main Tomorrowland buildings flanking the entry walkway off the Central Plaza. The theme for the opening act of Tomorrowland will be a futuristic looking “space port”, that frames the existing attractions nicely while setting up the environment for all the new Star Wars experiences planned for the back half of the land whenever they finally get approved.
If funding holds, The Astro Orbiter, perhaps the most unfortunately placed of all of Disneyland’s attractions, will be ripped out and go to Yesterland temporarily. A new version of this classic spinner is planned for Tomorrowland. But when it reappears as part of the Star Wars project it is supposed to be placed on the upper levels of the buildings on the back half of the land near Space Mountain. The old PeopleMover tracks over that section of the land will also be torn out in this first phase. Buzz Lightyear’s Astro Blasters and Star Tours will continue to operate throughout this construction project, as TDA’s planners have plotted out a series of moveable construction walls and temporary walkways through the aesthetic re-Imagineering of the building’s exteriors.
But the real substance of the Star Wars Land project, the new rides and shows, are all backfilled into phase two of this Tomorrowland project. And phase two is all still on temporary hold for Disneyland, and appear to be simply cancelled for Disney’s Hollywood Studios out at WDW. The optimists at Imagineering however are using this additional time stuck in limbo to their advantage. The Imagineers assigned to the Star Wars Tomorrowland project have now been debriefed on the characters and plotlines coming for Star Wars Episode VII that opens in theaters in about two years. The original plan for Disneyland’s Tomorrowland relied heavily on characters and plot points from the first three Star Wars films, with attractions like a Millenium Falcon walk-thru on the old PeopleMover platform, a wild Tatooine cantina replacing Tomorrowland Terrace, and a speeder bike ride through an Ewok village where Autopia currently sits. Those key attractions are all still part of phase two, but they are being layered or tweaked to include references from Episode VII that will be released in theaters at least 18 months before any of those attractions open.
Sub-Thing to Tide you Over
Meanwhile, at the back of the land and before any of this has formally been announced, TDA is sticking to their original operations budget for Fiscal Year 2014 that was based on Star Wars Land already being announced by now. Disneyland President Michael Colglazier has brought an old WDW tactic out to California, where a WDW attraction is closed for “refurbishment”, but little if any work is done while they save money by not operating or maintaining the attraction for an extended period of time.
WDW management is most infamous for doing this with Splash Mountain at the Magic Kingdom Park. For years now, like clockwork, Splash Mountain closes for January and February. Some years the ride remains untouched during the closure, and some years the ride sits untouched for only a month before they go in and spend the last few weeks painting a bit and doing some actual maintenance. But the annual eight to ten week closure during the winter is simply a ruse and a way to save a nice chunk of operating labor on a water ride during the coldest and slowest time of the year.
A version of that strategy is basically what’s now happening with the Submarine Voyage at Disneyland. Except the “refurbishment” is slated to last a year and refurbishment work is focused almost entirely on saving the Resort a lot of money on its water bill. The 5 million gallon lagoon, built in 1959 and inadequately patched up in 2006, now leaks like a sieve into the sandy Anaheim soil and constantly needs topping off with new water. The Resort will soon be draining the lagoon, and has received a special permit from the Orange County Sanitation District to send the water on to Orange County’s underground aquifer basin instead of just flushing it out to the Pacific. This will earn the Resort credits from the water district and brownie points with the local politicians, plus give Disney something “green” to crow about by its Public Affairs team. And the empty lagoon will also save TDA a lot of money in a drought year, on top of the huge crew of Attractions Cast Members and extensive nightly maintenance that easily makes the Submarine Voyage the single most expensive attraction to operate at the Disneyland Resort.
Once the lagoon is drained and the subs placed in mothballs, the attraction is planned to sit quietly and wait while the number crunchers in TDA count the savings for the rest of this fiscal year. If Star Wars Land finally gets approved and announced later in 2014 as Imagineering hopes, the submarines will have already been closed and can remain closed as the Blue Sky Cellar reopens with a splashy new exhibit showing the Endor forest and a new E Ticket ride where the submarine caverns currently reside. But if Fiscal Year 2015 approaches in October and the Star Wars project remains in financial limbo, TDA might consider performing a few weeks of a legitimately needed refurbishment to the underwater sets and vehicle battery packs themselves in order to reopen the ride by next Christmas. But that would require spending money that just isn’t flowing right now.
TDA executives, knowing Star Wars Land is the wild card even Burbank can’t pin down now, have also cooked up a timeline that has the submarines closed until the spring of 2015 and reopened as part of the nostalgia themed 60th anniversary. The subs would then close again in 2016 when the speeder bike ride begins major construction on the roof of the submarine caverns. But, again, that’s only if the Star Wars project continues to be delayed.
With that, TDA thinks they’ve played their cards right and have just successfully closed the old submarines for a second time, but this time without any drama from fans or the media. Unlike Paul Pressler who infamously closed the submarines with a clumsy public announcement and subsequent media dustup in the summer of 1998, Michael Colglazier timed the closure for the busy holiday season when the locals weren’t paying attention. TDA also got an incredibly vague refurbishment story out on the Disney Parks Blog to give them a bit of cover. They even closed the ride a day early this past Sunday, due to a facilities issue that the park management happily blamed in order to shutter the ride early and avoid any sort of scene by passionate or suspicious fans at the end of the night. It worked.
While that news is tough to swallow, it’s about as bad as it gets in Anaheim, at least for now. The news on the 60th Anniversary plans for 2015 aren’t exactly great, as the budget has been slashed and hacked quite a bit, but TDA thinks they can pull something off for the fans while spending much less than originally planned. Gone are the plans for an all-new night parade for Disneyland. Instead, there’s currently an idea to bring back the Main Street Electrical Parade from the dead and slot it back in to the nightly Disneyland entertainment lineup. This cheap and easy offering would be marketed under the broad nostalgia theme they have decided on for the 60th, where old favorites and long-gone pieces of Disneyland history return for 2015.
The Golden Horseshoe Revue is planned to come back to Frontierland, after proving a hit last winter. (Even if Miss Lilly and the can-can girls generated a few concerns at City Hall from oversensitive visitors.) TDA is also mulling a plan to build a temporary CircleVision theater, in a tent, for a return engagement of America The Beautiful. And for the holiday season of 2015 they are considering re-installing the spectacularly kitschy Christmas star on top of the Matterhorn like the one that was used from 1961 to 1972. The star was mothballed in 1973 as a victim of the Energy Crisis that year, before it could become a victim of better taste by the 1980’s.
So the 60th, as it currently stands, won’t offer any new rides, and no permanent new offerings, but instead will be a year-long celebration of memories and oddball history. And in that type of nostalgia-fueled environment, the cheap plan to ship the old Electrical Parade out from Florida is something TDA thinks they can pull off successfully.
Meanwhile, in Disney California Adventure, there’s plenty of work ahead this winter and spring. Mary Niven has cancelled her standing weekly meeting with her top strategists and operations managers from around the park as they plotted out operating strategy for the Monstropolis project, now that the Monsters Inc. Door Coaster and attached development got the axe from Burbank. Instead, the focus for DCA turns to Soarin’ Over California, which will be closing next month for an aggressive four month refurbishment.
We’d told you in past updates about this HD makeover plan for Soarin’ that Disney has yet to formally announce and that hasn’t shown up on public planning calendars yet. But the project is a big one that escaped the budget knife in November, and it will be a race against the clock to get both theaters completed within four months. To upgrade the theaters to a digital HD IMAX system, the existing IMAX metal screens must be removed and replaced with new screens designed for the new 4K laser projectors and the slightly different image they cast.
The audio system behind the screens and in the theater will also be upgraded, while the flying theater infrastructure itself gets a full refurbishment. WDI will also be installing new equipment for better smell effects, as well as infrastructure for the water spray effects that WDI has planned for the new Soarin’ The World movie coming to DCA and Shanghai in 2015. Don’t forget that we’d told you last year to mark March 12th, 2014 on your calendar, as that’s the evening WDI will be flying HD cameras over and around the Disneyland Resort as they film the new ending to the attraction.
While the Subs and Soarin’ refurbishments will be the most noticeable this winter, there are plenty of other closures planned for both parks. The Redwood Creek Challenge Trail, Pirates, Splash Mountain, Columbia, and Indiana Jones Adventure will all be closed for at least several weeks at a time this winter into early spring, while Small World and Haunted Mansion also undergo their usual January refurbishments.
Big Thunder Mountain will be reopening officially by early February, and soft openings could be occurring by late January after Cast Members are invited to ride in mid January. When those soft openings and previews do begin, there will be a few new surprises in and around the 1979 classic E Ticket. The biggest changes arrive in the final lift hill, which has historically been known as the “Earthquake Scene” and has already been subject to several upgrades in the last 20 years. This time, the earthquake concept is shelved in favor of a more dramatic mine explosion triggered by a rather famous animatronic goat (Google “Disneyland Goat Trick” if you aren’t familiar). Digital mapping, smoke and mechanical effects in this new scene will all combine to make that final lift hill a bit more menacing, while changing the plotline of the ride back to the original 1970’s concept of “bursting out of the mine” at the top of that lift for the final thrill portions of the track.
At about the same time Big Thunder Mountain reopens after 14 months of work, Alice In Wonderland will finally close for its long overdue refurbishment to replace the exterior track. The Alice closure was pushed back yet again from January to February, as TDA and WDI both buy some time to try and salvage as much of the lavish dark ride improvements originally budgeted for the 60th anniversary as they can. If Burbank agrees to unfreeze the budgets for the remaining Anaheim projects while they try to stem the flow of red ink on the massive MyMagic+ project in WDW, the Fantasyland dark ride improvements will get the green light, so we could still see that fully animatronic and expressive Queen of Hearts yet. But if the budgets remain on lockdown through this winter, this year’s Alice refurbishment will focus solely on replacing the exterior track with a wider version that meets California’s strict employee safety standards for fall protection.
Oh-kay – that wraps up the current status of what we can tell you at the moment. There is a remarkable atmosphere of uncertainty hovering over the plans for the resort. Between ride refurbishments, anniversary plans and new attractions, even Burbank and Team Disney Anaheim are scratching their heads in wonder.
How the Anaheim property emerges from this winter of unusual refurbishments and budgetary uncertainty is yet to be seen. But we will continue to keep track of these developing and ever changing projects and provide you the information as the pieces fall into place.