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Disneyland Resort has wrapped up another great summer, with strong attendance slightly above projections, spending inside the parks meeting or slightly exceeding the lofty targets, and occupancy at the Disney owned hotels in Anaheim still averaging above 90% despite massive construction at the iconic Disneyland Hotel. The Anaheim property is in the very final days of a surprisingly successful Fiscal Year 2011, with Disney’s 2012 corporate fiscal year about to start on October 1st.

With that new fiscal year, Team Disney Anaheim (TDA) is about to put both parks on a sort of operational auto-pilot for the next eight months while the focus shifts behind the scenes to ready the entire Resort for DCA’s giant coming out party next summer. In this update we’ll fill you in on what they’ll be working on backstage, how the timeline may flex and change, plus a few surprises coming soon for select Annual Passholders.

Did you already wait in that long line at Blue Bottle this morning for that gourmet cup of coffee? Well then let's get going shall we? (We musn't forget thanking Andy Castro for the photos today either.) - Al

Getting to know you...

We’ve been telling you in past updates how TDA has been working on plans to manage what is really an embarrassment of riches for them; the giant population of Annual Passholders who have been holding steady around the 900,000 mark. That huge demographic is not without its challenges, as many use the Resort in ways that it wasn’t designed to handle. When the overall Resort facility was created in the 1990’s it was based on a very typical 20th century model that assumed most park visitors would arrive in the morning, stay most of the day, and depart gradually through the evening.

While Disneyland still pulls in millions of tourists annually from around the world who visit the parks that way, there is a huge swath of Annual Passholders who have created their own way of popping in for just a few hours, sometimes in numbers so large it simply overwhelms the Anaheim and Resort infrastructure. But overall TDA is now comfortable with working with the current number of Annual Passholders so long as that number stays under the one million mark. What they’d like to do instead of getting the number higher, however, is cultivate a better relationship with some groups of AP’s who may have stopped visiting after just using their pass once or twice.

The first test of this new relationship-building program will happen later this month, when Disneyland will invite thousands of Annual Passholders to a special after-hours party, with their valid AP their ticket in. Now scheduled to take place Wednesday, October 12th and Monday, October 17th, these parties will be held just after the park closes to regular guests at 8 PM. From 9 PM to Midnight, Main Street, Tomorrowland and Fantasyland will be open and all attractions will be operating.

The highlight of the evening is a special performance of the popular new Mickey’s Soundsational Parade during the party. That parade has tested extremely well with Disney’s customer research group, and at night the snazzy built in lighting effects on each float really make the show sparkle. It will all be a throwback to the special AP parties Disneyland used to host regularly back in the 1990’s, and it’s by invitation only for select Annual Passholders.

Things got darker after that...
This time it's better, honest!

What’s most interesting here is how they have pulled together the guest list for these first two events, after they mined the Annual Passholder database for specific characteristics. Rather than reward their best customers who visit the most often, the invites to these two parties will be going out to passholders who bought their pass within the last year, but only used it once or twice and who haven’t returned to the property for at least the last four months. Conveniently, this would be a demographic of locals who haven’t seen the new Soundsational Parade and who haven’t been on the new Star Tours ride, both of which will be offered at the parties with short waits and small crowds.

Once the parties are over, you can bet Disney will be tracking every one of the passholders who accepted the invitation and went to the test party. In addition to the obligatory customer research teams asking people questions with their touch pads during the parties, TDA is going to be tracking the use of the passes of these partygoers over the next few months and contrasting them to a similar group of people who only used their pass once or twice in the last year but who weren’t invited to the party.

The hope is that this special party experience will remind them why they have the pass in the first place, and that they’ll head back to Disneyland at least one more time this fall or winter. If it pans out the way TDA hopes, and both spending and visitation increase from those invited to the party, you can expect to see more of these events over the winter for people who aren’t using their pass much.

The rest of you, don't worry. The second prong of this AP cultivation program is coming later this year and is aimed at the opposite end of the spectrum; the super fans who use their pass to visit the park three or four times per month and often just swoop in for a few hours on Friday night or Sunday afternoon and rarely spend any money beyond a churro or a cocktail at elecTRONica. It’s that type of pass usage that can really tax the Resort infrastructure when so many people show up for short periods of time, often driving in alone or with just one other person and putting the Resort’s parking, transportation systems, main entrance complex, and surface streets all into crisis mode.

The parties aimed at this other demographic have already been hinted at during the D23 Expo presentation. Rather than just offer up existing rides and parades that the frequent visitor would have already experienced multiple times, the hook here will be to offer up a themed night where an attraction from yesteryear would magically reappear for the evening and offer up an experience no regular Disneyland guest could have.

Avatar may soon join the list!

This is when they would recreate the Tahitian Terrace restaurant for an evening with lots of temporary props hiding the vague Aladdin theme, and have a Luau dinner show before releasing the crowd to experience the other four Adventureland attractions they’ve done a million times in the past. Or, build a temporary outdoor version of the CircleVision Theater in Tomorrowland and show America The Beautiful throughout the evening while the band plays retro hits at Tomorrowland Terrace and the nearby rides operate.

Like the first round of AP events in October, the invitations to these parties will go out to carefully screened passholders who fit a precise pattern of pass usage and spending patterns. But unlike the first round of free parties in October, these specialty themed events are slated to come with an up charge to defray the costs of all the extra work it would require to pull off successfully. Of course you can also wonder if there will also be plenty of ultra-limited, uniquely themed and oh-so-pricey merchandise to be had.

The thought here is to not only eke out a small profit, but also to satisfy the demand for the park enough that this very enthusiastic demographic may then cut out a few return visits over time. After you’ve gone to an elaborately themed dinner party inside the Haunted Mansion, would simply riding the attraction with the tourists still be interesting? TDA hopes not.

Much like the first round of less-interested guinea pigs this October, TDA will be monitoring the pass usage of these theme night party guests to see if they cut back on their visitation after the parties, or if they just keep showing up the following Friday night like they normally do. It’s hoped these themed events will maintain and even strengthen the fans intense allegiance to Disneyland, but perhaps dial back their constant yet short-term use of the place.

It’s going to be an interesting experiment, and really only a tiny percentage of Annual Passholders will get an invitation over the next few months, at least during this initial testing phase. But you have to hand it to TDA for really thinking outside the box in an attempt to try to manage and control a very large, diverse and ultra picky group of customers.

It's the same 'ol song...

Meanwhile, that AP party concept is about the only thing new happening inside either park for the next eight months. Once the popular new Phineas & Ferb mobile dance party show debuted in DCA in July (and extra Fireside Girls are being added this fall to help with the bigger than expected crowds), TDA’s planners went into lockdown mode and began focusing exclusively on next summer.

Why Avatar? I'm cheaper!
You missed me, didn't you?

The entertainment rosters inside both parks for the most part will stand pat over the winter, although the Pixar Play Parade will return this Christmas without any changes from its previous incarnation. The one seasonal addition this year, a Christmas themed segment being added to World of Color for the peak holiday weeks, is being handled by WDI's Creative Entertainment team led by Steve Davison. (The TDA team doesn't have to worry about that testing and tweaking of the new World of Color update too much, as they focus on 2012.)

TDA had to take a pass on plussing up the other seasonal offerings this year, even though both Haunted Mansion Holiday and Space Mountain Ghost Galaxy had originally been slated to get a budget to make some additions and upgrades this year. All of the finances and personnel resources are being aimed almost exclusively at DCA for its huge relaunch next summer instead. The plusses planned for seasonal shows and attractions will have to wait until 2012.

You look marvelous...

The statistics on what’s coming to DCA are staggering really, and it almost equals the types of numbers they were working with when DCA first opened in the winter of 2001. During the first six months of 2012 DCA will be adding over 1,000 hourly front-line Cast Members to the ranks, in addition to the usual pre-summer hiring the whole Resort normally does. There will also be several dozen new salaried park managers added to DCA, and TDA is staffing those new spots quietly and internally to prevent hundreds of resume’s being submitted from Walt Disney World managers who are always eager to move west.

While many DCA locations have already received new themed Cast Member uniforms, there are still dozens and dozens of brand new uniforms to be introduced this winter. The ultimate goal is to rid DCA of every single cheap uniform it opened with in its “hip and edgy” format in 2001, and replace them with period-specific and themed uniforms. The first of these new looks will be arriving at the main entrance area, where the simple and inexpensive tan uniforms now worn are replaced with more elaborate pieces with custom buttons and exclusive fabrics just for the main entrance team.

Avatar costumes have holes for large tails.

The Blue Sky Cellar previews the new DCA outfits.

Avatar outfits only come in blue.

Before the construction walls can come down at DCA, there’s also a half dozen new entertainment offerings that need to be cast, scripted and rehearsed for locations throughout DCA’s new areas. Jazz combos on Buena Vista Street, spare car parts bands in Cars Land, and Roaring 20’s dance crazes erupting from the passing Red Car Trolley are just a few of the atmosphere entertainment concepts to be added to DCA by next summer. No wonder the Entertainment team was happy to put elecTRONica on cruise control for another six months, instead of trying to stage a replacement this fall.

To their credit, they have taken this current month of downtime caused by required sidewalk work for the trolley system and given the elecTRONica equipment a full refresh. They’ve been painting, re-lamping and freshening everything involved with elecTRONica this month, in addition to adding more Wii stations and classic video games at Flynn’s Arcade. The whole thing is slated to get dumped next April for that Mad Tea Party theme we’d told you about earlier, but it will look as fresh as new when it opens again for its last winter run this Friday.

Do not try this at home...

While there’s plenty of work to do this winter back in TDA to get ready for DCA’s big relaunch, it’s the dirty work happening behind the construction walls that is causing some nail biting now. They’ve wasted no time in ripping DCA’s entire entry complex down to the steel girders and rocky Anaheim soil. The Buena Vista Street project is no mere reskin of existing facilities, but is rather a full rework where only a few existing pieces of underground infrastructure get reused and the rest is built from scratch. The construction timetable for all this is still very fluid, and the opening date once pegged for late June is now the best case scenario.

Bye bye tile mural...

DCA from the monorail: Looking out towards Disneyland (above)
and into the park itself and the Carthay Theater (below).

...hello actual themed enviroment.

If they face any major setbacks or unforeseen problems, or we get a very rainy winter, the timetable will begin slipping by weeks and the opening of Buena Vista Street may move into July or even early August. It’s far too early to tell right now, and the project managers from WDI are telling the Anaheim executives that they won’t know for certain until January or February, but the whole DCA relaunch may need to be pushed back even further into the summer since the Buena Vista Street complex is such a key part of the rebranding and relaunching of DCA in the marketplace.

It's beginning to look a lot like...

In response to this bit of sobering construction news, TDA executives have recently told their staffers to stop using the phrase “June, 2012” in any mention about the opening of Cars Land and DCA’s reopening. Instead, the phrase “Summer, 2012” is now the politically correct answer to any DCA question.

While all theme parks like to open their latest and greatest addition in the late spring to tap into the busy summer season, it’s not unheard of for Disney projects to open in late summer or early fall. The new Tomorrowland of 1967 was notoriously behind schedule, with only the Carousel of Progress ready by the 4th of July, and most other attractions not opening until August. Haunted Mansion opened on August 9, 1969, and Big Thunder Mountain didn’t open until Labor Day Weekend of 1979, with Splash Mountain facing several months of delays that pushed its opening from April until mid July of 1989.

Hopefully something better.

Buena Vista Street simply has to be there in completed form before Disney dares to invite the media to see the 1.2 Billion dollar extreme makeover they gave to their most infamous theme park. As part of this unknown date saga, TDA has recently notified all salaried management in DCA that all vacation and time off requests are forbidden from late May until late August next summer, since the exact opening date is still unknown.

We’ll follow this story closely this fall and winter, but along with the TDA executives it may not be until February when we’ll know a tighter date range on when DCA will have its grand reopening party. Keep a good thought that the winter stays dry and they can make it by June.

Test drives...

Ironically, the Cars Land construction is going along much smoother even though it is a much more massive project. Since they’ve had free reign behind those construction walls since July of 2009, the project managers for Cars Land haven’t had to worry about working their construction around an operating theme park.

They’ve recently begun preliminary ride testing at all three Cars Land attractions, and it’s been going well. A test car is now cycling slowly around the thousands of feet of track, testing for the correct distance between the vehicle and the sets and rockwork along its path.

What? No massage parlors?
Only Disney would build a mountain range to hide power lines,
only to put them up again in the new land

Inside the big show building behind and under the Cadillac Range, nearly half of the sets and dark ride show scenes are completed and look exactly like a real life Radiator Springs. Tow Mater’s Junkyard Jamboree has its underground turntables and cable system installed, and they’re cycling the first vehicle chassis’ through the roundabouts daily now. And at Luigi’s Flying Tires the first-of-its-kind levitating bumper car system is proving to have very powerful lift capabilities, which will be needed as these vehicles are much larger than the small Flying Saucers from 1960’s Tomorrowland.

There are of course the usual trials and tribulations with all these new toys, particularly the Radiator Springs Racers attraction which requires some very sophisticated track switches that aren’t used in the Epcot or DisneySea versions of the ride system. Working out those bugs is why Disney likes to start testing and cycling the new rides up to a year before they open to the public. But no major crisis has popped up at Cars Land, and WDI seems to be getting their money’s worth from the lands budget that has now topped the 600 Million dollar mark. But if Buena Vista Street isn’t ready by June, TDA may have to come up with a plan to let folks get a sneak peek at the completed area before a formal grand opening can be staged later in the summer.

Life outside the berm...

In addition to the physical work required as the construction enters the final phases, there’s a lot of work to be done on the Cast Members who will staff this re-launched park. In an impressive move, Mary Niven as DCA’s Vice President has gotten the backing of Resort President George Kalogridis and the TDA executives to move forward on a plan to send every single DCA Cast Member through a full day of re-orientation and re-training on how to be a good host in the new Disney California Adventure. Currently, Anaheim new hires going in to a front line theme park role get two days of orientation at the Resort before they get sent on to their individual department for a few more days of on the job training.

The first day is called “Traditions”, and it’s a broad overview of the Disney Company and the history of Disneyland’s unique culture. The second day is another full day, but is tailored to the specific division the new hire may be going to, with classes and tours given by the Hotels, Park Operations, or the Entertainment department. This new “Welcome to Disney California Adventure” day of training would slot in between those two days and be exclusive just for DCA Cast Members. DCA’s incoming 1,000+ new hires would take the class alongside existing DCA Cast Members who may have worked there since the park opened in 2001.

I see dead people...
Who needs blue aliens when you have this?

The goal here is to indoctrinate all of the existing and new CM’s into the new way of thinking about DCA. No longer is it “hip and edgy”, and the marketing mantra that TDA suits spouted in its defense back in ’01 that it didn’t have to be like Disneyland because it was “a reality park” is no longer allowed. It’s expected that DCA’s daily attendance will be increasing by double digits after Cars Land opens, and there may be days when the park is stretched to its operational limit. The new training will be both a cultural indoctrination into a new way of thinking about DCA, as well as a refresher course on Disney courtesy and customer service skills. Encouragingly, the already solid customer service scores for DCA Cast Members throughout 2011 have already been improving by solid single digits.

There’s a real spirit of camaraderie growing in DCA lately, and the CM’s should be commended for staying so positive and helpful in the midst of all that messy construction. Let’s hope that Mary Niven’s team can keep the Disney University group that produces this stuff on the right track through implementation of DCA’s new training. The Disney University in Anaheim, once a vaunted and well respected employee training facility, has succumbed in recent years to the meaningless corporate psycho-babble and dull thinking that infects most of the cubicle farms in that yellow building.

Looking for a plug...

Once DCA is finally relaunched, whether it’s in June or August, the park will settle into a daily routine that will rival Disneyland for excitement. We’d told you of the plan to move DCA’s daily operating hours to an 8AM to 11PM schedule once Cars Land opens, and that’s causing TDA to question exactly how Disneyland plays off that demand. With the Pixar Play Parade returning to DCA this winter, DCA will have a solid lineup of entertainment that includes a parade and a night spectacular. The dilemma TDA faces now is what to do with the Electrical Parade once it returns from Florida next year.

It would be boring with all blue Avatar lights.
It's the MAIN STREET Electrical Parade.

With World of Color pulling in peak crowds, and the unique Fastpass system requiring use of the Paradise Pier parade route to stage arriving viewers, it’s unclear how the Electrical Parade would return to DCA, or why. It might be best to slot the Electrical Parade back in at Disneyland next summer as a peak-period offering only once per night. That scenario would also let Disneyland have something to market as part of DCA’s relaunch.

But the decision on the Electrical Parade is still up in the air, and it’s been changed before at the last minute, most recently when the Electrical Parade was going to be moved over to Disneyland as part of the 55th Anniversary year.

A patch of blue...

Also getting some major adjustments next summer will be the Blue Sky Cellar. That lavish preview center has been a great success for DCA for both the regular fans and casual visitors, as it helped explain the reasons behind all the walls over the past three years as it cycled through regular exhibit changes. Once the DCA makeover is finished however, there’s a question of what to do with the facility. The current thinking is that it remains a preview center of sorts, but widens its scope beyond just DCA to take in other projects not just in Anaheim but around the Disney empire.

What gets the green light next in Anaheim is not clear, mainly due to the understandable need by Burbank’s sharp pencil boys to see exactly how DCA performs for awhile once everything is finished next year. What is clear is that the recent Avatar expansion for Animal Kingdom has no current chance of ever landing in Anaheim’s two existing theme parks.

How to Train Your Dragon is what they really should have gone after.
It's like a giant tattoo, or a quicky Las Vegas wedding. What seems like a good
idea at the time ends up being something you truly regret later on.

Upon a closer look the Avatar/Cameron deal appears to be more geared towards the overseas parks and at appealing to Orlando's huge overseas visitor base. Shanghai Disneyland is a strong contender for an Avatar land within a year or two of opening, and there’s a large expansion pad in Tokyo DisneySea that the Imagineers would love to sell the Oriental Land Company on using for Avatar. Those are the top two contenders, with the Studios park in Paris a very long shot due to the Paris resort’s shaky financials and the current European situation.

If the economy were stronger there would be more of a stomach from Burbank to take on another big project for Anaheim in quick succession after Cars Land. But since the national and regional economy weakened measurably over this summer the current direction from Burbank is to put off thinking about anything major in Anaheim until the numbers can start coming in from DCA next summer and fall.

It will be a quiet winter in Anaheim, at least outside of TDA and all those construction walls. After a string of years where every season seemed to bring something new and exciting in both parks, the next eight months will be slow and steady and seemingly monotonous. But behind the scenes you can be assured they are working at a feverish pitch to get not just the new facilities done on time, but to get the people and the products in all the right places prior to the grand opening.

Wish the suits luck, because they haven’t had this much work to do since the winter of 2000-01 when they were getting ready to present DCA to the world the first time.

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. ;)

See you at Disneyland!

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.

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