After a short winter off-season, Disneyland Resort is gearing up for a busy spring and summer ahead. While Burbank bosses hash out long-term expansion and financial strategies that have been complicated by the troubled MyMagic+ rollout in Walt Disney World, the Anaheim team has been scrambling to put their own budgets back together for the 60th Anniversary in 2015 and the inevitable remake of Tomorrowland after the anniversary. In this update we’ll fill you in on what they’ve done with Big Thunder, what they’ll be doing with the Little Mermaid ride, and what other work around the Resort has been postponed or is still on track.
Now, enjoy that bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch and English Breakfast Tea as we fill you in on what’s going on at the Disneyland Resort.
Refurbs, Refurbs Refurbs for Disneyland 60th
The huge slate of refurbishments around the Resort this year primarily fall into two categories; work to retrofit older structures to comply with upgraded fall protection standards, and work to plus up or improve aging showmanship at existing attractions. It’s a small world has fallen into the former category, with the interior of the attraction getting a full backstage safety redesign on the sets and infrastructure that still mostly dates from the 1964 New York World’s Fair. Small World will reopen briefly in April so that the Good Morning America show can broadcast for several days from in front of the ride, playing up the ride’s 50th anniversary from its initial debut at the World’s Fair. Then Small World will close again until later in May for the last bit of safety upgrades. The Small World façade needs desperate freshening and lots of paint before Good Morning America’s HD television cameras arrive next month, but we’ll leave that detail up to the TDA planners who are trying to work out the logistics on that piece of the puzzle.
Splash Mountain also just reopened from a refurbishment that rebuilt the walkways and catwalks throughout that attraction, which now allows maintenance crews to more safely get in and service the huge cast of Animatronic performers in that attraction. And the upcoming refurbishments at Pirates and Indy will also tackle fall protection issues inside those rides, while continuing with some of the technical upgrades from previous annual refurbishments there. It’s worth mentioning that all of these fall protection improvements only seem to apply to the Anaheim rides at the moment; as the nearly identical facilities with the same fall protection issues at the Florida parks have yet to receive these same upgrades.
Big Thunder Mountain Railroad
The most noticeable rehab at Disneyland has been Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, which closed 14 months ago for what was supposed to be a 10 month rehab. But the fall protection issue erupted in the middle of that rehab and the designers had to go back to the drawing board to redesign walkways and access paths inside that attraction before it could reopen, which tacked on five extra months to the project. Cast Members have been riding the attraction as test riders for several weeks now, but WDI has purposely turned off all the new digital effects inside the ride during this testing.
While new flying bats and LED lighting inhabit the first cavern show scene the trains pass through, and new lighting and audio has been installed throughout the ride, it’s the final lift hill that received the most thorough work from WDI. Gone is the old earthquake scene with shaking rockwork and swinging lanterns, and in its place is a new plotline entirely. That final lift hill is now the scene of a mine explosion and fireball that uses digital mapping technology to project realistic looking flames onto roiling clouds of high pressure fog (think the spray can effect from It’s Tough To Be A Bug). Add in an all new booming audio system and some mechanical props that help set up the explosion, and that final lift hill is rumored to be quite noticeably more intense for riders than the old earthquake scene.
Cast Member testing continues through March 8th, with a tentative opening date to park guests now pegged for March 17th. However soft openings with the new show effects turned on could begin as soon as next Monday. With so many other attractions closed for refurbishment, Disneyland desperately needs the ride capacity of over 2,000 riders per hour that Big Thunder can pull in. They can’t get this ride back up and running soon enough.
Interestingly, 2014 was originally supposed to be the year that many attractions at Disneyland and DCA closed to refurbish their queues and preshow areas for the addition of enhancements once planned as part of MyMagic+ and Fastpass+ programs, otherwise known as the “NextGen Experience” or NGE program. But all work on Fastpass+ for Anaheim has been put on indefinite hold while they try and get the headaches at WDW sorted out and get the system pulling in some profits instead of just being a massive money drain. The rest of the NGE concepts, like using MagicBands for park entry and charging purposes, are also on hold in Anaheim. From the operational stories leaking out of Orlando, none of the Anaheim CM’s with knowledge of the NGE program are sad to see it put on hold for Disneyland.
Meanwhile, over in DCA, Soarin’ Over California was supposed to have been closed by now for a two month long refurbishment to transition to the new HD digital projection format to replace the original film projectors. Instead, the ride just finished a staggered refurbishment where each theater was closed for a week at a time for basic mechanical work on the flying carriages. The real Soarin’ project is purely a technical show upgrade, and it’s largely budgeted by the Shanghai Disneyland project and the twin-theater Soarin’ attraction being built in that park currently. But in January the long Soarin’ refurbishment at DCA was abruptly cancelled due to problems WDI has been having with the cutting-edge 4K HD projectors slated for this project in both Anaheim and Shanghai. It seems the new 4K projectors are just too cutting-edge for 2014, but could realistically arrive by 2015.
There is a very unfortunate tale behind the scenes here involving the company supplying the 4K projectors and miscommunication between WDI and the contractors. Tempers are flaring all over the place on this one. Because it’s so messy and lawyers on both sides are now involved, we won’t get into the details here. But just know that the project is still moving forward for both parks, although the timeline for Anaheim to get the HD upgrade now looks like it’s going to align with the installation of the projectors in the Shanghai facility in 2015. While the theater upgrades are delayed now, the flyover of the Anaheim parks next week is still on as helicopters are set to buzz both parks with HD cameras on March 12th. We’d told you of that March 12th date last year as WDI had to get permits and clearances settled far in advance, and the problems with the attraction projectors itself won’t slow that down. Don’t bother waving to the camera however, as Disneyland’s Security team is going to ensure that the late night flight path over the parks is clear of looky-loos.
Under The Sea
While the Soarin’ upgrade is on hold, TDA pulled together the money from Burbank to move forward with another major show refurbishment for one of DCA’s signature attractions. The Little Mermaid – Ariel’s Undersea Adventure will be closing later this month for its second big refurbishment since opening in May, 2011. This time the ride will be closed for seven weeks and they’ll be going back in to fix the laundry list of issues that many fans found wrong with the ride as soon as it opened. Lighting and projections throughout the attraction will again be upgraded and tweaked, but the most noticeable changes will take place in two main areas.
The big Under The Sea musical production number in the middle of the ride will receive a hand painted black light treatment on all of the set pieces and animatronics, while new lighting rigs and projectors will be installed in the catwalks above. This traditional black light effect will make this scene darker and more dramatic, and hide many of the ceiling fixtures found in the much brighter room now.
In addition to an artistic rethink on the Under The Sea scene, the last two scenes of the ride will be rearranged and changed. Ursula will finally get her big death scene here, instead of the little plywood cutout at the back of the underwhelming kissing scene, and the big wedding finale’ will be cut down and condensed a bit to accommodate Ursula. It’s hoped these changes will tighten up the ride’s plotline overall and leave riders more impressed with its showmanship. The Little Mermaid ride is DCA’s only Omnimover, and it was designed to be that park’s Small World; a fun ride for the whole family that conveniently gobbles several thousand riders per hour. DCA has improved dramatically in the last four years when it comes to overall customer satisfaction ratings, but TDA really wants to put that Omnimover’s high capacity to good use and leave Mermaid riders more impressed than they are currently. TDA’s leadership should be commended for scratching together the funds so that WDI could go back in and fix the weakest links here.
Speaking of black light, the traditional Fantasyland dark rides are still tentatively planned to undergo major upgrades and improvements over the next year. The Alice In Wonderland refurbishment, which has been delayed and pushed back so many times we’ve lost count, will mercifully begin next week. The new digitally projected and animatronic upgrades are prepped and approved for Alice, along with a safer and streamlined outdoor portion of track. Following Alice, similarly impressive tech and animatronic upgrades are still being prepped for Peter Pan and Mr. Toad next fall and winter, with the Pinocchio and Snow White rides also planned for more modest upgrades before the 60th kicks off a year from now.
Disneyland has the most traditional dark rides of any Disney theme park anywhere, with five of them clustered together in Fantasyland proper, plus two more when you add in Winnie The Pooh in Critter Country and Roger Rabbit in Toontown. Add in the clever Monsters Inc. dark ride next door in DCA, and Anaheim is the traditional dark ride capital of the Disney empire. Compared to Disney’s other castle parks who only have one or two traditional dark rides left, Disneyland’s five dark rides grouped together in Fantasyland have a combined hourly capacity that exceeds the 2,800 riders per hour of Pirates of the Caribbean. When you combine the numbers like that, TDA was wise to take WDI up on their offer to upgrade and freshen them all for the 21st century.
The dark ride upgrades will be used in the nostalgia-heavy promotion now being pulled together for the 60th Anniversary. Without a major new ride to push, and with the Tomorrowland rethink in creative limbo after Iger demanded the new characters from the next trilogy be included in anything added to the parks, TDA has continued to flesh out the nostalgia concept we’d told you about earlier.
I’ll Be Back
What’s still up in the air is what to do for a parade; the plan now is to either borrow the Electrical Parade from WDW again (groan), or the wild card is to borrow the new Paint The Night parade from Hong Kong Disneyland for just the spring and summer season of 2015. Hong Kong’s new night parade debuts this September and would play there through the winter, but by April in Hong Kong the heavy summer rains set in and parades are very difficult to pull off in Hong Kong and often end up being cancelled day after day. TDA could borrow Paint The Night for summer ‘15, if only to beef up the rather thin 60th Anniversary entertainment roster. That decision hasn’t been made yet, but at least TDA is thinking outside the box, and across the ocean.
The focus of the 60th will really be Disneyland Park, as the continuing customer research from both parks has shown that Disneyland’s satisfaction ratings have slipped as DCA’s ratings and attendance rose in 2012 and 2013.
Fiscal Year 2013 that ended last October was the true test of DCA’s new success, as the first full year of Cars Land and the re-launched DCA. Attendance for both parks combined edged up by a few hundred thousand, but the change in traffic flow between the two parks was dramatic. DCA got 9.9 Million visitors in Fiscal ’13, up from 7.7 Million in Fiscal ’12, and dramatically higher than the 5 to 6 Million it was getting a decade ago. While Disneyland’s annual attendance edged down to 13.3 Million in ‘13 from the 15 Million it got in Fiscal ’12. You have to consider however that the same amount of people visited Disneyland each year, since Disney only tracks the “first click” of a park turnstile each day. So almost all of those people pouring into DCA each morning for Racers Fastpasses still ended up inside Disneyland at some point later in the day, or later in their vacation.
But with DCA now pulling in and retaining a much larger share of the attendance pie, the customer feedback for Disneyland has remained flat or declined by 3 to 6 points in most categories, while the same customers now rate DCA higher by 5 to 8 points than they did two years ago. Categories like Cast Member Courtesy, Cleanliness, Entertainment and Ride Satisfaction all rose by healthy margins for DCA specifically in 2013, while they declined by solid single digits at Disneyland. DCA already had very high levels of Cast Member Courtesy and Ride Satisfaction, but the park re-launch of 2012 really seems to have juiced the Cast morale of that park and the visitors have responded in kind. Luckily the average visitor rates the overall Resort very high, but when you now compare the two parks the visitors are preferring DCA’s daily experience over the Disneyland experience by increasing margins. Much of that speaks to the fresher park facilities and wider walkways at DCA, and the upbeat demeanor of the DCA Cast Members.
The most important statistic is the aggregate of all those factors, and is known as the “Intent To Return”; basically the willingness of a park visitor at the end of the day to consider coming back again. It’s those numbers that really tell the story, with Disneyland Park’s Intent To Return statistic declining by 3% in 2013 while DCA’s Intent To Return rose by 3%. TDA needs to reverse those slipping numbers for Disneyland quickly. The current spate of refurbishments won’t help the numbers any, as overall ride capacity weighs heavily into a visitor’s satisfaction level. But TDA has work to do to freshen the Disneyland Park experience for 21st century audiences and beef up the park capacity while eliminating the horrifically overcrowded walkways and long lines that most TDA and Burbank executives never dare experience themselves.
Sunday! Sunday! Sunday!
And those overcrowded walkways won’t be getting any relief this spring, with some very busy days heading to Anaheim. This Sunday the attendance is pegged so high for both parks that Cast Members will once again be forced to park at Angel Stadium and be bussed in for the day.
These busy days are almost always on Sunday’s when the local Annual Passholders descend en masse. The parking problem becomes critical because AP’ers tend to arrive with just one or two people per vehicle, unlike the tourists who arrive in a car packed with the whole family. And so, on busy Sunday’s the AP’s get parked in the big Katella Cast Member lot, and the Cast Members get pushed out to the stadium. To add insult to injury, TDA plasters the Resort with warning flyers and directions to the Angel Stadium entrance, and on each flyer they offer the following reminder:
“As a reminder, driving to work and parking in a Cast lot is not expected or required and is just one commuting option available to Cast. Other commute alternatives available to Cast Members include carpooling, riding the bus or train, vanpooling, bicycling or walking.”
If you consider that these stadium parking days are exclusively held on Sundays, it helps to dissect that snotty little reminder a bit. While carpooling is always an option, the carpool vehicle would still be directed to the stadium and the carpool occupants would still have to wait in line for a bus to take them the last mile to the resort, before they walk across the park to their actual work location. Riding the bus or train is an option for TDA 8-to-5’ers when OCTA runs a full bus schedule and Metrolink runs dozens of trains per weekday on a convenient rush hour schedule to the Anaheim station, with a special shuttle meeting each train to take them straight to TDA. But on a Sunday there are only 4 Metrolink trains per day on the Orange County line that call at Anaheim, with the first not arriving until 9:25 A.M., far too late for an 8:00 A.M. park opening time. The last of the four Metrolink trains on the skeleton Sunday OC schedule leaves Anaheim at 5:25 P.M., which isn’t much use for most people working at a theme park that’s open until Midnight.
Vanpooling is also a nice option for TDA folks who can commit to a set Monday-Friday schedule, but the vast majority of park Cast Members are hourly shift workers with varying daily schedules and signing up for a vanpool isn’t an option, even if there was one available on a Sunday morning (there isn’t). Biking or walking is also a nice option for those who live that close to the park, but if they do live that close there would be no need to bike out to Angel Stadium to take a bus back down Katella to the park.
That reminder on commuting “options” is on every flyer, and smacks Cast Members the wrong way. But for TDA’s Cast Communications department who are paid to communicate to the front line Cast Members and will be nowhere near Anaheim on Sunday, a snarky line basically reminding them that they could avoid the hassle of Angel Stadium parking by getting a desk job in TDA is par for the course. Too many of the decision makers in TDA just don’t get it. If you do visit the park this Sunday, please be kind to the Cast Members who will have put up with extra hassle and commute time and a dollop of disrespect from TDA.
A Spoonful of Sherman
Dusty Sage recently sat down with Robbie Sherman at the Disneyana Show and Sale to discuss his legendary father (Robert Sherman of the Sherman Brothers). There is a lot to learn here about family, creativity and brilliance.
Oh Kay! That should do it for this mostly good news update. We will work to keep you updated on the continued evolution of various projects around the Disneyland resort as details emerge.