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With the grand opening of Cars Land and DCA’s big re-launch date now firmly slotted in for Friday, June 15th; the Team Disney Anaheim building is shifting into overdrive. TDA’s marketing machine is gearing up for its massive DCA campaign aimed squarely at consumers from Texas to Australia, the Imagineers are rushing to figure out what smaller items on Buena Vista Street might not make it by June 15th, and Pixar and Burbank execs are starting to spend so much time in Anaheim now they should consider buying an Orange County extended stay Marriott to make the commute easier.

In this update we’ll fill you in some of the latest dates for soft openings and previews, some of the things being added to the DCA project at the last minute, and begin a peek into what happens to Disneyland after DCA finally stands on its own two feet. Did you fill up that commuter mug with the K-cup you just brewed, and popped the scones and assorted fruit chutneys into the tote? Well then let’s get going shall we? My special thanks as always to Andy Castro (Dateline Disneyland) for the use of his photos, it is always much appreciated. - Al

Kim Possible Karadasian

The dates have been agreed to, and TDA planners are moving quickly to place more structure around the planned activities for DCA’s grand re-opening week. Working back from the official opening date of Friday, June 15th when the general public will be able to roam freely in the new park, there are several key dates that lead up to that. June 14th is slotted to be the big media day where the press will have free reign of Cars Land and Buena Vista Street, and an entire closure of DCA is still a possibility after a full park closure was successful prior to Disneyland’s 50th Anniversary kickoff on May 4th, 2005.

The night of June 13th is also a key date, as that’s now planned to be the day for a splashy celebrity party at DCA. Michael Eisner had to pull in every Hollywood favor he could to get the surprisingly impressive list of A and B Listers who showed up for DCA’s original premiere party on February 7th, 2001, so we’ll get to see how much pull Bob Iger has in Tinseltown when the celebs arrive for DCA’s second premiere that week. What’s changed in Hollywood since 2001 is the rise of the reality TV star, and it may be a red carpet full of Kardashians instead of actual talent. (Maybe Justin Bieber could give a shout out to his loyal fans, sans obscenities we hope.)

What most people are wondering though is when the previews for Annual Passholders will be held, and right now there are precious few of them. Currently the plan is to slot in a carefully ticketed system of AP Previews on three days only; June 10th, 11th and 12th. Prior to that is four days of likely Cast Member Previews from June 6th through the 9th. And any earlier than that there will still be lots of work going on to get the two new lands ready, particularly with the Buena Vista Street interiors and Cast Member training. All of those dates can change however, although with the June 15th date nearly set in stone, barring a major setback, there is not much wiggle room left.

Street Stories

The 1.2 Billion dollar DCA makeover was always thought to be capped off with Cars Land as the most marketable and easily recognizable way to get consumers interested in an Anaheim vacation. That is still certainly the case, and with a budget that rivals the entire budget for all of DCA back in 2001, Cars Land has received an enviable amount of resources and talent thrown at it. On the other end of the park however is Buena Vista Street. That’s obviously a smaller project that has perhaps an even more important role as the very first time Disney has gone in and completely re-invented a theme park’s entrance area and opening act. (And it will probably be the only time Disney will ever do this type of project, as even Walt Disney Studios Paris got a better main entrance complex than DCA 1.0 had.)

Knowing that, and in particular after watching the very sincere Buena Vista Street promotional video in the Blue Sky Cellar preview center, you can understand the pressure the Imagineers are under to get it right. The buildings themselves are mostly on schedule, although a few of the kitchen facilities on the west side of the street are proving problematic for the schedulers. If the current plans hold out, the kitchens in most of the restaurants will be able to have their final health inspections from the county by the last week in May, and then be turned over to operations to train and prepare for soft openings in early June.

Swine Dine

The one exception is the largest kitchen serving the Fiddler, Fifer & Practical Café, which still hasn’t had its health inspection slotted in on the timeline and may not be able to be serving food by June 15th. Lots can change in the next four months though and it’s too early to count the FF&P Café out entirely, but you’ll remember that the Paradise Garden restaurants befell the same fate and weren’t able to make the grand opening of Goofy’s Sky School and the Little Mermaid rides. Both restaurants barely opened in time for the 4th of July weekend with detail work continuing through July. There are also some interior retail spaces on the east side of Buena Vista Street that may not be entirely fitted out by June 15th, and they could debut but have their detailing and interior décor installed through late June. But overall, the plan is to have the street open to visitors to walk through by the second week of June.

Trolley Tales

A few things have been added to the Buena Vista Street experience, or its “menu” as the Imagineers refer to such a large project with multiple offerings. Interestingly, these late additions to the street came not from the creative types at Imagineering, but rather from Mary Niven as the Vice President of DCA and her immediate operations staff. The first addition was formalized earlier this winter, after Mary received a creative update of the Red Car Trolley attraction from Bob Weis and his Imagineers.

The trolleys are custom built to look and feel as genuine as possible while still meeting modern safety and operational standards, and WDI created the petite trolley vehicles to be staffed and operated by one Cast Member onboard. Mary Niven, however, realized that these trolley’s will offer a unique way to see Buena Vista Street and Hollywood Blvd., two areas of DCA that offer the most eye candy and intimate detail, and so she pitched the idea to Bob Weis that a second Cast Member needed to be on board each trolley to present a live spiel of the sights passing by the trolley windows. It was a last minute change, but WDI has now scrapped the automated recorded spiel they intended to use for this attraction and is instead scripting a historically accurate live spiel to be delivered to the newly added Cast Member onboard each trolley.

Sure beats a tile mural
A spiffy new attraction poster.

The trolleys will still be driven by a Motorman up front, or the historically accurate term Motorette as the female drivers of the trolley’s were called during World War II, but now they will be joined by a Conductor who will stand at the rear of the trolley and deliver a guided tour of the passing street scene and help with boarding and seating. Mary Niven didn’t want slapstick humor like the Jungle Cruise, but rather a cross between the period-piece spiels of the Sailing Ship Columbia and the gracious sightseeing at Storybook Land Canal Boats. Mary and her team felt this was a better way to bring the story of Buena Vista Street to life and would help her achieve her goal of making Disney California Adventure a more human and charming park, qualities that ooze out of the woodwork next door at Disneyland but have been in short supply at DCA.

Bob Weis and his Imagineers were more than happy to oblige this late request from the Anaheim team, but it really took them off guard. Disney theme park executives (especially those back east) tend to have a reputation in the halls of Imagineering as visionless administrators who are always looking to cut labor at attractions and remove overly-costly details and flourishes that Imagineers try to include. Mary’s sudden proposal to add a second Cast Member to each trolley and turn the ride into a sightseeing spiel attraction flies in the face of that reputation, and came as a very pleasant surprise to all involved in the Buena Vista Street team.

What’s even more surprising about the addition of Conductors to the vehicles is that the Red Car Trolley will never be a very high capacity attraction, barely carrying more guests per hour than the Horse Drawn Street Cars over at Disneyland. And with six daily performances of the Newsboys show hijacking one of the trolley’s for up to a half hour at a time from mid morning to late afternoon, plus the routine downtimes twice per day for the Pixar Play Parade currently planned for early and late afternoon, there will only be a few thousand guests able to ride the trolleys from park opening until about 6:00PM.

But the Red Car Trolleys are scheduled to operate this summer from park opening at 8:00AM until park closing at 11:00PM, so an evening ride past the shop windows and sidewalks of Buena Vista Street is probably the best bet for those wanting to hear these new Conductors give their tours. (Although, it should be pretty interesting to hear the Conductors comment - or not comment - on the roaring Mad T Party tucked into the corner of Hollywood Land but still quite visible from the trolley windows every night.)

I see pumpkin people
Some shade of orange, eh?

The second last-minute addition to Buena Vista Street is a concept used intermittenly here in the past at Disneyland (anyone remember from a few years back the Main Street Shopkeepers meeting up for the Christmas tree lighting or the Pumpkin Festival Halloween skits - shown above), but in this incarnation hewing closer in execution to Walt Disney World's efforts.

TDA’s Entertainment Department will soon be auditioning actors and actresses to be the first group of the “Citizens of Buena Vista Street”, a diverse group of 1920’s Southern California characters who will wander the street and DCA’s entrance area interacting with the tourists. Taking inspiration more from the popular “Citizens of Hollywood” streetmosphere performers at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, the citizens of Buena Vista Street will stroll the sidewalks and help bring the 1920’s vibe to life in this new land. It’s another late addition, but something that the TDA team realized was needed for the opening summer regardless of the budget overrun.

With the Newsboy trolley shows, the Five & Dime band and their jalopy, the roaming Citizens, the trolley tours, plus two afternoon parades, Buena Vista Street will certainly be busy. And with all of those new stores finally open, the big “valet cases” that have been set up around DCA in the past year to make up for lost retail space during the remodel will mercifully disappear.

Dinner Theater

The final big piece in the Buena Vista Street project is of course the Carthay Circle Theatre and its restaurant and lounges. The private membership lounge acting as a satellite location for Club 33, called 1901 in honor of Walt’s birth year, takes up the smallest space through private entrance doors on the west flanks of the marquee entrance lobby. Unlike Club 33, however, which has strict membership guidelines that do not generally allow non-member celebrities to dine there, the intimate 1901 lounge with its darkened banquettes set along the walls is going to be open for anyone who gets clearance through the secretive Disney Special Activities office.

Come dine in me
No movies, just hors d’oeuvres.

The Disney Special Activities group, or DSA for short, is officially a small team within the Guest Relations department working out of separate offices in the Grand Californian Hotel. The DSA Cast Members, made up of experienced VIP hosts and hostesses, handle all the celebrity and high profile visitors who come to Disneyland. But in the past even the DSA office couldn’t get the average B List celebrity in to Club 33 unless they had reservations made by an actual club member. That will change with 1901, so much so that a double-wide podium has been created for the 1901 lobby area for both the regular club hostess to welcome run-of-the-mill members, and a separate DSA Cast Member there to check credentials of arriving B Listers, minor politicians, or upgraded guided tours, and act as a satellite location to the main DSA office in the Grand Californian.

But even if TDA is able to grow the small roster of Club 33 members beyond its current list of about 400 members, perhaps even doubling that number with the new 1901 lounge and the more restrictive entrance and parking policies, a thousand or so 1901 members are a tiny drop in the bucket compared to the millions each year who visit even a lightly attended Disney theme park like DCA. TDA is hoping a good chunk of the 99% are in the mood to splurge and head upstairs to the Carthay Circle Restaurant.

They've made a great choice in having Napa Rose's chef, Andrew Sutton create the menu. Now the management team there is trying to pull together a roster of seasoned table-service Cast Members from around the resort, in addition to a few outsiders hired on just to work at the Carthay Circle. And they are really going for a very high end experience here, using some of the hippest cocktail lounges (think the Edison in downtown LA - shown below) and swankiest restaurants in Southern California as inspiration.

Oh my.

For example, diners in the restaurant, or drinkers in the lounges, will be treated to some of the most impressive tableside performance art in the Disney empire. Not content to just offer the typical flambé dessert or a tossed Caesar salad tableside, the Carthay Circle team will also be offering hand-crafted martinis and cocktails served tableside from small performance carts. Ordering a cocktail at the Carthay Circle lounge this summer means the customer will be presented with a choice of not just top shelf liquor in gleaming Carthay Circle barware, but also with an ice-cube menu (perfectly squared, round, shaved, or chipped?), various artisanal bitters and mixers made with organic herbs and spices, and finished with small batches of stuffed gourmet olives trucked in regularly from Santa Barbara. If you want an appetizer to go with that hand-crafted artisanal martini, you’ll be choosing from trendy dishes like a Korean roast duckling kimchee plate, or more typical fare like Kobe’ beef sliders a la’ Morton’s. And that’s just downstairs in the public bar.

Knowing that they don’t have the history of Club 33, or the romantic waterside view of the Blue Bayou, the Carthay Circle team is aiming to create an instant must-see with sumptuous interior décor, excellent service, and menu offerings that rival or surpass even the vaunted Napa Rose. It’s the service piece that is the most elusive however, as years of dumbing down the Resort’s dining experience, and not fixing the ridiculously high hourly turnover of Disneyland’s restaurant division specifically, has left the existing talent pool very thin when it comes to pulling together a polished team that can create this type of upscale experience. That’s where the outsiders may need to come in and save this concept from Disney’s years of management ineptitude, as there simply don’t appear to be enough top notch Cast Members willing to leave their current Napa Rose or Club 33 gig to really make this work like TDA would like.

What also is yet to be seen is whether or not theme park audiences will be willing to shell out the big bucks to dine in this type of environment during their DCA day. DCA has been down this road before, with Wolfgang Puck’s Avalon Cove, and Mondavi’s Vineyard Room, and the flailing theme park did them both in quickly. Certainly the Napa Rose has carved out a very successful niche for itself as not only one of the best restaurants in the Disney empire, but one of the best restaurants in foodie-crazed SoCal.

There will likely be a flood of Annual Passholders the first few months wanting to check this place out at least once, especially once pictures of the lavish interiors both upstairs and downstairs become available online. But a growing crowd in both TDA and WDI are quietly whispering if perhaps the Carthay Circle Restaurant concept might be over-reaching just a bit. Perhaps it would have been better to have just a single cocktail lounge combined with that Walt Disney mini-museum that WDI was pitching a few years ago? We wish the Carthay Circle team the best though, as they are aiming for a demographic that no Disney theme park in America has ever been able to capture, outside of the tiny Club 33 membership.

Disney = Story

But if an upscale concept like the Carthay Circle Restaurant and its two lounges is to work, this is probably the best time to attempt it and the best park to fit it in. TDA is throwing every resource it has at the DCA re-launch, including a bold attempt to clean up and rethink the sad state of Cast Member training at Disney’s American theme parks.

The latest addition is a new training class being rolled out to all DCA Cast Members, but not their Disneyland counterparts. Called “Our California Story”, it’s a six hour classroom and walking tour presentation being given to all existing DCA Cast Members this winter before it becomes the official second day of training for all newly hired DCA Cast Members this spring. Gone are the days when the on-boarding process for Anaheim CM’s was a boring day of watching endless  and mind-numbing videos on safe workplace habits, body mechanics lessons, and sexual harassment training drills. It’s no secret that The Disney University, famous back in the 20th century for being on the cutting edge of employee training, has become a stale and short-sighted world of uninspired PowerPoint shows and listless presenters reading their script in Lawyerese.

Our California Story changes all that, with a slick color booklet that serves as the textbook for the class and that’s already become proud keepsakes for the DCA CM’s, much like the sleek training materials Disney was producing back in the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s. The class is centered solely on California Adventure, and serves as a primer for the themes, stories, and lands that a DCA Cast Member will be working with. At considerable expense several hours of classroom entertainment was created that use videos and pictures to bring the DCA story to life, and even include stereo sound effects of planes flying overhead or trolley bells ringing.

The usual two-person Disney University training team is there to lead the class, but early into the presentation a scripted actor (paid expensive AGVA rates) arrives in a Red Car Trolley conductor uniform and takes over for an hour as the DCA tour guide. They were even able to use a 1937 audio recording of the radio program broadcast live from the red carpet premiere of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves at the original Carthay Circle Theatre, which is played for the class to great effect to put an exclamation point on the story of Buena Vista Street. (This recording is available in The Disney Treasures book from a few years back.)

Another big chunk of the Our California Story training day is spent stressing courtesy and customer relations, two things you would think would be standard training topics at Disney but that had been excised from the Disney University curriculum years ago when preventing lawsuits became their main goal instead of training polite employees. There is currently no such park-specific training program for Disneyland Park CM’s, and any Disneyland new hire this spring will only get the dumbed-down and boring version of “Traditions” as their first day of training. The DCA Cast Members will have to go to Traditions on their first day too, but the next day they’ll be off to Our California Story where things will get much more interesting for them.

Shine On

Also at DCA, the Project Sparkle initiative is now going at full steam ahead. With the Paradise Pier shops about finished with their light re-theme that has already made a dramatic difference, the Sparkle team is turning its sights to the rest of the park it hasn’t already touched. The goal of Project Sparkle, another of Mary Niven’s and George Kalogridis’ pet projects, is to take the sections of the 11 year old park that haven’t been remade in the last three years and refurbish them back to a like-new condition. There will be ongoing façade work along Hollywood Boulevard this winter, a thematic replacement of the farm mural at the Bugs Life theater, and more period-specific themeing coming to the Grizzly Peak area, among other thematic updates.

But in addition to the removal of the last vestiges of hip and edgy DCA circa 2001, there is plenty of work to buff up the more mundane parts of an operating theme park. For instance, every DCA bathroom facility will receive a full repainting (including the ceilings) and full re-grouting this spring, just to make the bathrooms seem brand new. All the handrails in the entire park will be repainted, and all the existing trash cans are being cycled out for a full repaint. TDA’s maintenance department is even going so far as to rip out and replace the plastic expansion joints in all the sidewalks and pavement around the park, simply because the joints are looking faded and might subconsciously convey an image of age and heavy use to new visitors. The goal of Project Sparkle is to make the entire park look as close to brand new as possible by June, instead of looking like a slightly used 11 year old park with some new lands and buildings in it. TDA is serious about this folks.

Sky's fallin'
Photo taken 1/21/12

And yes, the sign will be replaced on the Soarin’ building, but that’s not part of Project Sparkle. That sign was taken down after a hostess working at Soarin’ arrived one recent morning to open the ride and just happened to notice that the big sign looked slightly out of alignment. There had been strong Santa Ana winds that morning, and after 11 years the framing of the sign gave way and the plastic panel had popped out of its frame. The hostess told her Lead, who quickly alerted Facilities, and they had to bring in large man lifts just after the park opened to pry the sign off the building quickly. That sharp eye of the Soarin’ hostess probably prevented a larger accident from happening. A new signage panel with a sturdier frame is being created and will be installed soon.

Late for a very important date…

While DCA spends 2012 in re-launch mode, next door at Disneyland they are in rehab mode for most of the rest of this year. There are several big rehab projects waiting in the wings for Disneyland, in addition to the usual cosmetics. The most obvious is the Matterhorn, which still has four months of heavy rehab to go. The Matterhorn rehab is part of the reason why the redesign of the Alice In Wonderland outdoor track has yet to happen. The new track is going to require some major construction in that outdoor area, and there simply is not room to install additional construction walls there across from the existing Matterhorn walls and still be able to fit the parade floats past. As it is, the eventual Alice In Wonderland rehab may wreak havoc on the parade schedule, so the TDA planners are trying to aim the Alice rehab dates with the biggest construction footprint to the slowest time of the year as it may require the parade to be scrapped for days at a time.

That isn't paint...

There was a timetable that had Alice In Wonderland closing at the end of this summer, but that also may be pushed back due to two other big projects. Once the Matterhorn reopens in mid June, they’ll try to get through this summer without any rehabs planned for Disneyland. But by late August two big attractions will need to close for a long rehab; Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, and the Fantasyland Theater. The rehab at Big Thunder Mountain Railroad will last for months and is largely a technical and hardware one, with the old ride control system still based on its 1979 ancestry completely replaced with 21st century technology.

In late summer the Fantasyland “WonderBra” Theater will also be closed as WDI moves in to remake that space into a more formal set-up with upgraded stage facilities that also mesh better with its Fantasyland surroundings. Late August is also the current timetable for shutting down the Carnation Plaza Gardens area to begin its remake into the newest version of Princess Fantasy Faire. That timing coincides with a similar project out at Walt Disney World, where they’ll be closing their Snow White dark ride to install a smaller and less ambitious version of what Disneyland is getting. But some of the set pieces and interactive technology tricks to be used in the Faire will be shared on both coasts, so it’s a project that is being paired together to shave some costs off both locations.

And with a planned two month rehab for Indiana Jones this fall, plus the usual Holiday overlay rehabs and crazy crowds expected through all of 2012, that Alice In Wonderland rehab just keeps getting bounced all over the calendar.

A great big beautiful…

Also happening at the end of summer, there will likely be some interesting decisions made for Anaheim’s future. WDI has now been focusing on the eastern edge of Tomorrowland, including Innoventions and Autopia, as likely their next target for expansion and new attractions. For now at least, the plan to expand Frontierland out into the Festival Arena and beyond the berm is on the back burner, as it’s Tomorrowland that both WDI and TDA admit needs the most help from both a design and operational standpoint.

Innoventions is a massive building housing a ride system capable of pulling in up to 3,000 riders per hour, but that is lucky to get a few hundred visitors per hour on even the busiest days. And Autopia is an old favorite that takes up an obscene amount of real estate for little payoff, and it doesn’t help that the sponsorship deal with Chevron has ended its original 10 year agreement and has entered into shorter recurring agreements that can be more easily broken by either side now.

What hasn't changed, and what TDA and Burbank are going to wait for however, is to see the returns at the end of Cars Land’s first summer, and to see how the re-launched DCA changes spending and visitor patterns, from souvenir sales to dining to hourly crowd flow to hotel occupancy. If DCA’s re-launch goes as planned, and increases domestic and international multi-day tourist rates by the high single digits, then it’s likely TDA is going to need to move quickly on expansion for Disneyland.

So it could very well be that there could be some very interesting meetings taking place this September in both Anaheim and Glendale. Ready Disneylanders?

Oh-kay - that should do it for today. Remember your support is vital, your donations to PayPal help keep the bills paid. We’re only here due to all of your kind efforts.

Keep in mind updates only get posted when there is something to report on, and not before. It takes time to confirm things, and even then we can only offer a snapshot of a continually evolving story. (People do change their minds you know.) Just like the happiest place on earth, patience is a virtue; the queue may take a while before you can enjoy the attraction. ;)

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Al Lutz may be e-mailed at [email protected] - Please keep in mind he may not be able to respond to each note personally. FTC-Mandated Disclosure: As of December 2009, bloggers are required by the Federal Trade Commission to disclose payments and freebies. Al Lutz did not receive any payments, free items, or free services from any of the parties discussed in this article. He pays for his own admission to theme parks and their associated events, unless otherwise explicitly noted.

© 2012 Al Lutz