The busy spring break period has ended and the Anaheim parks get a few short weeks of relatively light crowds before Grad Nights and summer crowds return. But late last week the Anaheim parks had a major executive shuffle that could make Disneyland’s 60th Anniversary next year more interesting. In this update we’ll fill you in on the executive news, explain the latest on the fiscal freeze that took hold of many projects for the parks a few months ago, and tell you what TDA now has up their sleeve for the Anaheim property they are eyeing beyond the parks.
They say that an apple a day keeps the doctor away. So grab that Golden Delicious and a cleansing glass of wheat grass and let’s see what the Disneyland Resort is doing to ensure a healthy future.
Late last Wednesday afternoon rumors buzzed through the Team Disney Anaheim building that the next day would bring a major executive shuffle that had been brewing since January. And on Thursday morning the news was that it involved nearly every major Vice President in Anaheim that reports to President Michael Colglazier. In short, after a few short years in America, Disneyland Resort Hotels VP Daniel Delcourt will return back to France with a promotion to head up Disneyland Resort Paris. Replacing him as the VP of the three Disney-owned hotels in Anaheim will be long-time Disneylander and current VP of Disneyland Jon Storbeck. Moving over to fill Jon’s big shoes is current DCA VP Mary Niven, the woman who deserves much of the credit for shepherding the 1.2 Billion dollar makeover of DCA to fruition since she took that role back in 2009. Replacing Mary is a likeable woman named Kris Theiler, currently a VP in the parks division’s industrial engineering group, a team which is far more influential than you might imagine.
But it’s Mary’s move over to Disneyland that is the real coup here and what will be worth watching in the upcoming months and years. Mary started her Disneyland career with not the most promising of beginnings, as she was brought on board by Cynthia Harriss in 2000 during a very dark period in Disneyland history, when Cynthia and her top lieutenants seemed to be doing everything wrong and for all the wrong reasons. Mary had just come from a stint being in charge of food service for UCLA and its 40,000 students and 25,000 faculty members, and she started as the VP of Disneyland’s food and beverage department (a VP title that no longer exists). But she survived the implosion of the Paul Pressler and Cynthia Harriss era in 2003, learned a lot about Anaheim’s culture as the Resort rebounded to new heights during the 50th Anniversary, and was then wisely tapped to lead the DCA operational teams as they struggled through the extreme makeover of that park from 2009 to 2012. The result in 2014 is a reborn DCA that sparkles with new rides and shows and charm, and also has a vibrant Cast Member culture that is deeply proud of the wildly successful park that DCA has become. And Mary Niven deserves a great deal of the credit for all of that.
We’ve covered these various topics in the past, but it bears repeating that Mary was instrumental in all of them. While WDI gets the credit for the amazingly Imagineered new buildings and physical environment at DCA (helped by a huge budget from Burbank), Mary deserves the credit for the fresh operational perspective that pushes DCA to a higher category of theme park. She’s the one who challenged her team to come up with an alternate entertainment venue to help spread out nighttime crowds waiting for World of Color, and cut through miles of red tape and shoved aside old conventional wisdom to get Glow Fest quickly installed and operating in the summer of 2010. Glow Fest created the fresh nighttime party zone that morphed into elecTRONica and then Mad T Party and is loved by locals and tourists alike in an otherwise sleepy corner of the park.
It was also Mary who took a giant gamble by installing Fastpass into a major nighttime spectacular, an idea never considered much less approved at any Disney park before. And within days of World of Color’s premiere, the Fastpass ticketing for that show became a huge hit with visitors and sent customer satisfaction ratings through the roof for its convenience. (Meanwhile, folks are still camping out on blankets hours in advance over at Fantasmic!). Moving the Fastpass machines away from the entrance of Radiator Springs Racers, the most popular ride at the Resort with a very congested entry area, was also Mary’s radically brilliant idea.
Mary also tried on an Imagineering hat when the WDI team working on Buena Vista Street was struggling to come up with a Walt-based history show for the interior of the Carthay Circle Theater building. The Imagineers were stumped on how to tell the Walt story that hadn’t already been heard a hundred times before by fans, or that already didn’t exist at the lovingly crafted lobby exhibit 100 yards away at Disneyland’s Opera House. But Mary felt the new DCA would be worthy of a posh fine dining restaurant, and she convinced WDI and the Burbank bean counters to go big with a very lavish restaurant and cocktail lounge on two levels inside the theater, and then carved out space for a second lounge to help expand the Club 33 membership list. And as in previous World of Color and Glow Fest campaigns, she slashed through Disney’s red tape to make sure the restaurant was done correctly, down to the custom logo fine china, the unique napkins, and the Luxardo cherries in the cocktails that sent Disney’s corporate buyers into fits. Mary also got involved in the Red Car Trolley and cancelled the recorded spiel that WDI had planned for the street cars, and instead coughed up the money to staff a second conductor on board to give a live narration a la’ Storybook Land or Jungle Cruise. Mary, after all, is very aware that it’s the parks Cast Members that can make the difference in this increasingly impersonal age.
When DCA was in a massive state of construction a few years ago and its CM’s found construction walls moving almost daily, Mary created a Cast Showcase to help the DCA CM’s cope with it all. The DCA Cast Showcases that Mary and her team created each spring from 2010 to 2012 brought a fancy industry trade-show type experience to the parks rank and file CM’s, and treated them to a multi-room sensory tour with professional actors and slick custom displays explaining what was happening to the park next and how important the CM’s roles were to bring it to life for guests. Never before had front-line park CM’s been treated like Burbank executives receiving swanky product reviews and slick multimedia presentations, complete with swag bags and mocktails for all attendees. The DCA Cast Showcases were expensive to pull off, but they worked wonders for morale and helped build the growing sense of pride in DCA Cast Members. In 2012 Mary also insisted on tacking an extra day of training for all DCA Cast Members, both new and existing. The training day is called Our California Story, and it deals exclusively with how a DCA Cast Member will be expected to support the stories the park is telling. Disneyland’s execs hadn’t considered such a radical idea, but they finally play catch up next year when Disneyland gets a version of the class Mary invented for DCA.
Through both massive projects and tiny details, Mary has proven herself to be a great theme park executive. If she thinks it’s worth it, she’ll go to bat with her bosses to get the money and resources to make a good idea happen, instead of living only with what Burbank and TDA gives you and never rocking the boat like too many other park executives have done in the last decade. She’s had her operation teams blend classic Disney hospitality with a fresh and modern perspective that’s willing to take risks, and almost all of those risks have paid off hugely for the park’s visitors and Cast Members. And now she takes that approach to the flagship Disney theme park and granddaddy of them all, Disneyland.
While Disneyland is now in much better shape cosmetically than when Mary arrived in the dark Paul Pressler era, it’s a park that too often clings to an operation that may have made sense in the 1990’s but that is out of touch today. While the DCA teams were taking huge risks and re-inventing the guest experience in a radically evolving park, Disneyland plodded along with the same format and operating philosophy simply because “that’s how we’ve always done it”. It will take at least six months for Mary to begin to make an impact, and there won’t be much she’ll change this summer. But in July the Anaheim executives all carve out their operating budget requests for the upcoming 2015 fiscal year that starts in October, and that’s where Mary will dig in and get ready to make her mark in ’15 and beyond. While the budget for the nostalgia-themed 60th Anniversary was slashed with most other park budgets six months ago due to the panic over MyMagic+ out in Orlando, it will be very interesting to watch where Mary pushes Disneyland by 2016 and beyond. Anyone ready for Fatasmic Fastpass?
2015 and Beyond
Meanwhile, back in TDA, Resort President Michael Colglazier is retrenching his plans and strategy after Burbank pulled nearly all funding for almost all major projects that were given to him on the five year plan when Michael first arrived in February, 2013. Massive cost overruns with the MyMagic+ program in Florida, plus ominous budgeting issues looming for Shanghai’s woefully behind construction schedule, all sent Burbank bean counters diving under their desks in horror last fall. The result is that nearly every major addition for theme parks in North America is now shelved. Only a few concepts previously announced are moving forward, but in a downsized format. Avatarland for Disney’s Animal Kingdom, it appears, has now been scaled back to one flying simulator ride, a handful of shops, and a restaurant. The plans for a Star Wars themed spaceport remake of Disneyland’s Tomorrowland, to be built in two phases bracketing the 60th Anniversary, have been shelved for now. Also canned are any plans to do much of anything with Disney’s Hollywood Studios in WDW, or even consider anything for years at WDW’s Magic Kingdom once the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train opens next month.
The fallout from the cancellation of the Tomorrowland plans are that the Submarines continue to sit quietly in mothballs through the rest of the fiscal year. The sad scenario we’d told you about in an update just after Christmas before the ride closed is now playing out, when we’d said…
“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.” –Miceage Update, January 7th, 2014
As photos from the last few months show, the Subs were dutifully powered down and secured in dry dock, a few plywood stairs were installed to allow access to the dry lagoon, and now the entire attraction sits empty and abandoned month after month. They’re going for the labor savings option on this one folks, that’s all there is to it. Star Wars isn’t in the short term plan, but TDA feels they can spare the relatively measly 800 riders per hour the low-capacity Submarines handle, and they are saving a ton of money in labor, maintenance and water fees in the meantime. By August they’ll need to decide if the ride comes back for Christmas or if they’ll wait until next year, and a few weeks of work will be needed in October or November for the boats and their troublesome battery packs (which will be charged to the new fiscal year’s tab). But until then, the dry lagoon is simply a way for TDA to save a big chunk of cash.
MyMagic Transit Plan
While any hint of a new ride inside the parks may be hard to find, quite a lot of work has ramped up at TDA on projects beyond the parks. Using a separate budget than that allocated for attractions and theme park expansion, Michael Colglazier has been leading his planning team on a strategic hunt for more property in the neighborhood immediately surrounding the Resort. Eventually the MyMagic+ program and Shanghai Disneyland will sort themselves out, and the Anaheim parks will expand again and add new rides. But to be ready for that expansion TDA knows it simply must solve the maddening parking situation for both visitors and Cast Members.
This spring Disney has been speaking with Anaheim politicians to cook up a plan that will create a public-private agreement to add more parking for Disneyland and help complete Anaheim’s streetcar system they’ve been planning for years. The plan would build an 8 story parking structure on the current site of the Pumbaa parking lot, but would also need expansion land to the north to be able to route the streetcar tracks through a transit plaza that leads to an overhead ramp directing pedestrians over Harbor Blvd. (think the pedestrian bridges over intersections in Las Vegas) and depositing them on Disney property on the opposite side of busy Harbor Blvd. To do this Disney is going to need to purchase at least part of the business park sitting just north of Pumbaa, while Anaheim will be expected to do the dirty work and use eminent domain laws to take over the existing Park Vue Inn and adjacent IHOP restaurant to build the tracks and multi-level pedestrian walkways to and from the park.
The owners of the Park Vue Inn and the modest looking IHOP, which happens to be one of the most successful units in the IHOP chain, learned of this plan a few months ago almost on accident when a neighbor happened to see the streetcar route plotted on a map in Anaheim’s City Hall. And the streetcar line runs right through the Park Vue Inn. For Disney’s part, they desperately want the parking capacity and are willing to purchase the business park in order to get more parking spaces built and allow Anaheim access to the property in a goodwill gesture that will make the streetcar route cheaper and easier to build. That makes it a win-win for both Anaheim and Disney, but the property owners likely to be bought out and evicted don’t see it that way.
But the parking capacity is desperately needed, even if the streetcar system may turn out to be a boutique line that really only serves conventioneers traveling from the Convention Center to the hotels and restaurants a few blocks to the north and east. TDA also has to consider the several thousand Cast Members who park their car in Pumbaa daily and then willingly walk over a mile to and from their work locations in the parks just to avoid the decrepit and depressing shuttle buses from the further out satellite lot on Katella. To alleviate the CM parking situation, TDA has already purchased two pieces of property on the corner of Harbor and Ball, formerly the site of a large RV park and an old service station. That property will be turned into a few thousand Cast Member parking spaces, plus a satellite command center to be used by park executives and security teams in the event of a major earthquake or emergency in the parks. Once that lot has been developed for CM use next fiscal year, then the Pumbaa plans can go forward in conjunction with Anaheim’s streetcar project. For anyone who has tried to find a place to park on a busy Sunday afternoon, it won’t be soon enough.
The Future of Fantasy
While TDA works on infrastructure beyond the parks, there are a few smaller projects inside the parks that were turned back on after the budget freeze this past winter. The Alice In Wonderland refurbishment will tackle more than just the outdoor track portion, as the plussing up of the interior show scenes got the green light. New animatronics with projected faces and much more fluid animation than the 1980’s figures they replace will debut when the ride reopens in early July. And just after summer, Peter Pan’s Flight will be the next dark ride scheduled to close for a major show refurbishment. More of the projected animatronics will be installed, replacing the rather clunky moving manequins from the last major upgrade the ride got in 1983, plus new digital projections, and upgraded audio and lighting. Following in quick succession for heavy refurbishment will then be Mr. Toad and Snow White and Pinocchio, so that by the spring of ’15 all five of Fantasyland’s classic dark rides will hopefully have been thoroughly refreshed. While the Alice rehab is taking six months due to the safety work, the other dark rides will only be closed for about 60 days each to install their new show scenes prebuilt off-site at WDI’s production facility.
The other in-park project to get turned back on recently was the plan we’d told you about back in 2012 to build a themed alleyway behind the eastern flanks of Main Street USA. The new alley would allow easier access into and out of the park during parades and fireworks, as well as update the older facilities along the route like the lockers, First Aid and the Baby Care Center. A similar project got the green light in WDW recently, although as part of a much broader plan to massively expand the pedestrian areas in the Magic Kingdom’s Central Plaza Hub to allow for up-charged dessert buffets and Fastpass+ viewing for parades and fireworks. Disneyland’s plan is really more about smoothing the flow of traffic in and out of the park, especially now that DCA next door is pulling in just over 10 Million visitors per year.
Our latest podcast is literally a walk in the park. Doug, David and Dusty wander Disneyland’s historic trails and byways and share lots of fun info and stories along the way. We also chat with some MicePod listeners about their experiences in the park. Then we teleport back to the MicePod studios to discuss the ride count at Disneyland Resort versus Walt Disney World. Which resort wins? It’s a fun and lively show which will leave you wanting to book a trip to the parks.
Oh-kay – that the scoop for now. It’s not the glowing news of new attractions and shows that you may have hoped for, but it’s not really bad news either. Some marginal improvements will be made in time for the 60th anniversary of Disneyland and the groundwork is being laid for future resort expansion.
What do you make of the executive shuffle at the Disneyland Resort. Do you have high hopes for Mary? What changes would you like to see her advocate for the future of Walt’s original Magic Kingdom?