Here's a story you won't find anywhere else, thanks in part to some deft maneuvering by Disneyland's press and publicity department. Since this special report is shorter than a normal update, you'll all be forgiven should you just want to drive thru the McRestaurant and order a McBreakfast muffin and a coffee regular before starting your read. Let’s get going shall we? - Al
The gimmick of an all night party for this Leap Year, dubbed One More Disney Day, was dreamed up by Disney’s marketing team as a way to breathe some life into the flagging Let The Memories Begin campaign that has limped into its second year on both coasts. The plan was that Disney would keep both Disneyland and Magic Kingdom Park in WDW open for 24 hours to celebrate Leap Year day was news to the theme park operations teams, and they were left with only a couple of months to really plan for this type of event.
But if you were able to get inside Disneyland on February 29th, you are now part of history that was made for the park as the event blew the doors off the modest expectations TDA had for it. All-time record setting attendance for the Disneyland Resort and tell-your-grandkids tales of freeway backups for miles and hour long lines for coffee are now the hallmark of that day, and Anaheim Cast Members struggled through the next day trying to figure out what had just happened.
The expectations for the Disneyland portion of the event were modest right from the start. After much deliberation and juggling of formulas the attendance forecast for Disneyland for February 29th was set at a modest 44,000, a forecast created by a notoriously out-to-lunch team now headquartered in Orlando instead of Anaheim thanks to the boneheaded One Disney corporate structure. A forecast of 44,000 visitors at Disneyland is about the same attendance as a relatively slow Saturday in the off-season, and the entire park staffing for the day was set to that low level. DCA had its attendance for the 29th pegged at a similarly low 15,000 visitors, and they then made the fatal flaw to keep DCA to its winter weekday schedule of 10:00AM to 8:00PM while Disneyland stayed open for 24 hours.
The decision to add a single Fantasmic! at 1:00AM was seen as a freebie, and something not really needed to help with the modest 44,000 attendance estimate but just something to keep the mood festive. The plan to hand out 2,000 free mouse ears at park opening on the 29th was even lowballed and it was assumed those hats would last through the first few hours of arriving early-risers after the park opened. Many folks in Florida couldn’t even understand why Disneyland would plan to open their parking lots the night before for pre-arrivals.
The first sign that things were not going to go as planned came on the evening of Tuesday the 28th, when the first arrivals began to mill about the East Esplanade by 9:00PM and a line of cars was waiting to park in the Pumbaa parking lot when it opened at 10:00PM. The 2,000 wristbands for the mouse ears distribution were accounted for by 2:00AM, and by 5:00AM the waiting crowd was already pegged at over 5,000. The parking structure was slammed with arriving cars right at 6:00AM, and the understaffed tram system struggled to keep up. By late morning it was obvious to park managers that the event would be bigger than planned, and park attendance was revised up to 55,000, which should have set off alarm bells in Team Disney Anaheim (TDA) but didn’t.
The event moved from unique to legendary very quickly in the early evening when hordes of the 900,000+ Annual Passholders started getting off work and headed for Disneyland. By mid-evening the southbound lanes of the Santa Ana Freeway were backed up for several miles and all surface streets around the Resort were nearing gridlock. But unlike at Christmastime when Disneyland faces these types of crowds with massive armies of Cast Members and an executive team that has hourly conference calls on the status of all Resort departments, the entire Resort was only staffed for a 44,000 day and the executive conference calls weren’t on the radar.
It was mid-evening when things really began to come apart at the seams, and anyone above middle-management had already gone home and the CM’s left in Anaheim were going to be on their own for the next 10 hours. Not that anyone could have come in to help if they wanted to, as by 9:00PM all the major streets around Disneyland were entirely gridlocked, and even the Cast Member shuttle buses were taking up to 45 minutes to drive the 7 blocks from the employee parking lot on Katella to the drop off area on Harbor Blvd. The reinforcement Cast Members who had been called in to work earlier that evening in a panic were stuck in the traffic like everyone else, and literally couldn’t get on to property after parking their cars.
It was also around 9:30PM that the skeleton crew of park management left on duty had to make the call to begin quickly restricting access into Disneyland and activating a complete and sudden shutdown of ticket sales. The traffic continued to pour off the freeways, with the southbound backup on the Santa Ana Freeway beginning several miles from Disneyland just south of the Los Angeles County line at 10:00PM. The traffic didn’t let up until 2:00AM, and the Resort’s parking team was completely overwhelmed with traffic and demand even with every electronic sign in Anaheim changed to say “Disneyland Is Full”.
By late evening the attendance inside the park had swelled to around 53,000, which are numbers only seen in the afternoon of the very busiest days of the year between Christmas and New Years. But unlike the holidays, the park was nowhere near staffed appropriately to handle the crowd, with attractions and restaurants and stores running at only partial capacity.
The total attendance tally for the day not only set records, but so completely obliterated the old benchmarks that it will likely be decades before those numbers are seen again (unless there’s another Leap Year Day event in 2016, or a third Anaheim theme park is built.). Disneyland Park logged just over 88,000 visitors for the One More Disney Day Event from February 29th into early March 1st. DCA ended up with 23,000 visitors for February 29th, which is actually busier than most recent summer weekends. And with the two parks combined, only counting the first park that any park-hopping visitor entered that day, the Disneyland Resort set an all-new attendance record of just over 106,000 people for the day. Of that 106,000, nearly 66,000 of them were Annual Passholders, yet another new record.
And it wasn’t just the turnstiles that were blazing. In addition to the 33,000 cars parked in the three parking facilities designed to only hold 15,000 cars in a day, The Emporium and stores on Main Street set all sorts of records for various merchandise categories and hourly targets. The merchandise sales all over the park were huge, as even the AP demographic not normally known for their souvenir shopping snapped up merchandise to remember their night by.
Initially the planning teams in Florida were going to only send out a couple thousand of the All-Nighter t-shirts to Disneyland, until some wise Disneyland managers piped up last month and asked to dramatically increase their shipments. Even then, most stores couldn’t keep up with demand for the One More Disney Day logo merchandise. The park’s restaurants, which were only expecting tepid response to their new overnight menu items and didn’t have nearly enough staffing to handle the demand, were packed beyond capacity and were running out of food by early morning. Cast Members were extended into 12 to 18 hours shifts all over the park by panicky managers who didn’t have nearly enough labor to handle the crowds.
The most interesting thing however is that the mood for this entire event remained positive. Most of the 66,000 Annual Passholders who arrived in the evening were just there for the spectacle and the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and the long lines for understaffed attractions or struggling restaurants didn’t bother most folks as much as they would have in summer or at Christmas. The 40,000 tourists who were also in attendance went along for the ride, and many were there specifically for the event just as the APs were.
Although the demographic turned noticeably younger after Midnight, the vibe in the overwhelmed park was festive and upbeat throughout. The TDA executives came in to work on Thursday staring in disbelief at their smart phones, trying to make sense of the massive numbers and the frantic emails their junior managers had been sending out the night before while they slept.
The event out at the Magic Kingdom Park in WDW also exceeded their own modest targets, but still only pulled in a fraction of what Disneyland did with attendance and merchandise sales. The marketing gurus who came up with this are spinning all of this as rapidly as possible, playing it off as a wild success even if it put Disneyland dangerously close to anarchy for most of Wednesday night.
The local TV news completely missed this story for their 11 o’clock broadcasts Wednesday night, and the local papers also let most of the gridlock and crowd story pass them by late on Wednesday night and only got around to some scattered follow-up stories on Thursday afternoon. The pictures of thousands of chanting fans waiting outside Disneyland’s closed gates from 10:00PM to 2:00AM would have made a killer photo op for the press, but as I understand it, the park’s publicity team seems to have benefited from their advance legwork for Cars Land, as many outlets have agreed to an embargo in order to secure exclusives as the land prepares to open up, and don't want to rock the boat.
Now that Disneyland has recovered, and the shell-shocked Cast Members who actually worked and survived the event realize they came out alive, there are discussions in TDA about what it all means and if the park should ever dare to consider another such event. The giant merchandise and food sales raised quite a few eyebrows, needless to say.
February 29th, 2012 also has raised the stress level on the TDA planners for what this might mean for the official opening day of Cars Land on Friday, June 15th,, after only three or four days of Cars Land Passholder previews planned for the weekend beforehand.
At least they have the chance to plan much better for DCA’s grand reopening on June 15th, after February 29th shattered 57 year old records at Disneyland.
Don't forget to also take a look at MiceChat's “In the Parks” column (also posted today) for more about Disneyland's leap year event. Here's a direct link to it.